Sharing voices of African sisters

This story appears in the Writing Workshops feature series. View the full series.

by Melanie Lidman

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In October, when nearly 150 sisters came together in Nairobi from across Africa for the Hilton Foundation and African Sisters Education Collaborative Convening, most of the time was devoted to exploring the future of sisters and their ministries. What will the future of sisterhood look like in Africa? How will sisters cooperate with each other and other institutions? How will they solve problems like hunger or the lack of education or clean water?

But before looking forward to the future, it is also essential to look back at the stories that shaped each sister on her journey to where she is today. By capturing and sharing these stories, it helps sisters understand where they've been, to have a clearer picture of where they are going.

So just a few hours before the convening kicked off, Global Sisters Report led one of our writing workshops for sisters who are in leadership positions or are superiors general of their congregations.

Here, sisters tell their stories.

'I am doing what I am supposed to do'

A challenge I overcame as a sister was when I was asked to start a program for street children, to combine my efforts with a priest and get it moving. I felt afraid, I was so troubled to imagine myself in the streets, speaking, walking, laughing and being surrounded by many children who lived there. Even though I knew well that I was called to do this and it was a "noble" activity, well related to my vocation, I was still afraid.

When I started, it was at times frustrating, but slowly, slowly, with God's help, it started resonating with my system. One day, I found a girl who was very sick with wounds all over her body in the streets. I invited passersby to assist me to lift her. None accepted. I lifted her, made her sit, and talked to her. I got a lot of pus, which was oozing from her body, on my dress. She was smelly and very dirty. A passerby wanted to know what I was doing. I told him, "I am doing what I am supposed to do and happy to do for God's kingdom."

He was moved. He told me, "I am a Catholic as well."

I said to him, let's take her to the hospital. He hired a car. We took her to the hospital. People ran away from us due to her smell.

She was later admitted to the hospital, I went the following day to shave her hair, which was like a piece of wood after so many years without bathing.

We became friends. I invited other street children to visit her in the hospital. I was happy to walk in and out of the hospital with them. She recovered and we searched for her family.

I really overcame the challenge of being with the children in the streets, the challenge of fearing being seen together with them. I was happy about this apostolate and if I had another chance, I would be so happy to do it.

 — Sr. Jane Mwangi, Dimesse Sisters (Daughters of Mary Immaculate), Kenya

'A dilemma in decision making'

Four years ago, there was a very threatening situation on Zanzibar Island, where our sisters serve. There are three communities with 11 sisters. On Zanzibar Island, 98 percent of the population is Muslim. Among them, there is a very small, anonymous and fanatic group that vowed to persecute Christians to the cost of their lives.

In 2013, the lives of Christians were at stake as the fanatical fundamentalist group killed one of the priests with a shower of bullets, leaving him dead with a shattered body at the entrance of the parish compound, just as he was going to say Mass early on a Sunday morning. A few months later, as another priest was coming out of a cyber café, he had acid poured on him that left his face burnt beyond recognition. In the same period, a parish church next to the convent of our sisters was burnt. Meanwhile, at that same time, a threatening rumor was going around all over the island that this particular fanatic group was longing to chop off the head of a Catholic nun.

This created in me a great anxiety as a leader, and it left the General Leadership Team of my congregation paralyzed and wondering what should be done to rescue the sisters from that dangerous situation.

Every day, I would call the sisters in turn just to know if they were safe. Amazingly, the sisters were firm and determined to remain there, with the Christians that were camping with them in their convents and parish grounds.

Actually, the sisters [in Zanzibar] made the decision; they encouraged us to continue praying for them and that is what we did. After six months, the situation gradually started becoming better. Thanks be to God that now there is a relative peace among the people.

 — Sr. Anna Mary Henrietta Nyangoma, superior general of the Missionary Congregation of the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary, Kenya

'Many others are coming after you who will help'

Here comes Margret Joshua, a young slim lady but with a seemingly urgent need. She looks 17 but is hardly able to carry herself quickly across the busy Karen Ngong Road. She is pregnant and sickly. All of a sudden, Margret uses her thin, feeble hand to gesture at me. I, on my part, am hurrying to the nearby church for the first Mass.

I first of all hesitate to answer her call but, on second thought, I asked, "May I be of help to you?"

It surprised her, because many Christians flocking to church had neglected her gestures, taking her for one of the serial beggars who stood by the roadside. She forcefully said, "Madam, help, I am hungry, I am sick, I am all badly off."

Inside me, a strong voice was conflicted. "If you help this problematic youth, you'll be late for the service. Many others are coming after you that will help. Go, go." When another small, faint voice said, "Please stay, listen, and help this small girl."

So, I yielded to the second voice, I went to Margret, listened, and loved. It was an appalling situation. She was bleeding. There she was, a fellow woman in ardent need of direction to any nearby clinic or hospital to understand what the matter was. She told me a little of her story.

"I am running away from my monster husband who beat me all night and told me to leave his home for he had no money to look after a fool of my caliber."

I was awestruck as I led her to the hospital, where the nurses approached hurriedly after seeing me, and took care of us.

On examination, the doctor said she had to be admitted, and I said it was OK, because we had to save two lives. Meanwhile, I was blank about how to pay the bill, but I trusted. In the meantime, I told them Margret Joshua was my relative. When they gave me the bill, I took it to my community. The sisters, after a long and serious discussion of not having enough money to pay for uncalled for bills and uncalled for charity, accepted to pay the bill.

Margret is now a community friend. She has a healthy, kicking boy of 7 months. She visits our convent frequently for food and other family needs when the need arises. I have met her husband and counseled him and now he cares for and loves the baby boy dearly. They now both attend Sunday services and we are mediating them as a community to start instructing both of them in matrimony. They are eager to receive the sacrament.

 — Sr. Theresa Frances Namirembe, superior general of the Daughters of Mary Sisters (Bannabikira), Uganda

A lucky first encounter

I was first sent to explore the possibilities of opening a new mission in a very remote place [in Kenya], which had no known Christian presence. I went to a religious community that offered me a very warm welcome and hospitality. The following day, I met a visitor to the community and we began to interact with each other. When this visitor came to know the purpose of my visit, he was so happy and promised to take me to a remote village where people were very poor. Moreover, he told me that there is a small Christian presence in that area.

The next day, he took us to the village, introduced us to government officials and key village leaders, and told them that if they welcomed us, their village, especially the girl children, will have a better future in terms of education as well as life values. He took upon himself the responsibility of looking for a house for us. The village leaders happily arranged for a house and welcomed us to share their life with us. He also found a day to welcome us officially and told us not to fear anything but to stay with them. He made all the arrangements to meet our needs.

It was indeed a beautiful experience for me, which made me deepen my faith in God. The following week I went with a small team of my sisters to live in that village, where the people were so happy to see us. We were not only living a simple life with them, we began hosting classes for women. It was a joy to see elderly women coming in the evenings after their field work to learn. They enjoyed their learning, more than our presence with them. It was the Lord who provided us all that we needed through the intervention of that visitor I met on the first day. Indeed God uses his instruments to show us that he is always with us. All that I need to do is to rely on Him, trust in Him, and believe in His ways.

 — Sr. Philomena D'Sa, Daughters of the Heart of Mary, from India, working in Kenya

(Read a GSR article about Ewuaso, Kenya, the village where the Daughters of the Heart of Mary ended up as a result of this story, and the work they do helping young women escape female genital mutilation.)

'Finally, during our Christmas play, I saw her give a big smile'

I have had a lot of joyful experiences in my life as a sister, but one that stays with me is when I was working as a missionary in Malawi with children on the street. I experienced the joy of giving life; in other words, I was called to witness the "resurrection" of a traumatized child.

In our transit shelter, we received two children who had been starved for a week. The police took their parents to jail and they brought the children, ages 5 and 7, to our transit shelter for protection.

These children were just emotionless, they couldn't speak a word, they were weak, they could not even manage to move a meter alone. The younger one was in even worse shape.

Just glancing at these two children, I heard my heart crying out for mercy, pity, and compassion. They looked worse than a human being could.

Our social workers welcomed these two children. We provided them with love and other basic needs and also medical assistance. Every day, I left the administration office and came to chat with the younger child, but she wouldn't respond, or even smile.

It took two full weeks of building a relationship with this child, when finally, during our Christmas play, I saw her give a big smile. Slowly, she even came around and let me dance with her and the other children. Life came back to her. She felt that she was alive again, and her smile just filled me with joy. She made my Christmas. The Lord was born in a different way that day in our transit shelter.

 — Sr. Florence Mwamba Malunga, Missionary Sisters of our Lady of Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo

'This is beyond me!'

The phone rings and on the other end I hear the voice of my superior general. "Dominica, how are you? Guess what, I have a surprise for you!"

"Let's hear it," I answered.

"I know you are doing very well at ZAS [Zambia Association of Sisterhoods], and you are highly appreciated, but I need a sister for a project in Kenya. It needs an experienced sister and one who can deal with challenging situations." I didn't know what to say.

A few weeks passed when she called again and said, "Dominica, sit down and do not hold your breath. The earlier project I had wanted you to do has changed. You will be in charge of our new Technical and Agricultural Training Institute for the vulnerable, and that will mean starting from the very beginning and seeing it through to self-sustainability. There are no set funds, but God will not let you down. You will be dealing not only with the needy, but [the needy] are also refugees from South Sudan."

My mouth remained open and I felt numb. "Sister, I have never headed a technical school and never done organic agriculture, this is beyond me!"

But she told me, "You have been in leadership and have a farming background."

Then the thought came to me, "If this comes from the Lord, I will do it!"

"Thank you, Dominica. I know it will not be easy, but I trust you have the potential as you have done the ASEC Administration course and done project proposal writing. Other people will help you."

I came to Kenya knowing I was over 60 and needed to learn the language as well. But I trusted God's choice for me.

 — Sr. Dominica Muita, Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, from Zambia, working in Kenya

'My mother was furious when I told her I wanted to be a sister'

I was 12 years old when I started longing to become a religious sister. I am the fifth born in my family of five, two boys and three girls. The desire of being a religious sister became stronger and stronger, and one day, at the age of 16 years, I gained courage and told my mum that I wanted to be a religious sister.

My mum could not take it in. She was furious, saying that it cannot happen because she only has three daughters; one has been blessed with children but the other is barren, and therefore she cannot afford another daughter not to give birth. She insisted that she wanted more grandchildren.

On seeing my mum so angry, I was frightened and I sought my refuge at my elder brother's home. I narrated my desire of becoming a religious sister to him. My brother encouraged me and told me not to worry, it is my life and he is ready to pay for my school fees. I kept praying for God's will in my life.

As time went by, one day my elder brother approached my mum and had a discussion about my future plans. To my surprise, mum, for the first time, said that I am free to choose what I want to be in the future.

On hearing this, I didn't waste any time but applied to various congregations. I was invited to visit many religious congregations and I joined the Grace and Compassion sisters in 1994. Today, my sister who was barren now has eight children. I am happy in my religious life and therefore I have the courage to say, "Never give up in life."

 — Sr. Beatrice Odiuyu, Grace and Compassion Benedictine Sisters, Kenya

'The desert has become an oasis of love and life'

"Yes, I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart ... and there she will respond to me as she did in the days of her youth."

These were Hosea's whisperings going on in my heart as we traversed the desert land of Isiolo [in Central Kenya]. Our matatu bus was packed to the brim with clothing, foodstuffs, saucepans, and lots of stuff needed for starting a new mission.

Dust blew about and covered the whole vehicle. Though there were many people onboard, we were all silent, lost for words. The desert spoke for itself. Was this created by God? Had God meant this place for human habitation? It makes you wonder!

Then, as though to respond to the musings within my heart, one sister burst into laughter and said, "If my heart of stone doesn't soften here, next I will be sent to the Kalahari Desert!" [A large, hostile desert in Southern Africa.]

We all laughed, and then there was much talking and excitement.

We soon reached Kipsing in Isiolo diocese, our new home. And guess what? Hundreds of Samburu women, children, and curious men were there singing, "Supa - ooyiee," ["Hello, welcome"] as they greeted us. We soon forgot our thirst, tiredness and fears, and found ourselves dancing to the beautiful melodies. That was how we marked March 15, 2016.

Today, the joy of that choice has multiplied. The four pioneer sisters to the new mission are greatly enthusiastic. Nothing but sheer joy accompanies their day as they mingle with the Samburu ladies. They are daily awakened to the pure joy that God meant for us all — as they teach the children how to hold the pen and write, as they wipe the tears.

"Supa — ooyiee" is the daily song that is chanted to exchange love, acceptance and appreciation between the Samburu people and the sisters. Surely, the desert has become an oasis of love and life. The scorching sun is a welcome guest. For God meant it so! In the desert, He has spoken of his unconditional boundless love to his people. And blessed be God.

 — Sr. Mary Purity Wawira Ireri, Felician Sisters (Sisters of St. Felix of Cantalice), Kenya

'To them, by becoming a Catholic sister, I brought bad culture into the house'

Even after becoming a sister, I used to find it hard whenever I went back home to my people in the village, because my family still wanted me to get married. Both my parents are dead, but my paternal uncles put pressure on me since I was also the first daughter. To them, by becoming a Catholic sister, I brought bad culture into the house. To make matters worse, they never wanted me to spend time with my only beloved sister. They even told me I could not even carry her child on my lap because I had gone against the culture of my people.

This used to hurt me a lot. I never fought back, but rather I continued loving and praying for them. I respected them as my uncles. I continued going to my village whenever I had a break. Each time I went, my uncles asked me to finish my contract with the sisters, which I never did. All the same, I remained firm in my decision and, as time went on, they gave up. All the fears they had were proven wrong, like if I picked up my sister's child, she would die.

As I am writing this story, my niece is married and she has delivered her own beautiful daughter, who is 10 years old now. My uncles were not Catholic and they were rooted so much in old African traditions and the culture of my village. Before, no freedom was given to those of us who wanted to practice our faith and make our own decisions in life. Now it is much better.

 — Sr. Rosemary Adhiambo, Medical Mission Sister, Kenya

'As soon as I mentioned the word baptism, the old man ordered me to leave his house'

This was my first apostolate as a professed sister. I was assigned to a parish where I worked in the pastoral ministry that involved visiting people in a small Christian community in a village. One time, a Christian who had a relative close to our parish approached me to visit his grandfather and give catechism classes. Being green and inexperienced in the ways to approach people who had not embraced Christianity, I thought they would be excited about being baptized. But I was wrong.

The family lived in a small, grass-thatched house and, because they were elderly, little had been done to keep the house clean. I entered the house and started talking about Jesus and the parish. At the end of the conversation, I told them I had come so they could start catechism classes and be baptized.

As soon as I mentioned the word baptism, the old man ordered me to leave his house and told me never to come back again, if what I was seeking was their baptism. This caught me by surprise because I thought I was sharing about Christ, the savior of our world. Anyway, the old man went on stating why I should leave his house: He said that several of his friends had been baptized and had died immediately some days after baptism. I later learned that the persons had died after receiving the sacrament of last rites or anointing of the sick.

I promised the couple that I would visit the family and not talk about Jesus or baptism. I left the place questioning myself how on earth could someone refuse baptism. Nevertheless, I kept visiting, but this time not talking about Jesus. I helped them clean the house, fetch water in the river, and brought them some food items I saw they needed. This time we talked about local traditions, their health, and life.

One day, I visited the family. It was a hot and sunny day, during the dry season of the year. I saw one of his cows had just calved and there was no one to bring it water. Since there was no one at home, I went straight to bring water for the cow. This is when the old man came back and found me carrying a tin of water on my head to bring to the cow. Afterward, it was my joyous moment because the man accepted to be baptized and start catechism class. He was baptized one month later.

 — Sr. Veronica Rop, Assumption Sisters of Eldoret, Kenya

[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel.]