What is to be done?

Fr. Placid
Placid Kindata amid Luhombero debris

Placid Kindata was born at the Serengeti Game Reserve on March 3, 1974. His father, from the Ndamba tribe, was working at the Serona Lodge for tourists. His mother, from the Kulya tribe, was living African-style in the nearby Seronela village.

A second son, Benvolus, was conceived out of wedlock about a year after Placid was born. While his parents stayed in Seronela with his infant brother, Placid was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Biro, his father’s home village.

The identity of his mother was kept from him. He remained at Biro until he completed his primary school education in 1982. Meanwhile his parents conceived two more children, a boy and a girl. While his father was making a visit to Biro, news arrived that the youngest two children had inexplicably died of illness on the same day. How could such a thing possibly happen? What were the chances?

This was an “embarrassment” to his father. It led to his father divorcing Placid’s mother, who he still had never known. Placid’s father subsequently brought him and his brother Benvolus to Tanga in 1982 after he had remarried to another wife in Biro. His father continued to work in the hotel business while Placid commenced the twenty-seven years of schooling that would qualify him to be a Catholic priest.

Finding employment at a hotel in Dar es Salaam, Placid’s father took his sons and Placid’s step-mother to the bustling capital where Placid attended various primary schools (Magomeni, Jitoma, Manzese), always uncomfortable about never being able to say who his mother was.

He learns to operate a boat

The turning point in his Placid’s journey towards self-reliance occurred in 1984 when his struggling father once more sent 10-year-old Placid to live with his grandmother in Biro. Because his grandparents lived alongside the Mnyela River (also known as the Kilombero River) he was able to teach himself how to operate a boat, “the first skill I learned.”

After a humiliating incident in which he was swept downstream as a novice, he was encouraged by his older cousin and his uncle to navigate the river. At age ten, he taught himself to fish, frequently fighting with hippos, day and night. Because his father was not able to support him or his grandparents; his ageing and poor grandparents were greatly pleased to have food.

The further he ventured from Biro to fish, the more Placid started hunting small animals during the night–mainly bush pigs at first–as he gained experience hunting with his grandfather’s dogs. “I did not have shoes,” he says. “I was just running in bare feet.”  His cousin taught him the method for killing wildebeests.

The hippo hunter

He learned to kill hippos
“It’s easy to find a hippo.”

While fishing on the river, he had to learn how to counter hippo attacks. Eventually he also became adept at hunting and killing hippos. This collective undertaking was still common and legal in Biro during his teenage years. Hippo meat could feed a village. And there were hippos aplenty. “It’s easy to find a hippo,” he says, “if you know how to read the ripples on the water.”

With other ‘bush boys’ he also learned how to kill crocodiles. Their eyes are easy to find with flashlight at night. The crocodile must be simultaneously stabbed with spears and shot at the same time. He matter-of-factly warns against ever eating deadly, bile-infected crocodile meat.

There is a type of antelope that he did not kill due to the belief that if this antelope sees you before it is killed, you will most certainly die, too. “These myths are common in Africa,” he says, neither accepting or dismissing them.

Lingo House
“I used to make such sleeping houses as this for my grandmother, grandfather and myself during rice harvesting times. The house is called a Lingo.”

His grandparents were too old to dig so he did the gardening. He taught himself how to grow maize (corn), rice, potatoes and cassava. For nine years, with calloused hands, he was the main provider, spending more of his time fishing and hunting and gardening than in school.

He hardly attended school but each year for grades 3, 4, 5 and 6, Placid was the top student for the exams. Much to his consternation, he ranked only second in the 7th grade because a girl from another district was repeating that grade. His teachers were confounded by his success.

By necessity, during these teenage years, Placid taught himself how to study, how to cram, how to apply himself. He was able to concentrate on academic matters non-stop, if necessary, and so his teachers recognized he was highly unusual.

A promising student

St. Joseph Cathedral
St. Joseph Cathedral, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The Catholic Church has a rigorous and time-honoured competitive system to identify the best and the brightest pupils in its schools. It was easy to spot Placid Kindata. He excelled scholastically through seven years of secondary school, one ‘Formation’ year, three years of philosophy, four years of theology and one year of Pastoral training (learning how to be a priest).

The promise of respectability within the hierarchy of the church is dangled as a prize for millions of boys in Africa, not unlike the remote possibility that boys who excel at football might one day attain professional success–if parents are willing to pay for the requisite training. His father was enormously proud when his eldest son crammed his way into the priesthood, surviving torturous exams, but the price for obedience and diligence include celibacy and poverty.

Father Placid with farm workers in 2016
Father Placid with epileptic workers in 2016

Even though he had to leave behind fishing and hunting from 1992 to 1999, Placid kept returning to his grandparents on holidays to make them a garden. “Whenever I went to a new parish, I always had a small garden,” he says. “Everyone has always enjoyed the fruits of my hands.”

When he was still a ‘frater,’ the first of three phases required to become a priest, he finally found his mother, at age 29. “In 2003, I had a bonding feeling in my heart that it was impossible not to know my mother,” he says. “I asked my father her name. He said my mother is in the Serengeti.”

Initially he told himself he would try to get a parish in the Serengeti in order to look for her. Then he realized he might not have to wait that long. He called the Serengeti Parish office at Mgumu and asked the clerk if they could announce at mass that someone was looking to locate Theresia Muhere–the name of his mother that Placid finally convinced his father to let him know. Someone in the Serengeti congregation supplied the phone number of a neighbour who lived beside his mother.

He meets his mother

The neighbour brought his mother to the phone. She was very, very excited. There were tears. Her poverty had prevented her from being able to look for him. He went to visit her. But it was very disturbing. He did not know her in any way.

Her relatives wanted him to be interested in them. He was not. His father had deserted her when he was very young.  He told his mother he would remain in touch. The estrangement and mystery had hurt them both. The pain ran too deep. A western psychologist might suggest his inability to find and help his mother has resulted in a strong compensatory resolve to help others.

Ordained in 2008, Placid was appointed as the spiritual father and bursar for the Kasita Seminary at Mahenge, a training facility for prospective priests overseen by Father Achilleus Ndege, the first Catholic priest to provide serious support for the projects of Dr. Louise Jilek-Aall at the nearby Mahenge Epilepsy Clinic.

When the Norwegian-born Canadian physician and psychiatrist returned to Mahenge with her daughter Matika in 2009, having established the remote clinic in 1960, she asked Fr. Ndege to help her create a rehabilitation program for the medicated epileptics.

He begins to teach farming

Because he had already started one of his gardens at Kasita, it was agreed that Placid could be delegated by Ndege to oversee a labour force consisting of the hitherto feared and resented epileptics. After he had taught them farming techniques, the self-esteem of these outcasts was greatly increased. For the first time in their lives, they were being paid for working.

Under Placid’s supervision, the rehabilitation process flourished. Recognizing Placid’s potential for both leadership and hard work, the Bishop of Mahenge decided to send Placid for three years at St. Augustine University in Mwanza, from 2010 to 2013, to obtain his Bachelor of Business Administration degree, specializing in finance and accounting.

The parish is split

Nearly all the priests in the Diocese of Mahenge have lamented the machinations of the all-powerful Agapitius Ndorobo, who was accorded complete and unfettered power in 1995. The Diocese of Mahenge was split into the Ifakara Diocese, where Father Achilleus Ndege works, and the Mahenge Diocese, in 2011. The latter contains the epilepsy clinic as part of the Mahenge Hospital, within the Kasita Parish.

African Rural School Bus
African rural school bus

Kasita Parish posed a lot of challenges when Placid took over its management in 2013, so he resolved to make improvements. He outsourced a van and provided a pick-up service for kindergarten children as a business for Kasita. He realized he could double the enrollment of the kindergarten school if children beyond walking distance could be picked up and delivered home by a community-based transportation service.

It worked. Parents were delighted to be able to send their children to a Catholic school. In the national exams each year, it was usually Catholic-educated boys and girls who came first.

Placid began to imagine opening a primary school, the first in the Mahenge Diocese. Bishop Ndorobo has opened five new Catholic secondary schools. Foreign donors will provide more funds for larger enterprises and parents will pay larger sums for attendance at secondary schools, but Placid believes the education of young minds is more fundamental.

More significantly, Placid inherited the dream of the preceding priest to build a bigger, more prestigious church. Until his arrival, Kasita Parish had always held its services in the adjoining Kasita Seminary, a ten-minute walk away. By this time Father Charles Kaundika had replaced Father Mhasi after the Bishop transferred Mhasi to Kwiro Parish.

He builds a new church

Highly adept at practical matters, Placid took over full responsibility for raising foreign funding to complete the construction of a modern building that would be 26 metres long and 17 metres wide. Fr. Placid went to work soliciting funds for transformation of a mere shell of a structure. In only two years, the new Kasita Church was operational.

Once his parish had a new church and improved services, Fr. Placid was surprised to learn he would be transferred, without notice, to Luhombero Parish. Simultaneously the Bishop was sending Placid’s replacement to Rome for two months. So who was going to administer the rehabilitation project for the recovering epileptics?

The rehabilitation workers pleaded with Fr. Placid to take them with him to Luhombero. His first instinct was to somehow commute. But the bone-rattling, 70-kilometre journey from Luhombero to Mahenge takes two hours in a sturdy vehicle–and that is in the dry season. Fr. Placid is the only priest who does not own a car. How could he possibly devote four hours of travel per day to oversee the workers, who had come to rely upon him and love him, when he has been sent to a parish that would take several years to revitalize?

Bringing Luhombero into the 21st century

An unused building
This could be the Luhombero kindergarten!

Luhombero is the Pluto of all the parishes in Mahenge Diocese.

Nobody goes there unless they absolutely have to.

It will now take all of Father Placid’s energies and inventiveness to somehow bring Luhombero into the 21st century.

Catholic-run schools are one of the major sources of revenue for each parish but remote Luhombero Parish remains an educational gulag.

Priests in Tanzania do not earn a salary. They live by their wits, sometimes gaining assistance from foreign agencies but mostly relying on the alms obtained every Sunday from parishioners attending mass.

Awaiting renovation
A solid derelict building awaiting renovation

Whereas a Sunday mass in a Dar es Salaam parish can generate three thousand dollars, the poor people of Luhombero could only manage to donate $5 in total for Fr. Placid’s first mass. Obviously at Luhombero total revenues to work, eat, pay for fuel, pay a catechist and begin extensive renovations and sanitation measures must exceed $20 per month in order for change to occur.

Father Placid Kindata has less monthly income than the epileptic workers he has been supervising–and yet he is determined to bring Luhombero into the 21st century.

“At first I didn’t understand why the Bishop was sending me to this place,” says Father Placid, “but now I can see that he and God were working together. I have been called to this place.

“Just as Jesus was sent into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, I will find myself in this wilderness of Luhombero. If I love the people and if I can serve them well, I will find peace in my heart.”

Visit from Bishop Ndorobo, Capuchin monks and Fr. Kasian Mlenge
Bishop Ndorobo, Capuchins, Fr. Kasian Mlenge