‘Can anything good come out of Africa?’, was a refrain I heard several times when giving a workshop on ‘Being African and Augustinian’ to the Augustinian students in Nairobi, 13-16 May 2019. I was hoping to convince them that the enthusiasm of the African Church is something that we need in the Order and in the secularised parts of the world, like Europe, where Christianity is in numerical decline. We also reflected on the fact that Augustine was from Africa and what part that may have played in his life and thought.
St Augustine’s Friary, where the students live, is located in a suburb of Nairobi called Karen, after Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa, who lived nearby. They hail from Kenya, Congo, and one from South Sudan, thirteen of them, and study theology at Tangaza University College, a short walk away. Tangaza is supported by a good number of the religious congregations in Nairobi, and is a constituent college of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. There is considerable inter-congregational rivalry on the sports field, and the Augustinians are the current volleyball champions. The Order also has seminaries in Nigeria, Congo and Tanzania, with over one hundred young men in training.
Morning and evening I joined the students for common prayer in an upstairs chapel, everyone wearing a habit (white is worn in the tropics). The spirited singing and chanting was accompanied by drums, an electronic keyboard, and maracas. The friars keep animals on their spacious compound of about three acres. There are a few cows to provide milk, as well as rabbits, chickens and some sheep - I had to compete with a noisy cow outside the window on the opening morning of the workshop. A small football field keeps the students fit; and while I was there an area of ground was being surfaced with concrete to provide a volleyball court. They are also keen followers of the ‘EPL’, the English Premier League, as it is known in Kenya.
To give an idea of the sacrifices that some of the students make to study for the priesthood, four of the Congolese students will spend several days travelling to Congo to work in parishes for two months as part of their training. They have to travel by bus via Uganda, the final hundred or so kilometres on the back of a motor bike. The roads will vary from well-surfaced highways in Kenya and Uganda to rutted and potholed tracks in Congo, which has a very poor road system. The trip for one person costs around 600 US dollars, a bit more than my return flight from the UK to Kenya, and it is the cheapest way of doing it.
The workshop revealed some interesting insights into Augustine the African. The students pointed out that the very idea of Augustine writing a rule of life for religious communities reflects the unwritten rules governing life in a typical African village, where there is a strong sense of sharing a common life. They noted, too, that Augustine’s concern for the sick reflects a typical African concern for the sick in their midst. And even a little detail like behaviour on going to the public baths reminded them of the strict code of behaviour when going down to the river to bathe. They also felt that Augustine’s humane way of writing about authority in terms of service to the community had close parallels with the role of a village elder. I pointed out that there has been a tendency to ‘europeanize’ Augustine, reflected in the images of him as white, including his mother Monica, and that insights into Augustine the African will need to come from the growing number of Africans in the Order.
On the final day, I reminded the students of the phrase Emeritus Pope Benedict used in his opening homily of the Synod on Africa in 2009, when he described Africa as a ‘spiritual lung’. He said: ‘A precious treasure is to be found in the soul of Africa, where I perceive a “spiritual lung” for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope’. Augustinians from Africa may well be described as a spiritual lung for the rest of the Order, too.