The Usambara Mountains and Their Secrets

Having spent several days on the Tanzanian coast, north of Tanga,

Indian ocean from Fish Eagle Point on coast

Indian ocean from Fish Eagle Point on coast

sweating in the high humidity while enjoying the beauty of the Indian Ocean just south of the Kenyan border, we are now in the Usambara Mountains. It’s hard to believe it’s the same country given the dramatic change in surroundings and climate, from energy sapping heat and scrub desert to dry, cool evenings and lushness in a few hours drive.

The Usambaras are a steep and rocky mountain range featuring rain forests and incredible productivity of crops planted in and among the trees. They are a world biodiversity site, although overpopulation in the Tanga region, the fastest growing in Tanzania, has led to rampant deforestation and little native forest remains. John, with whom I’m traveling and who attended school here, noticed the many denuded hills immediately.

We stayed at a small accommodation on the side of a gorgeous hillside reminiscent of a cross between the Swiss Alps and the jungle.

The hill above Swiss Farm Cottages

Clearly, the fellow who built this small hotel thought so too as he named it Swiss Farm Cottages.

The nearest town, Lushoto, is set in a lovely valley between mountains. Twelve kilometers from Lushoto is Soni, the infamous location of what used to be St. Michael’s, the boys’ boarding school run by the Catholic Rosminian order where John spent a harrowing six years from age 7 to 13 surviving the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse meted out by the sadistic priests under whose “care” the boys existed. The white African boys sent to St. Michael’s by their unknowing families had been raised in the “stiff upper lip” approach of the British of that period so never considered complaining to their parents, a custom the priests were aware of and relied upon to keep their secrets.

The rock above the school and the school below it

The rock above the school and the school below it

And the boys in Africa got the worst of the priests and the worst of the treatment, the Rosminians sending those who had been caught molesting children in England off to Africa to molest there instead, assuming that anything goes in those remote and uncivilized mountains. It was a reasonable place to hide their worst actors as they knew it was unlikely anyone would discover their abusive habits off in the African bush.

The site, which we visited, is now a secondary school for African boys, though we had heard it was a seminary. Given the lawsuit that John and 25 other of the victims have brought against the order through a barrister in England, John was concerned we might be stopped before having the opportunity to look around. After a 40-year absence, he had anticipated this return with both curiosity and apprehension but nobody noticed us as we wandered the campus snapping photos.

The church at what was St. Michael's

The church at what was St. Michael’s

After three years, proceedings in the case will be issued on March 4th. The timing is due to the conclusion of another case brought in England in which the church argued that it could not be prosecuted because the priests did not work for the church but instead were “servants of god,” and therefore not subject to any earthly laws. Shot down by the British courts as the babbling of criminals that it was, this allowed for John and his fellow victims’ case to proceed.

A BBC special, “Abused: Breaking the Silence” (on YouTube), that John and others were featured in last year, has also caused the church to be on its guard to avoid further publicity on yet another instance of the Catholics putting or leaving children in danger instead of removing known pedophiles from their schools and churches.

John in front of the room of  Father Cunningham, the priest who targeted him

John in front of the room of Father Cunningham, the priest who targeted him

Given that Pope Benedict has chosen to continue residing (hiding) in the Vatican, probably to protect himself in case the action brought to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to prosecute him for crimes against humanity gets status, it would be nice to think the forces of good have this institution of evil on the run but I am too much the cynic to believe that is really the case.

So, having bent your ear on that topic, I will end this blog with how we ended our time in the Usambaras. Noting that both of our back tires were looking rather half mast, we stopped at a small filling station in Lushoto to have them checked. Sure enough, one was punctured twice from two separate nails and the other one once.

How many Tanzanians does it take to fix a punctured tire?

How many Tanzanians does it take to fix a punctured tire?

After an hour of much attention by several Tanzanian men with virtually no equipment or tools, we drove off with plugs in the punctures hoping we could make it the 4 to 5 hours to Moshi that afternoon. The good news is, we did.

Hamna shida! (No problem!)


13 thoughts on “The Usambara Mountains and Their Secrets

  1. Fantastic. I am wild with envy that you are there. Interesting details about John’s experience at St Michael’s. Thank you for sharing and we will be interested to know the outcome of John’s case. Congratulations to him for standing up. Thanks April for the update. Keep em coming! David

  2. Wow, this was intense! I had no idea about any of it, naturally—the school, or John’s experience there, or anything. Can’t stop thinking about it.



  3. What a fascinating story! My heart goes out to John–what a sad story, and so common. I’m glad he got to return there with you, a friendly, supportive spirit to have by his side while going back to the site of so much pain. The land there is beautiful–and as is so often true, has been the home to both loveliness and tragedy. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  4. “servants of God —my foot” .These guys belong behind bars rather than hiding behind the walls of the Catholic Church. I hope john and the others see justice done and till then have a wonderful holiday and time together . Both of you deserve to return with happy memories.

  5. John is not short of courage is he! Great writing, April, it must have been emotionally draining to go back to the ‘prison camp’.

  6. Wow April that is so sad. It reminds me of a lot a things that I heard and saw growing up in El Salvador, I am so grateful to my parents for standing up for us and saying no to those priest who wanted to take my brother,sister, and me with them to teach us about God!!!!!! I’m very sad for my friends who didn’t make to the age of 20 years- taking their own lives after the so called priest were teaching them about God. How sick and disgusting. April please take care of your self. Much love. Melba.

  7. Hi April – am a comrade in arms with John. We suffered the same distress and I am part of that group of litigants. Nobody really has any idea as to the depth of horror we experienced and the effect it had on all of our lives. Whatever the outcome is, the damage was done. The hope is that it is never allowed to happen again. Alas, this probably won’t be the case. Salaams.

  8. Thank you for continuing to tell the story of your travels and especially John’s journey in this posting. Hoping the trip back there with you contributes to his healing from the awful abuse he endured. Sending love.

  9. Thank you for your story. An old schoolfriend (from ISM in Moshi) also attended Soni prison camp. I am full of admiration for you for bringing this into the public. Shame on the Church, If Jesus ever was he would throw out the priests.

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