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ANOTHER GEOFFREY'S
FIFTY YEARS IN AFRICA


by Fr Geoffrey J Riddle MAfr




I begin this little account of my fifty years of mission in Africa in Tanzania itself where I first arrived in1957.
I was then thirty-two years old.

Now, why undertake this report at all? The best reason I can think of is discovering where our Creator might have intervened in some special way. I had come from London, born in Kentish Town in January 1925. I was the oldest of six children of Eileen O'Malley and Frank Riddle — three girls and three boys and what a bossy fellow I seem to have been.

After the family had moved to North Finchley, I was placed in an elementary school run by the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus. A Sr. Mary Michael would fix to the notice board a picture of a ladder of thirty steps with the appeal 'Help an African Child get to Baptism'. We were asked to contribute a penny a step. It was at this school that the idea came to me of becoming a priest AND working in Africa!

This was mentioned to the parish priest of our church of St. Albans, who also happened still to be headmaster of the Catholic Secondary School he had founded. He was quite a friend of the White Fathers; in fact, he had made a journey on his own to our Mother House in Algiers some years earlier, before the Second World War. On hearing of my intention, he gave his full support, but wanted me in his school rather than in our Junior Seminary at Bishop's Waltham, Hants. Perhaps to encourage me and one or two other lads, he used to take us to the seminary during the school holidays. I remember I was particularly inspired in my vocation by two old Dutch Brothers there. When the war began in 1939, I must have been in Form Three.


No fear of public speaking

Mgr Canon Clement Parsons was not afraid of innovations. From his studies of Church History, he learnt of a medieval custom of a boy preacher on the Feast of the Holy Family. He chose me as the first one; I must have been about twelve years old when I assailed the congregation from the pulpit. Not surprising that I've had no fear of public speaking.

An incident that I recall to this day of my altar serving in St. Alban's was once during Benediction I felt an intense realisation of the presence of Jesus in the Host. It lasted for some while. I am sure this has had a lasting effect on my life. A custom in Catholic secondary schools of England and Wales in those days was the Higher Religion Certificate. To obtain this, we had to attend religion classes in Forms Five and Six. At Finchley Catholic Grammar School, we had lessons on Logic and Ontology, [the proofs for the existence of God, that is] in Form Five, then the Kingdom of Christ in Form Six. Our teacher was a Dr. Ward, a Doctor of Philosophy of Louvain University. He was brilliant and his teaching has remained the bedrock of my Christian certainty ever since.

The army wanted chaplains!
From Finchley Catholic Grammar, I passed into our then two-year course of philosophy in 1942. This was at our St. Boswells house on the Scottish Borders near the Eilden Hills.

As I approached the age of conscription, Canon Parsons got me a recognized exemption based on the assurance that I had intended to be a priest before the beginning of the war. [The army wanted chaplains!]

Before ordination to the Diaconate in those days, we were asked where we would like to be sent in Africa. I said 'Bangweolo', in north Zambia. Why? The name sounded so nice! Following ordination in S'Heerenberg, Holland, in 1949, Frank Moody and I were sent to St. Andrew's University, Scotland, to get MAs in French and English, a Diploma of Education and the Teacher's Training Certificate. The plan was that we could then be sent to French or English speaking mission countries.

During the four year stay in St Andrews, I formed a Catholic Action group of 8 students under the title 'Bible Study Group', which was quite effective in strengthening the Christian element at the university.

Following University, I had four years teaching at our St. Boswell's Junior seminary and after several letters to the Provincial begging to get to Africa, I received the order in 1957 - 'go to Tanganyika' [the previous name of Tanzania] . In those days, travel by air to East Africa was limited to small planes and as all the places had  been booked, I was told to go by sea. I booked on a British and India ship, sailing via Suez, for early October. As we entered the Bay of Biscay, a heavy storm hit us and, not wanting to get sea sick, I asked one of the Hindu deck crew if there was any way of preventing it. 'Walk six times round the outer path of the boat without stopping: he said. I did; when I entered the dining room for the evening meal, hardly anyone else came along. Sea sick?


I was thrown into the 'sea'
As we approached the Equator, the captain asked me to take part in the ceremony of the 'crossing: I agreed and as we crossed the equator, I was thrown into the 'sea' - sorry - the top deck swimming pool. After an enjoyable thirty days at sea, with a chapel provided for daily Mass, we arrived in Dar es Salaam at the beginning of November. For a week, I saw something of the then small town and then took the journey by train to Tabora, to which I had been appointed. It was a slow but delightful trip, as the system was excellent in those days.

To begin my language training, Tabora's Archbishop, the Most Reverend Bronsveld, sent me then to a village called Urambo, some seventy miles to the west. It was here that the British post-war Labour government had started the groundnut scheme. Though much work went into it and land cleared of the forest was given to small scale farmers, a terrible drought occurred in 1948, which ruined the project. Instead, European farmers there went over to tobacco growing.

The Archbishop had intended giving me a year in Urambo, but the sudden illness of an Irish White Father by the name of Fr. English [!], then a teacher at the Catholic school of St. Mary's, Tabora, obliged him to call me to town after only three months. I had however, preached my first sermon in Kiswahili. [If only some one had recorded it, we might still be getting a laugh!] I was quickly appointed to St. Mary's, with a Fr. Raymond Beaudet as headmaster.

We want English!
For my first contact with the secondary school boys, I greeted them in Kiswahili, 'Hamjambo, habari zenu, feeling very proud to be able to do so. They replied, 'Father, we don't want Kiswahili; we want English l' What was I to do to keep up and improve my little Kiswahili?
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I began slipping out at night [seven - thirty only!] to sit down with a night - watchman or two outside a shop to chat with them in the national language. One of them, I discovered, had been a soldier in the First World War; I can't remember on which side.

What really saved my Kiswahili, however, was becoming external chaplain to the new East African Army barracks just outside Tabora. I began Sunday Masses and later a visit to the barracks on Wednesday evenings. After Sunday Mass, which began at 10, I would visit some of the soldiers in their apartments, but then one would say, 'Come along to the Mess, Father: Of course, how could I refuse? The first large bottle of Congo beer, a full pint in those days, appeared in front of me. However, halfway through it came the second bottle, already opened. Here I just had to put the brakes on. Driving back through town on my Matchless motorbike to Archbishop's House for dinner, dressed in my White Father kanzu, which is a robe based on Arab male dress, was too risky for a tipsy missionary. In this way, I learnt my alcohol limit and have stuck to it ever since. I was still chaplain in 1964, when the army mutiny occurred, so I still have interesting information available for historians.

Ascent of Kilimanjaro

I can't leave the account of my six years at St. Mary's School without mentioning the 1963 ascent of Kilimanjaro. I had done the highest mountain in the south of the country - just under 10,000 feet, where I decided next would be Africa's highest at over 19,000 feet. I put the idea to the lads of Form Three at St. Mary's and quickly had ten volunteers in their late teens and one member of staff.

We received training from a Scout Master, camping and climbing equipment from the Army and travel expenses provided by the Ministry of Education. We planned it for mid-June, the coolest month there and all made the summit.

About a year after, a Congregation of Teaching Brothers from Holland had taken over the running of St. Mary's, where I had been left as the only White Father on the staff. I was moved to Itaga Seminary in Tabora Archdiocese, where Fr. Beaudet was Superior. At the proposal of most of the Bishops of Tanzania, Itaga Seminary was raised to Highers level in place of Nyegezi Seminary and Form Five began to take in the cream of students from seminaries across the country. Exam results were high. My own subject was the Cambridge Overseas General Paper, which aimed at building the judgement and expression of students. It had many advanced topics, such as individual and society rights. Four of our students at the time later became Bishops in Tanzania.

Death of my younger brother
My leave in Britain in 1968 was saddened by the death of my younger brother, Malachy, in Nigeria, during the Biafra War. After seven years as an officer in the army, engaged in Korea, he had begun business in advertising. Then I got a letter from him which began, 'You'll be surprised, Geoff, I've decided to be a priest - for our home Archdicese of Westminster. Our mother and I attended his ordination by Pope Paul VI at Rome in June 1968. A month later we were together in London for a fortnight when I went off to visit relatives in Ireland. It was there I got the news that in the meantime Mack had gone off to Nigeria to help in the Save the Children Fund, operating from the federal side. He and another Englishman had been land-mined in a Red Cross Landrover while distributing food and medicines. They were buried in Enugu, East Nigeria, which I visited in 1971.

I should not forget a rather special experience I had at the seminary. I used to say my rosary at night along a lane in front of the main building. I had reached some distance up the lane one night in the pitch black when there was a nasty roar in front of me. We knew there were leopards in the nearby hills. My prayers became more earnest as I turned back towards the seminary.

Would you like to go to America?
What was remarkable about this appointment, however, was that after a few months there, I got a call from Archbishop Mihayo to come and see him. 'Fr. Geoff, would you like to go to America?' I didn't waste time asking, 'What for?' Yes, Your Grace. He then explained that our American Province had asked for five priests from Africa to help in appeals, as they were overloaded. Some Bishops of African dioceses were asked to come themselves for this purpose, but then were obliged to cancel because of some domestic urgency.

The future Archbishop of Mwanza, Fr. Anthony Mayala, (R.LF.) and I were designated for the American Mid-West, with the centre at our house in Chicago. 'You'll have to learn driving on the right, Geoff; says Bill Moroney, the Provincial at the time. Very carefully, I went ten times round the block and began to feel it was not so bad driving on the wrong side of the road.

Altogether I covered about 8,000 miles in a delightful Belle Air. Among the many interesting encounters, I recall a lady thanking me after a ten o'clock Mass I had preached at and then asking, 'Where exactly did you say you are working, Father?' , Africa' I said. 'Isn't that that country south of Europe?' she asked. 'Yes, it is' and you could fit the United States into the Sahara Desert. [That conceited Englishman!]

Through shortage of priests, Archbishop Mihayo was obliged to close four parishes, reducing them into outstations. Now, which ones? At a meeting of our deanery, at which I presided, the majority suggested the first to be downgraded should be Ndono, where I had recently been appointed Parish Priest. The Archbishop accepted and I was transferred to a mission called Kaliua.
 
Plenty of hunting and tobacco

What a contrast! Kaliua parish was about 9,000 sq. m. in area and mostly forest. The most distant outstation from the presbytery was 110 miles away. It had 34 outstations and about 21,000 Catholics, constantly growing in numbers. One year, we had five hundred First Communions. There were three of us, with Fr. Rudy Kriegisch as Superior and Parish Priest.

Because of its vastness, we divided it into five sectors, planning a week's apostolate in each, except the most distant one to the west, where we would spend a fortnight. The mainline railway, Dar es Salaam-Kigoma ran through it and we had five of its stations within it, each separated by 30 km. It was fairly well off, with good rains [about 35 inches a year} fine soil, two large lakes, plenty of hunting and tobacco growing. And the animals! There were elephant, giraffe, buffalo, lion, and many more. Moving from our house to the central church one morning, I noticed huge footprints in the sandy soil: lion's!

Altogether, during my twelve years there, we had three instances of man-eating lions and I remember visiting a man inour local clinic covered in bandages and being told by him he had been attacked by one of them. It had punctured his right lung and two blood transfusions could not save him.

They'll be envious if I don't mention them, our snakes. A long time ago, I had been taught how to deal with spitting cobras - hit them with a long stick in the middle of the back. However, in Kaliua parish, we had something quite superior, the Black Mamba, central Africa's most aggressive snake and one of its largest. It can strike from a tree.

I was once preaching at Mass in a rural chapel when the front ten lines of the congregation suddenly rose and jumped back. What on earth had I said? They then shouted, 'Father! A snake!' It was inside by the side of the wall, but some young men took hefty sticks and killed it.

It was a Mamba.

 

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The Belgian stone
As a remedy for a snakebite, by the way, we had the Belgian stone, made, I think, from baked bone marrow. You made a clean incision over the bite holes till a little blood flowed and then applied the stone, fixing it in place. The stone drew out the blood with the poison in it. It truly worked, I've used it.

To add further interest to life, we had tsetse fly, the kind that spread sleeping sickness. It can chase you on a motorbike up to 25 km an hour, which is a little embarrassing when you are on a sticky muddy track. Fortunately, Tabora Archdiocese still had some World War Two repellent oil, which turned the flies away. We would carefully apply some to face and hands before entering the tsetse forests. I saw only one man with sleeping sickness, however, and he was cured with a newly invented medicine.

Dependence on rainfall
As in most places in Africa, the farmers of the parish had a total dependence on rainfall - few had irrigation - so if it seriously delayed or failed, there was trouble. I went to visit an outstation not far from home. The maize, only three foot high, was dying; the rains had stopped for some time. Father, could we have a Mass for rain? Certainly. When it came to the sermon, I offered an explanation of how our prayers might work: Our Creator does not see some rain clouds going in a different direction, so in answer to our prayers He does not then redirect them to the desired area. God exists in the eternal NOW, so at the time He was creating, He was also present to the prayers for rain being offered at that outstation. He therefore arranged the 'future' rainfall pattern now being asked for. Back at home the next morning, three villagers arrived to tell me, full of excitement, that good rain had fallen during the night. I had another two occasions, in other outstations, when we prayed successfully for rain in the same way.

Tropical Diseases Hospital
One thing I never thought I would have to pray about was an unusual health problem called hydatid cyst. In 1978, when visiting an outstation called Lumbe on my motorbike I felt unusually sick before 'supper' feeling awful. Next morning, with a nasty pain in my liver, I managed back the 14 miles to the nearest rail station, heaved the bike on to the train and returned to Kaliua. When we reported to the Archbishop, who was by good luck visiting the neighbouring parish, he sent his car and driver to pick me up and take me to the diocesan Catholic hospital. There, blood tests and other checks discovered nothing, so they decided to send me by car to Bugando, the regional hospital overlooking Lake Victoria. Again, no results, and one of the doctors thought the climate might have affected my brain! I did, however, feel rested and much better, so returned to normal work at Kaliua. In 1981, I began to feel a swelling in the liver. Another hospital check, this time at the principal Lutheran hospital of the country. Again, a Dutch doctor could not diagnose the cause of the trouble, but advised me to return to Britain to the Tropical Diseases Hospital, St. Pancras, London. There, they already had an UltraSound, which had not then reached Tanzania. It showed that I had developed a large hydatid cyst in the liver, about eleven cm in length. In those days, it just had to be cut out. I made a little preparation for death, but when we were entering the theatre, a Caribbean nurse said quietly, 'God be with you'. He was. A large cyst of tape worm was removed, started, they suggested, by contact with a sick dog, often the cause of it.

Two young lions
About halfway through my years at Kaliua, I had the idea of showing slides in our villages. I was lent a fine German projector which I powered from the battery of my Landrover, itself a gift from Missio Germany, and started the tour, planning to operate out of doors in the evenings. The first item on the programme was football training. Popular? The lads would stay till midnight! There then followed deep ocean diving, pictures of famous churches and finally, the Passion of Jesus, with the whole village watching.

Towards the end of my shows, I planned a village near to home. I arrived on the Friday evening to operate on the Saturday evening.

One of the elders who sat down to greet me said, 'By the way Father, there are two young lions visiting the village every night: 'Oh, that's the slide show off, then', I replied. 'No, Father, they are only after our dogs and goats: On Saturday morning, I went to greet the village chairman and mention the cancellation of the show. 'No, Father, you go ahead; there is no danger'. Late in the evening, the crowd gathered with many children. I gave the show and left it to God to protect the families returning home in the dark. In the little hut they provided for us, I placed a church bench up against a very weak door - just in case- and fell asleep in peace. About midnight from a house close to me, there were fierce shouts of 'Get away, get away!' and banging of tins. Next morning, they told me the lions had been after their goats.

When people came to the office to ask for the Baptism of a child, one of the questions we would ask was: 'What name do you want her/him to have?' A couple once replied to me: 'Hitler'. 'I think you'd better choose another one'.

A bigger case I once had was as follows. The chairman of the main outstation of the parish once asked me to come to a sick woman living nearby. In the house, there were a number of people and a woman lying on a bed groaning. 'Would you pray for her, Father?' They hesitated to say what was wrong with her. 'Is she pregnant? I asked. 'Yes, three months'. 'Then take her to the hospital nearby'. 'This is not a hospital case, Father'. As I began to suspect something fishy, I said I would not pray for her till they took her to the hospital, and her father, who was present, agreed with me.

About three weeks later, a young man who had been near the woman in her suffering, came to our office. 'How is she now?' I asked. 'Better, Father'. 'Now, what about the baby?' 'The spirits took it, Father'. Then he came out with the whole case. He had married in our church a year previously, but to another woman, but then slept with the one who was sick. Coming to know about it, the wife had got a witchdoctor to place a curse at the door of the rival, who, seeing it, then went into a state of fear. The young man took the advice I then gave him. Where Jesus was preparing to establish the Church, people had this sense of evil spirits also.

Christian re-union
The most notable product of my twelve years at Kaliua was perhaps the beginning of a new vocation: the work of Christian re-union. In the parish, there were other Christians, Moravians, Anglicans and Pentecostals. I began casually visiting individuals, lay people and pastors. We formed a small union of pastors. There, we decided to try an inter-denominational service for Christmas afternoon on the village football field. It was well attended. The Archbishop then put me onto the Ecumenical Committee and finally I was its chairman.

I had never done a sabbatical year, so asked if I could take one to the study of Ecumenism. Bill Moroney, then Provincial, immediately agreed. In 1986, the British Province asked me back as assistant to the Superior of the House of Philosophy in Totteridge. After a short period on my knees with the Holy Spirit, I composed my reply: 'O.K. but with two desiderata, 1] not to be kept out of Africa for more than four years and 2] to be given plenty of time to study Ecumenism'. Both were agreed. I returned to Tanzania in 1990 after studies in the Jesuit College of Heythrop at London University.

Seminars for dioceses
On my return, Bishop Ngaviliau of Zanzibar, in charge of Ecumenism, appointed me National Secretary for the project. Nothing better. I began preparing seminars for clusters of dioceses. As there were few diocesan secretaries for Ecumenism, I would send the enquiry to the diocesan secretaries. In total, I gave four-day seminars in Mwanza, Tabora, Songea, Lindi and Dar es Salaam. The best-attended was Songea. In the meantime, I began to attend meetings of the Committee of the Union of Churches of Dar es Salaam and was finally voted its Chairman, which function I exercised for six years, getting to know the leaders of a number of denominations in town.
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Unfortunately, no urge for Christian dialogue towards unity of doctrine has yet occurred. This may be due to fear. In some meetings, the Catholic Church has been called, 'Mother Church'. This does not continue with, 'Are we in line with what Mother wants?' However, getting together to pray is a good step forward. Because of delays in the Kiswahili translation of the World Council of Churches/Catholic annual joint prayers for the 18th-25th of January [World Union Prayers Day] Cardinal Pengo approved of a change to Pentecost, the birthday of the one Church established by God. This has taken on well in the Dar es Salaam Union of Churches. One social difficulty remains: inter-denominational marriages, especially, Catholic-Lutheran. To ease the tussle over the Baptism of the children, the Catholic Church now only requires the Catholic party to swear to make every effort to have all the children baptized as Catholics. the non-Catholic party is informed of this.

While these efforts are going on, I had been asked by Cardinal Pengo to be chaplain at the town TTC. Things were well organised there and we had an hour's session on any topic they wanted every Wednesday. The last Sunday evening of every month there was an inter-denominatial service: Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Mennonite. The Assemblies of God would not join because we had not been 'saved'. When the College of Education [DUCE] of the University of Dar es Salaam took over from the TTC, I was asked to continue as Chaplain to its Department there. I was not keen on taking their Sunday Mass on the campus as I was engaged at a parish called Magomeni and did not want the same group twice a week. Fortunately, the clergy at Changombe parish were happy to take it.

It is worth mentioning that the University paid nothing for my work and even asked me to help once a week for counselling - for nothing. The Archdiocese, however, provided me with a good allowance, covering the cost of my several booklets on mostly apologetic questions, travel etc.

Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims
What began to attract me recently, more than Ecumenism, was relations with people of other religions, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. I attended two Hindu meetings, at one of which some Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa offered a few beautiful prayers; at another, which I was asked to attend by Cardinal Pengo, was an invitation to explain how one's religion can contribute to peace and unity in the human race.

For this exposure, we were given seven minutes. As all creatures of the one God, I claimed we should respect and love one another whatever our religion or nationality. Then I strengthened it with a proof that our Creator took to Himself a human nature, to be one with us as the God-man Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, this indicates even more respect for other human beings. In his thanks for my talk, the secretary, a Hindu, added 'and we know that Jesus died because of the sins of the human race.'

Relations with Muslims have been much more extensive, even more so since I ceased to be operating for the Bishops' Conference. Continuing it for the Archdiocese of Dar es Salaam, I was asked by the Cardinal or by Bishop Kilaini to attend meetings, for example, for 'Prayers for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.' The speakers who preceded me and followed all attacked Israel or America without the addition of any prayers. When my turn came, I gave an explanation of the basis of my prayers and then offered a few. A Shiite imam present at the meeting thanked me especially for my prayers. A more encouraging encounter recently was a seminar organised by the chief Sheikh of Dar es Salaam, Alhad Salum. He invited one hundred Muslim sheikhs with one hundred Christian pastors to a meeting in Dar es Salaam's poshest hotel to discuss how to preserve good relations between Christians and Muslims. I had to find fifteen Catholic priests for the Christian side. He gave one of the main addresses and a Bishop of the African Inland Church gave the other. It went very well, with ten resolutions from the discussion. In general, I have found Muslims most friendly and tolerant in meetings and just chatting with individuals, who often ask religious questions. Unfortunately, as everyone knows, there is an aggressive and uncontrolled group among them and it came out recently in Zanzibar. Calling themselves 'Uamsho' - 'The Awakening', they attacked and destroyed Christian churches of various denominations, including Catholic. Together with their religious programme, they want independence from the Tanganyika mainland to enable them to impose full Sharia Law on the island. It is but another indication of their plan of world domination according to the wish of 'Allah'. Fortunately, the government has so far reacted strongly, imprisoning their leader, a Sheikh Ponda.

THIS BRINGS US UP TO THE PRESENT DAY: 19/11/2012
Fr. Geoffrey J. Riddle, MAfr.

 

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