Monday, April 11, 2011

WHEN AFRICA SINGS: 'A Life in the Day' of Father Kieran Creagh

This is the chap whose life story I'm writing:


SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE – A Life in the Day
By Nick Ryan
'WHEN AFRICA SINGS'
Kieran Creagh, 48, Passionist priest and director of Leratong hospice near the Atteridgeville township, South Africa.
My day begins with the noises of the township. The taxis start beeping their horns around 4.30am, telling people they're open for business. I usually fall back asleep then wake with the radio news at 6am. Then I brush my teeth, shave, shower and pop on an African shirt, part of our hospice uniform, and I'm out of the door by 7am.

I cross the little courtyard outside my house, past our male and female wards, through to the open-plan reception where I meet up with the staff. Many, like our 70-year-old matron, Remigia Tloubatla, have been with me since I set up Leratong six years ago, in response to the AIDS crisis. It's decimated South Africa. Six in every 10 families here are now headed by a grandparent. I couldn't accept that people were dying in cardboard boxes.

At 7am we gather in a circle, somebody will start a song – what they call a “chorus” here – then we have a prayer and reading from Scripture. Once that's rounded off we get a report from the night sister who tells us how all the patients are doing.

The hospice is very bright at this time of day, very beautiful. The name Leratong means "place of love". It’s made of beige-coloured brick with an azure roof. We overlook the township of Atteridgeville, about half-a-million souls, west of Pretoria. Our end is the poorest part of town; all the accommodation is shacks. When I came here from Ireland 12 years ago as a parish priest I was so scared I didn't leave my house for two days. Then I decided to just go out and start walking around the township, meeting my parishioners.

I'll head over to the church at this point and just sit and say my own prayers for a few minutes, then check the creche next door and see how they're doing. That probably brings me up to 8am. I'll come back over to my house and fix a slice of toast and a cup of tea, or maybe a boiled egg, for breakfast. If it's a typical weekday, I'll go through my emails, read The Irish Times online and scan the local Times newspaper. I might generally go around and check how the departments are doing, but the wards are busy at this time and they don't really want me interfering. Our hospice is full of young people and women. About 90 percent have HIV-related illnesses. Some suffer from what we call Kaposi's Sarcoma: a cancer that rots the body from the outside in. It's sad when they die but it's actually a relief, too. I'm angry, aye, that the men don't change. People die because they're too poor to buy the [anti-retroviral] drugs; too poor to get to the clinics; too afraid of the stigma.

I generally do office work between 8 to 10am, then we all meet for tea in the dining room. At the weekend I'll be called on to do a Mass. Occasionally a funeral. When I was a parish priest for the township I'd be doing several funerals a day. People here "live" their faith more than back home. There is greater spontaneity during the Mass; everyone joins in the singing and with the drums. They have saying: "When Africa is happy, Africa sings. When Africa is sad, Africa sings."

At 12 we all have lunch, in two shifts. Traditional African cuisine would be a big pot of chicken's feet, boiled up with some spices, and “pap” - like solid, tasteless semolina. On days like that, it wouldn't be my favourite day in the dining room. But now they might cook something special for me. Maybe sausage and mash.

It was on the veranda outside here, in February 2007, that I stood banging for attention after a gang of robbers broke into the hospice and shot me three times at point-blank range. I was lucky to survive. I was almost naked at the time and one of the newspapers back home wrote: "It was pants down for Father Creagh"! I suppose I can laugh at that now.

Afternoons are for driving. In the early days I’d have done the cash-and-carry all on my own, as well as going to the market for fruit and veg and all the driving for the patients. I was like a one-man ambulance. Since the shooting I'm not so comfortable. I used to feel free to drive anywhere on my own into the informal settlements – the squatter camps. Now I always have an edge of worry with me.

Between  5 and 6pm I’ll be in the office, sorting out any administration stuff that needs doing. Then I generally go around the wards, visiting every patient, checking how they are, chatting with them. If they want me to pray with them I'll give them a blessing. People can die any time. When they do they're brought to a private room where I'll say a prayer, then leave them with their family. When the undertaker comes all the work stops. We all gather and take the body from the hospice with a guard of honor, singing and praying. It's very moving. And then we return to work.

By now a haze will have settled over the township – especially in winter time, like a fog – as people light their cooking fires. It'll disappear by about 7pm, but by then it's dark. There's always some noise. Mid-month people don't have much money, so there's not much happening. But at the end of the month when people get paid, and especially weekends, it can be music through the night. And it can be really loud. You worry when it's really, really still.

I'll return to my office, then to the medical room to check the night sister has arrived. By 7pm I'll be back in my house watching the local news. At about 8pm I lock the gates and either watch a bit of television or read, then I'll do once last round of the house, checking all the doors are locked, the windows are secure. It’ll be about 9.30 or 10pm when I turn off the lights, go into my bedroom and lock the door – I've a bolt on my door as well. I’ll maybe read for a little bit – I'm getting through 'Riding the Dragon' by Dr Robert Wicks at the moment – then say my last goodnight prayers, mostly along the lines of “I hope tonight's going to be okay.”

I generally fall asleep quite soon. But I might wake a couple of times, so I never really get a full night's sleep. In the dark my mind sometimes goes back to the night of the shooting. I try to shift it. If it gets bad I'll take a half a sleeping tablet; I look forward to the sun coming up and a new day dawning.
Interview by Nick Ryan

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