The people's monk

PUBLISHED: 08:06 28 May 2008 | UPDATED: 21:51 15 June 2010

HIS highly distinctive, infectious laugh filled a corner of Honiton as he enthusiastically spoke of his first year as a missionary in Sierra Leone.

HIS highly distinctive, infectious laugh filled a corner of Honiton as he enthusiastically spoke of his first year as a missionary in Sierra Leone.Father Joseph Shonibare, former Roman Catholic parish priest, is back in East Devon - but only for a short holiday.The Augustinian monk, while relishing hot showers and warm reunions with an army of friends and family, will soon be back in the world's second poorest country.It is a prospect he is not dreading. Although appreciating the break, he misses the simplicity of life in an undeveloped country and the warmth of the sun.Drizzle greeted his appearance at the St Rita's Day Mass, held in Honiton last Thursday.Father Joseph gave the sermon at the event, which was complemented by a display of his work, so far, in Sierra Leone.He was a celebrity-like figure, commanding the respect and attention of all those present.In between friendly discussions with former parishioners and Catholics from further afield, Father Joseph found the time to explain to the Herald what the word 'Catholic' means to the poorest of the poor in Sierra Leone.It doesn't spell religion or the name of Christ, he admitted. Instead it is seen as 'development'.Although the vast majority of those in his province of Sierra Leone are Muslims, it is the Catholic church that, up until recently, has been active in aid work in all but small pockets of the country.As one of three Catholic missionaries covering an area the size of East Devon, Exeter and Torbay, he has been a welcome and important guest at many community meetings."The Catholic church means development in Sierra Leone. At many a meeting, that's what people say," he said."I am proud about that. It means a lot to the poorest of the poor, because they believe we are the people who provide development and care, and that we are people they can trust."A lot of my pastoral work has been to do with health."While serving as monk, Father Joseph has also been called upon to be an ambulance driver and has fulfilled many other roles that people in Britain take for granted.Many schools in Sierra Leone affiliate themselves to the Catholic church for development. One of Father Joseph's tasks has been to visit them - to ensure they are providing an education."With some, there's teaching going on," he said. "With others, there is less."The government doesn't pay the fees of all those who work in schools."About 30 of the 40 schools in my area have just one trained teacher. The rest of the staff are volunteers from the community, so there isn't a great incentive to teach."I've never valued education so much as while I've been in Sierra Leone."I've prayed about it for the past year."Illiteracy, poverty and corruption are a bad mix, says Father Joseph.Although the people of Sierra Leone are among the most laid back he's ever met, he fears for their future."Literacy rates are down and there is corruption," he said.Referring to general living conditions, Father Joseph revealed: "There is no clean water as such. The government has done well, providing water pumps, but not all villages have them."Referring to his holiday, Father Joseph said: "I am most enjoying seeing family and friends. I've also enjoyed a hot shower! But I miss Sierra Leone. I miss the simple, unbureaucratic life. I also miss the sun and the nice, warm weather."When I arrived here, I realised I hadn't packed a jumper. My dad supplied me with one!"Father Joseph Shonibare is fluent in three languages and is a skilled communicator. He is highly educated, prompting the Herald to ask: Will you ever be a Catholic bishop?He laughed off the suggestion, saying he didn't think so."A bishop has to stay in one place, and I like travelling!"Father Joseph Shonibare is keeping an internet diary of his time in Sierra Leone. It is a compelling read. Log on to Spanish website www.agustinosrecoletos.org to find out more.

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