It seems to me that one of the nice things about old age -and there are many, is a sense of thankfulness, especially for anyone who has lived in Africa. Today of course, many have the opportunity to visit and re-visit. But time spent there, will almost certainly embed gratitude in the soul, if only for all the beauty on offer.
In January 1967, as an unpromising “missionary”, I moped most of the way from London to Zurich. There, my exasperated senior companion, Sr Mildred, gave me a Valium or something. When I next surfaced about 2 am at Nairobi Airport, I heard the cicadas, forever after associated with African warmth.
And Rohdesia (now Zimbabwe) even in the grip of UDI sanctions, was full of the exotic. A sister who had arrived home before I left, had bewailed the fact that, “the sky is down on my head in Ireland.” Now I knew exactly what she meant. Skies in central Africa are infinitely high and always blue. The vegetation was exuberant: from the cloudy blue jacarandas to poinsettias which grew into 15-foot hedges.
African art of every kind, even ivory carvings were plentiful; and incredible wildlife was found in the most beautiful of landscapes. Elephants swam in the Zambezi and hippos played in the Limpopo and a cardigan became a thing of the past. The people were courteous to a fault and welcomed the stranger, even in harsh colonial times. So the years flew by.
Today Africa is no longer colonial but young, with a population half of whom are under 25. Like the continent itself, the African church has its problems; but it is vibrant and has an authentically African identity which incorporates the best of many cultures. This means that there is an awareness of God’s nearness in everything. Indeed Fr Laurenti Magesa asks in his book title, “What is not sacred?” He argues that, “There is a tendency in the West to drive a wedge between religion and spirituality. This makes no sense to an African. For the African, all life, all of reality, is situated in the sacred realm.”
(The Tablet, 23 August, 2014, p. 7)
So Africa is helping the rest of the fractured world and the church, in our anxiety today, to deepen our awareness of the unity of all of creation. Africa knows its interconnectedness with people, nature, the earth and God. This is clear in the singing, dancing and celebration of its rituals. The West is now beginning to experience this integrity and interdependence, and to realise that God is everywhere waiting to be recognised.
This insight itself may yet call forth our most fervent, “Thank you Africa!”