This year, Comboni Missionaries celebrate the 150th year of the foundation of their institute. We have asked a Comboni Missionary from Africa what the meaning of this celebration for his continent is. The future is to invest in education.
When we think of Daniel Comboni, we cannot help but think of the new era for Africa. Over one hundred years ago, Comboni conceived what we call “I have a dream” message for Africa, the plan for the regeneration. A plan he coined in 1864 and just three years later, he founded the Congregation to implement it. Read from a biblical perspective, the plan is what informed Comboni’s missionary work in Africa as the jubilee year; a year of good tidings and favor.
Africa of Comboni’s time was comparable to the Roman era of Jesus where three quarters of the population were slaves or freed persons with limited rights. Their depraved life style was due to the confiscation of the lands by the Romans (and the Herodians, the aristocratic class) especially because of the unpaid taxes and thus a decadent life resulted. Though life conditions were harsh, the system did not care for the poor. The Africa of Comboni’s time was similarly harsh to the majority of the population because of the isolationists who disliked bringing Africa to the global map. But Comboni, like Jesus, displayed deep passion and compassion for deprived Africans in the hope of winning them for a better life. He called it regeneration. He did not allow the prejudice (racial or religious) known to Arabs and Europeans to obstruct his free movement among the different classes of people. Reading the Comboni plan with today’s eyes, we can be very grateful for the accomplished work done in the various missions. And this is attributable to leadership.
Central to Comboni’s plan was the issue of leadership. In the course of time, Comboni had to implement the plan with a popular saying: ‘Save Africa by Africans’. At the back of this dictum was the postulate that it was too harsh for Europeans to survive the missions in the interior of Africa. ‘Be discouraged and abandon the mission?’, Comboni says: ‘No way. I have a dream’. Prepare indigenous missionaries. With that, the neo-protagonist stance started. Not long before he died, Comboni saw some fruits of his plan in the person of Daniel Sorur.
Looking at it from the internal change of the congregation, Comboni has lived realistically beyond his time. A few months ago, the provincials of English Speaking Africa and Mozambique gathered in Nairobi for a pre-handover strategies of leadership meeting in the region. That meant that nine provincials were present. Out of that number, one was European and the rest Africans. This is a marvel, so contrary to what one would imagine a few years ago when leadership in the African provinces was in the hands of Europeans. The change is inevitable and irreversible since Europe cannot cope with the mission any more. It is not because of the harsh weather but because of the vocational dearth in Europe and the Americas that has made Comboni’s plan actual in as far as the exhortative idiom of ‘Africa for Africa’ is concerned. The numbers from Europe are no more.
However, for some it is the realization of Comboni’s ‘I have a dream’ plan. For others, it is a ‘demise’ of Comboni charism. In any case, this kind of debate is not so important in my sense. Comboni was a strategic realist who argued that great and authentic missionaries, including Africans, will always have spheres of influence beyond their boundaries. In other words, the prophetic voice of Comboni is the essential point here and we should jubilate in his name if these leaders are good.
The consideration on leadership has a perennial source of on-going interest. The narrative depicting the heroic traits and failings of the good leader have evinced timeless debates. Our era is marked by heroes and leaders (in the political, economic, moral as well as religious worlds) manifesting a wide-range of flaws that contribute to a general sense of despondency. It is not just a problem but a crisis situation we are facing which cannot go on without arousing questions and concerns. For instance, R.J. Johnston and P.J. Taylor while acknowledging that the world is in leadership crisis, are at the same time giving a hope-filled perspective of the ‘crisis’. In their sense, ‘crisis’ is fundamentally dialectical in nature. It opens up the possibilities of an alternative future because implicitly, there is a system breaking down in some sense and thus it is fixable. (R. J. Johnston and P. J. Taylor, eds., A World in Crisis? Cambrige:Basil Blackell, 1988, p. 6)
Taking us back to the genesis of our reflection, Comboni envisaged a solution to leadership crisis in his plan. His consideration of leadership cannot be overlooked today. He was convinced that the regeneration of the African people could not be viable without good leadership. We should see beyond that the regeneration plan encompasses societal dimensions besides the ecclesial. In other words, Comboni wanted not only priest and brothers but he wanted teachers, doctors and all kinds of service bearers that could regenerate Africa. Schools are a necessary component of this regeneration plan. The natural logic here then is that formed christians would grow exponentially to accomplish their duties in public life while being loyal to their faith. But Africa is still notorious for bad leadership. At the opening of the second African Synod in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI said that Africa was bleeding. It is bleeding mainly because of poor governance.
Leadership in Africa is crucial. Comboni should be turning in the tomb if we do not do enough in this regard. What I would like to say is: what is the priority commitment of the Comboni missionaries? We tend to give lots of weight to social transformation. Can we simply talk of social transformation without any serious regard for the formation of leaders? All in all, can Africa attain a regenerated life without good leadership?
We can have elaborate explanations here but without going too far, we should acknowledge the place of good education as fundamental for the formation of leaders. We do not form leaders simply through workshop sessions or seminars. Leaders need long systematic training in good schools. Schools ‘made in China’ do not work. We Combonis, at least in Africa, unfortunately closed all the good schools and we seem not to think of any besides the one in Khartoum. But we cannot at the same time then say things are good in leadership: ecclesial as well as civil. What do you think Comboni would say of Africa 150 years after with regard to ‘Save Africa by Africans’? Just thinking aloud, I think that a renewed commitment in all African contexts to establishing serious schools and colleges is the way forward.
Raphael p’Mony Wokorach