Port Harcourt, Nigeria — Service marks the action of religious sisters in almost all part of the world. Service, especially to the “least of my people,” validates the sisters’ vocation and reinforces their relevance in a church that limits women’s participation in significant decision-making positions.
Service given to residents of Compassion Center in Port Harcourt has greatly enriched the local community. A ministry of the Religious Sisters of Charity, the center aims to educate and rehabilitate each child according to his or her needs.
Until the last two decades, the sight of disabled persons in public places in Port Harcourt city was rare. I can recall seeing perhaps fewer than five disabled children during my elementary and high school years. Persons with disability were hardly seen outside their homes.
Views of disability have a strong cultural undertone. Many in this culture tend to associate physical disability with a curse or an act of a malevolent spirit. So some parents are ashamed of their progeny and hide their children away from the public eye, hence the term used here: “closet-child.”
Moreover, in a less industrialized society such as ours, food production requires individuals’ physical energy. In this regard, a physical handicap can be a major challenge to survival because economic or social advancement depends largely on mobility. The lack of public amenities like transportation makes getting around outside the home doubly difficult for physically challenged people. For the disabled child, therefore, life can be very hard. The plight of the so-called closet child allows one to truly appreciate the service the sisters render at Compassion Center.
The Religious Sisters of Charity through their ministry continue to reinterpret in a positive manner the cultural and social norms inimical to the advancement of a physically challenged child.
The sisters are making a difference in the life of each child who passes through the center. Every so often I attend Sunday Mass there and enjoy seeing the children read, serve and sing. It is clear that an outflow of compassion opens a chance in life for every child.
Sr. Chioma Ezeh, director of childcare services at the center, is clear about the sisters’ mission. In the spirit of their founder, Mother Mary Aikenhead, who made ministry to the poor the community’s priority, the sisters affirm each child and vulnerable adult as a gift from God, as well as acknowledge each person’s inherent right to life and bodily integrity.
The center has grown in the 20 years of its existence. Sr. Pauline Butler, one of its founders and the medical director, attributes the growth to a more informed knowledge on disability. Parents bring children themselves, and sometimes concerned persons bring children from remote villages. In recent times, young children who lost limbs or were maimed by the Boko Haram insurgence in northern Nigeria have come for rehabilitation. Generally, parents no longer feel ashamed of their disabled children. During the holidays, every child goes home.
Besides war, the causes of physical disabilities in this part of Africa vary. Most children at the center with physical disabilities have suffered from polio. Others come with congenital deformities, some even only able to get around by crawling on their hands and knees. Before long, however, the compassion of Christ greets them with, “Rise, pick up your mat and walk.” Miracles! Yes, by way of prayer, patience – but most especially – orthopedic surgeries.
Surgeries are performed to release a permanent shortening of tendons, which is called a contracture, to enable an affected child to sit properly, stand and walk. Over the years, more than 450 children have had the surgeries here. With physiotherapy and the aid of calipers and crutches, children learn to stand and to walk and become fairly independent. After surgeries and rehabilitation, children of elementary school age remain in the center to attend school while the older children return to their homes.
Formal education, a prized opportunity in this part of the world, has become available to the Least of my People through the center. All services given to the children are free. The sisters strive “to give to the poor what the rich can have for money.” Indeed, the center aims at meeting the holistic need of any child who comes through the doors.
A welcoming environment greets visitors. The well-manicured lawn and properly trimmed flowers enhance the serenity of the surroundings. The neatness of the dormitories and meeting spaces reinforces the sense of godliness that the compassion of Christ communicates. Of course, staff work to keep the place going. The three sisters, Ezeh, Butler and Sr. Ngozi Monye, with the help of 25 staff and volunteers, serve the 50 young residents.
Established primarily for the residents of Compassion Center, Santa Maria Catholic School is also open to neighborhood children. In an environment of friendliness and charity, students from the neighborhood interact lovingly with the disabled students. It is my belief that untold lessons of love, empathy and compassion are being taught at a young age.
Interactions at school help boost the confidence of the residents and also help children to appreciate persons who appear different from themselves. A child can learn patience, for example, through a regular giving of assistance to a physically challenged child.
Lessons learned become obvious during school events. During the 2014 Christmas party, for example, the happy mingling of children during the drumming, singing and dancing was very refreshing.
Residents of the center return home after graduating from elementary school, and many have gone on to higher education. Academic scholarships from individuals and businesses in the city continue to support former residents. Some of them have become engineers, accountants, lawyers and computer scientists; one past student is presently studying medicine.
The Sisters of Charity continue to increase my sensitivity to the less fortunate. Their tenacious clinging to charity resonates with the insights of Chinua Achebe: “While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary” (Anthills of the Savannah). The sisters’ attention to the disabled testifies to the compassion of Christ, a concern that sets people free. Indeed this same compassion is at the heart of the service religious sisters render in most part of our world – Rise, pick up your mat and walk, go have a good life.
[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]