ON BEING AN ELDER

|| By Edward Hayes, M.M.; photos by Germaine Baibika

A Maryknoll priest finds himself to be a wisdom figure in Africa

Africa is a good place to be when one is “old.” Following a family trait, my hair started turning gray at an early age. I was in my early 40s and in the style in those days, I had sideburns, which came out a glorious white! A fellow Maryknoll missioner said I should shave them off because they made me look old. “But I want to look old!” I said. I had learned very early living among the Kuria people of East Africa that the elderly are highly respected here. They have wisdom as they have seen much, they know the history of the people, and most importantly, they even knew some of their ancestors when they were still alive.

The elderly are seen as a bridge between the living and the living-dead. They are the living wisdom of the Kuria people. As a young missioner I was taught much by one of my own Maryknoll elders who was visiting Africa. Father Bernard Meyer, who was one of the first four Maryknollers to go to China in 1918, told me that a missioner’s task is not to baptize people but to baptize the people, to baptize not just individuals, but to baptize the culture. “Because,” he said, “God was here before you came.”

So I tried very hard to learn and respect the culture of the Kuria people among whom I was privileged to live in an area of Tanzania called Bwiregi. Some of the other Christians living and working there, including Kuria Christians, advised me that there were certain cultural practices that they did not take part in because those involved witchcraft or what they called then “pagan medicine.” One of these was called a suba feast. At first I could learn nothing about suba except that it involved the traditional elders and that someone always died during the feast.

After several years, an elderly gentleman named Paulo came to visit me with a problem that he wanted to discuss. For some time he had been preparing to celebrate his suba feast, which involved some years of preparation. He had to be sure that he had paid any debt he may have had and, following the tradition for the suba, he had paid his wife’s family the same number of cattle that he paid originally as bride price when he first got married.

Then he became seriously ill and was hospitalized for weeks and seemed in danger of dying. He asked to be baptized and was instructed and baptized with the promise that if he recovered, he would study the doctrine so that he could receive the other sacraments.

He recovered, but when he went home, his relatives told him that now he could not have a suba feast because it was not allowed for Christians.

I recalled the instructions that the founder of the Missionaries of Africa gave to his first missioners, “Don’t attempt to change the culture of the people. If something is against faith or morals, only change it when you can replace it with something of value.”

So I sought a meeting with someolder Christians and some of the traditional Kuria elders. The Christians felt that some of the practices of the suba were incompatible with our faith. For example, during the suba, witchcraft medicine was put on all the paths leading to the village so that if anyone came with evil intent, he would die. They said that, traditionally, someone always died during this feast! Also, a procession was made around a sacred tree where it was believed spirits lived. Branches of the sacred tree were put on the roof of the homestead and then the elders sacrificed a cow. We discussed what we could use to replace these unacceptable parts.

The Christians suggested that we could bless all the paths to the village with holy water, asking God’s blessing on all who came to the feast. We could have a procession around the celebrant’s home, not the tree, because it is in the home that life exists and where the good spirits of the ancestors are found. On the roofs we could place the holy palms blessed on Palm Sunday instead of branches from the tree, and rather than sacrifice a cow, we could celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass.

The traditional elders agreed to the changes and the Christians agreed to celebrate the suba feast. I prayed very hard beforehand that no one would die during the feast and that Paulo would be received by the traditional elders. Our prayers were answered. Everyone at the feast stayed healthy and Paulo was accepted as one of the special elders, an omosubi. An omosubi is expected to live an exemplary life.
He does not lie but only speaks the truth. He does not commit adultery and he does not steal, because he is in a special place between the living and the dead. And, yes, he is feared, but with a reverential fear.

After that, many such “Christian suba” feasts were held here in Bwiregi, almost always for nonbaptized elders, most of whom later came to the catechumenate and were baptized. To my knowledge, no other type of suba feast has been held here in Bwiregi since.

I left Bwiregi in 1983 to take on service works for Maryknoll in the States and later returned to Tanzania and started a new parish among the Bakenye people. But my dream was always to return to Bwiregi and the Kuria people, who had asked me to return some day to spend my senior years among them. In 2009 with the bishop’s permission, I retired to “my first love”—Bwiregi. It was the year of my golden jubilee as a Maryknoll priest. The following year the Christians of Nyamwaga parish, where all these previous events had taken place years ago, held a wonderful celebration for my 50th. Later, I discovered that everyone in Bwiregi considered that to be my suba feast!

So now I find myself with the honorable title of omosubi! What a privilege and, also, what a duty. I am expected to advise with much wisdom. And, yes, I did know some of our remembered ancestors. I think of the beautiful elderly women I baptized in the early 1960s who were known as “wives of the Germans” because they had been “taken” by German soldiers during World War I. The men of that era, like Paulo, were called “the Boxes,” because as young men they were forced to carry boxes of supplies on their heads for the German soldiers retreating from the British troops coming down from Kenya.

They are a special group in Bwiregi and they were my friends. I celebrated their feasts and many of them I baptized. So now as an omosubi, I am a link between the living and the “living dead.” The doctrine of the “Communion of Saints” is very real to me. And, as Father Meyer said, it was here before I came.What a privilege it is to be an elder.

Father Edward Hayes, from Boston, Mass., was ordained a Maryknoll priest in 1959 and has served almost 50 years in East Africa.

Featured Image: Father Hayes sports his “glorious white” sideburns in the archive photo above, while on the facing page he is honored at a celebration marking both his ordination anniversary and his
initiation as a wise elder, or omosubi, among the Kuria people of Bwiregi, Tanzania.

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