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Pilgrimage into the History of the Society of Jesus in Africa

Fr Ekwueme_at_JHIA-ED

On October, 17, 2014, then the assistant novice director; I embarked on a pilgrimage to the Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa (JHIA), Nairobi, Kenya. Even though I had seen the inception of the institute during my theology studies at Hekima College, I did not have the time to truly explore the library and the archives. This time I went to see, touch, read and understand some of the early histories of the Society of Jesus in Africa with the intention to share them with our ANW Province novices.

Throughout my formation, I have encountered the fragmented history of the Society of Jesus in Africa. In the mid the 1990s at the Jesuit Novitiate of the then Nigeria/Ghana Region, Fr. Ray Salomone, SJ and Fr. Tom Stehl, SJ (of blessed memory) tried their very best to expound on the history of the Society of Jesus in Europe, Asia, India and the Americas. We did touch on the history of the Society in Africa, and narrowed down to the history of the Jesuits in Nigeria/Ghana. Fr. Peter Schineller's book, From Generation to Generation, was an invaluable resource in this regard. What about the rest of Africa, I always wondered.

Similarly, in 2000s during my Arrupe College teaching experiment in Choma, Zambia, I heard of the seemingly lost history of the Zambezi Missions. I did not see any materials to read to this effect. Again, in May-July 2011, during my theology studies at Hekima College, I had my experiment in Addis Ababa. As I travelled from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar, Gondar and Lalibela, I learnt about the many missionary journeys of the early Jesuits like André de Oviedo, Pedro Páez and Alfonso Mendez. I always wanted to study the biography of these companions, to see the early history of Africa from the eyes of these men of the Spiritual Exercises. I have heard in passing that there were similar histories in Madagascar, Mozambique, Angola and the Congo before the suppression of the Society in 1773.

Hence, as I mingled with my fellow scholastics throughout my studies in Arrupe, Hekima and in other places, once in a while we discussed the early history, but most had only read or heard fragments of the history. How can one know the history, if there is no one to teach it? Visiting the JHIA library and archives in Nairobi became a spiritual pilgrimage. As Fr. Festo Mkenda, SJ led me by hand into our hallowed histories through the books, manuscripts articles and fragments of books, I realized how urgent we needed to teach these histories to ourselves. I held in my hands the actual records of the Zambezi Missions, rare accounts of the missionary activities of Jesuits in Ethiopia, pictures of the Congo missions, maps of Africa in the time of Father Ignatius and many such materials. Fr. Mkenda's passion for the history of the Society in Africa is magnanimously infectious. Every moment of discussion with him in the car on the way to JHIA, at tables or in the hallways was always inspiring, enlightening and joyful. Every sunrise of each day brought with it a new discovery and a new hope.

I would like to express my gratitude to Fr. Mkenda and his ever cheerful and able staff for all their assistance during my short stay. I would like to thank ANW Province for its encouragement and support. And, finally, I would like to thank Hekima College (Nairobi, Kenya) for its hospitality and the Jesuit Novitiate in Benin City (Nigeria) for its encouragement. With your support and prayers, we hope to put together a teaching material that could be shared with other novitiates in the African Assistancy. We would like to welcome anyone who is interested and willing to offer any help to this project.

Fr. Evaristus Ekwueme, SJ.

This article was first published by JESAM.

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