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A monk sets a fine example in poor Zambia

Catholic Times: January 12 2005:

GREG WATTS meets Father Willibrord Nzota

“By being totally dedicated in this sort of work, local people have started to imitate what we are doing. Many are now planting vegetables to improve their diet and earn a living. They say: ‘If the monks can do this, so can we’.”
Monasticism is not a word that is usually associated with Africa today. Yet in recent years, monastic foundations have been springing up across the continent and Fr Willibrord Nzota believes that monasteries can play an important part in its development.

Fr Willibrord is the prior of St Teresa of the Child Jesus Priory in Katibunga, the only Benedictine monastery in Zambia. He was in London in November to attend an ecumenical meeting of African Church leaders organised by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and the World Bank. The aim was to broker new practical partnerships between the churches and secular bodies to help Africa’s development.

He was among a gathering of bishops, archbishops and other Christian leaders from Ethiopia, Sweden, England, Egypt, Zambia, Kenya, Ireland and Tanzania. They spent two days discussing and debating their existing projects and working out new ones, and also attended a reception with the Queen and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.

Zambia is a landlocked country with a population of just over ten million people. On gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Zambia became a one-party state, a situation that lasted for 27 years until President Kenneth Kaunda agreed to multi-party elections.

Since the interview, the meeting of African-Christian leaders in London organised by ARC has led to more partnerships between the Benedictines, European governments and secular organisations.
At independence Zambia was a major copper producer. Declining copper prices and prolonged drought seriously damaged its economy during the 1980s and 1990s and three quarters of its people now live on less than 60 pence per day.

A combination of factors mean that Zambians are vulnerable to food shortages. These include a lack of agricultural support, training and technical know-how; inadequate market and transport systems to take food to hungry areas; failed rains, disease and pest attacks. HIV and AIDS have also reduced the labour force, resulting in smaller harvests.

Fr Willibrord explains that the Benedictines in Katibunga are involved in issues such as healthy, education, agriculture and horticulture. “At our monastery we are engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry and crop production. We grow bananas, oranges, maize and sunflower. We keep what we need and sell the surplus.”

“By being totally dedicated in this sort of work, local people have started to imitate what we are doing. Many are now planting vegetables to improve their diet and earn a living. They say: ‘If the monks can do this, so can we’.”

Because the monastery is in a remote part of Zambia there are no bus or rail links to local towns. “We have bought a small water grinding machine to help with the grinding of maize and millet. Before this, people were travelling over 40 kilometres to do their grinding.”

According to CAFOD there are an estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS. One of the tragic consequences of the epidemic is the rapid rise in the numbers of orphans. Zambia has over 1.5 million orphans, one of the highest rates in the continent.

“Many of the young people go to the towns and often become infected by HIV,” says Fr Willibrord. “They then come back because they want to die at home. It’s difficult to know how many have died of HIV because the families won’t say that HIV was the cause. They might say it was malaria or something else.

“Also, many people get diarrhoea because they go to the rivers and drink untreated water. We have only one nurse in Katibunga and she can only provide first aid. The nearest hospital is around 120 kilometres away.”

Born in southern Tanzania, Fr Willibrord was the eldest of ten children born to Catholic parents. He joined the Benedictines in 1979 after leaving school and was solemnly professed in 1982.

He says that he was attracted to the Benedictines because of the lives of the monks he has witnessed as a child. “The area I grew up in was evangelised by the Benedictines. I was very influenced by their way of life and the way they preached to the people. My father wanted me to become a Benedictine but my mother was not interested at all. According to my culture the one who has the say in a family is the father. So although my mother was against me joining the monastery she had to keep quiet. But later on, after my profession, she loved the fact that I had become a monk.”

Following his final profession, he went to major seminary and after ordination he was sent to Katibunga to run the house of formation at the priory – which was founded in 1987 by Benedictines in Tanzania. There are currently twenty in the community.

The roots of Catholicism in Zambia can be traced back to Portuguese priests who arrived there in the 16th and 17th centuries. But it wasn’t until congregations such as the Jesuits and White Fathers arrived in the 19th century that Catholicism was really established. The number of Catholics doubled in the 20 years following World War II.

Today around 28 percent of the population are Catholic. Like many parts of Africa the Church is struggling to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population due to a shortage of priests and, as in other parts of the continent, the role of catechists continues to be of crucial importance in the sacramental life of the Church.

Earlier this year the Zambian bishops made the unusual move of asking for the country’s declaration of itself as a Christian nation to be removed from the constitution. They claimed that such a declaration could lead to abuse of religion for purely political ends and bring discredit to the name “Christian”.

The Benedictines have a long history of education, and the monastery at Katibunga has helped in the renovation of the local 500-pupil state school. “The school was in a very bad state. We managed to obtain some funds from a monastery in Switzerland to add two classrooms. We have also received funds from a monastery in Germany to build two teachers’ houses.”

Monasticism in Africa is not new of course. It dates back to St Augustine of Hippo. Fr Willibrord believes that monastic life can play a key part in helping the continent to overcome the poverty, food shortages, disease and poor educational opportunities that are, so often, its hallmarks.

“Many people in Zambia were not very familiar with the Benedictine way of life. But through travelling to Tanzania and Europe they have become more familiar with it. There is a lot of interest in the Benedictine way of life among your young people.”

Greg Watts is an author and journalist based in London. His latest book is Released: Journeys from Prison to Faith and Hope, available from Alive Publishing (01782 745699) or from Christian bookshops.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Times. Reproduced with kind permission from Greg Watts. © Greg Watts.

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