A Maryknoll lay missioner receives inspiration from a Tanzanian doctor
It was early one morning here in Mwanza, in northwest Tanzania. Dr. Leonard Washington had arranged to meet me at Mwanza’s Bugando Hospital.
He soon was inspecting the two areas of my leg that had become infected after a fall. While my friend Joanne sprinted to a nearby pharmacy for the necessary ointment, I chatted with Dr. Washington. “So, where are you from?” he asked.
“The United States,” I replied. “Have you been there?”
“To Massachusetts twice,” he said. He explained that when he worked in a rural clinic, an 11-year-old boy who had been badly burned was brought in by his parents. They had delayed seeking treatment, and the child’s body emitted a foul odor. Dr. Washington said that he and his team immediately went to work and in the following days the boy began to heal. But his parents disappeared. “So I had to take him in,” said Dr. Washington. “What else could I do?” He enrolled the child in school and helped him with his lessons each day. “He had not had much schooling before,” Dr. Washington said.
A U.S. woman visiting Tanzania with a medical team took an interest in the boy. She offered to assist with his education, and arranged for him to have further reconstructive surgery in a Boston hospital, where Dr. Washington accompanied him. “Now he’s preparing to become a laboratory technician!” Dr. Washington said.
Joanne returned with the ointment and carefully Dr. Washington showed me how to apply it. When I thanked him, he smiled and said, “God does the healing! We help arrange things with medicines and treatments, but it is God who does the healing.”
During my second visit, Dr. Washington noted the slow recovery of my wounds and, though he did not know my religious orientation, said, “I will pray for your healing tonight, as part of our prayers.” I pictured him and his family gathered together in their home as the sun was setting.
On my third visit, Dr. Washington mentioned that he raised 250 chickens that produce about 200 eggs a day. “Our salaries are not big here in Tanzania,” he explained. “One salary supports many people. My grandmother is in my home, and many others. I am putting 10 children through school, including my own three. Raising the chickens is a big help!”
On my final appointment, I mentioned my affiliation with Maryknoll. The doctor’s face lit up. “Ah, Maryknoll! Maryknoll is very special to me!”
He said he was raised by his grandmother in a village in the Mara region of Tanzania. “We were a poor family, a farming family,” he said. “On the last Tuesday of every month, Father Thomas Tiscornia came to our home. People from the neighborhood would gather. We would celebrate Mass. Our nickname for Father Tiscornia was Habari Njema! (Good News) because of the way he read the Scriptures to us.” Dr. Washington demonstrated the moving way the Maryknoll priest proclaimed the Gospel and added, “He had not had our kinds of food before…but would eat with us too!”
Dr. Washington remembered how Father Tiscornia encouraged him as he was growing up and so inspired him that he had thought of becoming a priest. Yet, he said, he also felt called to be a doctor. “Even in secondary school,” he said, “I was running the medical dispensary for the students with the help of the book Where There Is No Doctor.”
“My home is like a church,” Dr. Washington added. “Right now there are about 20 people there! It is the time of the school break, and some children have no one else to care for them.”
He mentioned one of them, a girl who was brought to his clinic after being raped by an uncle. She had many urgent medical needs, he said, and her parents were not interested in taking care of her. Dr. Washington said he prayed: “God, I would like to find a way to help this child. If there is any way, please let it happen.”
His answer came the next day when a woman from Massachusetts emailed him offering to help a child in need. Today this child is in a secondary boarding school and at the top of her class, said Dr. Washington, adding, “and I will see her today in my home, as she’s coming for her school break.”
I told Dr. Washington that he was a healer in many ways. But he gently reminded me: “It is God who does the healing.” And then, with an invitation to contact him any time I needed help, he was off to check on another patient.
Maryknoll Lay Missioner Susana Carpenter from San Francisco, Calif., is director of Shaloom Kindergarten, in Mwanza, Tanzania, providing a loving learning environment for children whose parents died or have serious illnesses.