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Marist Bulletin - Number 191


Juan Velasco, Marist, missionary in Masonga, Tanzania

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Lluís Serra Llansana

Juan Velasco, a Marist Brother, was born at Briseñas, Michoacán, Mexico, and is now 70 years of age. He has degrees in English and Mathematics and studied Missiology in Rome. He has taught and has been Director in a number of Marist colleges and Juniorates in various cities in Mexico. He is presently in Masonga, Tanzania, a mission founded in 1991. This interview took place during his stay in Barcelona.

What brought you to Africa?
It was due rather to my Superiors than to me. When I was a child, I was interested in getting to know about Africa, but when they invited me, I was already 57 years old and it was not a part of my plans.

But did you go out of obligation or because you wanted to go?
Mainly because I wanted to go because that had already been one of my greatest wishes. For me it was a very promising proposal.

You are still in Tanzania. What is your mission?
What especially interests me is evangelisation and work with young people.

Do you feel well accepted by the young people despite coming from a different country and speaking a different language, etc.?
Very well accepted because here they welcome a stranger with open arms.

Was it difficult to become part of the culture?
For Mexicans, it is not difficult for us to adapt to different cultures. However, the Swahili language is difficult. At the age at which I arrived in Tanzania, it wasnt easy to learn a new language. Now, I communicate with the people in Swahili but the language for teaching is English.

Tell me a little about the school where you work…
When we arrived, the bishop presented us with several possibilities of work in his diocese: working in an agricultural operation, giving lessons in a Seminary or teaching in a school. We chose the third option because it conformed to our charism, even though there were many difficulties with the lack of electricity, running water and passable roads, etc. The school started from scratch. When we opened its doors, there were 400 requests for 100 places. It has had a very big impact on the population.

And what are the actual numbers?
It is a secondary school with 320 students aged from 16 to 22. We produce our own electricity with two solar panels. Thanks to the help from the Marists in Catalonia and from SED, we have installed two windmills that provide an abundant supply of water.

At the beginning there were three Mexicans. Do you live currently with confrères from other countries?
There are seven brothers from four different countries: Congo, Rwanda, Italy and Mexico. We share a good spirit. The volunteers and lay missionaries are enthused by the work, like Brother Sergio Pario, an Italian, who came for two years and has stayed ever since. We have been fortunate to have two couples with us one Catalan and one Mexican. They came here as lay missionaries for three years and have been integrated into our community and mission.

Now that you are passing through Europe, what do you think about the unequal distribution of wealth throughout the world?
There are many who have a great deal and many who have nothing. There are huge differences between the rich countries and the others.

Is there sufficient solidarity to satisfy the needs of your mission?
The brothers in Catalonia and Mexico collaborate with us to give us the necessary means for the education and evangelisation of the children and young people.

But what future do these young people and children have?
Their future is a little sad. There are only two universities in the whole of the country. That is why the national examinations aim to eliminate the majority of students who then have no access to higher education. Despite that, the young people make a great effort and they study hard so that they can obtain good results. Students who fail return to the village to devote themselves to looking after the animals or growing crops. Some look for a job in the city, through lack of being able to continue their studies.

Do you ever regret having left your country?

What have you found in Tanzania?
Tranquillity, peace, acceptance by simple people, the satisfaction of finding boys and girls keen to receive an education and who have to walk sometimes nine kilometres to get to school and then return late to their homes to have their one and only meal of the day. That is remarkable!

Would you say that an education for women is important and to what degree?
We take this to heart, but the society totally underestimates women. While doing their studies, they have to fulfil all their domestic tasks: collect firewood, water from Lake Victoria, etc. That is why they have little time for study and fill the lowest positions in the class results. The girls who start school do so enthusiastically but they are often pregnant during the first year of secondary. That is why the government is trying to avoid co-education. As polygamy is widely spread throughout our region, the girls are going to increase the size of the families of the men with whom they have been involved. Manos Unidas has financed a boarding school project to improve the situation of the girls and we hope that the first results of this experience are going to prove positive.

Do you provide sex education?
Yes we do, we speak in class about it and it is also given by specialised people… However, it is said that 60% of the population is infected with AIDS. Every week we hear the crying of people in the neighbourhood as they mourn for another person who has died from this disease.

At 70 years of age, do you think about retiring?
I have never thought about retiring because I can still do something for others.

Tell us more about what you do for others.
I feel that because of the presence of the brothers within this community, young people feel the desire for change. For example, the young men do not want to have several wives but only one, and to have children with her; they look for a decent job, etc.

Do you believe that we need to encourage missionary vocations in the Church?
For me, that seems to be an ideal because we also encourage change and we help in regions where there are great needs in education and in evangelisation.

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