Q & A with Sr. Virginia McCall

Villagers working their common field together. (Virginia McCall)

Sr. Virginia McCall, a Presentation Sister from Aberdeen, S.D., serves in Kaoma, in Zambia’s western province. The focus of her ministry is to empower people. 

How is that focus embodied in your projects – Nano Farm, Nagle Center, micro-financing and education?

Nano Farm is located on the Luena River at the edge of Kaoma. Because of three natural springs on the property, we opened six fishponds, each containing over 1,000 fish. Proceeds from the farm and fishponds are used to pay expenses. Profits will be used to continue assisting the poor in becoming self-sustainable.

Since the land was purchased in 2008, Nano Farm has developed into a model farm. It includes ducks, chickens, cows and a variety of fruit trees. We also grow sorghum, millet, soya and sunflowers, which are used to make feed for the chickens and ducks. We conduct workshops, primarily for women, on earth-friendly methods of farming and on rearing chickens. A local college brings students to teach them how to construct fish ponds and care for the fish. The provincial agricultural department has made a documentary on our fishponds, which was aired on national TV.

On the property, we have 11 cows with four calves to supply manure for making compost for our own use and also, when needed, for those who participate in our educational programs.

We are presently in the process of constructing an integrated farming and spirituality center from where we can offer workshops and house staff to oversee the work of the farm.  Seeing what we are able to produce on an acre of land, inspires participants to do the same with their small pieces of land.  One of our goals is to eradicate dependence on timber. We plan to teach people how to produce bio-gas for cooking through the use of manure.

Nagle Center is our tailoring project, which began in 2009. Originally, we sponsored three women to attend an 18-month tailoring course. When completed, we hired them to make school uniforms for the poor, outlying areas. In addition, we are now making curtains, sheets, bedspreads, shirts, dresses and school sweaters. Not only do these items provide a service to people in the Kaoma area, but also the project provides an income for six people who otherwise would have no employment. 

Micro-financing: Since 2009, the Redmond Loan Fund has provided $100 loans to nearly 1,000 women to begin or to expand a small business. Our purpose is to assist them in becoming self-sustaining. We’ve learned from experience not to give loans to individuals. The women need the support of others, so we now have them organize themselves into groups of 10 members, meeting together at least twice a month. This way they are responsible to one another.

Before receiving a loan, the women must participate in a business skills workshop, which we conduct. In follow-up sessions with women, we learned that much of the loan money they received was used to become members of a farm co-op where they could purchase chemical fertilizer. For this reason, we have added the requirement of participating in a workshop on care of the earth and the use of compost. This is held at Nano Farm, where they can actually make compost together and see the results we have had with our crops by using only natural fertilizer. Through this experience, we hope to change some of their farming practices to insure a better yield as well as caring for the earth.

Education: The majority of families, especially those from the bush, are unable to afford a high school education for their children. They depend on sponsorship from various sources. We have sponsored about 30 students to the completion of grade 12 and are presently assisting five young men and women in college, pursuing degrees in teaching and in nursing.

Demonstration farming, Zambia, 2008. (Virginia McCall)

How do you approach your work?

In 2007, I spent six weeks of my sabbatical in Zambia with the Presentation Sisters. I saw such poverty here that I asked if I could return. Six months later, I began my ministry in Kaoma, Zambia, by working with home-based care, which offers spiritual, psychological and medical assistance primarily to persons with HIV/AIDS. Projects which we developed were in response to expressed needs of the people.

Three scripture passages form the basis of my ministry.

The sower went out to sow his seed. (Lk 8:5)

Deep within me I felt a call to return to Zambia after the sabbatical, which I resisted. At the time I was 72 years old, and I told myself, ‘I am too old.’ Just then someone in the group where I was praying shared a prayer about the sower who went out to plant seed. I thought, ‘Yes, I can come to Zambia and plant some seeds. If it is God’s work, there will be someone else who will come after me.’ I had no idea what I would do in Zambia, but it was this experience that confirmed for me that I must return. As things turned out, Sr. Inez Fernandez, a Presentation Sister who had worked in Zambia for 25 years, joined me in 2010. She is in charge of all the farming and will continue all the projects when I am no longer able.

Sr. Virginia McCall (Courtesy of Presentation Sisters)

I have come, that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (Jn 10:10)

He has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those that are bruised. (Lk 4: 18)

Throughout most of my religious life, these passages haves been the guiding force behind each ministry in which I have been involved . . . parish ministry with people who were hurting, ministry with separated and divorced persons and in leadership in my congregation. My focus has always been to ‘call others to life,’ whatever that might be in their given situation. In Zambia, this call to life has primarily been a call to self-sustainability.

What has been the most satisfying?

Experiencing some of the Zambian values such as: relationships have priority over everything else; a deep sense of God’s presence among them; and out of the little they have, they give to others

Also seeing the quality of life change for many. Just a little support makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives: listening to the people’s success stories; the generosity of the people to volunteer their services; those Zambian men and women who have some generously worked with me to carry out our projects, which I could never have done without them.

What has been the most challenging?

Letting go of my expectations; the lack of resources; and communication and miscommunication – although English is the official language of Zambia, the majority of the poor do not speak English. Those who do speak English do not always understand, resulting in miscommunication.

Other challenges: the heat throughout most of the year and the difficulty working through all the government ‘red tape’

The cultural differences are challenging. People want to please – from local government officials to the ordinary person – so they tend to say ‘yes,’ when they are not able to follow through with what they have agreed to do.

How do you see God working in your world?

God is very present in the world in which I work. I see God in the smiles and laughter of the people, regardless of how little they have. People have a deep faith and are very conscious of God’s presence. I see God as I listen to their stories and every time we meet with a group. They always begin with prayer, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Is there something else you would like to tell readers?

I see so many children who cannot afford to attend school, though the government claims to have free education. I see hospitals under-staffed or staff not taking responsibility for their work: patients in cockroach-infested rooms; surgery performed in candlelight at night when there is no electricity because they cannot afford to purchase fuel for a generator that sits idle, and records lost by public officials.

I find all of this most frustrating and appalling. I told one government official that he needed a computer because all of his records were in piles throughout the room. His reply was, “We need many computers but we are a poor country.”

I don’t believe all of this is so much because of the country is poor, but rather because of the high degree of corruption on every level, even among the clergy.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by email and edited for clarity and length. More photos of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary's Kaoma Sustainability Project are on their website.

[Sr. Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison to women religious for Global Sisters Report.]

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