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Q&A with Father William Cleary: Taking confessions and checking for vaccinations in Nigeria

Q&A with Father William Cleary: Taking confessions and checking for vaccinations in Nigeria

Picture of William Heisel

Father William Cleary helped set up a Catholic parish in Satellite Town, one of the growing suburbs of Lagos, Nigeria, in 1987. The 73-year-old served there until July 2008 and saw the country undergo massive societal, cultural and political changes while struggling to overcome stubborn public health threats from poor sanitation, a malarial climate and a reluctance to face head-on the threat of AIDS.

I reached him at his new parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus, in Seattle. Here is a recap of our conversation. It has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: What brought you to Satellite Town?

A: The church saw that this was an area that was going to grow. Everybody goes to Lagos because that's where you might get a job, and many of them end up living in Satellite Town. Two priests and two brothers went over. We had a little cement block building and a carport. Now they have three parishes there, and the biggest church gets 15,000 people on Sunday.

Q: What were some of the downsides of that growth?

A: You have 30 million people in the Lagos area. There is an extreme amount of pressure on the infrastructure. That has lead to sanitation problems, water quality problems and other things. It just kept getting tighter and tighter and tighter. Oil is their big income there. So there is a lot of money, but it's in the hands of a few. The corruption is ferocious from top to bottom. The money doesn't end up filtering down to the roads and utilities and positive development. There is no public sewer system. And the public water line is broken down in a lot of places. In Lagos there is garbage all over the place. It just heaps up. You would see crazy people walking down the street with no clothes on, because there was very little attention paid to mental health issues. That actually has improved a little bit.

Q: Was there anything in your previous experience that prepared you for what you were going to encounter there?

A: I grew up in Portland. I was ordained in 1962. I spent three years in Idaho and six years in Alaska. It turns out it was very good preparation. I was down in Kenai, south of Anchorage. You couldn't get this, couldn't get that. Telephone service was poor. TV was nonexistent. You just learn to do without certain things. You can't just down to the store and pick up whatever you need. That was true in Nigeria, too.

Q: When you got there what sort of health challenges did you notice?

A: There's just an abundance of poverty, and people take it for granted. For almost anything complicated, you can't get the treatment there. Their best doctors have left and gone to other countries where they can get good pay. What's left for most people is a bunch of simple little clinics. The major hospitals don't have an X-ray machine. Forget an MRI. And these are big hospitals. With the drugs you have to be very careful. There are a lot of fake drugs in the market. You can get a doctor to write you a prescription easily but making sure you find the right drug is difficult. I got injected with some bad malarial medicine from a little clinic and got a huge boil at the injection site. They had to lance it. I was in the hospital for a week. You're in the tropics and the seal on the medicine can break with the heat and ruin everything.

Q: Did you see any progress with the prevalence of malaria while you were there?

A: Very little. The mosquitoes have become immune to a lot of the medicines. It's a wicked one. Once you get malaria, it's in your system. I probably had it a few months after I arrived there, and it kept coming back. It was always like a very bad case of the flu. Another priest who went over there with me never got it.

Q: With the intransigent health problems, did you find that people just sort of expected that serious illness and premature death were a part of daily life, like the weather?

A: The death rate is extremely high over there. The life expectancy is pretty low. So they just take it as "This is the way life is." Little kids grow up with death all around them. They've seen it at home from the time they were first aware they were alive. There are too many women dying in childbirth. You don't have obstetricians helping with most of these births. All they have is a midwife, and if there is any complication, the mother just dies. A lot of people die from typhoid. If a family here in the U.S. loses a child at 10-years-old, they are wiped out for a long time. They can't function. If a Nigerian loses a child, in a couple of weeks they go back to work.

Q: Did you address any of the health concerns from the pulpit?

A: Not as much as I would have liked. There are a lot of things you can't talk about that you would like to. You are the foreigner, and you don't want to get kicked out. We tried to teach them hygiene, because basic hygiene was the source of so many problems. I gave a talk once on customs and traditions once. And it was a touchy subject. I said there are a lot of traditions that are very good and some that are not so good. I saw a lot of women saying, "You bet. You bet." Because it's a male-dominated society. And the way women are treated wasn't always the best. For example, when a man dies, a woman can't bathe for a week and can't mix with society and has to dress in black for a year. On top of that, she is given to his brother, like a piece of property.

Q: How did you see attitudes change there, if at all, regarding AIDS?

A: They still are in great denial of it. And I'm not sure they even know the full extent of the problem because they don't do autopsies. If you don't examine the cause of death, then you won't know what someone died of. Oh, they probably had a heart attack or a stroke. We'll just put that down and move on. And when it comes to AIDS from homosexual contact, they won't talk about that at all. It is all part of a macho culture. And you're not fully human until you have reproduced. They don't acknowledge that some men might be homosexuals. But I heard confession, so I know differently.

Q: I know that this might be a difficult subject for a Catholic priest, given the church's stance on birth control, but in any context where you were able to give counsel to people, did you talk about using condoms to prevent AIDS?

A: We didn't talk about that. There was some push there to use condoms, and we didn't oppose it. The truth is, they don't like them. You have to think of the family. The family has to go on. It's easy to condemn from the outside, but people have their traditions and their way of looking at the world that goes back generations.

Q: What role should the church have when it comes to health concerns in countries like Nigeria?

A: They run a lot of very good hospitals. The church is highly respected in many African countries, and they should use that position to give people the information they need to make the right decisions. The church is very involved in social programs, running clinics. One thing they can do is be a gathering place. For many of them, religion is their social life. You go to church on Sunday. The service will last two hours, and you stay all day. And so that is a way to reach a lot of people all in one place. With the polio vaccine, we really worked hard to help out. I think the Rotary Club took the lead, and they would come around on Sunday and check all the people to make sure all the kids got their vaccinations. If they weren't, they would vaccinate them. For a while some of the northern tribes said they're injecting AIDS into our kids. Superstition is horrendous. So we would have to speak out against that and say this is about saving lives. Please, try to set your superstitions aside. And it worked. There were a lot of kids who were paralyzed by polio when I first arrived, and you didn't see it as much when I left.

Q: It sounds like a big part of your mission there was being an advocate without being too preachy. That had to be tough for a priest.

A: We knew the best thing was for the Nigerians to use their own talents and their own capabilities so it comes from them, not from a foreigner. That's the main reason I got out of there, because, after 21 years, they were running their own show. They still have problems, but who doesn't? They're a progressive people. There's a lot of money there, and they have to find a way to make sure it gets to the right places.


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