The dojo of Morogoro
Africa. Is it possible to make a Soto Zen sangha flourish in a small rural town in Eastern Africa? Apparently, it is. This article describes the dojo of Morogoro town, in rural Tanzania, but also explores my feelings of amazement when I visited it. For years, I have asked myself how to reconcile the need to attend the sangha back home, in Europe, with my deep passion to work in developing countries as a humanitarian nutritionist.
In February this year, during a sesshin in Spain, I asked my Zen Master Roland Yuno: “…I have lived for many years in developing countries and I have realized that my practice has become stiff, lonely and sometimes sterile because of the absence of a sangha. Soon I will go back home to Kenya and I do not know what I should do really”. The Master, in the most direct and easy way ever, popped up the solution I had been seeking for years (and I never dared to ask): “Well, my Belgian disciple lives in Tanzania (neighboring Kenya!). He also works in humanitarian activities, and has set up a sangha. He is an ordained monk. Why not get in touch with him?”
A few months later, I started my two-day journey from Nairobi to Morogoro, a pleasant small town in a green hilly region of inland Tanzania. An appointment was previously arranged with the responsible of the only Soto Zen sangha existing in this part of this huge continent.
Morogoro is like thousands of other small towns of Africa: the centre of the world for the ones who have never lived anywhere else and an unknown tiny dot on the map for the rest of the world. Streets that are dusty when the sun shines, are replaced by rivers of mud in the rainy seasons; like almost everywhere in this region of the world. The usual features of Africa do not spare Morogoro town either: poverty, scarce health services, and a constant struggle to live go along with sudden shining black & white smiles. But for me Morogoro now represents a real treasure, one of the three treasures of the Buddhist tradition: the sangha! A treasure far more precious than the relics of the galleons sunk around the touristy Zanzibar island, a few hours’ journey from Morogoro.
The Zen dojo of Morogoro is a neat building with two small rooms located in the outskirts of the local agricultural university. Beside the front door, a familiar photo of a Japanese renowned Zen master welcomes the visitor and a sign indicates, in Kiswahili (the regional language), the times and days of zazen: almost every day, six days out of seven! Recovering from the incredulity, now inside, the Japanese incense scent makes you feel at home.
The first time, I was slightly late for the daily zazen and three young African guys and a girl were sitting already on their zafus, stuffed with local grains. I grabbed a zafu from the shelf and I joined them. I could not believe what was happening: my dichotomous aspirations (sangha or Africa?) were no longer so. They had merged into one single harmonious reality. I was finally practicing zazen in a sangha, but in …Africa! I must confess that that one was definitely not the most concentrated Zen meditation session I have ever had.
Outside the dojo, an African sunset was making the Buddha redder and redder, while an African drum was giving the “beat” to the Hannya Shingyo. Same gestures, same sounds, same scents. Different colors. I was feeling at home and in peace.
The following day I met with one of the Tanzanian guys, Francis, nineteen years of age and studying to become a tourist operator. He answered with a question to my question about the reason why he practiced Zen: “Why do all you wazungu (white men in Kiswahili) keep on asking me why I practice? A German guy visiting us here asked the same thing a few months ago. Zen helps me. That is it”. Thanks Francis, good lesson you gave me.
The similarities between us and them were not over. The local sangha members struggle with engaging in sewing regularly (who does not?), and the local practitioners seemed comfortable telling their friends the whole story.
The Zen monk of lifesaving rats
But who started all this? Bart, forty three years old, with the latest iPhone version, a lot of miles accumulated from his journeys around the globe (he just came back from the World Economic Social Forum/Africa), and a beautiful mixed race family, is a Belgian Soto Zen monk and started the Morogoro sangha ten years ago.
Bart, like many European ex-punks, had developed a passion for rats in his teens. But not only that, he realized that he had a flair for training them. Today he runs a not-for-profit organization which breeds and trains giant indigenous rats to be able to spot land mines in the most dangerous areas of the continent. The most recent generations of rats are capable of detecting cases of tuberculosis from sputum samples (saliva), cheaply and more accurately than the available local lab-technologies. Their astonishing results are nowadays documented in scientific journals.
After one year of lonely practice, Bart put advertisements in the local shops of Morogoro and people started to come to the dojo. As simple as that. Today you do not find any advertisements in the few shops, but in only one week while I was there, two newcomers popped up: a French agro-economist and a young Tanzanian student in accountancy. “Tam tam, and word of mouth suffice now” Bart says.
In the future Bart wishes to reduce his work load in order to dedicate more time and energy to his family and to his Zen practice. This is a challenging plan, since the success of his important organization is increasing, demanding more from him too.
Not only Tanzania
The exposure to the African sangha of Morogoro has revolutionized my practice. I do believe more than before that all I need is really here and now. I just need to calm down my internal heavy metal rock concert and make things happen. I do not need to pollute the world swinging between Europe and Africa.
Getting ready to travel back to Nairobi, I put into my bag newly assembled pieces of my new rakusu. In my heart a gem was glittering: I had realized that my sangha can be wherever I live. I just need to make it happen. So, the very last days in Morogoro, from the local slow cyber café, I launched a few ads announcing the existence of a Nairobi Zen Group of meditation onto the web.
If you know anybody practicing zazen and soon travelling to Kenya for safari and amazing diving in the Indian Ocean, do not forget to tell him or her about the newly formed Nairobi Zen Group.