The Story of a Missionary
Brother Anthony Droll, was born February 20, 1937, in Fostoria, Ohio. He was named Herman at his birth; his parents were Wilfrid and Doris Droll. Tony was originally from Carey, Ohio. As a Franciscan he was professed in temporary vows, July 15, 1956, and he professed solemn vows July 18, 1959. The class of eight at that profession would later become leaders, formators, pastors.
In 1965, Brother Tony Droll OFM Conv. was living in Chaska, Minnesota, caring for 35 dairy cows at the Assumption Seminary Farm. But if he was going to fulfill a dream, his challenge was to sell the cows, then get clearance to go to Africa as a missionary.
The dream quickly became reality, and Br. Tony moved to what was then known as Northern Rhodesia, and is today called Zambia, beginning a career of ministry that would span over 54 years.
He developed a habit of writing letters, including observations of interesting detail that made the area come to life. When he first arrived, the letters were filled with descriptions of travel: roads of sand, dirt, even a cowpath! There were some paved roads but only in more populated areas.
Br. Tony headed north and west from the settled area, into an area often called ‘the Bush.’ Each day traveling in the Bush is a long difficult journey over rough roads, over relatively few miles. Needless to say, such travel can be very hard on a vehicle, and shocks and springs can break, or lug nuts fall off causing the loss of a wheel. These were the roads of the 1960s.
All the while Br. Tony, ever observant, saw the poverty of the people. In letters he noted that the people were joyful, ever friendly and polite in their poverty. A woman could carry a baby on her back while balancing a heavy load on her head. Even though thin and apparently malnourished, people had the strength and determination to walk for miles. Children were unspoiled and polite, and curious. Even as he learned new languages, Br. Tony found a way of communicating: a language of the heart.
He wrote that he kept in mind the reason he is there: “for their education, betterment of conditions, and sharing of the knowledge of Jesus Christ.” A simple meditation is his reflection on his first Christmas in Africa, a setting with no decorations, lights, or ornaments…only the poor Jesus, born, among the poor!
Brother Tony stayed at Lwawu mission, St Kizito School, for 12 years, teaching at the school. He settled into a rhythm of teaching, learning the Lundu language, even enjoying daily a refreshing swim-bath in the Lwawu River: no crocodiles, no balharzia, only clean cool water. Tony talks of learning the greeting, whether it’s hello, or good morning: “mwani, mwani.” Greeting people in their own language brings a ready smile, a joyful welcome.
St Kizito School was a prep-seminary, and the 60+ boys were setting a direction towards the priesthood. There was a need for an indigenous priesthood to take over and move towards self-determination in leading the Catholic Church. Tony taught the 5th grade, a challenge of communication when the boys do not understand English, and Tony worked towards learning the local language. Later Tony described the accomplishments of the school as if the communication-language problem was no problem. Moving on towards seventh grade the boys passed important exams with surprising results.
Brother Tony and Brother Bryan Hoban become a team! They portrayed all manner of talent as the mission was expanded, a convent, clinic. church, etc. Bryan became an architect, and Tony inbetween teaching drove the truck that moved back and forth into the Copperbelt for supplies and needed construction material. They were full of energy, filled with a missionary spirit, excited to be there, full of purpose, projects, plans. Even with that, tending towards a slight discouraged spirit, Tony complained and continued to describe the roads as a cowpath! Not discouraged for long, he wrote with excitement about the arrival of a Honda motorcycle, like a new toy, making travel easier - the gift of a generous benefactor.
Tony wrote also of his experiences with the African culture. By this time Fr Ralph was on the scene visiting at the mission. Together they enjoyed visits among the people, in their villages, during ceremonies such as initiation of a girl into adulthood. The beating of drums, dancing, pure joy among the people all become a fascination.
The same spirit of drum and song and dancing is in a typical church service, such as Holy Week services. No one minds the long service, staying attentive and interested, even among the children. On a Good Friday service, during the veneration of the Cross, the instructions are for all participants to take off their shoes in an act of devotion. That is not a problem for these dear people as they are not wearing shoes to begin with. They don’t have shoes.
At the same time, there is the hunting – for very practical reasons, to find game and if successful have meat to serve the boys of the school. Tony was a good shot, returning to the mission with antelope, an animal called Oribi. Inner organs of an animal are a favored food for the boys – so nothing gets wasted. Later on, Tony did provide a good meat when he shot and killed a large antelope, Hartebeest.
Somewhere along the line, Tony had a bout with malaria, managing with medication to avoid any severe effects.
Descriptions go on and on, such as building the church at Our Lady of Consolation mission. It is not an exaggeration to say everyone was involved including the women and children. The women had to carry the water – in buckets on their heads – water from the Lwawu River for the mixing of cement. They carried that one bucket at a time.
Another topic was the radio, a form of communication among all the missions with a short wave radio. Once that was in place, there must have been a simple pleasure in being in touch with one another. This would have been important back when Fr Edgar Hughes died. There was no radio at the time, and one mission heard about the death of Fr Edgar twelve days after he was buried. The radio helped so much whether casual conversation or passing around important information. An exact contact schedule was established so that friars knew when to check in and be in touch.
Descriptions of the seasons are interesting, a rainy season usually from mid-November to April, then dry from April into November. The long hard rains of the rainy season make roads nearly impassible, which caused problems when the friars were asked to transport a sick person to the hospital.. Also when Fr Sylvester or Fr Adrian tried to get to outstation-missions to have Sunday mass, they sometimes came back, unsuccessful, too muddy.
Brother Tony loves a description of a visit to more primitive villages. And by this time his use of the chi-Lunda language was ready to meet, greet, and converse. He learned to have ready simple gifts whether candy or simple jewelry. Any gift was received with two hands, a curtsy-bow, and a serious face. Interesting enough, there is no eye contact in that immediate moment. The receiver then turns away holding the gift and the face breaks out in a smile, joy, laughter, squeal of delight, eyes brightly shining.
There is superstition, witchcraft, in that culture. Elements of primitive beliefs linger even as Christianity, the Catholic Church, grows and becomes strong. Tony writes about the death of a child, and forms of witchcraft want to place a blame. Someone with an evil spirit caused the death, and that person must be punished, beaten, fined. Tony sat near the corpse, and women and children were nearby crying and moaning. The men argued who was responsible, and they fixed the blame on one man. The fighting and beating that ensued was a picture of violence. The man escaped, and the burial of the corpse took place as the father of the child gave instructions to the dead child: haunt the one responsible.
There was a first priest of the Lunda tribe, and with much celebration, the Church felt blessed and hopeful for more, especially that a priest returns to care for the St Kizito boys.
Something to admire about these dear missionaries: they were their own mechanics! Something happens on the rough road such as motor mount knocked off its mount, or a gearshift breaks and needs a welding to be back in place. We have to smile and realize there is no mechanic’s garage down the road. Brother Brian, Brother Tony knew what to do.
Brother Tony, with Fr Ralph, and two others gave themselves a relaxing, exploring road trip going south in Zambia, to the Victoria Falls, and on to Southern Rhodesia, and Mozambique. Tony described the benefit of the journey in terms of education, so much to learn about Africa, the land, resource, game parks. Staying in religious houses for the most part, cost of the journey was kept to a minimum. Invited to stay at a lodge was delightful especially when a lodge or hotel owner realized with this group, there was entertainment, professional, at its best. That was Fr Ralph singing, playing the accordion.
Meals had their own interest, as around a table, in African style, every one takes from one dish, a mush, or porridge. Tony calls it “bunga,” a pulverized root or grain ground into a powder, and boiled into a porridge. Every hand digs into the dish, grabs a handful, forms it into a ball, with thumb making an impression, a small hole to receive a gravy. Into the mouth that goes, no silverware in the meantime. There is a complaining word that Tony writes about this time. The bunga is not tasteful at all, and Tony is grateful after eating-enjoying times with the Africans, and then returning to OLC mission and more of an American dish.
There could be political turmoil with Angola so near. Guerillas – fighters, for one side of the political divide, in shooting and burning did cause a fright. Adjustments were needed, move of the Sisters to a safer place, move of the boys so that they were out of harms way, and a peaceful prayer for calm kept the setting in an avoidance of violence. The area was not always safe, though a Zambian para-military arrived to avoid a more serious violence. Brother Tony’s reporting of incidents and threats seems a calm acceptance, and prayerful faith-filled attitude in the midst of danger.
Brother Tony was always proud of the accomplishments of the boys of the school, challenged as they were to learn English and eventually prepare for exams in English. If those exams were completed successfully, the boy passed, and hopefully moved on to further education.
Feeding the boys was a challenge. A diet, with good protein, is not easy to maintain. Fishponds became an answer: raised fish, eventually harvested, a healthy diet accomplished. The description of the development of the ponds reads like a journal of science. The fishponds became a source of nourishment not only for the school, but the entire area needed a plan for better nutrition. Such an idea has its own expansion, as if a good idea becomes a better idea, better and better. Tony in his letters counted fishponds 5 to 6. Development, expansion has its own momentum.
War in Angola caused a rush of migrants, asylum seekers. Additional population came into Northwest Zambia. The entire area with so many additional people suffered malnutrition, just not enough food to go around. Tony worked with the United Nations, in a cooperative effort to provide rice and beans and other commodities. What a challenge, as if feeding the thousands. Fish was an important part of this development along with any other program to feed, give assistance, give people a better life.
The new bishop of the new Diocese of Solwezi, Saverian Potani, asked Tony to go to Ireland to study Development for a year. Back from Ireland in 1978, he was Director of Development for the Diocese.
In the meantime, a Rhodesian War was taking place in Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe, which achieved independence in 1980). In an effort to train boy soldiers, Joshua Komo brought into Solwezi over 13,000 Ndebele boys who would perhaps add strength to his cause. However, Komo provided no provision, food, shelter, for these boys. Tents from Germany, further cooperation and funding with the United Nations, provided temporary relief. Brother Tony with Brother Bryan gave a picture of development, a labor of love around 1984; somehow the boys were returned to their homeland. And Tony was by this time simply worn out.
Back to the States, whether to rest, or to be spiritually renewed, Brother Tony was involved in the Institute of Religious Formation, St Louis University. This was an intense yearlong training for religious who become formators for their religious communities. Returning to Zambia in 1986, he joined two friars, Miha Drevensek, and Ernest Benko, in formation work at Kalulushi St Joseph Mission. That was the postulancy level of formation for the friars. Tony stayed there for 14 years, 1986 to 1999. Along with formation work among the aspirants to the Order, Tony was once again putting attention to development, fishponds. This became an important project both for nutrition, as well as marketing value, along with teaching the postulants self-sustainability.
In 1999, Tony went to Garneton, near Kitwe, the Itimpi Friary. Up to now, 2019, that has been his residence, developing a retreat ministry, even to the point of constructing a “cave” for visual and physical experience of a cave meditation. In addition he built a chapel though the chapel was nearly his undoing when he fell from the roof of the chapel. This retreat ministry became a setting for directed retreats and other experiences of renewal.
This is a commentary that draws on the journey experience that was earlier very much a part of Brother Tony’s experience. That is often described as rough roads, difficult driving, muddy and impassible in a rainy season. One could say now that this is an inner journey, involving Brother Tony’s inner self, a spiritual center. Not only is he involved in such a journey within himself – something always there – he learns and develops listening methods, themes of spiritual direction. For many, a one-on-one directed retreat is a blessing under Brother Tony’s guidance, maturity and wisdom.
Yet, development continues, though no fishponds. Brother Tony never tires of creating projects for development. Itimpi became a banana plantation – sell bananas -- until aphids, tiny insects, ruined acres of banana trees. For a while chickens in good numbers became an ongoing marketing possibility.
All the while, Tony ever sensitive to the needs of the poor in nearby compounds, with development on his minds, and all the lessons he had learned back in Ireland, he created a school. In the original creating moments, Fr. Juniper Cummings was very involved. The school began in 2000, with a classroom block for the first 250 most vulnerable children who begged for education. Before 2009, the school hosted all twelve grades. Eventually the Ministry of Education provided Grant Aid for the sake of providing qualified teachers. This included salary aid. That is when it became a Secondary School, grades 8 through 12.
That is now St Francis Technical Secondary School. And in 2019, the high school forms future leaders, over 760 students. They benefit from workshops in carpentry, woodwork, horticulture, animal husbandry, metal work, plumbing, electrical, agriculture, computers, and tailoring and design.
Students are qualifying and employments opportunities are there. Confidence, comfort, and joy are characteristics of their pleasant faces.
A recent addition to the school is unusual - an auditorium lecture hall. The auditorium has a seating capacity of 400 people, and it is suitable for conferences, lectures, retreats, and any other gatherings. The auditorium is named Barnet Auditorium in honor of the donors who gave a good portion of the funds to make it possible.