By Amy Fendley
Worried about the cold Canadian winters he had heard so much about, Father Dominick Ekpete Mbah arrived in Whistler Jan. 28, 1999 in the midst of the heaviest snowstorm any unsuspecting, disbelieving African could hope for.
Mbah’s life was turned upside down two years ago, when he tragically lost his best friend and brother priest in a fatal car collision in Malawi.
In need of a vacation, Mbah’s rosary maker, e-mail correspondent, friend and a Whistler caterer, Lea Braden, and Our Lady of The Mountains’ Father Joe Dahlem helped him co-ordinate a trip to Canada.
"I had not seen a storm like it in a very long time," says Braden. "It was good fun to watch the incredulity on his face and his wide eyes as we sat stopped in the traffic on the highway to Whistler watching the snow, white and beautiful, slowly covering everything in sight. I was glad that Father Dom came to Canada to see it at it’s wildest and best."
Mbah, 35, was born into a family of five children in Nigeria’s Cross River State in the village of Ogaja. There were difficulties during his birth, and it was virtually certain that his mother, Ester would need an operation to deliver. She dreaded this and prayed fervently for the safe delivery of her child.
Miraculously she gave birth without an operation. To express her thanks she called her son Ekpete, meaning; a prayer to God.
Each evening the people of the village would together recite the rosary. From the age of five, Ekpete developed a love for the rosary and a devotion to the Mother of God. Today he teaches and promotes the rosary among his people in Malawi where 15 decades are prayed daily.
Mbah was ordained a priest in 1991, and in 1995 was sent as a missionary priest to Malawi in Central Africa. He was to start a parish there in the middle of the bush. He learned the culture of the Timbukas and through definite, unforgiving immersion learned their language. Within a year he was fluent in the Timbukas’ language. He constructed a parish house, a chapel, and a community hall. He gave the village the name of Bowe, the name of a nearby river. He became so much an integral part of the area of Kasungu, which spans over 400 kilometres, that the people cannot ever remember him being a foreigner.
Mbah travels daily over many kilometres of road, sometimes by motorcycle to minister to his people, a congregation of 20,000 at 38 outstation parishes. Last year he prepared, and with the help of a bishop, confirmed 370 people. In his spare time Mbah and an engineer from Toronto, hand-built a dam. This year he will prepare 700 couples for a mass wedding.
Fate brought Mbah from Malawi to Whistler the same week that Pemberton’s Fr. Patrick Skaria suffered a heart attack and was made to rest for six weeks. Mbah filled-in for Skaria while he recovered.
But the short time that Mbah spent in Whistler and Pemberton was enough to provide inspiration and a sort of missionary spark, which has since spread to become a much larger goal with a very real purpose, for some big-hearted locals.
"The people in Mount Currie loved him... he was shocked that we all have electric stoves," said Patti-Jean Lima, the principal of three Montessori schools, in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton. "As thanks, what we’d like to give back to him, for the people of Malawi, are the materials needed to start a Montessori school there."
Mbah is back in Africa, and now it’s Braden’s turn, "her calling," with the help of Lima, Dahlem, and others to help Mbah establish a school of Montessori philosophy in Malawi. Mbah felt the Montessori method would be a good way of teaching Malawi’s children.
Montessori is an international teaching method, aimed at pre-school age children, encompassing all areas of practical, natural life. The Montessori method teaches math, geometry, botany, zoology, and phonetically-based English using letters of the alphabet to stimulate the touch, see and sound senses.
"We could send clothes or money, but those are band-aids," says Braden, who leaves for Africa in August. "If a child’s curiosity is piqued to learn, they want more and more. Instead of being idle, children will become the architects of their learning.
"What we need to do first is to have mothers embrace the idea of a school," Braden explains. "It won’t be a building or an institution, not yet, it will begin in the home."
Maria Montessori, the first female doctor in Italy, founded the teaching method, which she used to help mentally handicapped children in Rome learn.
The results of her early experiments inspired Montessori to continue her work on a much broader basis. Montessori reasoned that if handicapped children working with carefully structured materials could achieve a standard approaching the national average, then other children working with the same material could reach an even higher academic standard.
In 1907 she opened her first school in the slums of San Lorenzo, and began publishing books and giving lectures.
"It’s a foundation for learning that children can use throughout the rest of their lives," says Lima. "The methods comprise an international curriculum and the lessons are the same wherever Montessori is taught. The teacher is an observer and a facilitator of the learning process, provides a link to the environment, seeing what a child needs, providing it for them and then backing off to let the child learn."
While Montessori was a religious Catholic, Lima says that religion has since been dissolved from the curriculum, which maintains its roots in science. However, the stimulus, or learning apparatus, is the environment.
Where the teaching gets controversial and misunderstood is in dealing with a child’s imagination. Montessori teaches that impulse, intellect and action should be streamed into one, but also establishes boundaries early on in order to give children what they need "to feel intact inside," as a way to train spirit as well as intellect.
Montessori wrote: "Untimely introduction of make-belief may expose the child to other dangers. Imaginary fears (of witches and giants, etc.) may be set up, the influence of which may persist, subconsciously, to a much later age."
Instead, Montessori encouraged developing the imagination to its best advantage. Imagination, as the name implies, is about images and images are the basis of the Montessori teaching method.
For those interested in learning more about the Montessori’s methods and her first works, Lima will be offering a series of Monday night seminars beginning in August at Our Lady of the Mountains Community Centre. All donations given towards the seminars will be forwarded to the Malawi Montessori school project.