“I have to tell you; camping in Chinde probably won’t be the most comfortable, but it’s only for a night.” Concern Mozambique’s Assistant Country Director for Programs, Sarah Allen, is giving me fair warning as we go through my itinerary for the next ten days here.
Chinde is in the Zambezi delta several hundred miles north of Maputo, a place where Concern has mounted some innovative disaster risk reduction and livelihood programs in severely flood prone areas. I am having pre-traumatic stress disorder visions of crocodiles and cockroaches. As the conversation continues, it turns out I won’t need my crocodile dundee adventure kit, but I should expect a cinematically proportioned insect or two.
Concern’s program staff and Sarah herself overnight in all kinds of accommodations without a quiver, but just 24 hours ago I was at JFK contemplating whether I should grant myself the secret pleasure of a Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte, the kind of thing a man can order only when he’s alone and anonymous. I didn’t do it. I’m adjusting.
MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE - Anytime I travel into the field, I engage in an inner dialogue about how difficult it could be, how likely it is that I might contract an intestinal disorder perhaps. In the few days before I departed, all of that began to play out in my head again.
Then on the morning of my departure, I found out that Concern’s former Chief Executive Father Aengus Finucane died and my whole perspective was reset.
You will read better, more complete stories about Aengus’ remarkable life and accomplishments elsewhere. All I can say is that when I met him several years before joining Concern, I was convinced that if I ever had an opportunity to work here, I would, because if Aengus played as large a part in forming its identity as I was led to believe, I thought it must be a fascinating place to work … and it is.
Aengus was a walking moral conscience, but he also had an abundant sense of humor and fun and the rare ability to make people of all types want to be in his presence whenever he was around. He was also a storyteller. One of his stories that has stuck with me most comes from his early days as a young missionary priest (pre-Concern) in Biafra, present-day Nigeria.
His responsibilities included prison chaplain, and a part of that job was to counsel condemned prisoners all the way to the very end. Aengus was not content to just give a blessing at the cell door — he walked the long walk to the gallows with these men, and he stood there with his arm around each of them, whispering words of comfort right up until the platform gave way.
Aengus saw it as his mission to stand with people at the very precipice between life and death and that has remained at the core of Concern’s mission, even as it has grown into a global organization 3,200 workers strong. It might sound overly dramatic especially since a large part of Concern’s programs are about long-term development among the chronically poor, not saving lives in the immediate sense. But the fundamental proposition is the same.
Concern was born as a secular, non-sectarian organization and it always has been, and Aengus always remained a Catholic priest, but there was never a conflict because his was a mission that transcends faiths or affiliations.
Aengus stood with the poorest and most vulnerable from Biafra to Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia, Haiti and everywhere else Concern has been. So as I travel in coming weeks to the poorest, most remote parts of Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and yes, Chinde, Mozambique, I know that Concern is there for the same reason that Aengus stood at the gallows. Whatever I do and wherever I go here, I am walking in his footsteps.