A Jesuit Doctor’s Journey in Africa

Jesuit Father Ken Johnson

Jesuit Father Ken Johnson at the door of one of the hospitals he serves.

Jesuit Father Ken Johnson shares his experiences as a priest and doctor in Zambia and Malawi:

As a young man I had met several priests (Jesuit and non-Jesuit) who inspired me with their lives of generous service, putting their considerable talents wholly at the service of others. But it was a few Jesuits who helped me pray through the Spiritual Exercises that crystallized my desire to enter the Society – largely to grow in the prayerful search for God’s will and to grow in understanding of how I could more fully and more generously cooperate with it. This desire was there for a long time, but it slowly developed as I matured through studies in adolescence and as a young man.

I completed medical studies before I was able to enter the Society and for some time thought I might leave that work behind as a new life developed within the Society. During the years of formation in the Society, my superiors helped me to search for new ways of putting to good use the experiences I had already had – and I became associated briefly with several medical schools for brief periods, moving to different places and meeting different persons as is the custom of a Jesuit scholastic. After ordination I had expected to return to a medical school, but I was given the mandate to go to Zambia. That was in February 1993.

My first assignment in Zambia was at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka – a placement that was very providential since I had the opportunity to meet many fine young doctors with whom I remain friends today and to get acquainted with the expected standards of care in a recognizable but somewhat different environment. For several years afterwards I went to explore work in a Catholic mission hospital so as to understand the distinctive service Catholic hospitals provide. Then I returned to the University Hospital and subsequently to a district general hospital contributing to the teaching of medical students, registrars (residents in training) and clinical officers (physician assistants). In these different settings I was able to help many sick patients. I was also very fortunate to network with sisters, brothers and priests and found that I could assist them and their families. Although I do not celebrate the sacraments in the hospital, I have found many opportunities for ministry in parishes and in retreat work. I have found that I have quite enough leisure to be of help in spiritual direction over these many years.

During the last 10 years of work in a district general hospital, I was able to source some funds to effect major improvements of the equipment of the hospital for the surgical theatre, for the ablution blocks and for the laundry. By some unexpected providential meetings, I began hosting a series of international students who came to get a month’s sense of medical work in an African setting.

In these last years I was feeling more and more settled into what had become a familiar environment of work and prayer. I enjoyed my work in the district general hospital, and I enjoyed living with the Jesuit community in a minor secondary school the Society had been running on behalf of several dioceses. Eventually the minor seminary was handed over to the local diocese and the Jesuit community was reassigned. I was wondering if the Spirit was going to help me grow in the same place or if there might be something new for me as well. Things were changing in the Jesuit Province –  and eventually the winds of change blew into my life.

Fr. Ken Johnson with a truck provided him by stateside donations.

Fr. Johnson relies on the truck provided him by stateside donations.

The Jesuit Province here includes both Zambia and Malawi. Jesuits have had a much longer tradition of works in Zambia, but there have been desires to expand our efforts in Malawi. And there are several new ventures which are quite exciting. We had been given a parish in Kasungu about 10 years ago – where the parish priests have been able to help the Catholic community grow (the parish has about 90 – yes ninety – outstations). Some of the development efforts have included re-building about 13 primary schools, and the province has committed to beginning a new Jesuit secondary school (coeducational, boarding and day scholars). The province is also beginning a new social apostolate center in Lilongwe. The Jesuit Refugee Service is active in Dzaleka near Lilongwe and runs educational programs for the camp – including a new venture in on-line distance education (a project supported by the American Jesuit universities). I was asked to join the Jesuit community there and see where I might contribute to medical services. I would still say I miss my old friends, but I am happy to be part of a new Jesuit effort.

Much to my surprise I found after my arrival in Malawi that its Ministry of Health preferred me to move to Blantyre and pick up work at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital where the University of Malawi College of Medicine is situated. At the end of this first year, I continue the same work of clinical care for a ward of surgical patients and teaching of the medical students, interns, registrars and clinical officers. This academic environment is a big switch for me from my recent community general hospital, but it is familiar enough from previous experiences. It is quite a privilege to be able to help the young students develop and get ready to assume the leadership of medical care in their country.

I am assigned for now to live in a diocesan parish – one parish priest and the auxiliary bishop are residents there. I am invited to participate in the liturgies of the parish and I find it a very good and prayerful environment. Our parish has received many benefactions from the Friends of Medjugorje, and we have an outdoor Way of the Cross and Way of the Rosary which are frequented by several visiting pilgrimage groups. It is a diocese where many diocesan priests visit our house, and I enjoy gradually getting acquainted with many of them. Jesuits are not well known in this diocese, and I am happy to be one sent to contribute a little bit to the diocese.

I entered the Society because I was captivated by Ignatius’ confidence in praying to know the will of God and to work to more generously fulfill it. I find that through these many years I have been able to adapt to changing assignments because my fellow Jesuits have been there for me to help me pray and keep searching for the interior freedom to move with changing circumstances and to keep searching for God’s will. I have been able to share my own journey with others in the province and to be part of others’ journeys within the Jesuit Province here in Zambia and Malawi. I hadn’t expected the assignment to go to Zambia several years ago, but today I say thanks very much for it – God has worked many things for good. [New Orleans Province]

One Response to “A Jesuit Doctor’s Journey in Africa”

  • I would appreciate being able to communicate with Fr. Ken as I am trying to assist a young Rwandan student in Canada. Her family is in the Dzaleka camp in Malawi, and she is anxious (obsessed) to find a durable solution for them. I need to know from an objective observer if there is any chance for them to get permanent residency in Malawi, and also does it look like the UNHCR is going to repatriate them any time soon.

    thank you,
    Lois Anne FCJ