Father Dan McCauley (SMA) is an Irish priest who will soon leave Nigeria after 44 years. He began his missionary work in Nigeria in 1971. In this interview, he speaks about those things that have impacted on him in the past four decades. His last Parish was in the Vicariate of Kontagora in Niger State.
How did you end up in Nigeria?
I had no experience before I came here. I left seminary in June and in August 1971 I was on my way here. I can say that it’s following the footsteps of my uncle, my dad’s older brother, who was a missionary here. He spent many years here and I think as I was growing up, I just grew into his vocation. I arrived in Nigeria on 1 September 1971, coming by boat from Liverpool after two weeks of travel. It was almost the last of the passenger boats coming to Nigeria. I think that boat went back to pick up the very last passengers who travelled by sea to Nigeria because air travel had started.
My uncle was there to meet me in Lagos and the next six months was spent with my classmates in Iwo, Oyo State where we had a small centre and learnt Yoruba language, culture and customs. During that time we were given our final appointments to the dioceses. I was appointed to Ilorin Diocese in Kwara State in April 1972. My uncle escorted me to the place. From then until 1986 I was in those areas – Osi, Iloro and Ilorin.
Was it by choice that you came here or you were assigned?
I would say it was through my uncle. He was a member of the Society of African Missions (SMA) which is the community I also belong to. So all my training in secondary school and the seminary were done by African Mission priests in Ireland. That was the direction I went right from early on. I was deciding between one thing and something else. From primary school I was oriented to follow my uncle. And I decided very early that I was going to be a priest.
Where did you go after 1986?
I went on transfer to New Bussa. I reached Kainji. At the time we were ministering mostly to strangers, if you like, from the rest of the country, who were educated. So English was the medium of communication. We had little or no outstations. I was there for nine years. The only language I learnt there was pidgin. At the end of that, I was moved further north to the rural parishes like Guffanti in north Borgu and I had to learn Hausa.
The Agwara Dry Season Literacy Course which the Vicariate of Kontagora run in several centres every year
Because I was not speaking Yoruba, and had to concentrate on Hausa, I was losing my Yoruba. I stayed in that rural parish for seven years before coming to Kontagora town to the cathedral parish where I was back to dealing with a multi-ethnic congregation which was predominantly English. So my Hausa began to slip away again but we still had outstations. So I was able to go there for Mass and sacraments.
What parts of Nigeria have you visited?
Kwara and Niger are where I’ve concentrated most of my time. I’ve had short visits in other places like Kaduna, Lagos, Ibadan… not so much to the east.
What do you consider most unique or interesting of what you’ve seen of Nigeria?
First of all, I admire how the people can be happy despite all the challenges that they face in life and all that they have to struggle for. They still can be happy and joyful. I see that in church… there is a great liveliness and joy that you won’t see in European communities. That’s one of the things …. the liveliness is one of the things I appreciate about working in Nigeria.
In what ways has Nigeria changed you?
I’m 67 years old now. So I’ve spent two thirds of my life here, twice as much as in my own country. I’ve grown and developed 44 years, almost. One of the things that people remark about me is how I speak when I go home. They don’t know me as an Irish person. When I speak in church at home, they come up to me and ask if I’m from Belguim or France. They say ‘you speak as if English is not your first language’. (Laughter) I suppose it’s the effort to meet Nigerians and speak in a way they can understand. But I’m also influenced by them in the way I speak. So that’s one thing… my accent has been adulterated.
What about your attitude?
People like me for the fact that I don’t get annoyed easily with them or that they feel happy and confident to approach me. Sometimes that has its disadvantage too. I hear them say ‘I don’t see Father get angry,’ maybe I am, inside but just don’t show it. Maybe it’s also because I’m a bit more understanding of people’s nature.
Has interacting with Nigerians made you a lot more tolerant?
Oh yes! Definitely. But you can’t carry that too familiarly. You have to maintain standards and try to bring people up to know what is the right way to do things.
You’ve experienced Nigeria in different phases. What can you say of the transitions and metamorphosis the country has been through?
Nigeria has gone though military rule and democracy. I remember at the time I came to Nigeria, the Civil War had just ended so I was coming into a kind of reconciliation. But in my own country a war was starting. In that, I’m kind of fortunate that I’ve missed both wars. I’ve always worked at the local level and haven’t been involved with trouble or what is going on.
I look at the checkpoints in the military era, they were taken away and unfortunately they are back now due to the Boko Haram situation. The population has grown a lot as well which means more mouths to feed, more people to educate. I can see there are successes and failures. A lot of young people are going to school, even if it’s a struggle to get higher quality education. One of the things is that too many people are going for academic qualifications and coming out and not finding jobs. Perhaps for the future, I would like to see Nigeria focusing more on the schools that aren’t just for academic qualifications but let’s say an agriculture focus to encourage people to go back to it since it isn’t for illiterates or villagers. It can be good if well-organised.
Another, which is a big change, is communications. I’ve seen from the time when there was nothing like that and then we saw the first phones and were amazed.
Now if you don’t have one you are weird. Same with computerisation to banking. They are all great developments which I was a part of.
What was your first culture shock?
During the time we were in the language course, we were farmed out to specific villages. Every weekend you went to the same village. You had to know the people there and use the bit of Yoruba you had learnt to communicate with them. The children would teach me how to count. Every time I counted using my fingers and got to number five and opened my palms to indicate five, the children would cringe. I had no clue why. It happened several times until someone told me that it meant ‘waka/shege’ an insult in Yoruba and Hausa languages (laughter). It was a learning process for me.
When you came to Nigeria, there were no religious issues as exists today. What’s your take on this?
Unfortunately it’s not Nigeria alone. I think Nigeria is influenced by trends in other countries. The Islamic side now has become more fundamental and it’s a pity it has come to what we are experiencing now. But in my own experience we live peaceful with our Muslim brothers and sisters and the emir wishes only peace for his people. Kontagora has been quiet except once when there was the protest over the cartoon in 2006 and my mission was burnt one night during a rampage, in my presence. I lost everything practically. We knew the attackers were at the gate banging.
There were a lot of people in our compound because we had a lot of school children in boarding. I told them to find their way wherever they could go. Some climbed over the wall and escaped. One went into a nearby Pentecostal church which was burnt and lost his life in the fire. Those of us who stayed went into hiding and watched the house burning. At the stage when everybody thought they had gone and we could salvage some things, the fire had reached my room. I tried to rescue a few things but the smoke was too thick; although some others went in to pull out what they could. We lost the house, school buses and other items. They tried to burn the cathedral but it wouldn’t burn; just a few scorches on the benches.
What lessons would you say Nigeria has taught you?
Endurance! In spite of all the challenges people are facing, they still get on with life, celebrate their feasts and marriages as best as they can and try to be happy. The things we have to wait for here or the so many things that don’t work immediately, like the light, we have to wait for, water. I appreciate these when I go to my country and tell people ‘you don’t realise how well off you are’. But people who live without them just get on with life. So patience has been one of them. Also, being open to life, enjoy life the best way I can.
The Ordination of Bishop Bulus Yohanna as 2nd Vicar Apostolic of Kontagora, succeeding Bishop Tim Carroll SMA. Also in the photo are SMA Fathers Malachy Flanagan, Tim Cullinane and Billy Sheridan. This is a sure sign from the Lord that the work of the missionaries, local clergy and catechists is being blessed by the Lord.
If it were up to you, would you prefer to stay back?
There’s a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ to that. A reason that’s drawing me home is that I have a mother who will be 89 next week. She’s not strong in body but mentally alert, she’s been on my neck for years to come back. I’m the eldest of her 13 children. We were all born in the era when that was acceptable. Being the eldest and the only one that still comes back to her as my siblings are married and all over with their families, I’m the only one who is a clergy.
Also, I’m not in a parish anymore I’ve been living with the bishop since 2012. This makes me free. I stopped parish work around 2010. At that stage our expatriate bishop had retired and I had to be head of the diocese as administrator. It’s not really that they’re demanding I return, I’ve arrived at that decision to leave.
What will you miss about Nigeria?
The heat! It’s very cold a lot of the time in our country. The vibrance of the people on Sundays. The friendly disposition of the people.
What have you enjoyed the most about Nigeria?
I enjoyed my work with the people. I was parish priest which meant I was ‘oga’ and in charge. So I could put into practice my own initiatives. Perhaps, it’s one of the things I miss the most; not being in that position where I can initiate things and put my own ideas to practise.
What’s your favourite Nigerian food?
Pounded yam and egusi. Lately, I’ve discovered wheat which I’m surprised I like very much.
Did you learn to cook any of these?
Unfortunately, no. The food is usually ready and I’m called to eat. But I find myself cooking for my mother when I visit.
With thanks to the Daily Trust newspaper [Lagos edition] of 22 March 2015