Friday 3 September 2021

For and With Others

Michael Dunford (OR1986) speaking in Tanzania representing the United Nations World Food Program

During the week, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Dunford (OR1986), Regional Director for the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in East Africa. In 2020, the WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an international award of enormous stature, for its work in combatting hunger, in contributing to peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict. Michael’s work is on the edge: one among many of this current priorities in Kenya, where he lives with his young family, is to respond to the threat of civil war in neighbouring Ethiopia. He is responding to the threat of civil war in neighbouring Ethiopia, where the situation is dire with hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of famine. It would take an effort of the imagination to know what this would look like – a geographical region that could flashpoint at any time leaving millions vulnerable and destitute. Living in Nairobi with the daily uncertainty of where he may need to respond to next, Michael is the living emblem of his Jesuit education – a man ‘for and with others’ who gives ‘without counting the cost’. With a humility that belies the colossal importance of the work that he shoulders daily, Michael responds to some of the most acute needs in one of the most disadvantaged regions of the world. Indeed, it was a casual comment that informed that the WFP was responsible for feeding between 20 and 30 million men, women, and children in East Africa alone over the last 12 months!

Michael inquired as to how Riverview was faring, and I informed him of the challenges that Sydney and particularly our HSC students were dealing with. He understood and lamented, as he reflected on his days at school and the importance of his graduation year. We spoke about the logistics of the online assessment program that replaced the onsite trials and how it was not only unprecedented but unsettling for those who are going through it. Michael empathised. As a graduate in Law with a background in International Relations and Economics, Michael appreciates the power of education and he empathised with the plight of our young men who have invested so heavily in their graduation year which continues to move in unpredictable directions. This was a conversation that was grounded in baseline realities in both countries: ones that have relativities that can only be understood by context and circumstance.

I couldn’t help but probe further about the situation in Kenya. When asking about schooling, the children in Kenya whose education can be tenuous at the best of times, have lost the last 12 months completely. And that is for those who can attend school. At its most basic, that includes those who gather for lessons under a well-shaded tree, through to those of more favoured circumstances. The latter could be a room that can accommodate up to 100 students at one time with a board at the front and some chalk. Desks are considered a luxury, let alone rooms being vacant because of the line structure of a timetable. Amenities such as canteens, gyms, ovals, counselling, and careers services are serendipitous in a land where the threat of civil war is as real as an expansion of COVID-19 to another LGA in Sydney. The latter is as likely, but consequentially in a different universe compared to Africa.

During the week, the Patrick Rodgers Memorial Award for Service was awarded to Jesse Gray (OR 2014). Jesse’s commitment to service since graduating from the College is outstanding: among other things he spent four months in India working to support those suffering from leprosy, his time in Bellarmine House focussed on street-service activities and over the last 10 months, he has lived at the De Porres Shelter, supporting those who suffer addiction and mental health issues, as well as a number who have been released from prison. Jesse is a young man of deep faith who has embraced the impulse of his education – ‘for and with others’, someone who is a worthy recipient of the Patrick Rodgers Award for Service. Please refer to the Ignatian Centre section of this Viewpoint for more information.

This week we recognise the passing of George Dummer, whose anniversary occurs over this weekend. George, who died suddenly last year, was a much-loved member of the boarding community in Year 9. Our prayers and thoughts are very much with the Dummer family and George’s friends as they commemorate George’s heartfelt loss.

On an entirely different level, best wishes are extended to all dads this Sunday. This is an opportunity to step back from the current situation in Greater Sydney and across NSW to celebrate the role of fathers in family life. While some of the perennial celebrations will need to be tempered this year, it is an important opportunity to reflect on the work that parents do to support their children. Happy Father’s Day to all, and may it be one to enjoy some simple family pleasures.

I am mindful of the fact that the next fortnight will see the most unique end to Term 3 since the College opened its doors well over a century ago. Despite the vagaries and the demanding reality of the present time, our boys will come through this. That may not be the case in regions of Africa. It has been a disappointing run to the finish line for our graduates, which is looming all too quickly. But perhaps there is something that is worth stepping back from; something so central for us all to confront through the impulse of a Jesuit education that asks for higher things: the gift that we can be and the contribution we can make to others. This week, it may be in the home; in the metaphor of tomorrow, it may be in a COVID freed-up world where there will be an immense need to be ‘for and with others’. This is a fundamental aspiration of all Jesuit schools, and one that finds expression throughout the world whether in Nairobi or Sydney.

Dr Paul Hine