Fr Bob Glynn is a Jesuit priest who has spent the last 16 years living and teaching in Zambia, we caught up with him as he was passing through the UK on his way back to America.
Tell me a little bit about who you are?
I’m from Northern California and grew up with a Catholic education. I went to San Francisco Jesuit university followed by working for a year in a hospital doing human support. I entered the Society of Jesus (SJs) in Santa Barbara in 1980.
Why did you first go overseas?
In 1997 I was doing my tertianship, my final year of Jesuit training in Belfast. It was here that I realised my Jesuit life wasn’t limited to California. During my Irish retreat, I was asked if I wanted to go to Zambia. There were many Irish missionaries in Zambia at the time. They told me that there was a great need, it was very poor but there was lots of hope and opportunities and it was a good time to go.
Where did you go and what were you doing there?
I first went to Chikuni Mission in Southern Zambia. It was very very rural. I spent seven years there as a chaplain and primary school teacher. After this the Zambian catholic conference was opening a university in the Copperbelt in the north of the country, and they wanted a Jesuit who knew Zambia but also had English as their native language to come and teach. I spent four years there teaching English and as a chaplain. I enjoyed it a lot and had some excellent colleagues. Towards the end I had 120 students in my class and it all got a bit too much, so I knew it was time to change. After spending one term at Mpelembe secondary school I moved to Lechwe, an International high school, where I was chairman of the English department for four years. During this time I came to realise that something was missing from the students’ education. It then that I created a partnership between the school and Sara Rose Home for Children. Every Tuesday afternoon a bus filled with 23 Lechwe Seconday students would arrive at Sara Rose for an hour filled with games, arts and crafts, snacks and drinks. Although English is the national language in Zambia, there are hundreds of tribal languages. Many children learn English from a young age as all schooling is in English, but many speak Tonga at home. I learned enough Tonga to get by and understand others. Overall, I spent nearly 16 years living and working in Zambia.
What are you doing now?
I’m on sabbatical in the UK before going back to California where I will be told of my next project.
Do you have a story to tell us that sticks in your mind the most from your work overseas?
In Zambia, psychological problems are not often talked about or dealt with properly. Things are often put down to witchcraft. I once dealt with a boy who I had noticed had signs of bi polar disease and ensured that his family were able to take him to the capital city to get the proper medication he required. I was glad that I was able to give an alternative explanation to him and his family for his behaviour.
What was the most challenging part about living in Zambia?
The temptation to question why people don’t think or act the way Americans do, and to force my way of thinking onto their lifestyle which works perfectly well in its own way. It took me some time to come around to their logic of doing things. I became more patient as time went on. Things that would be done a lot quicker at home could take months because everything has to involve everyone. It is much more of a consultative way of doing things. There is a big belief of witchcraft which can cause panic and terror in people. This was a challenge for me as part of the Catholic church and we often came up against challenges from the indigenous communities. Even when people are Catholic the native beliefs are very ingrained in society.
What did you miss from the USA when you were there?
When I first arrived, I missed the easy contact with people at home and the ease of communication. We had a temperamental telephone and no TV. Letters could take two to three months to arrive, one parcel once took three years! The days seemed very long, but this all changed with the growth of the digital era. Things changed dramatically with the introduction of the internet, which created less loneliness.
What do you miss most from Zambia?
Zambians have a real sense of pleasure and humour in everyday life that I miss. Nothing is taken too seriously, if something goes wrong it doesn’t become a big deal it is just accepted. This is something that we can definitely learn from.
Where do you consider to be home?
I still feel very much at home in the San Francisco bay area where I grew up and still know a lot of people. In Kitwe, the last place where I was in Zambia, I felt very at home and the most settled from my time overseas. However, I still found it ok to leave, I realise that things never stay the same and it’s all about the relationships that you have in each place.
What would you say to someone who says they can’t fit prayer into their busy life schedule?
You have to make prayer a more enjoyable experience, not something arduous that you don’t want to do. It is better to really focus for a shorter amount of time than to try and make it drag. Be realistic and make it manageable for you. I often think that people want to pray but they don’t know how to. I think that people are always more open to it once they’ve had a positive prayer experience. I would recommend trying things such as the Pray as you Go app, which has a daily short recording which you can download for on the go including quiet reflection, scripture reading and hymns.
Jesuit Missions has funded Chikuni Mission in Zambia where Fr Bob was first based. One of the mission schools Canicius Secondary school used to have a partnership with Mount St Mary’s school in the UK as part of our Companions Programme, which you can read more about here.
Posted on 07th February 2018