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Recently Maria Dolores paid a curtsey visit to the SMA Media International and we seized an opportunity to interview her and here is what she shared with us…

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Maria Dolores Agúndez Leal. I am a lay SMA missionary, from the District of Spain. I am the youngest of five children. I was trained by the French Dominicans where I received a very good education; but at one point, I gave up the religious practice.

Twenty years ago, I went to Ethiopia to work on a forestry research project and I was marked by that trip, because I saw the reality of Ethiopia, the suffering of the population and for me it was a shock to see the difference of living standards between Africa and Europe. Upon my return, I looked for how to work with Africa and I started to collaborate with ManosUnidas a Catholic NGO, then I went to Brazil as a tourist with a friend. There I saw the traditional African religion mixed with Catholicism. That also struck me, and back in Madrid, I tried to enter all the churches. A psychologist I knew told me to approach a church, but I did not know it was the charismatic renewal and there, I felt comfortable and that was in the year 2000. I then began a journey with the charismatic renewal during which I understood that I had to work with Africa. While searching the Internet, I came across the page of the SMA of the District of Spain. I contacted Fr. José Ramon and told him that I wanted to go to Africa; he told me to start by knowing the lay group in which I felt comfortable and started training to go to Africa.

I first spent two months in the year 2002. The first time I went to Nikki and I visited all the missions where the Spaniards worked and the second year I went to Péréré where Fr. François du Penhoat worked with Almudena. There, I spent a month where I did tutoring. That's how I started little by little and in the year 2004 I went to Kalalé for four years. There I accompanied some Christian communities and women, encouraged them to do gardening. On the other hand, my research work on trees allowed me to work in the region in Benin, I started working on Shea. I spent four years in Kalalé, and then I went to Banikanni in the diocese of Parakou. There the contact with the community has changed, since it is a large town parish; I participated in the activities of Catholic women's associations, I went to the villages for Sunday prayers and to help organize catechesis, while always staying in touch with the University of Parakou for my research work. There I worked for three years.

In your collaborative work with the SMA, what are the challenges, both positive and negative?

At one point, I wanted to leave my job and commit myself full-time to missionary work; but Fr. Raphael advised me not to leave my profession. It is true that it is also my joy and I love what I do. My other colleagues who helped me at the INIA (Agronomic Research Institute of Spain), always encouraged me to continue. I saw that I would always have to share my time between the mission and my profession and that's what I always did, but at first, for me, it was a bit difficult: first to understand what was my role both in the mission and in my profession. It was difficult for people to understand that I was a lay missionary and that, in addition, I had my own job. It also allowed me to have some independence. The meeting with other lay people, Christians or Muslims, also gave me a lot of joy: when I explained my role in the mission, they were surprised, but they understood and I think it was a good testimony. It also helped me to understand my vocation and my role in the mission. In the District of Spain there is a strong group of lay missionaries, but only few have gone to Africa; now there are others who have joined the mission in Niger. Helping priests and collaborating with them or going on mission as a lay person is not the same thing and leaving is a challenge.

In your engagement with the SMA fathers of the District of Spain, as a lay missionary, do you feel supported in the different missions?

There are always problems to solve, but in general yes, I feel supported. In Banikanni I worked mainly with the University and I did not have much help because I organized the work. For example, we received two students from a Spanish university for a few months and I did not have any problems because I was supported by the priests.

In Kalalé I had everything I needed for my job, even though there were some small community issues.

In Niger, what we started is a mission of priests and laity from the beginning. We had built a team of priests / laity where everyone had to find their place and help others to make a community with a sense of freedom and encouragement for others. It was easier there, as there are few Christian communities. As lay missionaries, we focused on the development and awareness creation of the population to improve their hygiene, health and nutrition. We shared everything in community and I think we started well and now we are waiting, given the situation in Niger.

In your remarks, you emphasized what struck you the first time you went to Africa, namely poverty. In your collaboration with the fathers sma, did you receive anything from the people or did you always bring something for the people?

At the beginning you do not know the situation, but after you get used, you accept the difference and the situation of this world and when you come back in the relation with people, you realize they are people with surnames and first names. That is to say they are concrete people: you start a relationship with them and for a while you forget everything else. You understand their way of life; it is true that there is poverty and many difficulties, but there is also joy and I have received a lot of help from the people I met. I have been to Africa for almost twenty years, and now I have seen in Ethiopia that it is different, I have no key to understand their culture and their way of life or to speak their language, but I do not make any difference if I am with an African or a European, because for me they are people and that is like a grace, a blessing.

In your twenty years of contact with Africa, what has marked you the most?

I would like to emphasize the expression of joy, free expression and welcome. We must learn a lot from welcoming Africans, we Europeans, sharing very simple things. The different expressions of culture, for me it's a miracle!

What message do you want to pass on to other lay Missionaries who have not yet had experience in Africa? Can you encourage them to do this experiment?

Now in Europe we live a reality that is also very hard. We see how immigrants arrive in Europe and we see how governments and the European Union manage this reality and it is painful. We should deepen and see our relationship as Europeans with the people who come to us. As missionaries in Africa, we have something to say. In Spain, we are only fifteen kilometers from Africa. There are people who say: “this is our land, you cannot come in here, you are going to take away our job and our children, what will they do next”, etc.

There are also people who have never had contact with Africans and for them it is something rare. They are afraid and they do not know how to get in touch with Africans, they do not understand. But we have the duty to show reality, to show that we are all sons and daughters of God. "We are the same" is an expression I learned in Benin, but it's a great thing to say we are the same! So you have the experience that we are the same and we have to show it to others. I also encourage lay people who collaborate with the SMA to do this experiment, even if they can not commit for several years; it is not primarily to help Africans, but because God sends you there to work, to collaborate, live together and build together. This will provide a good basis for tackling the growing problem of immigration and racism.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional work and your studies on the same?

I mentioned that I work on food trees that grow naturally. I am rather for the food product of these trees. So I started in Benin, but with a project that covers Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo and Niger. We finished the project in 2010-2011 and we looked for ways to continue working in Africa and it was Niger that was chosen because Niger is a priority country for the Spanish cooperation. So it is within the framework of this project that I started to study for my thesis whose theme is to discover the interest of the people on the conservation of the trees. The technique used is surveys, analyses and statistics.

The challenge is that big and old trees are les available and regeneration needs to be encouraged.

                                                                                                                                 By Dominic Wabwireh, SMA