(Editor’s Note: Last year, WPI contributor John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe traveled to West Africa to visit his friend Fr. William Ryan, an American missionary priest in Togo, and to see the slave castles in Ghana. I asked John if he would write a reflection on his time in Africa. In this piece, he recalls the people he encountered, the sights and sounds he experienced, and some of the lessons he learned during his visit. –Mike Lewis)
Pope Francis urges effective love in action rather than sterile doctrine, and a renewed wisdom based on obedience to the Gospel. The missionary Church in Africa may be 500 years late, but is still vibrant with hope. In Togo, for example, visitors can experience an intense exchange of God’s great gifts: one side gives water to the thirsty (Lord), and the other side welcomes the stranger (Lord).
Togo Mission: Hospitality and life-giving water
In 2018, I visited Togo with my wife Betsy and two classmates (Larry Hamm and Kevin Counihan) from high school. It was a reunion of sorts, and a retreat of sorts: we visited another classmate, Fr. Bill Ryan, a missionary priest. It was mind-boggling.
Fr. Bill has been there a dozen years, in a parish a couple of hours north of Lome, the capital of Togo. the central village of his parish, Atchanve, is isolated: you can get there by car, but the route is a cuphook – north, then east, then south – and the last couple of miles you go three miles an hour to avoid breaking your axles in a pot-hole (swimming pool?). Some of the other villages in the parish are even less accessible, beyond a rickety bridge that won’t take cars. (For more info, see his website: http://www.togomissionparish.org/)
Some accomplishments: in this isolated bit of the world, Bill has built a chapels and a church, elementary and middle schools and a high school (with boarders), mills to grind grain, solar-powered wells, a power grid in the central village, a palm oil factory that provides income for dozens of families. He has had a couple of failures – or premature projects that will work in a few years but not now: a general store, and a gas station for passing motorcycles. He’s installed a modest solar power grid in the main village. And he’s baptized over 1,200 people. Busy guy.
When the four of us got to the village, children along the road screamed out announcements, letting their families and friends know that the circus had come to town. Not that we intended to be a circus: we just were. “Yobo!” they screamed. That’s “white guy!” Yoboes are much better than giraffes. Kids came running from all over, and they wanted to touch. Ten fingers is enough for ten kids to grab hold, or maybe 15 if some of the kids are small. But they could also hold my belt, or just touch and move on, or maybe just touch a friend who was touching the yobo. The funniest thing about yoboes is the skin on the back of their elbows! You can stretch it out like an ear! Kids tumbled on the ground laughing when they saw that amazing weirdness!
What a welcome! What an outpouring of love! Sure, it was curiosity and excitement; and sure, it’s fun to scream about anything. But they wanted us there. On day one, and every day after. “Yobo!” What fun! I hope when I die there’s a kid rolling on the floor laughing at my flappy elbows.
And consider an alternative. In America, in a white neighborhood, if a black man strolls in and hears people yelling to each other about his arrival, maybe in some sloppy version of the Latin word “Negro,” that’s not a joyful sound. No. He’s in real danger, probably not mortal danger but let’s not wait to measure.
What would I be willing to give, or give up, to make my country welcome strangers the way Togo welcomed me?
Contrast: the slave castles
After we left Togo, we went to Ghana for two days before heading home. We drove across the country along the coastal road to the slave castles in Elmina and Cape Coast. There are no detailed records to show how many people passed through those castles and others nearby, but it was millions. A classmate who missed the trip because of family illness, Fletcher Word, almost certainly has ancestors who left Africa through those castles. I was ashamed to be there, and more ashamed to be there without Fletcher; I felt like an intruder in his private family agony. It was deeply disturbing, to put it mildly, to see the pitch-dark dungeons with their encrusted-shit floors where men and women, children of God, were collected and processed for shipment, and then to go 30 feet up to the chapels where Christians sang God’s praises and preached about his love and mercy. God and his beloved people weren’t absent, weren’t confused – and weren’t upstairs.
People I met at Cape Coast remember the Obamas visiting there, and they recalled with emotions I couldn’t interpret that Michele Obama came out of the castle weeping. That was oddly freeing for me: I felt that she gave me permission to visit. (What are you doing here, yobo? It’s okay: I’m with her.)
O God, you who made us and designed our hearts, open our minds and hearts. All that brutality, carried out by Christians with their chapels and preachers: how did that happen?
That’s not a rhetorical question. For sure, I can’t answer fully; but for sure, I can answer in part. Amidst so many gravely evil actions, there were also some gravely evil omissions. When European explorers trying to find a sea route to India sailed south past Morocco, then on toward the equator, then turned east along the Gold and Ivory Coast, and then on and on, they met strangers. It is the clear and forceful teaching of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church that when we meet a stranger, we are invited to meet God, to learn something new about his majesty and splendor and wonder. But that teaching was smudged, obscured, neglected, hidden in the mists. The butchery and brutality and genocides that followed – the slave trade of the next centuries – began with sins against hospitality. The Europeans didn’t rejoice at the meeting, bow at the greeting. These black things that resemble black Saint Augustine of Hippo? They aren’t our brothers and sisters. They are things; they are a source of revenue.
What was supposed to happen then? Great civilizations were supposed to learn from each other.
In Togo, Fr. Bill has been doing a hundred different things, including digging wells and pouring out fresh clean water. What a gift that is! And the people of Togo have responded in a hundred different ways, with joy and music and dancing and calm intelligence. And they teach us, if we will learn, the meaning of a love that is erupts from the depths of God’s burning heart, a virtue that is fundamental to Christianity, a practice that is central to civilization – a habit of thought and action that we, in our pride, have forgotten, just forgotten! They will teach us hospitality.
Come see the wonders of creation, scream the children of Atchanve. Come quickly! Strangers! Oh, come take their hands! What joy, what fun, what earth-shattering delight! Yoboes, with ears on their elbows! Oh, come!
To learn more about the Togo Mission and to contribute to their work, please visit TogoMissionParish.org.
Image: The villagers at Agbatehe (a village close to Atchanve) waving their thanks for their new well.