Year for Priests: Serving African medical students a privilege

By Maryknoll Father Michael J. Snyder
One in a series

DAR ES SALAAM, Tananzia — It has been two and a half years since my return to Tanzania after 10 years of service in the U.S.  I had 20 years previous experience in this country.  This present assignment has brought me to Dar es Salaam and a new experience as chaplain at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, the national medical university of Tanzania.

This medical school at Muhimbili Hospital was once the only one in Tanzania.  Formerly the School of Medicine of the University of Dar es Salaam, it had a student population of just 400 in the 1970s.  Today with a student body of 1,600 it stands alone.  Nearly 50 percent of the students are Catholic, a tribute to an historical emphasis placed on education by the Catholic Church.

Serving among them has been a privilege.  For some 60 students the day begins with Mass at 6:30 a.m. at our chapel.  Classes begin at 8:30 and continue right up to 5:00 p.m. with an hour and a half break for lunch.

I had heard that this is the cream of intelligentsia for the country and have come to learn how true it is.  The Catholic community at Muhimbili engages 40 students in different facets of leadership.  They take responsibility for accounts, banking, distribution of salaries, and organization of events and activities.  They are intelligent and mature yet maintain the spark and enthusiasm of youth.  If they are able to cope with the temptations that lead to corrupt practices and the lure to abandon Tanzania for lucrative jobs outside the country, these young people can make a tremendous contribution in the medical sector.

Maintaining the ideals and positive motivation of service is a major challenge facing them.  Perhaps the singular most interesting challenge for me as their chaplain can be described with a question:  How can the message of Christ alive within us nurture and prepare medical students for the sacrifices needed so that God’s hand may touch the thousands who seek them out for healing in a country where poverty prevails?

For the most part, the students are committed and want to help.  But they also have a right to a decent living.  They are smart and can see what is happening around them.  They have questions and they wonder how they will reconcile their faith with the desire for a decent living.  Salaries are low and resources scarce.  So, medical professionals are tempted to inflate their salaries by hoarding available services and charging patients extra for them.

Medical ethics is a major question.  In the classroom they are taught how to scientifically deal with illness.  They are given procedures that sometimes conflict with church teaching and wonder how they will be able to function as faithful Catholics in a medical system that promotes policies that are contrary to the church’s position.

I hope this gives you a little feel for what medical university campus ministry is all about in Tanzania.  Let me end with some comments from the students themselves when asked what the Catholic community at Muhimbili means to them:

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I’m participating in the activities of my church because first I believe it is my responsibility to make my church active, and as I receive blessings from God everyday I also need to do something in return.  In addition to that, it gives me a sense of really belonging to the community.  I am happy to work with other members, as in doing so, I learn a lot about understanding myself and others and obtain skills on how to work well as a group anywhere in serving God.

– Cecelia Ngatunga (third-year medical student)

Praise the Lord!  The Muhimbili Catholic Community has enabled me to understand the meaning of love and humility in action, especially on Saturday evenings when we visit patients of different religions in the wards seeking to comfort them.  At our chapel people of different ages and medical professions are united together as the Muhimbili Catholic Community!

– George Alcard Rweyemamu (third-year medical student)

The advantage I see for being a member of the Muhimbili Catholic Community are the spiritual services offered, such as daily Mass.  I also value the church activities, especially the seminars and volunteer opportunities such as visiting the sick.  Finally, I enjoy socializing with different people that build me spiritually.

– Valeria Rugaiganisa (third-year nursing student)

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Fr. Michael J. Snyder is a member of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, commonly known as Maryknoll. A native of New Jersey, he was ordained in 1979 and assigned to work in Tanzania, East Africa. In addition to various parish assignments, Fr. Mike served as the regional superior for the Maryknoll priests, brothers, and lay missioners working in Tanzania (1989-1995). In 1996 he returned to the U.S. to serve on the General Council for Maryknoll until 2002. Fr. Mike also served as vocation director for Maryknoll for seven years. In 2007 he returned for missionary service in Tanzania where he resides today.

One Response

  1. Once again Fr. Michael has imparted true sentiment in his description of his mission at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences as well as the challenges that face its students. As we struggle in this country with the hope of a better healthcare system to better serve all people, we are reminded of the healthcare issues and injustices that plague other cultures. I look forward to the next issue in the series.

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