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The surveyor’s eye

pflueger_01b.jpgFr. Frido Pflueger SJ, Regional Director of JRS Eastern Africa (pictured here), visited our Dublin office from Nairobi and brought good news of Richard O’Dwyer SJ who is begining a new project in Eastern Ethiopia amongst the Somali refugees. Dublin-born Richard, now 51, was a quantity surveyor before he entered the Jesuits in 1983, and you notice the surveyor’s eye as he records his impressions of Addis Ababa. Read more.

My second week in Addis was characterised by meeting a marvellous array of people. On Friday afternoon, Groum, the Jesuit superior in Addis brought me down to Debre Zeit, the Jesuit retreat and villa house about 35 kilometres southeast of Addis. We travelled through beautiful countryside along a less than perfect road that is straining with the huge amount of truck and bus traffic that ply its route. It is a major road that makes its way east towards the tiny country of Dibjbouti which gives precious deep sea access to landlocked Ethiopia. Heavily laden trucks in their hundreds carrying precious export cargoes crawl slowly east, while their twins bring all the necessary imports that Ethiopia’s meagre manufacturing capacity cannot supply west into Addis and its warehouses for distribution to the four corners of the Ethiopia.

When we arrived in Debre Zeit we drove down the main street and then veered off down a side street and took a dirt road for about a mile to the gate of the retreat house. The guard let us into a huge compound, that the next morning I discovered overlooks an ancient crater lake formed form dormant (I think!) volcanic activity! I met about 40 religious, all young who were about to begin a weekend retreat for junior professed. I also met the director Joe Pollisano from the Jesuit Province of Malta.

We headed back to Addis the next morning and Groum brought me to visit his mother in her home in a suburb of Addis. His mother is confined to bed as the result of a stroke, some days she is awake and well aware of her surroundings. I was fortunate that this was one of her better days and as I shook her frail hand, she took my hand to her forehead as a blessing as Groum introduced me. As often happens in such encounters, I was the one who felt blessed by the grace of this woman’s patient and gentle acceptance of her illness.

That Saturday night I met an 83 year old diocesan priest from the diocese of Shrewsbury who stays weekends with us and teaches Church history in the Seminary in Addis during the week. His name might ring a few bells: John Marmion. Yes he is part of the same family as Dom Marmion. On Saturday I met three Jesuit novices who had just finished up a hospital experiment with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity quite close to the Jesuit house in Addis. I said mass for them at 6 o’clock on Sunday morning, as they had an early morning flight to Nairobi.

We have three scholastics .living here in the community Addis. All three are teaching in Catholic schools in Addis. Peter is from Uganda, Ken from Kenya (an easy one to remember) and James from…. Their descriptions of life in the classroom take me back twenty years to regency days in Belvedere.

At breakfast Peter asked me if I would like to accompany him to the Museum of Addis Ababa. The museum is a substantial two storey building that the first emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik built as a palace. Like many of the early buildings in the city, built towards the end of the 19th century it is built mostly of wood. Now it looks like it crumbling slowly in decay, with all its paintwork cracked and peeling. As far as I know it is one of the few one hundred plus year old buildings still surviving. Very quickly you realise that the young state of Ethiopia had to fight for its survival as many of the museum exhibits are a collections of pistols and rifles. Menelik was renowned for his military prowess and he defeated the invading Italians in the battle of Adwa in the mid 1880s, as they, like other European powers attempted to carve out an overseas empire in Africa.

I was asked by Groum, our Jesuit superior here in Addis, if I would step into his shoes as chaplain to the Missionaries of Charity and say mass for them at 6.30am for the coming week as he about to make a trip to western Ethiopia. Many people living locally come along to mass. I enjoyed the experience of these early morning masses and was fortunate to meet a marvellous 73 year old Maltese woman, Monica, who runs an orphanage for 20 boys in northern Addis. I bumped into Monica later that day in Addis and she invited me to come to the orphanage and to meet the boys. I was able to go the following afternoon when the boys had come home from school. The orphanage is lovely modern building bathed in light from its large windows and airy spaces. She asked me to speak to the boys at supper time, and I was very struck by how attentive they were to my words. As I spoke, I was very aware that were it not for Monica, her staff and the orphanage, these boys would be living on the streets, very likely members of a gang, and vulnerable to every danger that street life holds and prone above all to violence, as much from the police as from other street gangs.

On Monday evening we were visited by Sr. Myriam McLaughlin, an Irish Good Shepherd sister, originally from Dungiven Co. Derry, thanks to a request on my behalf by Sr. Jennifer McAleer back in Cork. Myriam runs an urban development project for women in Addis. She and her team work hard to prevent women who come to Addis from rural areas from drifting into prostitution as a means of survival and rescuing women who were not so lucky and working with them to provide them with alternative livelihoods. To be continued…..