One hundred years ago, in 1903 two Mill Hill missionaries, one of whom was Bishop Hanlon, travelled from Kampala, Uganda, to Kisumu, Kenya in order to set up Catholic missions on the way.

As they were the first missionaries who brought Christianity in that region they can be compared to the first apostles who after Christ was crucified, left Israel to spread the Word of God all over the Roman Empire.

This summer the Mill Hill celebrated this historical event by organizing a pilgrimage following the footsteps of bishop Hanlop.A distance of over 500 km to be walked in 21 days.

We were about 200 people, 150 pilgrims of whom about 70 came from Europe and the others from Africa. The remaining 50 were our African supporting team. They bought food and cooked for us and transported themselves and our luggage by car. We had no tents, but slept on the floor in churches or in classrooms of the missions we passed. Thousands of cockroaches were shocked to find us there. We usually fetched our water from a pump, and lived without electricity.

The missions were not just a church and a school. No, we passed by two technical colleges, hospitals, convents for sisters, institutes for the deaf and blind, and a school and revalidation centre for the physically and mentally handicapped. The Mill Hill missionaries appeared to have brought a lot of development along with Christianity in this region.

Who were we?

Most of the Europeans came from the Netherlands, and were related or befriended with the Dutch Mill Hill Father, Hans Burgman who had taken the initiative of this pilgrimage..He is quite well known in Holland, in certain circles at least, always trying to get funds for his development projects in the slums of Kisumu.

My close companion on this walk was my younger sister Brigit who wanted to experience the real Africa..

Most of the Africans came from Western Kenya, the area we walked through. And of course from Kisumu. Only a few came from Uganda.. Two African priests walked along, in t-shirt, and a group of young semarians, who, strangely enough, remained dressed up, dark trousers and white shirts. They even polished and brushed their shoes in the dark before they set out. And many simple lay people, wearing rosaries and big crosses round their necks and singing and praying all the time. Some of them were in their sixties, the oldest being a 73-year -old woman with a crooked back, walking on flipflops, holding a stick. Her friend carried her belongings in a plastic ladies’ bag, her drinking water in a bottle on top of her head.

As such a trip even though it was really sobre, was too expensive for many of these Africans, we had all sponsored a pilgrim. In this way this pilgrimage would not only be a celebration, but also an act of solidarity with the poor. We would walk together as equals, black and white, young and old.

Enough background information for the time being, I think. To set the scene.

I’d rather share the first day of the walk with you. Meeting the Third World in this way is experiencing it, isn’t it.

My sister and I were dropped at the church hall in Kampala on the afternoon before departure. By the Dutch embassador’s wife who happened to be a friend of mine. Yes, I move in all circles, from the very rich to the very poor. So from the quiet and luxury of the Embassy right into the chaos of our first pilgrims’ abode. It was a large bare church hall, crowded with people who were making their beds on the cemented, dirty floor. All windows were broken. There was one tap to get water from. No drinking water. A line of people was waiting there, a plastic basin in their hands. There were two toilets one of which was already blocked and the other one produced so much water that you needed a broom to brush the water out of the door, through the corridor, to the door that led outside to get rid of it. Some bats and birds flew high above us along the ceiling.

It looked a bit like an African market. The Africans put down their bags, rolled out their reed mats and laid a coloured cloth or a blanket on top. The women sat down, their backs straight, their legs front.. They just stared at us, and marveled at the way the whites prepared for the night. So complicated… They were tying ropes from one window to an opposite window on which they were hanging mosquito nets and laundry. Airmattresses, sleeping bags, sheets, pyjamas, toiletbags and toothbrushes appeared. They were dragging churchbenches to have a place to sit. And they were shaking hands endlessly to get acquainted.

Amidst this chaos Father Hans was sitting to register us and to divide us in groups, mixed groups to promote the feeling of togetherness. Each group got two cooks with their own small charcoal fire stoves. The pilgrims had brought their own plate and spoon. We looked for the banner that indicated our group, group Bungu. The banner was there alright, but no cooks . They had not arrived yet. So there was no food and no drinking water..

At nine o’clock some rice and stew were served outside in pitch dark, somewhere in the crowd. I realized that I should have brought a better torch. We were lucky to have electric light in the hall though, but unluckily, it remained switched on all night and the noise never stopped. Do blacks need no sleep at all?

5 a.m. After a sleepless night, breakfast was served outside, again in pitchdark, white bread, jam and peanut butter, hot milk. The cooks had forgotten the tea. .

6.30 a.m. We left. A crucifix in front. Singing Africans behind it. The rest followed. The Cardinal of Kampala waved us goodbye. Police in front and at the rear to scare away the pickpockets who would have loved to mingle among us, hordes of whites. For them we were a walking Bank of England passing by. We first walked through a waking up Kampala. From south to north east. Hill up, hill down. Cars passing by, stopping to look at us.

The police departed at our first stop, the Namugongo church. That's where the first martyrs of Uganda are buried. You can imagine that the Buganda King was not too pleased with these first white missionaries who had come to help the poor, naked savages and to baptize them to rescue them from hell. So this king ordered the first 18 Christians who belonged to the royal household , to be burnt alive. To set an example.

Then we moved into the countryside. Unpaved roads of red earth. We passed along mudhuts covered with reed roofs. Often one little house built of stone in the midst of the compound, a sign of wealth. Banana and mango trees everywhere. Fields full of maize, sweet potatoes, and beans. A lot of sugarcane. Cows and goats wandering on the road. Many blossoming trees and flowering bushes, like bougainvillea, oleander.

Everywhere people rushed out of their huts to greet us. Hundreds of schoolchildren swarmed to the fences to welcome us. We even had dancers and drums to accompany us. A very friendly population who obviously enjoyed life and did not suffer from hunger in this fertile region.

But, we were supposed to have regular supplies of drinking water served by a van passing by with our luggage. We were supposed to have arrived at one in the afternoon, cooks having prepared our lunch….. But, this is not a tour organized by Holland International!!! This is Africa. We are all pilgrims now, following the cross. So why count kilometres? Just walk like the Africans do and leave it all in God's hands. Jesus will take care of you like he did at the lake..He multiplied the bread to feed the crowd.. Miracles will happen.

A tropical downpour of rain hit us. The group dispersed . Many of us took shelter. We were soaked, but no worry. Clothes dry quickly in the heat. Then a second downpour that did not stop. . Still no drinking water, no food, no sign of arrival. Brigit and I nibbled away all the nitbits we had brought from Holland , biscuits, chocolate, raisin bars, just to keep us going. When we finally arrived as the very last ones, at 5.30. we had walked at least 34 km and my first blisters were appearing. We were applauded, hugged and kissed by all. But food was not ready yet.

When we wanted to make our beds, all the classrooms were full. Nothing was planned for the late-comers. This was really the limit. I went straight to the principal, begging him for a stable as I felt like Joseph and the pregnant Mary who were chased away from the inn. Thinking I was a nun, he immediately ordered his little schoolgirls to empty another classroom. We chased away a rat, but left the cockroaches and a big fat frog. The room got crowded at once, full of black men who thought us highly interesting after the show the night before. No privacy at all. Luckily there was no electric light this time, so I could change my wet clothes in the dark.. With my torch I stumbled across the large muddy schoolcompound to find a toilet in the far distance, a hole in the ground. Many had used it before me and they had missed.

This was not all. We had food at nine, again in the pitchdark. My sister was so starved that it did her no good and she vomited. A Dutch lady cried and cried and went straight back to Kampala to fly home. Brigit and I decided not to walk the next day and arrange transport to our next stop.. We needed to think things over as it was rumoured that the march would be even longer, 38 km. Was this going to be a pilgrimage or a survival trip to test out who was fittest?

Well, let me tell you. The first day was the worst as we had tried to be real pilgrims and show solidarity with the Africans who just accept all God has in store for them: 'Mungu akipenda'.. We really forced ourselves into believing that this was the right spirit of Christian tolerance.

However, the whole day had been so typically African. The organizing team did not have any sense of time, did not stick to the planning, did not anticipate, did not intervene when things went wrong. But I just could not imagine that God wanted me to die in my attempt to reach the impossible. Better accept my limits and leave the martyrdom and the straight road to heaven to my African friends who pray and sing all day. I am a prim, prissy white lady who likes things to be clean and organized. No man nor schoolboy, must watch me when I wash myself. Then I scream…. I cannot go for a short call like the African women do. They either wear no underpants or shove them aside to pee standing. I need a proper bush or a maize field to hide myself in.

Father Hans accused us, Europeans, of being 'control freaks'. So what.... From then on, we planned the pilgrimage our way. And so did other whites. We made sandwiches at breakfast to take along , we bought pancakes, zapatis, and bananas when we passed a stall. And when possible a coke, usually lukewarm. Sometimes even a beer. And when I got tired and my blisters started really burning, which happened after about 25 km or so, I looked for a boy passing by on a bike and begged him for a lift. And I learned to pack and unpack in the dark, to wash myself in a small basin, and to sleep between snoring people, damp laundry and smelly shoes and socks. I stink, so I exist, said one of the Dutch girls.

As for the Bungu cooks. They were wonderful. They got organized as the whites appreciated it. There was soup and bread when we arrived and dinner at seven. We gave them extra money to buy coffee, honey, pineapples, and avocadoes to break the routine food of maize meal and beans and shared these with our group. One cook did my laundry when I had no time. How colonial… So what.!

A miracle did happen though. We really grew into one big, happy family in which we accepted each other with all our odd ways. Being together was great fun. The lack of privacy was hard, but it forced us to share everything, the good and the bad. We lived in Third World, that is, poor African conditions and had to come to the painful conclusion that we, Europeans, found these extremely hard to bear, spoilt as we were. But we managed and realized for three weeks at least, the slogan :

‘Walk together, talk together, ye people of this earth. Only then we shall have peace."