Interview with Fr. Thomas Huan, SDB
a Vietnamese missionary in Western Africa
Lagos, Nigeria, 18 November 2018 -- September 2012 saw the largest number (17) of Vietnamese Salesian missionaries ad gentes sent in one single missionary expedition no. 143. Fr Thomas Huan, who now belongs to the AFW province (English-speaking West Africa: Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gambia), is one of them. Read his reflections on missionary life below:
How do you feel after your first six years of missionary life ad gentes?
It is six years since our seventeen members of the ‘Good Shepherd’ batch left Vietnam for their different missionary destinations. During these years, some of us had short time to meet and some of us had no chance for this. Normally we were sent “two by two” in to each country or province where we may stay in different communities. Although the “two” have been living in different geographic places and was not easy to meet or share often, we knew we have only one mission and have been united through prayer.
Initially we were like strangers in the new land, but gradually became part of the new country and culture we were sent to. We became a surprise for young people and others around us. Even now we encounter many questions. This offers a good chance to share, to encourage young people for a vocation or to invite them to live as responsible citizens.
How did your missionary vocation ad gentes come about?
Yes, missionary life is a vocation, when God calls each of us in different ways and the way we respond may not be the same. I remember precisely when I was a novice at Ba Thon, when Fr Francis Nhat (Easter Africa province missionary) was preparing for his ordination in Vietnam. One day he shared with us about the mission in South Sudan. My heart was touched and I said to myself: ‘I will be a missionary ad gentes!’ Even though that desire was already alive in my heart, I had to finish my studies first. And at the same time I put more effort into living closer with other community members since I knew that as a future missionary I needed to accept many different characters, to make my missionary life more fruitful.
How did you start your missionary life in Nigeria?
Culture, food, weather are first things that anybody living in a foreign land needs to seriously consider. If he cannot adjust, then the missionary himself would suffer. I was reading some books before my departure and asking those who knew the place already. After my arrival in Nigeria I tried to observe the new land. Thank God I did not find any problem with local food, although on one occasion in the first two years I had to go to the clinic. Another challenge were the confreres, and even some young people who were laughing at us. It was the chance for us to learn something or to share with them about ourselves. I learned how to share with a humble heart, without teaching or imposing, because some of us are not immediately accepted in the new mission land.
I remembered when my mate and I were attending the English course in the first three months and one priest in the community said: “We don’t need you, we already have so many confreres here!” It was very painful but I received strong encouragement from my provincial after writing to him about this situation: “If they don’t like you, no need to defend yourself or be sad, just live and behave well, so all others might love you!"
The issue of food may be a big problem for others, but thank God for me it was never a challenge. More than one confrere told me that “you come here so you need to eat our food” and I accepted that.
What did you learn from the African Salesians and young people?
This is one of the purposes of missionary life for each missionary. I say this not because somebody forces me to learn, but because I would like to be enriched to be able to meet the needs of young people. We cannot support each other if we don’t not understand each other well.
Having lived in both in east and west Africa, I perceive that the character of the people is not the same. The people from the east seem to be calmer and in west Africa are more extrovert. But all Africans are in general very friendly and good. One interesting point is that in Africa we are always welcome. Everywhere, in all the communities I went to, I was always warmly welcomed, from the confreres to the young people.
I appreciate that young Africans face their life struggles (like lack of proper jobs, poor living conditions, missing even basic needs) with courage and a proactive attitude. These struggles may form the people to become more active and try not to lose any opportunity that comes their way. They can fight for their rights, they are very energetic when playing sports. During meetings they can talk and express their opinions without fear that other companions may be hurt.
Any advice for young Salesians in the EAO region who are considering a missionary vocation?
Let me say first of all that is just sharing and not advice. When are you sent to Africa, before knowing anything about this continent, don’t be shocked or surprised by the different reality. Just come to the new mission place with an open mind.
Secondly, learn how to take care of oneself and others because you cannot wait for others to take care of you! And try to care fort other people, to more easily melt their hearts of ‘stone’ and become their close companion.
Thirdly, share and offer your opinions, suggestions humbly, in order to build up the community and make sure that after the meeting all arguments are over. I mean, we Asians usually don’t speak out directly, or to the point, and we bottle up problems so that sometimes they might explode! We may also speak behind people's backs, gossip or find some way to revenge a situation.For sure, these are not the attitudes of community builders.
At the end of my sharing I feel that without mentioning prayer, I would miss the main point of my missionary life. When I am in great difficulty, God is only one I can talk to and God is the only who can understand me. At the same time, when I am living through happy moments, God is the first person I share my joy with!