I dreamed about Africa again last night. It's been 3 weeks since I returned and my experiences are as present with me now as they were then. Despite all the words in the English language, I still struggle to find the right ones that can adequately capture what I saw, what I learned, what I felt and what I continue to feel.
It started last March when I reconnected with Sister Anne Munley, I.H.M. in Rome where we were part of a group from Marywood University celebrating the 90th anniversary of the school's founding. Marywood University is a sponsored institution of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). Sister Anne Munley was President of the I.H.M. congregation at the time that she and I had overlapping terms as Trustees of Marywood University. When Anne left the role as president of her congregation, she took an assignment in Rome as Director of Programs and Social Mission with the International Union of Superiors General.
When we met again in Rome, Anne told me about her work in counter-trafficking and the significant role that women religious are playing in both preventing this practice and in helping its victims. (If you would like to know more about this work, Stop Trafficking! Anti-Human Trafficking Newsletter provides further information).
My introduction to ASEC
In addition to our conversation about Anne's efforts with counter-trafficking, she told me of her work with the African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC) -- and invited me to join her on a trip to Africa during the summer.
The following is a brief description of ASEC taken from "Progress Reports on UISG Commitments and Directions".
The African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC) is an initiative of some Catholic colleges and universities in the United States and of the religious congregations that founded them. Focused on five English speaking countries in Africa: Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, this project currently involves research of specific educational needs from the perspective of the leaders of religious congregations in these countries and modest financial assistance from Neylan colleges and congregations for programs and the construction of science laboratories at the Bigwa Secondary School for Sisters in Morogoro, Tanzania. Such research is a necessary prelude to developing appropriate modes of distance education that will help to address the priorities of African women religious.
ASEC was initiated in 1998 and had now matured to the point where it was time to get computer labs and training centers opened, facilitating access to the Internet and distance education. Through the generosity of Irv Rothman, CEO of HP Financial Services, a contribution of used PCs, flat screen monitors, printers, servers and wireless routers were shipped to two centers:
- The Tumaini Center in Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa and
- the OLA Training Center in Cape Coast, Ghana in West Africa.
These sites would serve as the initial locations for training on how to use the Internet for distance learning.
- The first session was scheduled for July 13 - August 11, 2005 in Nairobi with sisters traveling from Uganda and Tanzania
- The second session was scheduled for mid-August in Ghana with sisters from Nigeria traveling to join the sisters from Ghana.
Their transportation and room and board would be paid for by the American sisters supporting ASEC. Additional classes would be offered in August, September and October and the travel and living costs associated with this enrollment would be covered by the local congregations sending sisters to the training.
In addition, the Executive Committee of the local African congregations are responsible for insuring, securing and maintaining the equipment, as well as managing the scheduling and offerings of the training. Each sister who is trained is also responsible for training one other sister.
The Bigwa Secondary School is an additional area of focus for ASEC. Women entering religious life in Tanzania typically do so before completing their secondary education. They begin religious training and then go to work in their communities. By the time they get back to their secondary education, they are frequently over 25 years old. However, without their secondary "Level 1" diplomas, they cannot enter college. The Bigwa Secondary School allows these sisters to complete their secondary education along with girls from the local villages. All of the students reside at Bigwa.
A Science curriculum is a key requirement for awarding "Level 1" diplomas and this is one area in which the Bigwa School is lacking. The women religious of ASEC in America agreed to fund the construction of a science laboratory at Bigwa, ultimately enabling students to receive the appropriate diplomas and move onto college level courses.
As Anne and I corresponded over several months, we developed a plan that would take us to four countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana. Anne would travel alone to Nigeria several weeks before and combine her ASEC meetings with some of her counter-trafficking work. In each location, we would meet with the Executive Committee of the religious congregations for that country, detailing and reviewing the program, clearly establishing accountabilities, learning of local issues and challenges, developing solutions and agreeing to next steps. In addition, we would inspect the computer labs in Nairobi, Kenya and Cape Coast, Ghana. We would also visit the Bigwa Secondary School in Morogoro, Tanzania.
After multiple vaccinations and applications for entry visas, I set about securing insect repellent, a cotton half slip (yes, they can be found on the Internet) a flashlight, granola bars and mosquito netting. I spoke with everyone I knew who had ever gone to Africa or completed service work of some kind in a third-world country; the list was short but the conversations were invaluable. Before I knew it, June 26 th found us underway from Newark to Nairobi via Amsterdam on KLM.
The flights were uneventful and we landed in Nairobi around 9:30 pm. As we traveled to the retreat center where we would be staying, we traversed the first of many, many roads in Africa that looked like the craters of the moon. I couldn't begin to envision what driving school must look like in Africa but I knew that experience with bumper cars would be helpful. Over the next few weeks, it became clear that everyone operated under the same strategy: speed was determined in inverse proportions to road conditions. The poorer the road conditions, the faster you go. Tires, axles and dental fillings can be replaced but time spent on a bad road is time that can never be recaptured.
At the same time, it seemed that all of Africa was walking at the side of the road. Women with babies on their backs and 5 pound water jugs on their heads; students heading to school; laborers walking to work, if they are lucky enough to have work, spend their days walking and walking and walking at the side of the road. As a result, when we had drives of several hours from the airport to our various locations, I was able to see a lot of village life as well as take in the natural beauty of the countries I visited.
The poverty of village life seemed to afford people more dignity than the urban poverty I witnessed. Outside the cities, people could grow corn, rice, cabbage and other vegetables. They could also raise goats and cows. And while food may not have been plentiful for the average person, people in villages could eat better and at lower cost than people in the cities.
The typical African village we saw was composed of several small huts, usually made from dried mud packed between sticks with a thatched roof. Where economic conditions were better, the huts were made from cinder blocks and would occasionally have a plaster finish. The huts are used primarily for sleeping since all cooking is done outside over wood or charcoal. There would typically be a communal seating area in the village where people congregated. Women walked for miles to carry water and wood for their families. While the carried water is used for cooking and drinking, bathing and washing takes place in contaminated water often resulting in severe illness.
Before I left the United States, I had heard a report on how some people in Africa were consciously trying to contract AIDS; there are programs for people with AIDS -- they get attention and they get fed. This seemed beyond my comprehension and my brain reels when I think about it. I clearly remember the early 1980s in the United States when we first learned of AIDS and what we have done since then to manage it. AIDS is a very, very present reality in daily life in the countries I visited. Explicit warnings and guidance are plastered on billboards and healthcare and religious workers run various programs from prevention to treatment.
Economic and cultural issues contribute to the spread of AIDS. The disease enters remote villages usually after one of the men leaves the village for employment and returns home infected with HIV. He then passes it to his wife or wives. When he dies, his brother takes his widow as his bride and she then passes the virus to him. Within a short time, almost the entire village is infected as children are soon born HIV+.
In the inner cities, economic factors continue to play a significant role in the advancement of the disease. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 750,000 people live in Kibera, the largest slum in the world, right in Nairobi. Most of the people in Kibera have no income and live in mud huts they have built. Sanitation is almost non-existent with open latrines and unclean drinking water the norm. Most of the residents are not educated and many are still connected to tribal and animist beliefs. Unlike people in remote villages, they cannot claim isolation as a defense.
Outside Nairobi, Anne and I visited Nyumbani, an orphanage for children who are HIV+ or have full-blown AIDS. Started by a Jesuit, Father Angelo D'Agostino who was a surgeon in the US Air Force before entering the seminary, it opened its doors in 1993 with 3 children. His initial work has expanded from the orphanage to community outreach programs to the establishment of a Nyumbani Village in each of the provinces in Kenya. There are approximately 90 children on site with the older ones going to community schools during the day and the younger ones educated at the orphanage. Approximately 15 children live in a cinder block cottage with a house mother supported by volunteers. The orphanage also has a medical diagnostic laboratory allowing the health of the children to be closely monitored.
Standing in the lobby, I saw a quilt that the children created for AIDS Awareness Day, 1994. Some of the children had drawn and colored on its panels. As I studied it I saw deceased mothers portrayed as angels and AIDS portrayed as a monster. One child wrote: "Jesus I am coming to you. Prepare my room." Like so many of my experiences in Africa, I had mixed emotions standing there: rage at the illness and its lack of management at the appropriate level and deep gratitude for all who support Nyumbani. (The Nyumbani Website conveys detailed information about Father D'Agostino and Nyumbani.)
I can't imagine anyone working harder than the African Woman. She typically has a baby strapped to her back as she carries a five-gallon jug of water (or wood, or charcoal, or a portable sewing machine, or a bundle of vegetables) on her head. One hand holds onto a young child while the other either steadies what she is carrying on her head or clutches yet another bundle. When she isn't walking with her water, baby, child and bundle at the side of the road, she is pounding corn or rice or cassava into flour. She typically receives minimal or no formal schooling. And though education has become mandatory in many countries with advertising campaigns focused specifically on "send a girl to school", there is no accountability if children do not show up. Most of the educational programs I saw provided residential facilities (think old bunk beds, torn mosquito nets, cold water, communal showers and toilets and a single wooden locker). If the girls return home to the village at night, their chances of returning to school the next day are greatly diminished.
Rebel uprisings usually entail the raping and brutalization of women - and they are frequent and common in Africa. In many tribes, female circumcision is the norm. Scarification is still practiced among some groups and is evident on the faces of many women. I had the opportunity to read the local newspaper in Kampala, Uganda and made note of the following items:
- When a woman rebuffed the sexual advances of a man, he then attempted to rape her. In defense, she cut off his arm with a sword. He was charged with attempted rape; she was charged with attempted murder.
- A pastor told the men in his congregation not to get involved with light skinned women because they were "evil spirits." Light skinned women in the congregation got up and walked out. When someone pointed out to him that his wife was light skinned he said it was ok because he had checked her out ahead of time.
Yes. It is 2005!
The women religious working among the poor are wonderful role models of educated, competent and independent women and they are deeply respected by those with whom they work. However, even the educated women I met in Africa could not comprehend that I, as a married woman, would travel without my husband. They repeatedly invited me to return with him; I think they wanted to see that he really existed and that I wasn't manufacturing him for shock effect.
I have volumes of stories from people I met in Africa rumbling in my head. I think it is why I dream about them every night. They are stories unlike stories people usually tell me; they typically didn't have a humorous twist or turn at the end. When I heard them, I didn't laugh until I cried, but I did cry. Sometimes stories didn't have to be told; I knew what they were. Some were yet to unfold and I often found myself praying for protection and guidance for people as they continued on their paths.
For example, Anne and I visited Kakum National Park in Ghana where we proudly completed the Canopy Walk in the rain forest. We were 130 feet off the ground navigating our way on rope ladders between trees. As we waited our turn, there was a group of lively and fun-loving girls who appeared to be from a secondary school. As I looked at them, I could see how beautiful, naïve and vulnerable they were. They didn't seem to have an awareness of how they could be preyed upon by strangers. They were friendly and outgoing and wanted to practice their English. At that moment, I found myself saying a prayer that they wouldn't be duped into trafficking or taken as someone's fourth wife.
And then there was Sister Susan, Deputy Headmistress of St. Mary's Aboke School for Girls, highly recognized as one of the best schools in northern Uganda. Susan is an African sister, originally from Kenya, who belongs to the Comboni congregation. (The Combonis are an Italian missionary group founded in the late 1800s specifically to work in Africa). Susan graduated from Marywood University in 2000 with a double major in chemistry and biology. She then spent almost a year in Rome before returning to Africa. She is fluent in Swahili, English and Italian. Anne and many others from Marywood have maintained contact with her and we had the pleasure of spending almost three days with her in Uganda. We headed out of Kampala to Jinga to visit the source of the Nile and Bujigali Falls. Over the course of the time we spent with her, Susan told us her story. Her pain and distress were apparent.
In 1996, rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) broke into the Aboke School and kidnapped 139 girls to take them into its children's army. The deputy headmistress before Sister Susan, chased after the rebels and through much hardship and negotiations, secured the release of 109 girls. Thirty remained with the rebels, becoming their wives, dying from AIDS, becoming mothers. Despite the sister's work with the UN, Pope John Paul II and President Musaveni of Uganda, she could not gain the release of the remaining thirty. A few of the girls managed to escape; several have died. There are about 19 still believed to be alive and the efforts continue to rescue them. The leader of the LRA has said that he will "touch" the school again. In addition to the girls who reside at Aboke, there are government troops on the compound. Villagers have fled to refugee camps as the rebels continue to kill, maim and loot. There are 30,000 people in a camp with fewer than 10 latrines; that is where most of the parents of the Aboke girls now live.
Sister Susan told us that the parents beg her not to send the girls home on school holiday because there is nothing but trouble in the camps. There has been a breakdown in morality and AIDS is taking its toll. With visible stress and deep anguish, Sister Susan told us one story after another - from hiding her belongings in the bush instead of her office in the event of looting by rebels, to parents coming to tell their daughters that they will soon be orphans as a result of AIDS.
Sister Susan has her heart and her hands full. She ensures that the girls (and the leaders of the soldiers on the compound) are fed nutritious meals despite the fact that meat and fish are available only once a week. She nurtures and comforts the girls; she is vigilant about their protection; she supports the entire family network. She is administrator, nurse, teacher, social worker and parent. At Jinga, there was a small memorial to Mahatma Gandhi since it was one of the spots where he directed his ashes to be scattered. Susan said she wished they had someone like Gandhi for her country.
I pray for Susan and the Aboke girls everyday.
There were stories from several sisters who began school programs for street kids from the slums. With no building, desks, chairs or educational materials, they somehow made it happen. Although there may be seating for only 60 students when the school has 80, the children simply take turns sitting at the desks. And while basic educational materials are missing, students are learning more than they would have otherwise.
At the Bigwa Secondary School in Morogoro, Tanzania, the students met us on the road and marched us onto the compound as they sang songs of welcome. They then acted out skits they had written in order to demonstrate their English skills. They sang songs thanking us for helping them. We also learned how they need books, paper, computers, Internet access, as well as language tapes to help with their English lessons. Through the support of ASEC, they will soon have a science laboratory. The girls are highly motivated to learn and they have made amazing strides with the little they have. But I continue to question how effective schools can be without educational materials. At the end of the day, the students are limited to what their teachers have learned and can remember. Even in an oral culture, there would seem to be limits.
As beautiful as the natural setting is at Bigwa, facilities are lacking. Ever resourceful, Sister Immaculate converted a chicken coop into a dormitory with 27 bunk beds, a common shower and common toilet area. Electricity is sporadic and water is only hot if boiled. Malaria and typhoid are common and they are building a dispensary closer to the classrooms so they can keep an eye on the girls who are sick.
There were stories from sisters who work with lepers and patients with TB. Stories from sisters who were about to travel to western Uganda and fully expected to be ambushed along the way. Stories, and more stories, and more stories. At the end of every day I felt that 48 hours had passed; not because the days dragged but because they were so full of stories.
I cannot deny the strong connection I feel to the people I met in Africa and to the work of ASEC. While we made good progress, there is much yet to be done. In addition to the science laboratory at Bigwa, we will open computer labs in Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria. We will look for grants to fund insecticide treated mosquito nets for Bigwa and we will explore how to get educational materials to the students there; we will seek funding for the college credits, enabling women to begin their degree programs. And we will try to complete the additional 50 or so items on our to-do list.
I know I will visit Africa again within the next two years. I don't know what to expect when I get there. But when I close my eyes and imagine the best, I see women in degree programs in all five countries. I see the science lab completed at Bigwa and better health conditions for the students there. I see ASEC advancing its agenda and the next round of initiatives defined.
I can't predict political situations. I can't predict if the devastation of AIDS will be on the upswing or downswing. I don't know how many people will be raised from poverty. There is a belief among many, not just those in Africa, that when you educate a woman, you educate society. In my heart, I believe that it will take several generations of education to make the changes Africa needs. Education will allow people to dispel animist beliefs, hold their government officials accountable, and raise their living standards. ASEC is a small part of this. But if we don't start small, we'll never get big.
The people I met in Africa were among the most generous people I have ever met. In their poverty, they still found a way to give. Whether it was an old magazine, their song, or spending their savings in order to buy ice cream for us, we could never leave anyone without something from them. Anne Munley says that I have been bitten by the "I love Africa bug." I guess that there are far worse things to be bitten by.