Maryknoll Lay Missioner couple from California bring their professional skills and life experience to the poor of Tanzania.
Story and photos by Sean Spague
I never thought I’d be doing what I do,” says George Otte, a civil engineer specializing in water management who worked for 34 years for consulting engineering firms before becoming a Maryknoll lay missioner. Now living in Mwanza on the southern shore of Lake Victoria, Tanzania, with his wife and fellow lay missioner, Michele, he finds himself teaching physically handicapped children life skills such as carpentry and landscaping. “It’s what God asked me to do,” he says simply.
Michele, who works as a teacher offering supplementary education to AIDS orphans and children with HIV, says, “In many ways my entire life prepared me for my work in Tanzania.” After
the Ottes’ two children were in school, Michele earned her teaching certification and worked as director of religious education at St. Raymond parish in the couple’s hometown of
Menlo Park, Calif. Her education as a Slavic language major, she discovered, has provided the linguistic foundation for her learning Swahili, Tanzania’s national language.
The Ottes were drawn to overseas mission through Maryknoll Father John Soltis, with whom they presented Marriage Encounter weekends in their younger years. In their 60s, the
Ottes gave up their U.S. careers to join the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 2009. After considering missions in Asia and Latin America, the couple opted for Mwanza, Tanzania. “Swahili
is not as difficult as some tonal, Asian languages,” Michele says. “The climate is similar to summer in the San Francisco area, so we feel comfortable here.” Situated at close to
3,000 feet above sea level, Mwanza has a temperate climate, despite its proximity to the equator. Although the second largest city in Tanzania, much of it has a rural feel, with a
landscape of granite boulders leading down to the vast inland sea of Lake Victoria. The idyllic impression is offset by the extreme poverty of the region and disabilities caused by
diseases such as malaria, bilharzia and HIV.
George describes what an eye-opener it was to leave the comforts of home and come halfway around the world: “Although we have a four-wheel drive vehicle, it is barely able to
manage some of the roads around here. Doing our work with limited facilities is also a challenge” George works at the Huruma (Mercy) School, started by Maryknoll Lay Missioner
Bertha Haas. The school offers about 50 physically disabled children a standard education and daily healthy lunch. George has developed a vocational training program in carpentry, landscaping and sewing. “I do everything,” George says, “including the construction of lockable cabinets to contain the carpentry tools.”
Recently he also took on the role of project manager for the Mwanza Archdiocese’s Caritas office, a branch of the international Catholic relief agency. He is investigating cost-effective ways to optimize rainwater collection from roof drains and to use alternative methods for pumping, such as solar-electric systems and windmills.
Michele is on a staff of three U.S. missioners and four Tanzanians at the Uzima (Wellness) Centre, ministering to people affected by HIV/AIDS. The center was started by Maryknoll Lay Missioner Joanne Miya and currently serves 150 AIDS orphans, and 300 adults and 35 children living with HIV. Michele works primarily as a teacher for school-age children who come for extra tutoring after
school. She explains that the founding idea for Uzima was not to separate children affected by AIDS from society, but to encourage them to live normal lives, stay with relatives and go to local schools.
About 12 youngsters come every day and enjoy the lessons, which are partly recreational. They also learn English to prepare them for secondary school, where English is the teaching medium. For younger children, there is also an emphasis on drawing and coloring to develop their fine motor skills.
Michele says that, thanks to antiretroviral drugs, people with HIV can live almost normal lives but adds that HIV-positive rates are still very high in Tanzania, where it is difficult for girls to refuse sexual advances from young men. “In this society a typical girl is expected to do as she is told,” Michele says. “There is minimal or no sex education taught in the local schools or at home.” Uzima tries to make up for this deficit.
Together George and Michele recently started a marriage enrichment program in their parish. They try to share their life stories in a way that is meaningful to the Tanzanian culture. Recently they shared an incident where George needed to ask forgiveness for his anger at misunderstanding something Michele did. “Our hearts were broken when one of the women said if she were in that situation, she would have been beaten, divorced or both,” says Michele. She and George know they are planting small seeds for change that will probably not happen in their lifetime. But with their strong convictions and deep faith, they are comfortable in the knowledge they are doing what God intended them to do at this time in their lives.
For more information on becoming a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, contact Joe Regotti at 1-800-818-5276, ext.122