By David Marcoe*
Africa is changing, and a younger generation–more globally active and connected–is making its mark on the world, as I experienced at a recent meeting between student programs in Rome.
Arriving a bit early with a handful of students from the Rome program of Thomas More College (Merrimack, New Hampshire), we happened upon a tangled bustle of activity, with people moving up and down the stairs of their residence to clean and prepare for our arrival. Father Tobechi Anyadike, broom in hand, welcomed us warmly–”Welcome, it is so good to see you and meet you”–with laughter and a smile. As we offered to help with preparations, we were given the “dime store” tour: a small chapel, a classroom/common space upstairs, and a few small offices.
This is the current headquarters of the Servizio Universitario Africano, or African University Service, a para-university program that provides pastoral care to African students studying in Rome. It’s a pleasantly snug chaplaincy (part of Sapienza University) tucked into the corner of quiet side street. With a few strides through the entrance hall, you’re into the chapel.
As we helped prepare, students drifted in, with a news crew from CNA eventually arriving to do interviews (you can find the story here). Trying to decide who would be interviewed was a jovial bit of confusion, with Father Anyadike wanting to show off his students, and the priest himself having more energy than any five other people, and an inability to sit still for the camera.
With Mass, though, he was a man of power. Although I couldn’t understand the Italian it was conducted in, the energy and resonance of his homily could be felt. The music of the Mass itself was an interesting mix of Italian, Latin, English, and songs in native African languages, with Western-style choral pieces and more traditionally African music.
After Mass, we were invited upstairs to a potluck lunch of traditional foods. With much laughter and commiseration, we grew to know each other better, as well as our respective cultures. Africa is not homogenous land, though Westerners sometimes treat it as such. It is a continent with fifty-four nations, containing hundreds of thousands of tribes, speaking hundreds of languages. And besides their own tribal languages, there are the languages that serve as the lingua franca of their region, or as a national language, such as English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish.
Yet, Africans do have a shared history and heritage, and it was interesting noting their perception of us as Americans–as well as our differences–as most of their exposure came only through popular entertainment. They saw us (through movies and television) as being “obsessed with freedom,” but that what Africans truly cherished were their families. And for the students there, as well as Father and the nuns who volunteer, the SUA is a family and an oasis while studying abroad in a culture so different from their own.
Most of the students are in postgraduate studies, working on master’s degrees or doctorates. Among them were Jane Wathuta (from Kenya), a beautiful and modest young woman, who had completed her doctorate in bioethics, Alain Christian (from Cameroon), a very confident young man, studying for his masters in political science, Aline Kana (also from Cameroon), a young woman with easy laughter, studying electronic engineering, and Leodmila Amona (from Mozambique), a petite and shy young lady, studying sociology.
We experienced the ancient tradition of African hospitality–their easy laughter and infectious smiles–but it was their experience together as students that reflected what the men and women of the African University Service had in common with our group from Thomas More College. They were men and women, thrown together, who had grown close in the time they had spent together.
This is the face of Africa’s future. Change has come quickly for them in a couple of generations–there was a mention of an old family picture showing their aunts without shoes–but they are adapting and learning how to come to grips with modernity, as they strive to retain their native heritage. As a part of this change, Africa is no longer a “mission field,” but has become a region sending out priests and missionaries to other parts of the world. From 1910 to 2010, the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans that were Christian went from 9% to 63%, (according to Pew Forum’s Global Christianity report). Nigeria boasts the largest Catholic seminary in the world, while 17 of the 199 members of the College of Cardinals are African.
They are the future of the Church.
*David Marcoe is a student at Thomas More College and a former intern for Catholic News Agency.