Death confirms one blood! Father Walter Senner OP, Juri Kononenko and Patson Dzamara

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By Nomazulu Thata   

Within two months I lost people who were significant to me in various ways and dimensions:  two of which I attended their funerals personally. The funeral of Patson Dzamara was easy to follow online. I listened to high powered speeches given in his honour that were moving indeed.

The significance of Patson’s death was for many reasons the disappearance of his brother Itai that remained vivid in my mind, it was not Patson I was mourning but his brother Itai Dzamara.

It never escaped in me speculating on how he could have met his death, knowing the Zanu killing methods right from the war of liberation, the Gukurahundi atrocities, the farm invasions, the killings in 2008 elections and the recent deaths of citizens who were gunned down just for being at the wrong place and time.

Father Professor Doctor Walter Senner OP died on the third of July, sadly the month he was born. For some time, I had lived with the fact that he was going to die soon because he was terminally ill. Father Frano at the Dominican Convent kept us informed about his illness and he prepared us for what was to come: his passing-on was expected.

Father Walter was so dear to me, he was indeed a father to me in many aspect of my personal and academic development. I could not help but collapse. I was in denial, he dies at the age on 71, surely could have lived a lot longer than that; but those were my wishes. God and the Universe have other plans for him hidden from my present consciousness.

How I got to know Father Walter: I left East German for West Berlin to embark on a master’s degree in engineering metallurgy at the Technical University of Berlin-West. There was an active Catholic Students Organisation that Father Walter was Pastor. His charisma was the pull to attend his weekly Saturday evening service for students.

I was active and I found the Catholic Students Organisation a home, a home for all of us who were foreigner students. The challenges of studying in Berlin was where Father Walter passionately assisted most.

Students completion of academics was his mark: He could do anything in his power to assist foreign students to finish their academic education because he believed that education was what will uplift emerging countries from underdevelopment.

Right in the middle of my examinations in 1987, I got pregnant! One of the things I did was to avoid going to church altogether, never meet Catholic students, I was uncomfortable about my pregnancy that shocked many Catholic students who knew me well. This was because I displayed puritan Catholic values that I never lived up to.

I was going to embarrass myself to have to explain my pregnancy out of wedlock. I missed three consecutive church services: something I have never done.

Father Walter looked for me, came to my hostel and told me to make an appointment, see him and we talk about the way forward- an action plan “Please do not be ashamed of your pregnancy, the Catholic Church will assist you. You will complete your studies with the assistance of the Catholic scholarship. Those were comforting words coming from a father. He was a Catholic Father, also a qualified psychologist comforting me. I got the Catholic scholarship from the Catholic Academic Exchange Program and I was sure I was going to complete my studies on time.

On two separate occasions, the Catholic church assisted me in acquiring my education: In Zambia when I was admitted at Roma Catholic Secondary School in 1974. I had outgrown the age limit of secondary education.

The Sisters of Charity were devoted to girl-education and for this reason, I was given the chance to learn. I completed my secondary education that gave me the privilege to get a Zapu scholarship to study in East Germany.

My son was three months when he was baptised by Father Walter. I remember his effort to click my son’s Zulu name: Nqobizitha. Each time he tried to say Nqo; the congregation giggled unendingly. He has never really managed to click but because second my son has a second name; it was preferable for him to use his name Chandichada.

Father Walter remained a pillar of hope to me, my son, and many other students in Berlin: Germans and foreigners alike. Talking about his intellectual acumen is not possible summarise in one paragraph. We learnt the regime of hard work from him. You were okay with him if you showed signs of diligence and critical thinking and hard work, no less.

We students learnt values that are beneficiary in our lives today. Father Walter was correct and upright. I am sure all students during our time will concur this about him. He set high values and principles that we learnt to appreciate.

It could be uncomfortable in his presence if one acted silly for whatever reason: students can be sometimes. He thought loudly that a university student is unique and wholly intelligent to disseminate high values and appropriate thought processes. Indeed Father Walter was a noble man.

Father Walter was a student at the University College of London. He studied Philosophy: completed his doctorate in 1989, left Berlin for Tauonia in Italy: he became a Moderator, and then after, subsequently serving in several academic positions in Catholic institutions both in Italy and Germany interchangeably.

Between 2006 and 2019 Father Walter was Professor at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome: He taught Philosophy: In Germany he was founder member of several academic foundations and institutions.

It was a great privilege to me to be part of the Requiem and burial that took place on the 13th of April. I had to go to Mainz to give my last respect to a person I admired with all my heart. Father Walter was unique in many ways: He was very firm too and kind at the same time. The most vivid events that came to my mind when I learnt of his death is how he picked a Telephone and he called my sister in Bulawayo to release my son Nqobizitha.

I had sent my son home in 1989 when he was about 11 months so that I can repeat the subjects I missed during pregnancy. I did not have enough money to send my sister for the upkeep of my son in her care. Because of misunderstandings, I had arranged that my son should come back to Germany to remove constant pressure of financial demands I could barely meet with a merger stipend. But because I had not paid, I was told my son will not come until those demands, those financial obligations were met. This is when Father Walter chipped in to put down blackmail; told my sister to release my son Nqobizitha at once. She did. My son came back within a week. I had not written a single exam, taking advantage of my son’s absence. What was the purpose of sending him home to Bulawayo?

Father Walter’s burial service was remarkable; The corona era meant only those selected few will attend his send off. I had expected a spacious coffin for an eminent person of his calibre: Father Walter Senner OP, a Professor in a prestigious university. Even the Requiem followed conditions of corona guidelines. I was humbled, Father Walter was buried in Mainz Forest Cemetery: I had thought his status in the Catholic church will afford him a place in one of the Catholic Cemeteries. Knowing Father Walter well, he must have given his wishes to be rested in the Forest Cemetery. On the way to his grave, the mood brought me to my African roots. These “Wald Friedhoff” as they are called here in Germany have no order or lined up graves unless if it was a family, they will be done side-by-side according to the wishes of the dead. Sure, I will give orders to my son to be buried in the forest cemetery too, the best thing I will cherish post humus.

Father Walter’s Requiem and burial removed all my fears about death. The prism in which I view death changed that day. I came back full of admiration and indeed enjoyed the privilege to be part of the selected to personally give last respect a man I called Father, not only in the Catholic sense, but somehow my convoluted ups and downs of life solidified my relationship with Father Walter: in him I saw a Father I did not have. My academic success was his intervention I am deeply thankful about.

I was slowly recovering from the death of Father Walter when I heard my neighbour crying bitterly early in the morning, exactly eight days ago. Juri Kononenko wept for his son, also called Juri, who had died mysteriously: he died in his sleep, was declared dead by the doctor who came to attend to him. It is exceedingly rare in Germany that you hear people crying loud because of the death of relative. I knew the young man vaguely; he came to see his parents, but his children are the ones I was used to; they came to see the grandparents often.

Again his sudden death caused the parents of the young man so much grief: but to me it was obvious that the pain they are going through made me grieve together with them and be present at the funeral to share their loss, less on the death itself because I did not know their son well. There is nothing painful in life as to see a parents grieving for a dead child. Almost all parents fear a situation where he or she will have to bury a child: we all think and wish our children will bury us: naturally so. Life was meant that way, that we die first: the children bury their parents. But because these choices are not for us to make them, we are to accept what God suggest to us as the right thing.

Again this burial was remarkable to me: his coffin was humble, not spacious just as it was at Father Walter’s funeral. Juri Kononenko was named after his father; may not have been a Christian, but he believed in the existence of the universe where all living things return to get another form of consciousness. His Requiem confirmed this, the reference to the Universe and that he has taken another form of consciousness impressed me deeply. Somehow, I came to realise that be it you are Christian or Buddha or any other form of religious belief, religions and whatever one believes in is right, good, and correct. If someone declared or proclaimed him/herself an atheist, it is also right, good, and correct.

These three deaths all within two months have made me realize how connected we are as people of this earth considering, race, tribe, culture, religion, and many aspect that defines others as otherings: We are one blood; we are one people. Human race shares a lot more in common than what divides us. My relationship with Father Walter transcended to a brotherly and sisterly kind of interaction. We have shared lots of laughter and sorrows together. I will remember him as a servant of God who fulfilled his Catholic duties that served humankind until his last breath.

My neighbours: the Kononenko’s are loving neighbours, we have lived mutually awfully close together. There is an unexplained respect we give one another that makes us dependent on each other: purely at human level. They are of Russian origin, but so many aspects of their culture will connect to my own African roots remarkably. My emotional connection to Itai and Patson Dzamara stems from the fact that I am a mother and I question myself and wonder how the mother to Itai Dzamara feels? She has lost two sons, one of whose death is not explained nobody knows what happened to him. If we live, such questions will still insist, how did Itai Dzamara meet his death?