KOENIGSTEIN, Germany, MAY 9, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Even though times have changed, the various and essential tasks of missionary priests have not, says Father Andrej Halemba of Aid to the Church in Need.
The Polish priest, who worked for 12 years as a missionary in Africa and who currently serves as the aid agency’s director of its Africa department, notes that a missionary priest is expected to not only offer the sacraments, but also to be an administrator, an architect, a builder and a teacher.
In this interview given to the television program ” Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Father Halemba speaks of what it means to be a missionary in Africa.
Q: Father, you were a missionary priest in Africa for 12 years. Where did you serve?
Father Halemba: All I have to say is that those were very happy years, however very difficult. I spent 12 years in the northern part of Zambia close to the border with Tanzania and the beautiful and deep lake of Tanganyika.
Q: Did you always have the desire to go to the missions ever since you were young?
Father Halemba: One beautiful day, an incredible day, our Pope [John Paul II] came to Poland and came to his town of Krakow, and I was put in charge of an extremely wonderful person, Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum from Senegal.
He and I spoke French at this time. So I had to take care of him. I was admiring him so much. He was a happy person, very joyful and he asked very simple questions, but very profound, and it touch my heart: Why are you so many here and my diocese has only a few priests? Please do come to Senegal. There is plenty of room. The country is welcoming, and everybody needs you, and I need you. Please, maybe you come?
So when I was ordained as a priest I asked my bishop; could you send me to Senegal? The answer was yes, you are going to Africa, but not Senegal, but rather Zambia. It was not a French-speaking country, but English-speaking country, so I had to face new challenges.
Q: What was your reception by the local people? A Polish priest not speaking the language, how did the local people in Zambia receive you?
Father Halemba: First of all, I have to say that there were already Polish missionaries there and they were very much loved by the local people. Father James Gazów was there for three years already; he learned the local language. He was a smiling priest and after many years they are still singing about him: our smiling Father James.
So they knew Polish already and in fact they knew much more about Poland than you can imagine. During the Second World War the Polish community was there and there was a camp for Polish children there; they had a primary school there. So some people greeted me in Polish; I remember one old man who was reciting the Our Father in Polish. So they were very happy and they say: You are most welcome. You will learn the local language, don’t worry, and you have two hands as well to say what you want.
Q: What would have been your daily life in Zambia? What would have been the daily mission life for you?
Father Halemba: My goodness; it was full of activities from early morning. Of course, you have the Mass very early in the morning before they had to go to the fields. They wanted to attend the holy Mass in the main station at 6:30 a.m. Then we had a short breakfast and then I usually worked in the office, or in the garden or the small dispensary. We had no sisters. We had no hospitals. We were just by ourselves so I had to be the doctor and I had about 60-70 patients a day.
Q: What would have been your greatest challenge?
Father Halemba: The greatest challenge, I would say was not the language. A priest, of course, as you know is a talker. He likes talking. He has to talk otherwise his mission will not be fulfilled. He has to proclaim and talk to people, to be with them and to listen.
I would say to understand their mentality, to deepen the knowledge of them because when we are talking about the Gospel we are not talking about words; we are talking about something very deep: emotions, feelings, beliefs, and fears. We are talking about something that touches the soul, and this was the most difficult. At the beginning I thought that the most difficult challenge is the language; it’s not, it’s not even the tradition because you can read or you can ask people, but mentality. How to address and to bring to their world the Good News, this is the challenge and what means I have to use to show them the beauty and the power of the Gospel; of the message of God. To help them understand and to be good Christians in the African way. This is the biggest challenge that was always in my mind.
Q: How much would you say the experience in Zambia changed you, and how?
Father Halemba: I would say most probably during these 12 years and many years after because I visited Zambia very often; I gained more than I gave. For me I learned from them so much. They are poor, not educated, but their faith is so strong. I was not teaching about God because they knew God very well. They have a daily contact with God.
Their religion is as obvious as air, water, food and people around; this is their life. They are very religious and I learned from them. I also learned patience. How they are so patient with their suffering. They too are happy with what they have. We are always unhappy because we like to have something more or something more modern. For them they were happy with what they have. They are happy with their life which was around them. They are happy to have received life so the families were rich with life, and this was a beautiful lesson for me.
Q: What was the most extraordinary or most beautiful experience during your time there?
Father Halemba: The most beautiful experience; it was two years when we were working on the first translation of the New Testament into this language. I had a team of seven people; old people who knew the language very well, they were catechists, they were teachers, they knew the language of the Church, and there were two younger people; very young because we tried to translate it to something that would address everybody.
Q: What language was this?
Father Halemba: Mambwe, which is a language of the Bantu tribes in the corridor between two countries Zambia and Zimbabwe, so more or less, 500,000 people speak Mambwe/Lungu language, so we are trying to translate that.
The occasion was wonderful. We have 100 years of Catholicism in Zambia, and the bishop appointed me to be in charge of the biblical apostolate in the diocese, so I said I have to do something because the first missionaries came to our mission so I said the best gift would be the New Testament, the full, new translation of the Testament which I have been working on for two years, and I never saw African people working so hard and with so much dedication to the work with so little money that I could give them. They were so dedicated to the work.
One of the workers came to the mission every day traveling on a bicycle for 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) and was never late. This is very unusual if you know something about Africa; it’s very unusual. The other worker walked for five kilometers (three miles) one way every day from his home to the mission and he would come back in the afternoon and he too was never late. We worked very hard as a team and they were very happy about that. They said: This is our work and we are doing this for our children, for the future, for our people and for the Catholic Church.
Q: And the Gospel has now been translated if I understand?
Father Halemba: The New Testament has been translated. We will now prepare a dictionary, their folk tales, traditions, proverbs and so on.
Q: You speak the local dialect. Can you tell us or give us an example; for example, could you say a few words of the ” Our Father” in the local dialect just so w
e can get a feeling of this language?
Father Halemba: “Tata witu, uno uli mille, zina liako liswepe. Ufuma wake wize. Lukasi luako liikitike, vino mwiulu, ivyo kwene mu nsi. Tupere lelo kiakulya kia lelo. Tuyelle mpa zitu, vino naswe tukayelela yano twayapera tnpa. Utatupisya kulu ntnnkosi; lelo tuipule mules wipa. Pano ufumu, na maka, nu ukuru yakwako, milele liata milele.”
This is the ” Our Father” and I like it. This prayer in this language is something so beautiful. It’s a kind of melody. It’s a semi-tonal language so it sounds very well I must say, but it’s not so easy to learn it, I tell you.
Notes: The Mambwe language (chimambwe) is a dialect spoken by the Mambwe tribe in the Northern Province of Zambia in Mbala district. It is one of the official languages of Zambia. It is a Niger-Congo language. The Mambwe are an ethnic and linguistic group based in southwestern Tanzania and northeastern Zambia.  Mambwe- Lungu: The Mambwe and Lungu language/dialect enjoy many similarities and are distinguished by minor dialect differences.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for ” Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
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