Today, January 19th, we celebrated the 50 years of associate membership of the Mill Hill Missionaries of Nicholas (Ko) Klaver, currently our rector at St Jozefhuis in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands.
On the eve of this memorable occasion, I sat down with the golden jubilarian to look back over his half century of missionary experience lived, for the greater part, in Uganda and Kenya.
Ko started his missionary training in traditional mode joining the formation programme of the Mill Hill Missionaries in Haelen in 1957. He subsequently spent several years training as a missionary brother, but eventually decided to follow a teacher training course with a view to building an independent career.
Then something utterly surprising happened.
In response to Vatican II’s call for renewal the Mill Hill Missionaries convened what would turn out to be a game changing renewal Chapter.
One of the outcomes of the Chapter was the decision to start up a programme for lay missionary associates, first called ‘contract members’.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Ko, since he was at a crossroads in his missionary calling.
He immediately applied to join the lay associate programme and started training in London in September 1971 joining the short missionary preparation course of the VMM. After a brief spell in Freshfield to brush up on his knowledge of mathematical terminology he was ready to be missioned. It was January 1972.
His first appointment – to Pakistan – fell through because the country descended into a bitter war with India just then.
India seemed a good alternative, but there too things did not work out.
So it happened that on January 19th 1972 Ko signed his first three year contract to go and work as a lay missionary contract member/associate teaching at Nagongera Minor Seminary in Uganda. He would – with a brief interruption – complete a decade at Nagongera enjoying the company of i.a. Donal Harney, Hans Boerakker and Denis Kiwanuka who was later to become a bishop. Those were also the troubled years of dictator Idi Amin’s notorious reign of terror.
The change that followed was nothing if not radical: from the disciplined regularity of seminary life Ko took on the challenge of working as a building contractor-cum-development worker at Marigat, in a remote part of Kenya’s Kerio Valley.
“It’s been a really pleasant experience over the past fifty years to move from one field of involvement to another: from education to building, and from building to financial administration”.
Here’s the Marigat episode in a nutshell: building schools, chapels, dispensaries and cattle dips with a workforce numbering around 150 and Brother Jan de Groot as a much appreciated companion.
“Finding time to build three churches in distant Bomet in between all the varied construction activities at Marigat felt like an interesting aside.”
In 1987 Ko was asked to up sticks and move to Soroti in Eastern Uganda where he got involved in urgent relief work. Those would become the most eventful and deeply troubling years of his missionary life. Eastern Uganda had descended into chaos with local insurrections like the one led by Alice Lakwena battling Yoweri Museveni’s regular army. A seemingly endless litany of unspeakable massacres, narrow escapes, daring personal interventions and constant threats – Ko shared his experiences with characteristic poise and calm.
“We lived in close proximity to the local people, spoke their language, heard their stories as we sat around the beer pot in the evening. This gave us a tremendous ability to size up situations and take calculated risks. I never thought of giving up and leaving. There was a feeling of deep solidarity and emotional support among the small Mill Hill contingent in the area. And I’m not one to linger on past traumatic events.”
Trauma-proof? Who is to say?
The years following the eventful sojourn in Eastern Ugandan almost feel like an appendix: financial administration at Interservice in Kampala, guest master in Nairobi and Kisumu combined with financial administration.
In 2020 Ko returned to The Netherlands to enjoy, so he thought, quiet years of retirement in Oosterbeek. But he was soon asked to serve as rector at St Jozefhuis and in characteristic Mill Hill Missionary style – ‘to love and to serve’ is our motto – he accepted.
Thus we are in the unique situation in The Netherlands of having a brother as regional superior and a lay associate as rector of St Jozefhuis.
We’ve come a long way.
Missionary disciples all.
Who would have it any other way!
Fons Eppink mhm