Monday, July 21, 2014

Returning Home to Tanzania: Sr. Pia's Reflections on "The Best Years of my Monastic Life" Part One


(Sister Pia Portmann, Prioress of Norfolk and Swiss native, spent 27 years in the Peramiho, Tanzania Priory and recently returned to Tanzania for the dedication of the Good Shepherd Orphanage and School. A project that she helped begin as Prioress of Peramiho. These are her accounts of her visit.)
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his faithful love endures forever.

– Psalm 136:1

When I arrived in the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-Salaam on May 5, 2014, I was excited to be back in the country I love and in which I worked during the best years of my monastic life – namely, the 27 years from 1980 to 2007.

The big city has changed enormously. The road construction and the increase in the number of cars and motorbikes make traveling in the city an adventure. When I arrived at the airport, I was amazed that Sr. Rosann Ocken, my successor at Peramiho Priory, and her companions were not waiting for me and Stefanie Wegner, my traveling companion from Europe and the project director of the Patrizia KinderHaus Foundation in Augsburg, Germany.
After communicating with Sr. Rosann, we learned she had been driving for more than two hours from our congregation's residence in Dar-es-Salaam to the airport, but was caught in the traffic. Due to this problem, we had to cancel our plans for sightseeing in Dar-es-Salaam the following day.

Sr. Rosann, Stefanie and I, along with our driver, Georg, left at 4:30 a.m. on May 7 for Uwemba, a town in Njombe District. We would stay overnight there with our sisters in our congregation's mission house there.

The long drive through this big country delighted me as it used to. Passing through Mikumi National Park (a drive of 50 kilometers) brought me a lot of joy. It seemed all the animals came to greet us on this morning – elephants, zebras, giraffes and antelopes. Even a lonely Africa buffalo greeted us from a ditch. He must have been wounded.



We traveled from sea level to the Southern Highland (elevation of 6,000 feet), which includes Uwemba, through the long and beautiful Ruaha Valley. Once a year, the little white, pink and purple flowers bloom and drape themselves over the bushes and trees like a veil. I had seen this effect only once before in my many travels to and from Dar-es-Salaam. But on this day, God’s beauty in nature provided this magnificent view once more.


We reached our mission in Uwemba at about 7 p.m. In this fruitful “Ubena land,” the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing own St. Anna’s Health Center. The sisters meet the physical needs of the people in Uwemba and surrounding villages. They also run an orphanage, caring for 21 children from birth through age 2. These children have lost their mothers or even have been abandoned by them. The sisters try to find and contact family members so they eventually can be returned to their family or clan.


The mission also includes a girls' vocational training center that teaches dressmaking and cooking. I was impressed how our Tanzanian Missionary Benedictines have taken over this important work of reaching out to the sick, poor and suffering and educating young women to equip them to sustain themselves for a lifetime.

After visiting the sisters' ministries and remaining with them for a short time, we left after lunch on May 8 to drive the final 4½ hours south to Peramiho. St. Scholastica Priory, founded in Peramiho in 1901, is the oldest priory in our congregation. Through the years, our sisters there worked in schools and hospitals and carried on pastoral and social work in as many as 12 outstations. They also founded the first congregation of African Benedictine sisters, known today as the Benedictine Sisters of St. Agnes, Chipole.  

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