|Father Mike Basano M.M., Liz Mach MKLM and watoto wengine (other children)|
How do we describe the experience we just had? Lord, help me.
This month a group of Americans have come over to Tanzania with a trip called Friends Across Borders (FAB) in order to see what MKLM, the Maryknoll Sisters, Fathers and Brothers are doing here. Today the group got to travel to the House of Compassion at Kigera village, about an hour from Mkoko Language School and we were invited to come along.
House of Compassion is a compound of about 70 people, all abandoned for one reason or another by society, even by their own families. Here men and women with mental illnesses, orphans, people with HIV/ AIDS and other disabling factors that have left them unable to care for themselves in Tanzanian society, come together and live in community. While the rest of the society has told them that they are throw away people who are an unwanted burden, House of Compassion welcomes them with open arms, understanding and love.
To briefly describe the site, it was started in 1992 by a Tanzanian parish priest, Father Godfrey Bisako, who responded to the desperate needs he was seeing of homeless and abandoned people on the streets of Musoma and Mwanza. He had started a similar house closer to Musoma in the 1980’s, but the house at Kigera is far bigger. About two to two and a half football fields in size, the buildings were designed to provide security and a sense of community by surrounding the perimeter of the area, forming a rectangle, with the exception of a cross shaped chapel and a dispensary within their shape. On one side are the rooms of an Italian Marist brother, Father Mike Basano and the other homeless men. Adjacent is a long guest/dining room, another dining room and the kitchen, and adjacent to that are the rooms for women and children.
Still, describing the setting in no way conveys the experience of walking through this campus full of ducks, chickens, orange and magenta bougainvillea trees, people sitting on the ground with dejected faces that easily melted into smiles, people coming up to us, greeting us with that unique, warm Tanzanian hospitality, small children grabbing our hands and pant legs, babies being passed from arms to arms, people with obvious physical and mental disabilities wandering aimlessly, dancing and laughing. All of this was happening in one of the poorest countries in the world, where running water and electricity are not even a guaranteed luxury. Personally, I don’t think we have ever seen a place so desperate.
Yet, the day was filled with hope. Without any fanfare and a with bouncing run, Father Mike Bassano, a Maryknoll priest, came running to greet us as we pulled in this morning. Fresh, excited and eyes wide open, Father Mike toured us around the “village”, scooping up random children like a young grandfather and telling us their unimaginably heart breaking stories as he naturally bounced them on his hip or lovingly pinched their cheeks. As we toured, a severely mentally disabled man interrupted Father Mike’s explanations several times, but the second generation Italian didn’t miss a beat and began joking with the man. It was clear the man thought he and Father Mike were equals, something he clearly learned from Father Mike who frequently is heard saying “We’re all in this together”.
Father Mike’s phrase is exemplified in many ways at the House of Compassion. Even though all of the compound’s residents have burdens of their own, they all manage to take care of one another. We saw babies being passed around between adults and older children, young children pushing wheelchairs of their elders and teenage girls helping with the cooking and cleaning. No one is forgotten about and everyone gets what he or she needs. Clothes are old and worn, the food is simple and the bedrooms are humble, but it appears that everyone’s needs are provided for.
Mass was one of the most moving experiences we have had in a long time. We sat in awe next to a seventy-five year old Tanzanian women, surrounded by people the world has more or less forgotten. Watching a boy called John Eybel (named after the priest who found his pregnant mother, who would later abandon her son, wandering the streets), diligently helping Fr. Mike on the alter we knew that here God had come in such a gentle, emphatic, loving way to tell these people, “I know your pain, I too suffered abandonment, loss and physical torture. And I am here with you now. You are not forgotten.” The beautiful, tender harmony of the people’s singing and solemn kneeling on hard planks testified that possibly nowhere in the world was God’s love appreciated more, than here.
After lunch, we took a trip to the lake to see the wind powered water pump and the meager farm. Moses, one of the many children who from the beginning had latched on to our hands everywhere we went, kept saying to Caitlin, “Twende kaburini!“ (Let’s go to the graveyard!). It seemed like such an odd place for a four year old to insist on visiting, but when Father Mike explained that he often liked to take walks there with the children to remember the people, which their community had loved and lost, it made sense. It was so beautiful to see Moses and the other children walking happily among the dirt mound graves as if they were visiting old friends. The graveyard wasn’t a scary sad place for them, it was a familiar place filled with people they had been told stories about and people who they had loved and who had loved them. Truly death had lost it’s sting.
In the future, on desperate days when we ask, where is God, or what is he doing in this world, hopefully we will think back on what we saw today and remember.
To see a video of the House of Compassion and Father Mike's work made by someone else, visit http://youtu.be/VhP7C9mUxxI