St. Louis Sisters' mission in rural Ethiopia has adventures, challenges, and beauty

by Melanie Lidman

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"The St. Louis sisters in Africa are booming with vocations and we could afford to expand, but instead of going to Europe, [we're doing] as the Gospel said: Go to the ends of the world," Sr. Justina Ihechere proclaims. Ihechere is a member of the Sisters of St. Louis community, commonly called St. Louis sisters.

She pauses for a moment and looks out of the windows from her new mission in Dawhan, northern Ethiopia. In every direction, jagged mountains pierce the sky, scraggly brush barely clinging to the steep pitches. In the village below, mud houses are clustered together on the only flat plots available.

Dawhan is located just 15 minutes south of the Eritrean border, and the only connection to the rest of the world is a dirt road winding up and down the mountainsides. Every morning, a troop of Ethiopian soldiers patrols along this road to search for Eritrean infiltrators, a remnant from the devastating Ethiopian-Eritrean war from 1998 to 2000.

The Dawhan mission is more than an hour from a paved road and three hours from the closest large town. In the northwestern part of Ethiopia, the mountains are sprinkled with tiny villages, filled with farmers trying to coax sprouts of barley and teff (a local grain) from the rocky mountain ridges. It is in this place that three Sisters of St. Louis, two from Nigeria and one from Ghana, are making their new home.

The popular story in the international media is that the Catholic church is shrinking, losing vocations and packing up parishes. But as religious life grows at unprecedented rates in Africa, some congregations are expanding to new locations.

The St. Louis sisters, after a long soul-searching process, decided to start a remote outpost in northern Ethiopia. They arrived on Sept. 19, 2013, not quite sure what they would find. The start of a new mission has had challenges, obstacles, frustrations, more than a few stomach issues, as well as touching moments of love and community. Three sisters who founded the mission look back on their difficult first three years and the adventure of starting a new mission in the middle of nowhere.

'In West Africa, we don't have mountains like this!'

Sr. Ijanada Emmanuel remembers the first time the three sisters drove out to their new home in Dawhan. It was a difficult, though exciting day. First, they were exhausted. They'd arrived at the airport in Mekele, the largest city in northern Ethiopia, late the night before and set out to the village at 5 a.m. with at least a five-hour drive ahead.

"I couldn't even imagine these mountains, going in," says Emmanuel, who is from northern Nigeria. While the other people in her car chatted away, Emmanuel was mute with shock and fear, as the road wound precipitously close to the edges of steep mountainsides. Everything was rushed as they tried to reach the church, where the entire community was waiting to welcome them with dances and prayers. (Watch the welcome procession here.)

Second, the sisters were starving.

"They gave us meat, and for them to give us meat, it was a big thing," says Ihechere, also from Nigeria. "But we weren't ready for eating from the communal bowl. It was good if we knew, but it was a shock, you can imagine!"

"Then for supper, injera, oh my God," remembers Ihechere. Injera is the Ethiopian traditional flatbread, made from fermented teff grains and served at almost every meal. The bread is very nutritious, high in iron and calcium, but the slightly sour taste can take some getting used to.

"The injera was cold as a dog's nose!" Ihechere says. "We were able to eat bread. We couldn't eat the injera; my stomach could not take it."

"The shock and everything about it was just, I can't even express it," says Sr. Benedicta Boakye-Yiadom, from Ghana, as she recalled the first week in Dawhan. "Our first Sunday when we went to Mass, we took our Sunday missals with us. They started chanting, and I said, 'Oh, OK, after the chanting we'll be able to follow.' They came and read in Tigrinya. I couldn't follow the head or the tail of anything. I was in total shock."

"I was expecting that the Catholic church is the same; even if you don't have the language, you should be able to follow the sequence," Boakye-Yiadom says.

The Ethiopian Catholic church is unique in having two rites — Latin rites and Ethiopian Coptic rites. Ethiopian rites have a very different service structure than Latin Masses and use both local languages as well as Ge'ez, the Ethiopian holy language. Although both are considered Catholic, Ethiopians who grew up practicing Latin rite say they also get lost switching to Ethiopian rite, and vice versa.

"When we went to our first Mass, we came home and we said, 'Did we just go to Mass?' " Emmanuel says. She can laugh about the memory now. "The first Sunday, it was not funny. Our leadership sat in front of us, and they didn't look behind them. They had already been there, so they knew what was coming, but we had no idea."

"Even [the leadership] who came for the feasibility studies, they hadn't seen the tip of things," says Ihechere. But now that she looks back on it, maybe that was a good thing.

"If they had seen everything, maybe we would have been discouraged," she says. "The rites, the culture, the terrain, the mountains . . . in West Africa, we don't have mountains like this! I never thought I'd be able to drive on a road like this. Maybe it was providence that they didn't know themselves."

How do you say 'Our Father' in Saho?

Dawhan is a small village that is on the cusp of becoming a larger town. As it is the flattest area for miles, the government decided a few years ago to make it the regional headquarters for the surrounding kebeles, or districts. The population has jumped from a few hundred to 3,000 in the past decade as zinc-roofed houses sprung up between the traditional mud-and-stone homes.

Dawhan is located next to Alitena, which is known as the birthplace of Catholicism in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a rich and varied Christian history, becoming a Christian kingdom as early as the fourth century, and Orthodox Christianity is still the most widely practiced religion in the country. Modern Catholicism began with an Italian priest, St. Justin de Jacobis, who evangelized in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. His church was in Alitena.

Across Ethiopia, Catholics account for less than 1 percent of the population. But in Dawhan and Alitena and the surrounding villages, about 40 percent of the people are Catholic. Fifty-five percent are Orthodox, and 5 percent are Muslim.

In 2010, the St. Louis sisters had sent a letter of introduction to the Conference of the Major Religious Superiors, asking to expand to somewhere in the country. The bishop of Adigrat in northern Ethiopia happened to be at a meeting of the conference and jumped at the opportunity as soon as he heard about it.

"I wrote my answer that same night," says Bishop (called "Abune" in Ge'ez) Tesfaselassie Medhin. He knew that Dawhan's meteoric growth meant the community could be a perfect opportunity for sisters. "There are no role models for young Catholic girls. There is only one Catholic kindergarten. The only role models are drink houses. There is nothing that empowers women."

But Dawhan also comes with a lot of challenges. In Ethiopia, most of the country speaks Amharic. But in the northern Tigray district, they speak Tigrinya, the same language spoken in Eritrea. Amharic and Tigrinya share the same alphabet but differ largely. Very few people speak English.

Additionally, each rural area also has its own language, according to its tribe. Dawhan is home to the Irob tribe, which speaks Saho. The more isolated an area, the more likely the residents will speak only their local language, and not Tigrinya or Amharic. Many of the original Dawhan residents speak only Saho. This means that, in order to minister in the area, the sisters must learn both Tigrinya and Saho. And if they want to communicate with other sisters in the country and be able to get around Addis Ababa and government offices, they must also know Amharic.

Language is by far their biggest struggle. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are no dictionaries for Saho, though some residents are working on one through an initiative with a university in Addis Ababa. The language has further isolated the sisters in their rural outpost.

"If you have language, you can go anywhere within the territory. You can express yourself," says Boakye-Yiadom. "I'm very sure there are a lot of people who would love to come and chat with us, but language has been one of the barriers."

"If you don't have language, you can't penetrate into the people," Ihechere says. "Language is A, culture is B. You have to learn A before B. Now I don't have time to learn language, I can't take three months [off] to learn language anymore."

Even sisters from southern Ethiopia struggle with the language and a different set of rites when they come to the north, prompting one Daughter of Charity sister to say she felt like "a foreign missionary in my own country."

Another test that surprised the sisters was the challenge of not being busy. The plan for their mission is to take over the Catholic kindergarten, which is run by private citizens, and start a women's economic empowerment project. But as with any handover, the process to transfer the kindergarten is slow, even though all sides are in favor of the change. Currently, the sisters teach English for one hour each day and organize the daily meal program. The empowerment project is still in the brainstorming stages. That leaves them with a lot of spare time.

"Sometimes you wonder, 'What am I doing here?' " says Emmanuel. "You come from a place where you're so busy, you may not even have lunch. Here, you have nothing to challenge you. Maybe now it's time to rest a bit . . . we have to adjust to this way."

Emmanuel has thrown herself into gardening, which is difficult because the groundwater is very salty and kills all but the hardiest plants. She's also rearing animals, including laying hens that provide the schoolchildren with a regular source of protein, something that is lacking in the mountain diet.

Boakye-Yiadom is harnessing her artistic abilities to create colorful English-teaching materials and has discovered a love for baking bread.

"Back at home, whatever you want, you can buy it; you wouldn't think of baking," she says. Although bread is sold in the larger towns, the free time has given the sisters "the opportunity to practice our gift of baking," she says.

They also rely on each other for spiritual support, since they still feel alienated from the Ethiopian rites. A local priest sometimes comes to the house to perform a Latin Mass that the sisters have taught him. They do their best to match the liturgical cycle with the complicated Ethiopian calendar, which has 13 lunar months. Often, each sister will present a weekly lesson or reading for discussion. Every year, they rotate the role of acting local superior.

Slowly, they are building a community. Emmanuel is learning which plants can survive the salinity of the groundwater. Ihechere is discovering the best techniques to help children remember English phrases. And little by little, the seeds they planted are beginning to bloom, both literally and figuratively.

Feeling the Spirit move

The foreignness of the mission drew the three sisters for different reasons. Ihechere was part of the initial group of sisters exploring places to expand for a new mission. They were considering Ethiopia and South Africa but eventually settled on Ethiopia because South Africa already has so many congregations of sisters. They saw the need was greater in Ethiopia.

"I felt I needed a change from administration, from a school setting, to do something new, though not for a long time," says Ihechere, who was previously a school principal in Nigeria. "So when the letter was sent to the institute, there was a letter from [Sr.] Donna [Hansen, the former international superior general] during the Easter period, which said, 'If you feel any leaning towards the Ethiopia mission, just say it.' That line struck me."

"I've heard from people working in rural areas how difficult it is," Ihechere adds. "I felt like I should have a tip of what the sisters go through. When they share, sometimes they're in tears. I thought it would be good to have the experience while I'm still young."

Boakye-Yiadom had never been on a mission outside of Ghana, though she had worked in rural areas in her own country. "I'm used to [Ghana's] culture, so moving outside of the country was difficult. It was culture shock," she says.

Emmanuel was chosen for the mission, which at first prompted fear of the unknown and later the discovery of cultural differences. She now concludes, "Yours is not the best. There are so many things to learn, and you have to adjust to them."

The residents of Dawhan appreciate the sisters' struggle.

"If you practice the culture, you give the people your love, and you are loved for that," said Desta Sibhot, the coordinator for culture and tourism in Dawhan. "They are practicing, but it is hard, especially the language." He is also heartened to see an international community of sisters, as he hopes to bring ecotourism to Dawhan's stark mountain region.

"We were surprised that the sisters want to come here," said Roman Welde, an original resident of Dawhan who estimates her age is about 50. ("Not old, not young, but I'm not sure," she laughs.) "But we also have expectations, when we hear about sisters. We know the sisters in Alitena. They have clinics and schools and they give food when people are hungry. So we are happy, but we are also expecting something."

Welde's point touches on a difficult issue. Missionary sisters who are part of international congregations are often expected to come with deeper pockets and more connections for funding than local sisters. But coming from Nigeria or Ghana is different than coming from Germany or the United States. Those sisters cannot rely on their own parishes for donations.

Bishop Medhin was not looking for an international congregation to sweep in and start throwing around Ethiopian birrs. He is wary of projects that require large influxes of foreign donations, leaving behind unsustainable programs the church cannot continue. It also raises the expectations of the congregants, who get used to free services for a time then end up having to pay for them later.

"I think it is a blessing that an African community of sisters [are in Dawhan]," Medhin says. "They have experience, they can learn from the international community." He believes the connections, rather than cash, will be most useful to the people.

But the sisters also hope that the next time the St. Louis Sisters open a new mission, in Ethiopia or elsewhere, they will do some things differently. First, the new sisters must have time, perhaps even a year, to learn the language. And it would be smarter to start in a more central place, such as Adigrat or Mekele, before going into an isolated area, she says.

"The work is always there, it's not running away," says Ihechere. "But once you have the language, you can fly."

A house of one's own

The sisters are unanimous about their favorite day in Dawhan: Aug. 2, 2014. It is the day they moved into their own house after almost a year of living as guests, first with the Daughters of Charity in Alitena and then in a church office building in Dawhan. Various construction issues, including the lack of flat space and the need to bring in a backhoe, meant the building's completion was significantly delayed.

"We were so happy!" Emmanuel says. "We no longer have to be dependent [on someone] if we want to enter the kitchen. This is our own home."

"I couldn't even believe it," says Boakye-Yiadom. "Even though they hadn't finished, I entered every room. To think — your own kitchen! They hadn't even finished the bathroom, but we couldn't wait."

"We didn't care — we were having our shower on the verandah at night," Emmanuel says.

As the sisters prepare to celebrate their third anniversary in Dawhan, they laugh when they think about the shock of the first few years. "Now the worst is behind us," says Emmanuel.

The St. Louis Dawhan Mission sits on a hill above the rest of the town. It is one of the first things you see in the town, after the church, as you make the last hairpin turn into the village.

Ihechere says, despite all the challenges, she still smiles when she rounds that last bend and sees her home, perched impossibly between the mountains.

"The help is needed," she says. "Because it's difficult does not mean it's not doable. I have no regrets."

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