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Priest Seeks to Integrate Western and African Healing Techniques


Father Apolinari J. Ngirwa says that when ministering to the sick, it is essential to preserve the humanity of those who are ill.
Photo by Gina Vergel

Sometimes you have to go a long way from home to get a Fordham education.

In the late 1990s, the Rev. Apolinari J. Ngirwa traveled 7,742 miles from his native Tanzania to earn a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE).

Nearly five years ago, he came back to further his studies.

Father Ngirwa, 46, will receive a doctor of ministry degree when he walks across the stage on the steps of Keating Hall. This fall, he will return to the Archdiocese of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, where he will continue his pastoral work armed with a wealth of knowledge.

In his dissertation, Father Ngirwa set out to learn how Western ways of heal­­ing could be blended with traditional African concepts of holistic healing.

“It was important for me to integrate the Western theoretical approach into my research,” he said. “I wanted to get input from people in the field to see how the Western approach could fit into an African model of healing.”

Before he returned to Fordham, Father Ngirwa worked with medical students and staff members at a center for HIV/AIDS patients operated by a program called “Caring for Those Who Care.”

In addition to tending to people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, the center provides services for 450 AIDS orphans. Father Ngirwa provided pastoral care and counseling not only to patients, but to staffers, who must keep up a brave face each day while battling a global pandemic.

“We monitor their psychological well-being,” he said. “Making sure they are OK isn’t something that can be found in a book. I rely on what I have learned at Fordham.”

During his doctoral studies, Father Ngirwa lived and worked at the Church of St. Monica on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and at Mount Sinai Hospital’s pastoral care division. Though someone might think those parishioners and patients are as different as the distance between continents, Father Ngirwa said otherwise.

“When we are sick we all retreat into our basic essentials. We all remember we are human, no matter where you come from,” he said. “We may have different ways of coping, but people have the same concerns—their families, their kids and what’s going to happen to them if something should happen.

“I have seen those dynamics in Tanzania, Europe and the United States,” Father Ngirwa said. “What I have learned is you must pay attention to the person. Don’t reduce the person to the disease.”

As he eventually settles back into his life in Tanzania, Father Ngirwa said he will remember his professors, including his mentor, Beverly A. Musgrave, Ph.D., and other professors who have deeply influenced his studies, including Lisa Cataldo, Ph.D., Kirk Bingaman, Ph.D., and John L. Elias, Ph.D.

In addition, he said he will miss GRE, the University as a whole, and New York City.

“At Fordham, I felt a familial touch. I felt connected not only to the books, but also a human touch,” he said.

“I love New York. It’s very dynamic, the people are friendly and it’s quick-paced,” Father Ngirwa said. “I will miss it. But as they say, there is no place like home.”


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