Although outlawed in the 1800s, slavery in Senegal still exists. Nearly 50,000 children as young as 3 still live in slavery conditions in Islamic schools called daaras, where spiritual guides, marabouts, teach them to read the Quran and speak Arabic.
The Senegal government has made some progress in shutting them down, according to a report from the U.S. State Department, but Islamic leaders and poor families who cannot care for their children resist, closing their eyes to the deplorable conditions in which the children live. Thirty to 40 children are crowded into poorly ventilated dormitories and sent out each morning to beg for food. Sometimes they are even sent to work in mines to earn money to keep the daaras going.
Efforts to end child slavery in Senegal began even before it was outlawed in Europe in the 1800s. Bishop Aloyse Kobès, a Spiritan from Alsace in France, was committed to building strong Christian families that were self-reliant and making sure children had both academic and practical education to free them from ignorance throughout Senegal.
He built a cotton-production factory and started a farm to teach food production and preservation. Needing help with this mission, he enlisted African women to work with him, founding the first religious congregation of women on the African continent in 1858*. The Daughters of the Holy Heart of Mary took on his mission to promote education and self-sufficiency, and they continue this mission today.
I met their current leader, Sr. Marie Diouf, in January on the day she was elected vice chairperson of the Confederation of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar (COMSAM), in Yaoundé, Cameroon. It was exciting for me to learn about her congregation and to experience the pride the sisters have in being the very first congregation of sisters founded on the African continent.
When I asked to interview Diouf, she referred me to her first councilor, Sr. Reine Marie Badiane, who lives in Senegal.
This interview, which was conducted via email, was moving, and the privilege to meet sisters from the first African congregation of women was exciting. The sisters' story reveals their determination to follow the lead of the unfailing power of the Holy Spirit that prevails amid the most difficult circumstances and setbacks. They planted a strong seed of religious life in Africa.
GSR: Sister Reine Marie, please tell me a little about yourself and your vocation to the Daughters.
Batiene: I was born in 1965, the oldest of four children. I was sickly, so my parents took me to a nearby dispensary of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary from France. I was so scared of them, but they were so kind to me that I wanted to be like them. It was from this experience that my desire to be a sister grew.
I went to primary school in my village and then to a house for girls aspiring to be sisters in the southern region of Casamance. Here, Canadian sisters formed girls like me for local congregations like ours. I went to secondary school with them, where I learned to like English. After three years, I did high school in Ziguinchor, the regional capital, and lived in a house of my congregation's for aspirants. After graduating, I went on to further religious life formation as a postulant and novice.
After religious profession in 1991, I was sent to study French, English and history for six years. Because I was good at English, I went to the University of Dakar, where I got a master's degree in English and a teaching diploma to teach high school. After that, I taught school, was in administration and was a general councilor for my congregation. I am now the assistant general superior and a school principal for a school with 2,145 students from primary to secondary levels. We do not have many sisters or funds, so we all need to work for salaries.
You have had a busy life. Please tell me about the beginnings of your congregation in Senegal.
We have an interesting story. We were founded as soon as slavery was abolished in Senegal. Monsignor Kobès was anxious to educate orphans and youth of all ages, and he had great concern for women. He thought an aboriginal congregation of sisters would be the best answer because these women were used to the climate and they knew the language and customs of the people. He said: "It was necessary that African nuns familiar with the languages and customs of the country, able to circulate and stay everywhere, would catechize people of their sex, visit and care for the sick, knowing how to put themselves at the level of the native woman, and to inspire confidence."
Did he do the formation of the first sisters?
No, we benefited from the gracious collaboration of a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, Mother Rosalie Chapellain. The Cluny sisters mentored us until the second half of the 20th century, when we took over for ourselves. But it was not easy for the first generations of our sisters. They suffered a lot but never gave up.
Tell me why they suffered.
They did not have much. Life was hard, and they were not much educated. They struggled, and at one time, they were almost forced to renounce their local congregation and join another one, but they were very determined to keep going. In our annals, they said, "We'd rather have died as Daughters of the Holy Heart of Mary than go to another congregation." We are very proud that our founder trusted black women and believed that they deserved religious life, too.
So they had a strong spirituality?
Yes. It meant a lot that the founder trusted them to be religious. They were very strong in their prayer life, love for God, a spirit of faith, and sense of sacrifice and mercy for the people. They had a strong devotion to Mary, and today, we try to be these same kind of daughters of Mary. We try to "accentuate love in our fraternal life, to embody the availability of Mary in our tasks and our daily lives. We want to stand close to the Heart of Mary, Calabash (sharing together) overflowing with love, tenderness and mercy" (Rule of Life, No. 7).
What about you? What is important to you about your charism and spirituality?
What I love about our charism is the dedication we have to help people claim their dignity, especially women and children, by communicating to them God's love through closeness to them, education and health care.
What I really love is our dedication to being rooted in the Gospel in our community and our commitment to make Jesus Christ better known and loved. Our spirituality calls us to imitate the virtues of Mary's heart: her unshakable faith, humility, gentleness, abandonment to the will of God and her silence in prayer, attention to the needs of others and Jesus' willingness to hear her request in Cana. I try to live these with my sisters and in my place of work.
Going back to the early sisters' faith and dedication, what were some of their challenges?
The sisters cared for orphans and women during long periods of war and great disease pandemics, even when they did not have much. We carry on these same works today. We teach catechetics; educate girls, women and children; care for the sick; and help families fight against poverty. We have had to adapt to new forms of apostolates, too: AIDS pandemic, migration, street children, trafficking. We address all kinds of poverty: moral, human, material, spiritual, psychological and intellectual.
Do you have institutions of your own, or do you work for the dioceses?
We continue the apostolates led by our elders. We have two nurseries, each with more than 20 babies and orphans. We have girls' homes for those families that cannot support their studies; we have our own schools, too, but our sisters also teach in diocesan schools. We also have women's promotion centers where we teach women and girls sewing and cooking. And we have dispensaries.
You have international missions, right?
Very much so. We have 269 sisters. The oldest is 84. Fifty percent of us are between 35 and 70 and, in formation, we have eight novices and six postulants. We are in Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Mauritania and France.
Those are all countries with many political challenges. Which countries are most challenging for your sisters?
Central African Republic, Chad and Niger are hardest because of political problems and wars. The sisters in those countries suffer a lot like our founding sisters because they have so little to sustain them. We are also in Mauritania, where we have a health center, nursery school and library. We do not teach religion because it is an Islamic state.
What has been the experience in France?
Although we do work with a large African community, it has also been challenging for us because for many religion has lost its place. In the beginning, the sisters were not trusted to do the parish work. They were often victims of racist behavior. They sometimes feel scorned, but they also meet people who are fairly open to them and appreciate their presence and work. Some people are really hungry for religion and to see consecrated people.
What do you want us in the West to know about your congregation?
We are very proud of being missionaries in Europe. And we are well-qualified for our work, wherever we are. We are proud of our sisters who are doctors, teachers and social workers. Many of us have high-level degrees and hold important roles in institutions. It is a joy for us to be in mission anywhere in the world where we are called.
*An earlier version of this Q&A gave the incorrect year.
[Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]