Even though the letters of this name suggest the wider meaning of “Jesuits of Africa and Madagascar”, JESAM really stands for “Jesuit Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar”.
The first meeting of the Conference took place in Lusaka in 1970.
At the time, the many Jesuits working in Africa felt that they were all facing similar problems, and that all could learn from the way these problems were being dealt with in other parts of the continent.
Originally, Jesuits in Africa had come from various parts of the world; they were all inspired by Ignatian spirituality, but the different regions had very little contact with one another.
Initially, JESAM members only met once a year, with the role of secretary permanently taken up by one Jesuit assigned to this task, in addition to his other full-time assignments.
The meetings provided a platform to discuss common problems, which several provinces had encountered.
One major issue was the formation of young Jesuits: it was thought that to bring them together would strengthen them in their common vocation, and help them to become more aware of its universal dimension. This was, and still is, a major concern of JESAM.
Under its aegis, three common Houses of Formation have been established, in Nairobi, Harare and Abidjan. Other Institutes, established in Kinshasa and Antananarivo, have also welcomed staff or students from other parts of the continent.
Formation was not the only issue in which collaboration was sought: over the years no less than ten commissions have been established, to join forces, for example in education, social apostolate, or the apostleship of prayer.
Meetings are organized regularly, to exchange views, to share about the work done, to plan common activities, etc.
The Conference also plays an important representative role, to bring the problems of the Church and the Society in Africa to the attention of Jesuits elsewhere and, similarly, to make the universal apostolic priorities of the Society known in the continent.
Narrow provincialism has to be overcome, and wider perspectives opened, while at the same time, Jesuits have to remain close to the people they work with, and help them to overcome the many problems they face. This double effort has to be supported by appropriate institutions, which JESAM tries to establish or support.
JESAM remains a small body, with little decision-making power and a very small permanent staff. But, by bringing Jesuits from all over the continent together, it tries to strengthen their commitment and make their work more effective.
Contribution by Michel Istas SJ
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