Aliens and settlers

Fr Oskar Wermter SJ.

I WAS an uninvited traveller at an early age. Everything that went wrong in my life, then and much later, was due to one of the many wars I lived through.

The Russian Army was approaching. It was a terrifying threat. Military confrontations in Eastern Europe were frequent in the last few centuries. French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte tried his luck in Russia, like Vladimir Putin now in the Ukraine.  I have never understood, why Napoleon was celebrated as a hero, a military genius, and emperor. As far as I could see, he was no better than Adolf Hitler.

It is always such “heroes” who turn the world upside down, and do not allow us to live quiet lives.

My father was “at the front”. He did not want to be a frontline soldier. My parents had agreed to move as fast as possible from “east” to “west”.  Perhaps the chances of survival would be more promising there. I became a refugee at the age of three. We reached the western parts of Germany in several stages. Every new stage meant a new environment, a different dialect to get used to. Before you can learn a new dialect, you have to un-lern the old one.

Arriving in Cologne with its almighty Cathedral Towers dominating the city, ruined by years of merciless bombardment (as revenge for the same kind of bombardment in Western Europe, even though allied commanders had told the bomber pilots to spare the great art of this wonderful  architecture), I had to forget the Saxonian dialect, which the people of Cologne found very amusing. I tried to speak no dialect at all. Our family was happier “without taking sides in linguistic terms”.

My next stages were as a student in Berlin, Munich, London and, after a jump from Europe to southern Africa, in Salisbury which changed its name to Harare in Zimbabwe.

Wherever I began a new career as an alien and foreigner, I realised that I had to proceed with modesty and simplicity. Gradually, I learnt that what I was trying to do was rather presumptuous.

The officials at the border called me a “missionary”. Personally, I was not so keen on such a title. When people asked me what I had come to do in their country, I preferred to say that I had come to help the new church in Africa.

If I came and wanted to turn the country or at least the church upside down, that would be presumptuous. I would not try to impose my own ways of talking and acting on that country and its people. That would be an “arrogant” project, far beyond my abilities. But a missionary is supposed to be a servant, a man who tries to give service in the country of his destination and not stamp it with his own character and vision.

He has to use the talents and gifts which he discerns in his new companions and hopes to develop for this new country, assuming he can make it fruitful for the future.

We are familiar with the concept of a “settler”. He is rarely welcome. People associate him with exploitation, an adventurer who wants to take over the land and its treasures, as a new boss and commander. They see in him a person who establishes a new economic regime or political system. He does not come as a guest or visitor, but as an exploiter who takes advantage of what others have already built.

We would welcome a gentleman and a lady, well educated people with good manners, pleasant companions with whom we would like to live and work with, and whose company we would enjoy.

I still remember a farmer and his wife: they had come after the Second World War, with their two sons.  She was a teacher and he just hoped to be a good farmer, able to develop the land that had been entrusted to him.  The war had just started. Any day now the military might come and demand that their two sons join them.

There was another father of a family. He and his wife did not want to fight. But the father felt it was his duty to support the “war effort”. He worked with black miners everyday. He understood why the blacks had to fight for their country.

One of his sons joined the bush war. He slept in a tent. When the “freedom fighters” came one night, the young soldier was shot straightaway. A tragic decision.

The parents of those two sons had made a different decision. When I met the father of those two would-be soldiers, he told me in confidence that “this war is not our war”. His boys were exactly of the age for military service.

The father told me confidentially that he could not bear the thought: if I let them join the colonial army, anything might happen. The risk was too great.  “If my children were crippled or killed, I could not forgive myself.”

He had decided to leave the country. His farm would be leased to a neighbour. He and his family would go back to Britain, and he would begin a new life as a foreman in a factory. I admired his courage and determination. 

When I came to live and work in this country, I did not come as a conqueror, keen on profits and material gains. I came as a guest and visitor, a friend, so I very much hoped, of the people in this entirely new environment.

I never forgot that my role was that of working for the common good. A guest does not acquire and take over what friends and companions set up before him.

Everyday I said “Thank you” for the hospitality I enjoyed in a country which was not mine and never would be.  

For a long time I had cherished such a mentality. When I first came to Africa, I was not in the tracks of human traffickers or slavemasters.   I had come to a people who walked upright and unafraid. I remember the day our boat crossed the equator. Some early travellers had regarded this transit as a step towards domination and control.

This is a temptation to be avoided.  Yes, as a man of the church, I had a mission, I had a task to fulfil. But I would not destroy anything. I would not be a person very much superior to the people among whom I would move on a daily basis.

I would have to learn a lot. For instance, a new language: Learning the language of your hosts is about the clearest sign that you respect them and want to be friends and companions.

You have to learn the customs, laws and rules of life of your new neighbours, colleagues and fellow citizens. In many ways you have to change and accept that this world is constantly changing its face. It is a colourful world.

Like a chameleon. You immerse yourself into a new culture with its surprises, and you also need to cope with its history, good and bad.

I remember a visit with a family in a township. I wanted to know the family and marriage culture of my new friends, who in turn wanted to know from me what life was like where I had come from. For instance, about lobola in this part of the world and dowry in the world of my parents.

And I got used to the daily experience that I was a guest. I told myself: never forget this.


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