How does the Jesuit identity look like and what is the Jesuit mission? Questions which cannot be answered easily because there are so many different aspects. Let’s be more pragmatic and look at a Jesuit himself. Someone who is committed to live the Ignatian Way and to shape the social and cultural reality based on the Christian message. Who is responsible for the Jesuit community in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Gambia, and still thinks of himself as a very simple, ordinary person. Anita Répa’s interview with Chukwuyenum Afiawari, provincial of the Africa North-West Province about engagement, education and faith in his continent.
On occasion of the Ignatian Year, a new, strategical board game titled The Mission was released by the Jesuits in Hungary. The question on the cover was inspired by Monty Python’s famous scene: What have the Jesuits ever done for us? If this question was addressed to you with special focus on Africa: what would you answer?
The history of the Jesuits in Africa goes back to the very beginnings of the Society of Jesus. Francis Xavier, one of the first companions of Saint Ignatius, landed already in the mid of the 16th century on the East coast, and stayed in Mozambique and Kenya before heading to India. However, it took hundreds of years to establish a continuous presence of the Jesuits on the continent and to welcome the first African brothers. Therefore, we mainly look at the past 130-140 years and consider the great contribution of our direct ancestors and of the Jesuit brothers today. I’d like to highlight three elements which illustrate what the Jesuits have done and keep doing for Africa. The first is the Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit charism. That is a lens through which every aspect of our life is seen and interpreted: who we are, what we stand up for and how we understand church and our relationship to the civil society. The second: providing venues for good, qualitative, meaningful education to our people. Especially at primary and secondary levels. I hope and wish that one day we will get more engaged also in tertiary education, because it would be so critically important for the development of our nations. And the third is the consciousness for social justice and social engagement. This can be done at different levels through social apostolates and pastoral work in parishes and chaplaincies.
What are the problems with urgent need to be addressed?
There are many areas in Africa that call for an intense engagement. Structures of injustice and inequality are present at social, political, cultural, economic and even at religious level. Millions of people suffer from extreme poverty and don’t have food to eat, if they don’t go out to work. That resulted in people dying from hunger more than from the virus itself during the economical lockdown due to the pandemic. You’ve probably heard of the resource wars going on in different countries: the minerals are plundered and cut away on a massive daily basis. Or the climate question: the majority of those who pollute the environment most are reaping the benefits but do not make the sacrifices economically to clean up. NGOs, local and international businesses, churches are all united in the great effort to provide some relief to the poor and vulnerable. We collaborate with different organizations and institutes, work together with religious, but also with a large number of lay men and women. We are not social activists: we’re faith-based groups, so called “Partners in Mission” that engage social reality from the perspective of justice and the perspective of the Gospel.
What about the collaboration with the government? Can you agree on the way how to help people?
We are all engaged in the same mission of bringing integral human and humane development for the generality of the 1.3 billion Africans. The vision to provide good social amenities, to improve the quality of our people’s life may not be in opposition. Disagreement arises sometimes over how to make it a reality: the modus operandi is different. There might be practices of corruption or other invisible obstacles put in the way of execution. For example: there is a great disparity between the resources that are budgeted by the government for education and what you see in terms of quality service delivery. Or the connivance about environmental degradation. Some of the multinational and local companies can pollute the environment and go scot-free. Or sometimes give chicken in exchange to the communities in which they operate. Those businesses are in good alliance with government officials, and they assist them to get away with a lot of unholy acts. We feel that it’s not just or sustainable. But when the church or the Society of Jesus raises their voice against such discrepancies, not all governments are receptive to that.
Following up on the topic environment: the 26th Climate Change Conference (COP26) has just ended, and there was hope that it could be an opportunity for the African countries to shape the Climate Agenda. What do you think of the outcome?
Our people are at the receiving end of the negative consequences of the climate question. They experience day by day deforestation, pollution, degradation, lack of clean water etc. The sources of their livelihood fully depend on weather and climatic conditions: they face hunger and famine no matter if their crops get washed away by flood or shrivel up because of lack of rain. So, they definitely have to deal with the adverse effects, but may not have the language to verbalize the context. In the recently concluded COP26 in Glasgow the Jesuits were also represented by the Eco-Jesuit network. It’s too early to talk about the outcome and evaluate the promises made. There might be some progress, perhaps not enough. Some of the expectations from this continent were not met, but some might be achieved. There is an expression we use in this part of the world: half bread is better than none. Let’s hope that the efforts will pay off and impact on us positively.
How do you express your commitment to the environment at operational level? How do you respond to the ecological challenges in practice?
The strategy we advocate and encourage everyone to follow is to invest into green energy. It is associated with many great initiatives. We’re moving for example in our novitiate from generators to supplying solar panels. It is very expensive, the initial capital investment is very high, but in the long run I think it’s worth it. We also have more than 500 hectares large expanses of land and hopefully we can start working in this area and maybe train farmers about alternative ways of doing agriculture. We plant trees in our parishes and there is an official no plastic-policy announced in our province which is not always easy to enforce or to maintain but we’re making efforts. We truly believe that sustainability can yield and increase the productivity. What we’re especially proud of is the school we run in Lagos. It is perhaps one of the greenest schools in the country with solar panels, windmills, solar energy, biogas etc. And we do that not only to conserve electrical energy but also to lead by example and inculcate and ensure our students that this is the way to go.
Jesuits are famous for their educational projects all over the world. In your province the Society of Jesus owns and runs three secondary schools, and you celebrate openings and ground-breaking ceremonies one after the other. What are the challenges you encounter and how do you look into the future?
In fact, we are deeply invested in top quality schools in the province and trying to make education accessible to everyone. However, there are millions of very poor children who are not in school, and the question is how to reach out to those who cannot pay at all. We’ve been thinking and exploring our facilities for years now. Fortunately, there are benefactors who generously decide to build and donate schools to the Jesuits. A Nigerian family has even financed scholarship for 40 children. This is an area for example where collaboration could be extended across the borders. Let’s start to have a conversation and build a common understanding, a common vision. If there are partners in Europe or in Hungary or elsewhere who are interested in engaging with the mission of the Society of Jesus in this part of the world – that would be a first step.
According to your homepage “The majority of the Jesuits in the Africa North-West province are still in formation”. No wonder that the world’s largest seminary is also in Nigeria. How many new applications do you receive a year? Do you as a provincial have a close connection to those young people?
The big concern for me is not so much the numbers but the quality of the formation. It’s crucially important to provide a formation that is contextual and well grounded, holistic and integral. That responds to the needs, to the challenges of this society. The Jesuits are privileged to have a large number of applications each year. There are 500-600 or even more young men who come and show interest. From this number we admitted yearly an average of 12-20 people in the past few years. As provincial it’s part of my responsibilities to go around and meet everyone in the community, the priests and brothers, the seminarians and novices. I also talk to the formators and the novice directors and we all try to harmonize our activities. We’re fortunate and happy to have the numbers we have right now but they may not always be there. And I emphasize again: quantity is good, but quality is even better.
What makes Africa that successful in keeping faith and Christianity alive and calling people for religious vocation? It is in great contrast with the trends and perspectives in Europe.
Well, there’ve been times in Europe and North America where we had plenty of vocations with hundreds of people in the novitiate. Now the table is turning gradually. But we need to look at it as one church and one Society of Jesus. When vocations were very high in Europe, there were very little or non-existent in Africa. Every vocation is a call and a gift from the Lord. We need to provide the accompaniment for those who express the call and give them the tools they need for discernment. In other words: to walk with the youth. To meet them where they are, and not to be shy to propose to them and ask: Have you considered this way of life? And I think what young people look at today is authenticity and credibility. How happy a Jesuit is in living his vocation: that makes it attractive. If I’m a sad man with a gloomy face as if the world was about to collapse over, why would a young man want to join this type of community?
You’ve just started your 5th year as provincial of Africa North West Province. How do you look back to these four years? What are you proud of the most and what would you do different?
When I look back to these four years, I feel deeply grateful to God. He provides in ways that are amazing and does the impossible despite us. It’s incredible how He has sustained us and how great companions He has given us in this province. Dedicated men, who are weak and sinful like me, like everyone else, and yet not discouraged to give themselves completely and generously for the mission of the Church and the Society of Jesus. What I might do differently going forward is to give more time to pray. You can easily get too busy with things. But as a provincial one of the major responsibilities is the spiritual accompaniment, the spiritual governance of the province. And that is not possible without prayer. So, I hope to pray and discern more and – as we say in this Ignatian Year – to see all things new, through the eyes of Christ and accompany my brothers in this mission.
The Saint Ignatius Year was also announced in your province: the celebration started with the opening mass in May, and it will end with the feast of Saint Ignatius in July next year. Are there any special projects/programs related to this in preparation?
It’s a grace for us Jesuits to see that the Ignatian spirituality connects, it has a message for the entire church in the whole world. There are different projects launched already or in preparation: a book project on community prayers based on the autobiography of Saint Ignatius and an art project, a collection of artworks with Ignatian themes. We commission a cloth that is specifically designed for the Ignatian Year. Some of our communities in prayer have decided to guide people and open up their spaces for retreat. A music project is also in the pipeline: the question is how music can be used to live and deepen the Ignatian spirituality. As Father General said: the hope is that a real, spiritual conversion, a conversion of heart and mind can take place in me, in my Jesuit companions and those who collaborate with us during this year. Because in this case the Ignatian Year will not end on 31st July 2022 but start with the celebration of life and apostolate in our daily experiences.