An Irishman’s Diary: How an Offaly priest made himself at home in Africa

Unlikely as it might seem, on the surface, Lusaka is a home from home for Fr Prof Michael Kelly

Lusaka home from home: Fr Prof Michael Kelly (right) with former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and Dr Charlotte Scott (wife of the current deputy president) at the Irish Ambassador's St Patrick's Day party earlier this month

Lusaka home from home: Fr Prof Michael Kelly (right) with former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and Dr Charlotte Scott (wife of the current deputy president) at the Irish Ambassador's St Patrick's Day party earlier this month

Wed, Jan 21, 2015, 09:49

Unlikely as it might seem, on the surface, Lusaka is a home from home for Fr Prof Michael Kelly. Born almost 84 years ago in Co Offaly, he grew up in Tullamore. Which, even now, lacks the flame trees, 30-degree temperatures, and nightly chorus of cicadas that are features of his current domicile.

But he remembers from his school days Christian Brothers giving out about the laid-back nature of “bog people” like him. “They used to tell us that if we were from Kerry or Donegal, we’d have to fight for everything,” he says, with a laugh. And he thinks it no coincidence that, with a vast continent to choose from, he settled in the midlands, again.

Zambians are an easy-going people too, living in an environment blessed with natural advantages. Theirs should be a wealthy country – “It is a wealthy country,” corrects Fr Kelly – with huge mineral reserves, especially copper, vast swathes of fertile land, limitless solar resources, and more water than the rest of southern Africa combined.

The problem is unlocking that wealth, and distributing it – challenges that have largely defied Zambia during 49 years of independence. Nationalisation of industries was tried and failed, then re-privatisation “for a song”. There have been big mistakes and bad luck. But for a life-long teacher like Fr Kelly, a key determinant in Zambia’s troubles was the educational deficit inherited from colonial times.

When one of his Jesuit predecessors lobbied the British rulers about opening a secondary school in 1940s Lusaka, the official response was: why? The city already had a school, it was pointed out. Another would be superfluous. As for third-level education, by the time of independence, Zambia had a total of 109 graduates, half of them living abroad.

One of seven children, three of whom became Jesuits, Fr Kelly followed his older brother Bob out to Lusaka, where a maths and science qualification made him much prized. He quickly became a school principal, teaching among others the sons of post-independence leader Kenneth Kaunda.

Later he moved to the University of Zambia, as lecturer, dean, and eventually deputy-vice chancellor, side-tracked into administration for a time before returning to his true vocation. In the process, he became a very influential figure in his field, championing the cause of women’s education in particular.

Then, some time in the early 1980s, he first became aware of a phenomenon that would dominate his future. The Aids epidemic would be felt worldwide, but it was disastrous in sub-Saharan Africa, with – as Fr Kelly soon realised – dire implications in education.

Thanks to scientific training, he had a talent for reading statistics. And in his Jesuit community house, bookshelves crammed with ring-bound folders and reports on Aids testify to 25 years doing of just that. In the process, he has become an internationally-renowned expert, the author of several books, and a sought-after conference speaker.

With such expertise, Fr Kelly could be forgiven for treating the subject as purely academic. He doesn’t. Central to his motivation for studying it is the “immense human distress” he has witnessed among friends, colleagues, and students.

One of the friends affected was former President Kuanda, whose public declaration in 1987 that a son of his had died from Aids was a big help in freeing the press and others to talk about the disease.

Then there was the church. As in all things, Fr Kelly believes education is the key to protecting people against the virus. But pending general enlightenment, he is happily pragmatic about condom use as by far the lesser of two evils.

He even hopes that, if any good came out of the pandemic, it was to educate the church towards a more mature, less negative, relationship with sex. Such ideas have sometimes caused concern in high places. There was talk once of senior churchmen paying him a visit, but it never happened.

Fr Kelly still speaks with a soft Irish accent. Even so, when he uses the word “we” now, it’s his fellow Zambians he’s talking about. He has been a citizen of the country since 1968. And like his brother Bob, now buried in Lusaka, he will end his days there.

In the meantime, despite supposed retirement, he spends his waking hours in constant writing and correspondence. An old laptop is one of his few accessories. He doesn’t have a mobile phone. In a vast country, he has spent the past 40 years living in a small, one-room flat: the modern equivalent of a monastic cell. “A cell without a cell-phone,” he jokes.

Frank McNally travelled to Zambia with the help of a grant from the Simon Cumbers Fund