That they may be one: Diversity within the communities of Catholic sisters in Nigeria

by Eucharia Madueke


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Today diversity is an indispensable component when discussing interpersonal relationships. It is often talked about but difficult to live out, no matter where we come from. Diversity is frequently on the lips of every Nigerian, given that the nation is a remarkable gathering of very complex and diverse ethnic groups; embracing one another's uniqueness here can be difficult. Constructively engaging diversity in Nigeria and harnessing its potential for nation-building continues to pose a great challenge to most Nigerians regardless of social standing.

Women's religious communities in Nigeria typify diversity because their members, the sisters, come from diverse ethnic groups and are shaped by their varying cultural backgrounds and practices. Not embracing the diversity that each sister brings nor accepting the "otherness" of each sister has often resulted in tension, estrangement, anxiety, shame, confusion, and hopelessness in community, often leading to sisters experiencing inner conflict. Sisters in the majority and those with "expert power," such as Western missionaries, tend to ignore differences and create a mono-culture which everyone must follow, particularly in the areas of spiritual formation, food culture and language, and advance their ethnic /racial biases and prejudices.

To provide context for ways sisters handle issues of diversity in community, we first explore Nigerian plurality and how sisters understand and practice community living.

Nigerian plurality

Comprising more than 250 ethnic groups and 500 languages amalgamated in 1914 for the economic gains of its colonizer that pitted various ethnic groups against one another, Nigeria has been plagued since its independence in 1960 by ethnocentrism, making nation-building difficult. Its varying climate has created differences in food growing systems, affecting regional culinary practices. Since independence, the nation has consistently been divided along ethnic and cultural lines despite its policy of integration and of advancing unity and solidarity among its peoples.

Sisters and community living

Sisters in Nigeria generally believe that God called them to live in community, which they understand as living together under one roof. Leadership assigns individual sisters to their missions and communities with some dialogue and consultation, but the choices are largely determined by the needs of the congregation. Congregational assemblies set the direction for community living and ministries, while the implementation of assembly decisions is entrusted to the leadership. Most communities of sisters are largely diverse, and this continues to present a challenge to the practical application of community living.

Experience of diversity in spiritual tradition and practices

Prayer is central to community living in Nigeria, but sisters consistently struggle between the spirituality and religious practices brought from home and that of the religious communities they entered. This struggle has often led to the individual being ridiculed or labeled, leading to loss of self in order to embrace "the other."

I recall entering my religious community feeling confident in my own spiritual beliefs and practices, given my early Catholic formation from my devout Catholic parents and my well- informed Catholic school teachers. In the formation house, I expected to deepen my early spiritual formation that considers God my loving Father with whom I relate through devotional and vocal prayers. But in an attempt to help us grow out of our traditional spiritual and religious practices, my formators stopped the recitation of rosary and saying of devotional prayers as a group. The use of masculine lexicon in praying and singing was forbidden and praying the Divine Office was replaced with creative prayer. Vocal prayer was replaced by silent prayer of meditation. I felt confused and anxious when I was told that my former pattern of spirituality was shallow and outdated and my lack of adaptation meant I was not open to formation. Finding myself at a crossroads and not wanting to risk my vocation which I was convinced of, I adopted the new spirituality and practice, but I also felt conquered, leaving behind my early religious formation that made better sense for me.

Because of my formators' lack of tolerance of "otherness," I spent most of my formation years in constant struggling between seeing God as Mother or Father and between relating to God through creative, devotional, and vocal prayers. I welcomed my formators' efforts of introducing us to a non-patriarchal God with whom we could relate in a more personal way. However, a little tolerance of the "other" might have reduced the anxiety, apprehension, insecurity and fear that characterized my formation. In as much as I now practice the new spirituality learned in my religious formation, often I see myself going back to my early traditional religious practices that are now underdeveloped. I wish that I had had the opportunity in the formation house to explore my early spirituality and practice alongside the new; that may have saved me from dangling between the "traditional" and the "new."

Most communities of sisters in Nigeria continue to ignore the rich diversity of the spiritual traditions of sisters. A newly professed sister of an international community shared how community prayer has become unfulfilling and uninspiring. She lamented that community prayer has become a battle ground between the sisters who insist on the "old" and those who insist on the "new," instead of considering how each person can relate to God freely. As a young sister she acknowledged feeling anxious, confused and insecure in her relationship with God, with self and with other sisters in prayer.

Experience of diversity in food culture

Food is also a vital part of living together. Food brings sisters together, yet it produces tensions and conflicts when sisters are insensitive to others' food culture. Given Nigeria's varying climate and food growing conditions that yield different crops, culinary practices and consumption vary in different areas. For instance, hot spices and chili peppers are part of the daily diet in western Nigeria. In the east, fufu (cassava, corn and yam starch made into dough) and greens are widely consumed, while in the north grains are largely staples. Sisters from these areas enter communities, bringing these food cultures which often are not respected.

One sister from western Nigeria who was brought up in the east recounted that her community insisted that she cook and eat spicy food even though that was not part of her family food culture. She recalled being told by her superior that her inability to adapt to spicy food indicated a lack of vocation. Food became a cross for her to bear rather than enjoyment. Afraid that her superior would write a negative evaluation for her vows renewal, she was left to choose between eating spicy food or going hungry; she said she ate as her superior demanded.

Another sister, who felt that her community respected food diversity, revealed that this was because of their food policy which began in formation. Each sister was mandated in turn to prepare a meal for her community in her own familiar way — food everyone shared as long as it did no harm to an individual's health. The tradition, she said, continued beyond the formation house and is still practiced to date. She acknowledged feeling apprehensive at the beginning about the unfamiliar dishes, but as she saw her formator and her colleagues from other cultural backgrounds eat with delight the food she prepared, she was encouraged to live by the rule.

Experience of diversity in language

Language is a powerful tool that can be used to define, build or destroy interpersonal relationships. Within the sisters' communities in Nigeria, language has been used, knowingly or unknowingly, to exclude others, especially those from the minority language group. It has also been used dominate others, especially those with "lesser power." A sister from a minority ethnic language group explained to me how she was alienated from full participation in community because of the other sisters' insensitivity. While she was in formation, she said, communication was in English, the nation's official language, but as she completed her formation and moved into community, communications, including community liturgy, prayers and recreational activities, were largely in the language of the majority.

Feeling isolated in community, this sister brought her situation of isolation to the attention of her community leader. Rather than engaging the issue of diversity recognized by this sister, the leader advised that she learn the language of the majority if she wanted to be part of the community because the "majority carries the vote." Ultimately, the sister decided not to learn the language because she felt unheard. She decided to advise anyone from her ethnic group not to enter her religious community because she felt that they will not be appreciated, unless, she said, that person chooses to go through the "purifying" experience as she did.

On the other hand, another sister who was from the majority language group described how English was the only language of communication in her community. She recalled that any sister who communicated with another in a language other than English within and outside of community was called "tribalistic" and had difficulty living in community. Not wanting to be labeled as such, she decided to give up speaking her local language. She recalled her difficulty participating in community conversations and prayers. Except for her desire for religious life, she said, she would have left her religious community. She agreed that the imposition of English helped to bridge the communication gap as well as enabled her to hone her spoken English; however, she felt she lost a part of herself for no longer being fluent in her ethnic language. She now regrets not being able to engage in serious conversation with her family members and friends who do not speak English, nor pray with them in the language they understand, making her a stranger to her own people. She told me she wished that her community allowed sisters to speak their local languages as this could be an opportunity for others to learn and value them.

A way forward

Through constant relationship with one another in community, Catholic sisters in Nigeria engage in the mission of bringing light to nations by advancing respect and acceptance of each individual as an image of God. In their choice of community living, they are often confronted with issues of diversity. When these emerge, communities too often ignore them or treat them as issues of religious vocation, imposing uniformity. Unfortunately, these communities cannot be a true light to the nation when they fail to deal with the issues of diversity effectively. When they are caught in the same trap that is holding the nation hostage, their light will be incapable of illuminating the nation and bringing the change they desire.

Since each sister feels called to community living, engagement in serious conversation around differences and promoting policies through constructive dialogue rooted in social justice are needed. It is only in living out our differences in unity, not in coercion, that we can be at peace with God, self and others, and, in turn, witness to our nation the possibility of living together amidst differences.

[Eucharia Madueke is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur in the Nigerian Province with expertise in social analysis, grassroots mobilization and organization. She coordinates women project of the African Faith and Justice Network.]