April 27-May 3,2006
VOL 125 NO. 16
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) submitted
Brother Peter Daino, SM, Leapt into an African Adventure 18 years ago
Brother Peter Daino, SM, didn’t so much find his calling, his calling found him. After graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Daino set out for California. While wandering across the U.S., he had the misfortune of running out of money. But that run of bad luck or bad planning quickly transmuted into good fortune when he happened upon the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
In that same Trappist monastery that had once sheltered Thomas Merton, Brother Peter began a journey that would always take him back. “Maybe that’s why I keep going back to monasteries. Good things keep happening to me in them,” he said. It also introduced him to a figure that would change his life. While sitting in a guest area at the monastery, another wanderer happened upon him. The man offered Peter a book. It was The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day. “I discovered this other kind of Catholicism,” Brother Peter said. “I was moved by the spirituality of Dorothy Day, which was actually very Benedictine.”
It wasn’t that he was new to the faith. Daino had grown up Catholic, attending Christ the King Church in Endwell and Seton Catholic High School in Endicott. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul planted the seed in Brother Peter by virtue of their presence and impact in his high school.
But Day’s works introduced Daino to a world of faith in action. After The Long Loneliness, Daino began reading about the deeds of people who would become his Catholic Worker heroes as well as other books. Daino found Peter Kropotkin, Emmanuel Mournier and Peter Maurin to be compelling figures.
The example of Dorothy Day inspired Daino to return to the northeast where he applied for work in the Bowery alongside Day. While living and working with the Catholic Worker community in New York City, Daino registered as a conscientious objector. He also began reading about the Peace Corps and that organization’s activities in Africa. “I wanted to serve my country and the world,” Brother Peter said.
After receiving counsel from Christ the King’s then pastor Father Leonard Fries, Daino determined that he would join the Peace Corps. Initially, he was sent to Niger in West Africa where he served as an English teacher. While in Africa, Daino gradually became frustrated with the limitations inherent in his position as an English teacher. During his first stay, Niger was immersed in the Sahel drought, which killed roughly one million people and afflicted 50 million. Brother Peter remembers that people were constantly coming to his house in search of food.
He also recalls, however, at least one triumphant experience. On that particular occasion a woman stopped at his house with a child. The infant was obviously malnourished and she asked Daino if he had any milk. He offered the one liter of goat’s milk that he had on hand. The woman persisted in coming by Daino’s house in search of milk and gradually it became apparent that the child was getting stronger and that his chances of survival were increasing on a daily basis.
Brother Peter puts a great deal of stock in names and he was moved by the fact that the mother’s name was Maramu (Mary) and the child’s name was Issa (Jesus). He also considers it significant that the mother and child arrived during the Christmas season. But such tales were few and far between. Finally, Daino found himself petitioning God for answers. “I knelt down and I got the answer to the prayer, ‘Where is God?’“ he said. “I saw that this [Africa] is God and this is where I’m going to meet God with his people and his children.”
Soon, Daino would meet Marianist Brother Don Geiger in Niame, the capital of Niger. The brothers in Africa were, through the University of Dayton, working on a project to help arrest the spread of the Sahara. Daino fell in with the brothers and was soon called to join them, entering the novitiate in 1980.
“I fell in love with the brothers’ religious community,” he said. Following his second year in the order, Brother Peter returned to Africa, this time to Kenya. Brother Peter remembers waiting in his hotel room before returning to Africa and staring at the phone. He remembers fearing the return and how easy it would be to dial his parents’ phone number and ask them to come pick him up. “I started conceding to thoughts of defeat,” he said. But he also remembered the book that his mother read to him as a child, The Little Engine That Could. Emboldened by the engine’s mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” Brother Peter went to bed that night and got on the plane the next day. He spent 18 years in the arid East African country.
“Stepping on African soil this thrill went through me. ‘I’m actually doing this,’” he said. “When that happens, you’re walking with the ‘Mission Angel.’” Brother Peter explained that the “Mission Angel” is similar to a genius or muse, which infuses one with inspiration. Brother Peter recently returned to Central New York to visit his father and his hometown. While he was there he went to several Southern Tier parishes and also Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton. When speaking to young people, he offered them a quote from Henry David Thoreau that had inspired him. “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined,” Thoreau wrote. “I’m following that genius, that force. If you don’t follow that, it dries up,” Brother Peter said. He also relayed to the youths the advice a Masai chief gives his hunters before embarking after their prey. “In your life you will come to a very deep chasm….The jump is not as far as you think,” the chief tells his hunters. “We don’t say that enough to young people. We don’t tell them to jump, to get involved in something bigger than them,” Brother Peter said.
In 1999, Brother Peter leapt over that chasm, arriving in Malawi, a small country in southern Africa bordered by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. Brother Peter is based in Karonga in the northern tip of the country. Orphans dominate the villages there. In Africa, AIDS has taken the parents from nine million children. In Malawi, 49 percent of the children are parentless. Brother Peter has been involved in numerous organizations seeking to solve the problems of the people of Karonga. Most notably, he has been instrumental in M.I.R.A.C.L.E., Marianist Institute of Rural Artisans for Christian Life Education. M.I.R.A.C.L.E. was started on the site of Chaminade Secondary School. It is a two-year technical school for dropouts who have lost their parents due to the AIDS epidemic. The students are taught tailoring, carpentry, hotel service and electrical installation. Each student is required to commit time to agriculture as well. After a six-month apprenticeship, each student is presented with his or her own toolkit. Tailors receive one sewing machine, an iron, shears and 200 yards of cloth. Each toolkit costs $200.
The brothers in Karonga work in tandem with the small, African order the Rosarian Sisters, led by Sister Beatrice Chipeta, whom Brother Peter describes as “The Mother Teresa of Malawi.” More recently, Brother Peter addressed the issue of mosquito nets with students and parishioners in the Binghamton area. Mosquitoes are a primary cause of malaria in Africa. While AIDS has exacted a heavy toll on Africans, malaria accounts for three million deaths per year in Malawi and simple mosquito nets would be an effective deterrent, according to Brother Peter. Currently, Brother Peter is in the midst of a spiritual renewal exercise at a Benedictine monastery north of Poughkeepsie called Holy Cross. The exercise, called “lectio divina” (divine reading), is a meditative reading of Sacred Scripture leading to prayer. Brother Peter believes the solitude of the exercise conforms to his personality. “I’m more of an introvert so it’s a more effective spiritual renewal,” he said. “It emphasizes solitude. You commune with the word of God in your soul.”
In June, July and August, Brother Peter will travel throughout the Syracuse Diocese speaking to parishes on behalf of the projects he is involved with in Karonga.
Those wishing to donate to M.I.R.A.C.L.E. should make checks payable to Marianists of America; c/o Father Dave Paul, SM, 4425 West Pine Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108-2301. The telephone number is (314) 533-1207.