They come back empty

August 30, 2011 in General, News

fwafer_01“Thank you”, said the Tonga mothers to Frank Wafer, “for teaching our children to read and write, so they can get jobs and earn something. But when they come back from your schools, they are empty.” Frank could see what they meant. He has worked in the Southern Province of Zambia for more than fifty years, and from the beginning was amazed at how the Tonga culture, its music and way of rearing the young, had been lost in the missionary drive for a western style of education. The hymns in church were set to European melodies. The people were losing their original culture, and with it, much of their identity. Despite the glorious examples of Ricci and de Nobili, inculturation was not a priority. Frank, on leave now in Ireland, reflects below on how things have changed.


Frank Wafer SJ

When I was ten, my mother asked a brilliant Austrian Jewess to teach me the piano. I lost her when she fled to USA, but I never lost my love for classical music. As a scholastic in Zambia I recorded Tonga songs on a tape recorder. After Tertianship I did a one-year Master’s in London University’s School of Oriental & African studies, where the music they dealt with was mainly West African. But my lecturer had been an Anglican in a neighbouring mission to Chikuni. They agreed I could do a major project on Tonga music using my recorded collection.

All the time I was in Zambia as scholastic & priest I was interested in local music. I was preoccupied with music as soon as I arrived. I found that the people were singing melodies from all over Europe. In Chikuni they were singing in the local language but all the music was from Europe. I thought: This is crazy. Why can’t the people sing their own music? I asked a group of teachers and ex-teachers to compose songs. At first they did it in European style, till I asked them to listen to the recordings I had made of their own music: This is your music. That worked: they began to compose in true Tonga style.

There was some resistance at first because one of our own Jesuits (he’s dead now) heard drum music from Congo being played in the villages: a Saba Saba dance, highly sexual. He thought this was what traditional music was. As a result the use of drums in the Church was banned. What solved the crisis was a funeral: the local headman had died. I brought the local composers to the grave and asked them to sing one of the songs that they had composed. There, in that graveyard, was the first time that I saw the people weep. The music touched them so much and meant something to them. That started the whole change and it spread to other parishes.

Kids going to secondary school were deculturalised. The old people would thank us for the education for jobs but said the kids came back empty, able to read and write but deprived of the traditional culture. The traditional training was very concerned with character training and preparation for marriage. Even the dancing required lots of training and technical skill. When I went back to Chikuni as a priest, I saw that what we needed was a cultural centre. There was a building, formerly a primary school, 200 metres from the Canisius community house. The Norwegian and Irish embassies gave funding to help me renovate the building. When it was ready, I looked for someone to help me.

The bishop suggested a lady, Yvonne Ncube. She is a very talented person, in her 30s, Ndebele by blood – offshoot of Zulu – but born and reared in Tongaland. At that time a man was due to come and help me in the work of the Centre, but Bishop Paul Lungu needed him. In exchange Bishop Lungu gave me Yvonne. At first she had no interest in culture but when she listened to the recordings of the Tonga music she became deeply interested in it. She then invited ten elderly women to work with her, and through them became familiar with the traditional Tonga culture as it had been in its heyday. She is now the director of the Centre and I am the administrator.

Yvonne then brought in girls from 8 years onwards from the villages and with the elderly women trained them in developing their character and understanding their own culture. They are taught to face the dangers of becoming pregnant when young and from contracting Aids and STD’s. It is invaluable work, not being tackled by anyone else. They trust Yvonne: for example when one of these girls was talking of suicide due to severe family problems, the other girls told Yvonne, who talked with her and helped her change her mind.

Funding is always difficult. A Dutch foundation called Porticus gave us a grant of €11,000 p.a. We need €15,000. The Jesuit General Congregation documents give priority to inculturation; but though there are nine provinces in Zambia, we are the only cultural centre in the country. A government minister told me: “We need centres like this, but the government does not have money for this; and the syllabus in secondary schools is too crowded to have any room for culture.” You won’t get funding in Africa. Murt Curry and our Mission Office have helped. An English Jesuit working in Chikuni tried the London Mission Office and they are helping us for the last few months of this year.

Yvonne says: “Before the missionaries came, Christ was already looking after us. Our culture was open to the faith, ready to receive it.” Often missionaries do not realise this. We bring our own understanding of ethics. But their culture and proverbial system has a whole world of ethics implicit in it – we should start with that and build on it. They have a rite called Lwiindi, where they come to the Malende (rain shrine) to pray to their ancestors. When I first saw them do this, I was amazed at their devotion and at the number of names for God. Their deep natural religion was ignored by all colonisers, not just the missionaries. We are there 100 years and it is only now that vocations are coming. Colonisation was not all bad, but the tendency was to ignore and devalue what was there, and impose a culture from outside. Now local people are more aware of their culture. They told me: “This is the first time that we feel recognised in our own culture.”

The traditional system had a rite of passage called nkolola, where for nine or ten months a girl was isolated in a hut with a young attendant, and prepared for marriage. Families in Lusaka will send daughters to Yvonne for an updated version of this training, and university students will themselves come down to receive this instruction. They realise if you throw away your culture you lose your identity. Yvonne is much in demand to teach character building, as well as music. She is also into African art in a big way and trains the girls in bead work and dress design.

Recently we had a problem: music has come from Congo which beguiles younger people with much sexual movement in the dance. They were using the traditional hymns we had composed and singing them in church with this sexual foreign beat. Our women were infuriated at this intrusion of sex into the church. We seem to have beaten the threat, using programmes on the nearby community radio station to present genuine traditional music. Younger people may be deculturalised, but if you expose them to their original music they get taken up by it – it is in the blood. We use rattlers and different types of drums. I found that in the past most elderly men could use a one-stringed bow – it can produce marvellous sounds – and the hand piano also. We are trying to revive their use.

Traditional music has taken over in the church. Individuals still want to compose traditional hymns, but the first need is that they should be taught the 500 hymns in the hymn book which we have already composed. Our aim is that the whole congregation should sing, not just a choir. We still use the oral system in teaching them; on the advice of my London teachers we do not write down the music – it would be too complex. The hymn book contains only the words but we also have produced CD’s of the hymns. It is important that the hymns are sung exactly as they were composed so that when all the parishes of the diocese meet for a major celebration they are singing together. We also ensure that churches and radio only use the same originally approved version.

Yvonne has taken over the job of teaching traditional music. I now work to help the people become literate in their own language. When I went around the schools they were learning orally and had no written Tonga – when they wrote letters to one another, they wrote in English. I gathered a group who would write novels and other books in Tonga and bring them to me. I’d transcribe them on computer, correct the spelling, and bring them to the Curriculum Development Centre. If they passed them I’d look for a donor who would finance the printing. We have printed about 30 books, and have more still waiting to be printed if we had the funding. We could do much more to help the poor from the villages in different cultural ways if we had funding. You won’t get funding in Africa. Schools will buy only the books that are set for exams. They will not buy books recommended for supplementary reading even though they get grants for these. What we get from book and bead work sales is very little and not enough to support the Centre.

I am now working totally in producing written material, and have spent ten years making the Tonga-English Dictionary, which is with the printers now. Up to that there had been no comprehensive Tonga-English dictionary, and the Tonga-English dictionary is not word for word, but explaining a word with a phrase or several sentences. I’m working full time on the second dictionary, English-Tonga. I work all day mostly on my own. I miss the contact with people I had in parish work.

It is not clear how this work is to be continued, and this is a problem. It is hard to get somebody to take my place. Most young Jesuits grew up with other languages, though there are some younger Tonga SJs – but it will take years for them to be ready. They need to go to London or Los Angeles for courses in anthropology or the like. The Society and the diocese have encouraged me all the way, but seldom with funding. We are not alone in this. The White Fathers had three cultural centres and had to close two of them for lack of finance. We have no steady income.

For the Centre to be a success we need someone to work at academic level, like myself, as well as at the grass roots level where Yvonne works with the people. Hopefully she has many years still to work there but there is a more immediate need for someone to replace myself. So our big problems are finance and continuity – who will support and continue this work?