An African Experience

A Powerful experience of our Church in Mission
I worked with JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) East Africa from July 2004 to July 2007. Three years. This time in Africa, though short, was a very defining experience.

Noelle Fitzpatrick
As with most people travelling overseas to volunteer, my motivations pre departure, were mixed. On the one hand, I needed to feed a clear sense of purpose in my life, and hoped with my skills, to bring something useful to people displaced from their homes in Africa. The gospel message ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ resonated deeply with me. In this interconnected world, every human being is my neighbour. I had been involved in working with marginalized in Dublin, and elsewhere, in the years prior to joining JRS. I was under no illusion that all was rosy in the garden of Ireland. I did not have to leave these shores to find many poor and disempowered people - marginalized by unjust structures, that we ourselves created and perpetuate.

I travelled to Africa relatively free (I hope) from arrogant presumption that I was going to change the world, and, free from any need or expectation of an open armed welcome. Instead, anxious to learn, I tried to adapt, and, kept mute until I could make some reasonable assessment of this new environment into which I was flung.  It took time and patience, and even now I would say I succeeded only moderately well.

JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) is an organization grounded both in the spirit of Christian love and in the harsh realities of this world - man made realities, many of them. The mission was and still is ‘to serve, accompany and advocate’ with, and on behalf of people displaced from their homes – refugees and internally displaced within their own countries.

JRS Eastern Africa developed a wide range of interventions in support of people displaced in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan – and from DR Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Somalia. Such was the enormity of the task, of the challenges, of the scale of the problem and human suffering, that, I am still (17 months later) processing, and learning.

I was attracted to volunteering with JRS, having heard, and felt something of the rootedness of the organization in the day to day lives of the people displaced. I was attracted also by the basis in faith, and the attention to recognition and care of the whole person. Food and blankets will help protect and nurture the physical being, but the mental, spiritual and emotional realms also exist, and need so much, to be nourished. Not all organizations recognize, and try to cater to all these human dimensions.

As Regional Programmes Officer, I spent most of my time in Nairobi working alongside Kenyan and refugee colleagues. We provided a range of supports to projects and personnel across the Eastern Africa region. Approx 4 months of each year was spent moving around and working locally at these projects. That was a huge privilege and opportunity for me.

JRS is an organization growing in its commitment to learning and doing things better. I loved the mix of staff which, was drawn from the local host community, from the refugee community, and incorporating a few internationals like myself! This mix helped to make sure interventions planned were rooted in local socio-economic and cultural realities, and, guarded against forced imposition of models or ideas from ‘outside’. The approach was collaborative and the learning rich, if sometimes slow and painful.

During my time in Africa I developed a massive respect for the work of ordained religious whom I met at every turn. Their passionate dedication and relentlessness - often in very grinding and draining situations, was inspirational. This work was deeply practical and urgent, but also deeply spiritual and loving. There existed no dichotomy.

Reflecting now on that time and on conversations with other volunteers I met then and since, I sometimes think that many of us non-religious can be overly focused on doing, on ‘shoving and shunting’ and on driving for results in the ‘now’. This emphasis can sometimes give rise to extreme frustration for us – especially those volunteering for 1 year or less. We sometimes have an insatiable need to rack up results, any results, no matter what. Whose interest are we serving by this approach? If the primary motivation for volunteering is truly to help and support ‘the other’ respectfully and in the best way possible, then, we need to be prepared to exercise patience, flexibility and true discernment of need, desire, motivation and approach before acting. All of this takes time, and more than we are sometimes prepared to dedicate.

Feelings of restless, irritation, and exasperation sometimes emerge when we don’t get to reach what we believe to be our full potential, nor execute our ‘fantastic’ visions for change! During my time with JRS, I drew inspiration from quietly observing the patient, listening, affirming approach of many ordained colleagues and friends. I learned that to simply be with a person, in the gap that opens up for us all when we are removed from the ones we love, is a very powerful thing. In the case of many displaced from their homes in Africa – this removal is more violent and prolonged than most of us will ever be able to imagine. I believe ‘this being with’ to be the essence of love. It is very hard in practice, when the society we live in puts such store in aggressive ‘doing’ instead.

The JRS approach perhaps mirrors some of the same zeal and tenderness in the work of many faith based initiatives. That wondrous, and necessary combination of the ‘hard’ – doing and the ‘soft’- being. It is sometimes difficult to find in more secular initiatives and organizations.

I was challenged in many ways those 3 years in Africa. I learned a lot about the technicalities of the role, about people, politics and passionate commitment. Also, about factors giving rise to displaced populations, factors sustaining their displacement and, issues affecting their lives in exile. I relished the chilled out approach to life, the ability to find true happiness in the midst of poverty, and pleasure in simple things. Religious communities tended to lead by example in being prepared to live simply, in a context where local people were forced to live with less. There’s an unhelpfulness, one might even say a hypocrisy, in any scenario where ‘Westerners’, doing fantastic work amongst the poor, lead ‘bountiful’ lifestyles inconsistent with the stark reality of lifestyles in the wider society. I witnessed how this inconsistency sometimes led to alienation, frustration and mistrust. We need to be prepared to work and live in solidarity with others.

I learned about myself, about strengths and weaknesses. I experienced alternating bouts of happiness and frustration, competence and also supreme inadequacy. I learned the importance of adjusting to a different rhythm and way of doing things – whilst continuing to challenge. I tried hard never to compromise on the essentials. Growth in personal awareness and ability, is a hugely rich and rewarding by-product of voluntary work overseas. A by-product is what it should be – never the primary focus. For all its beauties, wonders and creative energies, Africa has too many problems of its own, to entertain people volunteering for the wrong reasons. Already a continent groaning under the weight of its own challenges, Africa should never be a dumping ground for other people’s unresolved issues.

Life in the Kenyan capital Nairobi I enjoyed. There remain some significant security issues, and for those who walk or cycle the air pollution is dreadful, but, the city is great and so are the people. Weekends scrambling around nearby mountains or wandering around local towns were wonderful experiences, taking me out of the city – north, south east and west bound. Friendships developed, leading me to more funerals, engagement parties and weddings in Eastern Africa than ever I attended in Ireland!

Much is demanded in this work and much is given. How do I summarize my experiences of working alongside ordained religious and with JRS in particular? Hard work, mixed with exceptional occasions of personal growth and learning.  My life has been enriched immeasurably. How do I advise those thinking of taking up this challenge? Check your motivations and be honest and realistic about your commitments at home. Then, pack a small bag – include in it openness, humility, determination, generosity, good humour and hope… and go for it with all your heart…..

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