Orthodox America


  Tribute to a Spiritual Father - Metropolitan Theodhoros Nankyama


by Matushka Sarah Mukebezi Kambites

Every active Orthodox Christian has memories of a spiritual figure in their childhood years. This person does not necessarily refer to an ordained priest. It could very well be a grandparent, a godmother, or one's own parents. Whosoever this individual may be, the important thing is that he or she had a significant influence on your spiritual upbringing.

      In my case, I was blessed to have several figures in my childhood and teenage years who fulfilled the position of spiritual mentors. Yet one individual truly stands out among others. It is to this individual that I would like to pay tribute in this small article. 

      Metropolitan Theodhoros Nankyama of Uganda was always a man who strove to do all that he could for the Orthodox Church, especially in Africa. For those of us who have known, loved and respected him for over four decades, Metropolitan Theodhoros is and always has been larger than life. He is a symbol of determination, dignity and dedication. These virtues came to him naturally, and it appeared to us that he practiced them effortlessly.

      Metropolitan Theodhoros left his native Uganda at the age of fifteen, becoming the first of a number of selected young males to go for theological training to Alexandria, Egypt, and later to Greece. That was in the early 1930s. He returned to Uganda thirty years later as an ordained Orthodox priest. It was at this point that I was exposed to his teachings, monastic lifestyle and dynamic commitment to the spread of Orthodoxy in East Africa. 

      I remember well those days when I first attended church school, which was conducted in one large classroom. Everyone referred to him as Father (pronounced by many as "Faza") Nankyama. All age groups from primary one to senior secondary four (the equivalent of Grade 12) sat in this one classroom to learn about the Orthodox Church. Church school was an intriguing activity, one which we never wanted to miss. We had our reasons. First, attending church school five evenings a week, Monday through Friday, meant doing less chores at home. Then, Faza Nankyama not only taught us about the Church, but he gave away presents to astute, diligent and punctual pupils, ones who never missed church school and who showed keen interest in learning, by either asking questions or answering his. We all received one gift or another, ranging from school bags, geometry sets, clothes, and so on. It is no wonder we used to cry when parents threatened us with, "If you don't do as I say, you'll not be allowed to go to the evening class." With such threats, family chores got done quickly.

      It wasn't that we were idle and bored. Quite the' opposite; we were overworked youngsters. A typical day would begin at 6'.30 a.m. when we got up to do household chores before going to school. Chores varied depending on one's age, and ranged from fetching water from the well and washing dishes to digging in the field, picking coffee beans, and so forth. After chores we walked to school as there were no school buses. Distances ranged from two to twelve kilometers or more, depending how far one lived from school. The morning bell rang at 8.-00 a.m., and you were considered late if you arrived after the assembly and morning prayers. There were consequences for being tardy. Corporal punishment was a well practiced method of discipline. Classes started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m. If you lived far from school you waited until 5:30 to attend the evening class, otherwise you walked home to have a bite to eat and finish some chores (they were endless, those chores!) and run back to school for church lessons. 

      Faza Nankayama was equally exhausted. Besides being a church school instructor, he was also the high school principal and taught "O" level religious courses. There was something likable about Faza Nankyama, as far as his pupils were concerned. He didn't believe in corporal punishment, although he had other methods equally as painful. The church used to receive boxes of clothes, shoes and handbags from overseas. These items were to be distributed to needy Orthodox Christians, which meant a large number of us. These items from the US and Europe were unique and not easily found on the streets of Kampala. To wear one was prestigious, and not to receive one was perceived as the greatest deprivation. Faza Nankyama knew this and used it as a method of punishment for all types of wrong-doing.

      For the eight years of my church school attendance, our main curriculum was the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, which Faza used as a source of learning the basics about the Orthodox Faith. Since the church had no official choir, children of the church school became the choir. How Faza labored to teach us the eight tones (octoechos)! We frustrated him so much that he had to hire a Roman Catholic music expert to come three times a week to teach us church music. This relieved Faza and enabled him to concentrate on translating the Liturgy, troparia and kontakia. Still, much of our church chanting was conducted in Greek, requiring us to learn how to chant while not knowing the meaning of the words. We must have done a good job because many Greek expatriates who frequented our church every Sunday joined in and many were reduced to tears, much to our confusion! Faza explained they were tears of joy, which is probably correct given the fact that at the end of every service we were treated to nice sweets and candies from the Ugandan Greek community. This was another reason no Orthodox youngster wanted to miss Sunday Liturgies! Today, due to much effort by the Metropolitan and others, the Liturgy has been translated and much of the chanting is in Luganda. 

      Learning to chant in Greek came in handy in other ways, especially when we interacted with our peers from other schools and denominations. The youngsters who attended Roman Catholic schools tended to speak French, Italian and Latin, on top of English. Those who attended Protestant schools spoke a number of different languages including German, Swedish, and so on. At Islamic schools they spoke a great deal of Arabic. At our Saturday afternoon teenage dances, teenagers came from all walks of life to assemble for three hours in a dance hall with a live band. Anybody who was somebody in Kampala teenage circles was in attendance. (I should point out that these dances were a source of conflict between parents, church leaders and youngsters. To the older generation, they were seen as foreign influences which would erode the cultural norms and upset society's moral fabric.)

      It was at the teens' dance hall that we put our knowledge of foreign languages to use. Since English was the country’s official language and was taught in elementary schools, no one was impressed if you spoke it. But Greek! We Orthodox kids knew our Greek hymns very well. I remember deciding among ourselves to take turns reciting the Lord's Prayer, verse by verse. We attracted attention as was intended. Those who arrogantly spoke French, posed and asked, "What language are you guys speaking?" With all the Greek mannerisms and body language, we answered, "Oh! It's Greek, actually!"

       Imagine going to confession! Not only had I gone to the teens' dance without my parents' permission, but I had used a prayer in Greek to impress the Roman Catholic and Protestant kids! Yet Faza Nankyama just smiled and asked if there was something else I wanted to confess! To this day I wonder why he smiled.

   Throughout my school years in Uganda, the Metropolitan wanted to expose Orthodoxy to as many people as possible. He achieved this through travel every other Sunday of the month to remote villages and townships across the country. He required a group of church school students to accompany him for choir duties and for serving as altar boys. This was a privilege, and one had to work hard to earn it. One of the rewards for answering or asking an informative question in church school was to accompany Faza on one of his Sunday trips. Those villages had plenty of good things to eat!

      Faza never ran out of bribes. "Any girl in this class who brings me a young man to convert to Orthodoxy in order to marry her, I will pay for the wedding." However, "Don't bring anybody for marriage unless you have your first degree." Needless to say, he didn't perform many weddings, although many of us remember his efforts.

      The Metropolitan won our love, trust and respect, and we were quick to jump to his defense whenever anybody criticized him. And he was constantly being criticized for one things or another. One criticism stemmed from his putting a greater emphasis on teaching girls than boys. He repeatedly said, "You educate a boy and you educate an individual; you educate a girl and you educate a nation." If a girl was blessed with being hard working and bright, the sky was the limit as far as the Metropolitan was concerned. He would move heaven and earth to ensure that a bright girl achieved her academic goals. It was only fitting that I dedicated my doctoral thesis to him. 

      There is a cadre of educated men and women who owe many of their achievements to Metropolitan Theodhoros Nankyama. We are all over the globe, and his name is heard in Greece, Russia, Romania, Germany, the US, Canada -- everywhere you find a Ugandan Orthodox Christian. lie gave all of us the foundation upon which our lives are built. And even later, he was always there for us in times of crisis; we all depended on his quick and precise decision-making nature. It was, therefore, with great sadness that earlier this summer we learned that "Faza" was in an Athens hospital, diagnosed with multiple cancers.

      Your Eminence, I salute your dedication to the spread of the Orthodox faith in Africa. I kiss your invisible hand. I congratulate you on the occasion of your elevation to the office of Metropolitan, and in my heart I rejoice and proclaim: Axios! Axios! Axios! Now that you are lying on the bed of your physical pain I pray that the good Lord eases your suffering and that He comforts you with the promise of His heavenly Kingdom.

      To the spiritual father of my youth, and a very special teacher, I chant,

Eis Polla Eti, Despota!

 

(Reprinted from Prikhodskoi Vestnik, the monthly newsletter of St Xenia Russian Orthodox Church, Nepean, Ont. Canada, October 1996)

 


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