Africa let me put my arms around you
By Fr. Efren de Guzman, SVD
He came into the room in a bloodshed cassock. I looked up at my brother wondering, seeing fatigue and pain painted all over his face yet hope still filling his eyes.
"Two of the tribal minority groups had a clash today. One of the chiefs was killed and I had to attend to him personally. It wasn’t pretty. But I know that as I served the people, they understood better God’s love,” he said quietly.
It was then that I wanted to be a missionary-priest like my brother.
It started in the Family
Our parents had a lot to do with the development of missionary hearts in us. I remember how often we had beggars with us during lunch. My mother would feed them and talk to them as though they were special guests, I did not know what to make of this at first. I knew our neighbors laughed a little at us and I didn’t like that. But when I told my Mom this, all she said was “Its Jesus we’re serving.”
We grew up seeing our parent’ genuine love for the poor. It was only natural then that my brother, my sister and I learned to have this same kind of love for the poor. One day, when I asked my mother what she wanted me to become when I grew up, she answered simply, “Whether you become a doctor , a lawyer or an engineer, if it is not according to God’s will, you will never be happy. God is your only security.”
Soon after, my brother became a priest. I saw how committed he was to the poor. Then my sister became a nun. She was assigned to the missions in Africa.
They both became an inspiration for me to take the same path.
And the bloodied cassock was the turning point for me.
I was ordained in Tagaytay on November 11, 1979. I volunteered to got the war-ridden Angola, a country many shunned because of the conditions we knew we would be facing there.
The culture shock I experienced when I got to Angola was severe. But I knew it was not my place to impose my culture on them. I had to learn their language, their traditions, and avoid comparing these to what I was used to. At first, I did not even know how I could be of service to anybody there, I see now that it was His way of teaching me to draw nearer to Him, to depend more on Him. I had to get down on my knees and pray a lot for guidance from the Lord. The Lord did not tarry in answering. He led me to the refugees.
The situation in Angola, as the Africans would say is akin to two big elephants fighting each other. It is the grass that gets crushed, the grass of curse is the old people. The children, the women, the innocent.
Hunger Amidst Riches
Angola is very rich; it ranks second as the biggest producer of oil in Africa and ranks fourth as producer of diamonds worldwide. Yet ironically, its citizen die of sickness and hunger.
First Year Difficult
My first year there was very difficult. I had to eat what they ate, and their food was too spicy or too salty for me. Then I had to contend with the heat and the bid mosquitoes. Twice or thrice a year I had an attack of malaria. Keeping personal hygiene was also difficult because the scarcity of water prevents us from taking daily baths. Then, of course, there were the lepers. The smell they emitted was almost intolerable. And when my fellow missionaries and I discovered them, they were nearly dying of hunger until we did something about it.
Also, there was the war. We had to be very careful to stay away from crossfire and to watch out for landmines. Many missionaries died in ambushes but we always proclaimed to the people, “Who can separate us from the love God?” (Roman 8:31)
We also had to deal with voodoo and witchcraft. Once, a witchdoctor cast spell on us. The following day, many of us were struck with skin allergy. The doctor gave us anti- allergy pills but I told him that we didn’t need medicine for this because this was a spiritual warfare. He wouldn’t believe. I prayed before the tabernacle and fasted for three days. After a week, the sickness that they cursed us with backfired on them.
Life in Angola is really hard. Their is hunger and sickness everywhere. Each day, hundreds of people die. Countless children die because of lack of vitamins and protein. There’s violence. Even a 10-year-old child already learns to carry a gun. These children even take drugs. Then there’s apartheid. Left and right. There are killings everywhere. There’s so much hatred in the hearts of the people.
So many sleepless nights. Sometimes, you can’t help but think, “Bakit ba ako nagpapaloko dito?” but once again, you stand.. for the sake of the Kingdom. To learn to love- to risk being hurt, being betrayed, being disillusioned. And until now, I am learning to really love the unlovable especially those who are the very cause of injustice.
Mourning Into Dance
The Africans love to sing. This is one thing they taught us;. When your spirits are down and the pangs of homesickness seem to be unbearable, sing out your blues. The Africans express themselves through song form birth to marriage to death. It is there that I see morning turned into dancing. When someone dies, they jump and dance a if rejoicing. So when the blues get to me, I would pick up my guitar and sing songs of praise to God. I compose songs of joy, hope and love.
Then it happened. I was stricken with cerebral malaria. This is a life threatening kind of malaria because it affects the brain, the liver, the pancreas. It has a lot of side effects. It’s like you’re treating someone with drugs. I would throw up whatever food I took in. Everything seemed so dry that even my hope waned. I cried out to God to take me. Death would have been such a sweet relief.
I needed proper treatment and medication, something I could not get in Angola. I had to be sent home to the Philippines. Before I left, I asked the orphans I was taking of what they wanted me to bring them when I returned. They told me they wanted was for me to return to them. The lepers too, had one request that I eat well so I can come back strong and healthy. They were worried because I had become so thin.
Back in the Philippines, I develop a tumor in the throat. For about a year, I had no voice. The doctor told me that if it continued to grow, I would slowly choke and I would no longer be able for the missions.
A while after, I felt that the Holy Spirit was leading me back to Angola.
Back in Angola
My life now is deeply-rooted in the missionfield. I still get hurt.
And I still fall. Anger a sometimes overcomes me and the temptations of the flesh always hover around me. The evil spirits are there like a roaring spiritual warfare. Through fasting and prayer, I battle against this unseen enemy. So I always try to be watchful and prudent all times. That is why it is important for me to have a check and balance in my life – to be accountable and transparent to the people I serve, I have to be totally dependent on the Holy Spirit. For to be a real missionary is to live a simple life. You only have to bring the essentials- the Word of God and your witnessing.
In Africa, it is important that you are armed not only with theology. I am not a medicine man but everyday I give comfort to the sick and dying. I am not educated in agriculture but I have to bend to till the soil. I don’t know how to handle a school but I teach children and old alike, I am not a diplomat but we have to face generals and government officials. That’s the miracle of the Lord. I am able to do something which I could never have imagined I could do. I am like a jack-all-trades-master-of-none but I am able to accomplish things through the grace of God.
Life is short. Like the breeze of the wind, it comes and it goes. So why not give it to God.
Life is short. Like the breeze of the wind, it comes and it goes. So why not give it to God? By His grace, everything is possible. Just give Him your best.