FAREWELL BROTHER PETER COLE
- Published: Tuesday, 17 April 2018 08:24
An elder in traditional African society is a person, senior in years, who is respected in the community for their character and spirit, demonstrated through their behavior, good judgment and sensitivity to the needs of the community and people.
Their role was paramount to the spiritual, social and physical well being of the whole community. They were the keepers of the sacred story of the people and custodians of its wisdom, so needed to keep harmony and peace, and in this way people made sense of their struggles and current reality.
In East African communities, this elder was called Mzee and for the past twenty years the East Africa Christian Brothers, along with the wider community have had their Mzee, in the name of Peter Cole.
It seems ironic that this year 2018, just six weeks after our Mzee (Br Peter) had left us for Australia; we Brothers celebrated thirty years since the first three Brothers arrived into Tanzania closely followed in 1989 by our very own Mzee. He knew very well this reflective period was coming up, but it did not deter his plans to ‘return’ to his temporal home Australia. Content to let his life and deeds speak for him, he knew he wasn’t needed. Let the legend speak for itself.
The task now is for every East African brother, who knew him, lived with him and who loved him is to reflect deeply on his life, vision, attitude and spirituality and imbibe something of the great man. So returning home after a memorial mass to pray for his departing soul, and safe passage of his spirit into the real world, I am now just reflecting on the great man.
In 1975 in Ballarat as an impressionable first year out “on the mission brother,” of twenty-one years, I lived with him and what an inspiration and gift he was to me. In a strict, judgemental and archaic relic of religious life, he was an icon of freedom and be your self approach to it all that transcended the stuffiness of the place and its members. No criticism, no reproach from on high or no one else’s expectations penetrated his spirit. He had a mission and literally not a minute to worry about such trivia. His gift was to show me that you could still be yourself if you know who you were and remain faithful to this path. At the end of the year,
I failed scrutiny and he accompanied me to Treacy to face my reckoning. His great fun and positive spirit made light of the two-hour trip to Melbourne and subsequent committal hearing.
However back to our Mzee of East Africa and to reflect on the role he played as the elder, I am mourning the great loss of life that he brought to any gathering of brothers, people, youth and his bedraggled slum women, but above all am mourning the loss of knowledge he carried. Br Peter had an incredible memory for every person, event, word spoken or things written. In his prime he would regale a group of brothers with it all. Sleeves rolled up above the elbow, cups of milk coffee galore, shouting, spitting food all over those nearby, laughing and slapping his thighs as he doubled up with the effort of the telling. Yes that was our Mzee in full flight.
Whether it be the exact spot where Ronaldson kicked that huge goal in the 1967 Grand final to win the flag for his Tigers, the date and place where Raila (Kenya ex prime minister) told the Kibera people he would rebuild their slum, the assembly when the first Tanzanian brother was present, or the chapter of 1984 where a new spirit blew through the congregations, he knew it all. What a man? A prayerful man, an avid reader of spiritual books and material on brotherhood, inspirational people, enculturation and politics gave him a sound understanding of his world. I mourn all this knowledge less tangible among us now, but surely the duty of the present generation to reclaim it and live it.
In August last year he spoke to me and told me wanted to go home to Australia. This was his secret, and here he was sharing it with me, the Bob Aron and Gerard Bennet with the postulants/candidates very one who had forcefully expatriated him from Arusha Tanzania in 1997 because of ill health. Kicking and screaming he went, only to return eighteen months later, but now it was clear to me, that he was in a totally different space.
The crucified Jesus is no stranger to mzee who had suffered for years with his cross of emphysema and now he was saying, ‘ It was accomplished “ He had given up his last breath (pre oxygen tank days) for the Africans he loved and there was suddenly no need for him to remain. He had nothing left to give, they have it all now and my time for leaving them is now. Peace filled him as he reflected on his decision, and again all I could do was admire my brother Peter.
Over the subsequent months until his departure in February of this year, I saw a man who never wavered from this path. He was at peace and so no pillar of salt would be the fate of our mzee. After his departure, I don’t think he contacted anyone here again. He was gone in person but far from gone in spirit as evidenced in the reflections by the African Brothers in the recent comments during our history review here.
For those left behind it is always too soon when a paramount elder departs, but for those left to mourn, let them reclaim the ancient hope embedded in African traditions Elders looked forward to passing on; they didn’t fear it. Passing on was not dying. Life after you pass on Br Peter Cole with his African Brothers was not an issue if your life on earth had meaning and was lived for the community for your spirit lives on in them.
Oh Great Spirit
Make me ever ready to come to you,
with clean hands and straight eyes,
So when life fades like a fading sunset,
my spirit may come to you without shame.
(African verse embraced by elders who had lived great and honourable lives for their people) Surely our Br. Peter. It is up to HIS African brothers now to reflect on his ways and embrace his spirit.
Mzee rest in peace.
Br Frank O’Shea