For the last nine weeks I have been at Makumbi, a Jesuit-run mission about 46km (29 miles) north-east of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. At the mission there is the parish church, a primary school, secondary school, children’s home, and the St. Bakhita Centre run by the Ruvarashe Trust, which trains people with disabilities in skills such as tailoring, dress-making, leatherwork and shoe-repairing. The mission also serves 35 Mass centres scattered across an area of 1000 km², about two-and-a-half times the size of the Isle of Wight. Two places at Makumbi that I visit frequently are the Bakhita Centre and the children’s home. The time spent in each has led me to reflect on the meaning of the phrase “men for others”, an expression often used as a mark of what it is to be a Jesuit. The phrase was coined by Pedro Arrupe, general superior of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983, to describe an attribute of the alumni of Jesuit schools and universities, and with time it came to be applied to Jesuits themselves.
What have I been doing? At the Bakhita Centre I join a group of four young men who have started a course learning leatherwork and shoe-repairing. Equipped with these skills they should be able to return to their communities in six months’ time with a means of earning a living and no longer be totally dependent on their families for support. For both them and their families it is a lifeline. The poor state of the economy and the high levels of unemployment here in Zimbabwe mean that people with disabilities and their families are even more likely to find themselves among the poorest on the margins of society.
The first task of every student is to make a patchwork leather bag to carry his tools. Like the other students, I am making my own bag. I do not go to the Bakhita Centre as an instructor, helper or observer. Instead I sit alongside the students and follow the demonstrations given by George our teacher, himself disabled, and learn how to hand stitch using an awl. Drawing the thread without snagging, keeping the stitches a consistent size and tying them so that the knots are practically invisible to the eye all require a lot of skill and technique.
After school each day I run sessions in the children’s home helping older primary school children with their homework, usually English and maths, or listen to them read. Sometimes a child will immediately grasp a concept or rule, or master a new word and learn how to use it correctly. At other times I have grappled to find ever simpler terms to explain multiplication or the difference between the past, present and future tenses. The frequent power-cuts make conditions difficult, and as the room where we meet has no back-up generator or solar powered batteries we often have to work by torchlight.
What connects my experiences at the Bakhita Centre and the children’s home is that phrase, “men for others”. Often it evokes the image of Jesuit priests and brothers constantly spending themselves in their ministries for the benefit of others. The ideal expressed is one of selflessness, but it is one that can easily become lost in the blur of activity. Furthermore, it is a phrase where service can easily become tied-up with assuming positions of leadership, possibly with a loss of humility. Perhaps because of this fact Jesuits have more recently used another, complementary phrase, not only speaking of “men for others” but also “men with others”. My experiences at the Bakhita Centre have been lessons in companionship and humility: attending classes as a complete beginner, sharing in conversation, and learning from a student with Down’s Syndrome the correct way to pierce leather with the awl. In the evenings, when I help children with their homework, I may be teaching English and maths but they are also teaching me patience as I learn to understand their frustration (perhaps my accent or choice of words when explaining things makes it more difficult for them to understand). There are times when it would be easy to give up, or say “Get somebody else to do this, someone who is better at speaking Shona or has an English accent the children can understand, and send me to do something more useful”. That calls for another kind of humility: the humility to go back every day, to go over the same topics again and again, learning a little more patience each day.