This year I had the tremendous opportunity to be with and learn from our Catholic Sisters in Africa on several occasions, including visiting the sites in Kenya and Uganda where our SLDI graduates are utilizing the skills they’ve learned; as well as meeting with the HESA students at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), Tangaza University College and Chemi Chemi in Nairobi, and Kisubi Brothers University College and Uganda Martyrs University in Uganda. I also had the honor of accompanying our new president of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Peter Laugharn, on his first visit with our Catholic Sisters Initiative in Africa and experiencing his freshly formulated impressions and insights. I have now been to seven countries in Africa and although each country is different from the other, I am consistently overwhelmed by the inspiring and resourceful lives of the sisters – inspiring in terms of their complete giving of self and resourceful in their ability to create so much with so little.
I am struck by two unique strengths across this continent, the sacred value of community and the joy of music, dance and celebration. The Sisters engage their local communities in their livelihoods, in their ministries, in their prayer lives and, ultimately, in their missions as women religious. They live the joy of the gospel amidst the challenges and obstacles of extreme poverty. Their music and dance unite across religious, economic and national differences.
I was deeply touched when I met with the HESA students in March 2016. Sister Lydiah Wachira, their spokesperson, bestowed on me the honor of being called their “mama.” I am humbled by this honor and take the role of “mama” seriously. I had the privilege of being the Guest Speaker at the CUEA commencement in October, during which Sister Lydiah and four other HESA students graduated. I am very proud of them as a true mama, not only for all they have achieved in earning their degree, but, most especially, for why and for whom they are achieving. Every HESA student acknowledged “education as a powerful tool that greatly enhances her service to the peoples of Africa.”
The Sisters’ commitment to improving the lives of the peoples of Africa was highly apparent at the Catholic Sisters Initiative convening in Nairobi, which took place from October 16-19. The focus of the convening was “Catholic Sisters: Champions of Sustainable Development in Africa” and the framework was situated within the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals as developed by the United Nations in 2015 and signed onto by 193 nations globally. Over 130 leaders of congregations of women religious participated in the convening, as well as government, Church, community based organizations and international and local leadership associations. In total, the 189 participants represented more than twenty countries, ten in Africa. From the outset it was obvious that the ultimate power of this convening was in the historic gathering itself -- coming together of this diversity of sectors to focus on one agenda – the sustainable development of Africa and the engagement of sisters who have been in this work long before the SDG framework was developed.
One of my key takeaways was the power of conscientization, i.e., coming to an awareness that shifts the balance of power. The significant elements of “conscientization” were reflected by two of the participants, Dickens Thunde, National Director World Vision Kenya, in his comment that sisters are invisible Champions of Sustainable Development and that his eyes have been opened. The other by Sister Susan Clare Ndeezo, Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate, Gulu, who remarked
“I came like a toddler—timid—I leave like a giant.”
Sisters were more aware of their significant role in a worldwide agenda and the integrity and authenticity that their local on-the-ground experience brings to others engaged in human development. The national and international organizations became more aware that sisters are an essential asset in building the capacity of communities to ultimately help themselves. All were more aware of the need for collaboration and the powerful partners in their midst. I would characterize this as a true “shift in the balance of power.”
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Initiative seeks to build the network of sisters across the globe as a unique and formidable force to improve the lives of the vulnerable and disadvantaged. As a former chemistry professor, I understand the important role that a catalyst has in aiding a reaction to proceed with less energy and, therefore, more readily. In the world of foundations, the term catalytic philanthropy is often discussed with many interpretations including working together to achieve the same impact and using all available tools to create momentum for change. Catholic Sisters in Africa have all of the characteristics of being a true catalyst that inspires and ignites the global sisterhood. Their love of community, joy and celebration across differences and inspiring and resourceful immersion in their local communities are ingredients that make their chemistry a catalytic force. It is our role as foundations to listen and partner with them in ways that take seriously the opportunity to assure these ingredients are mobilized in order for the reaction to proceed successfully. We must continue to reinforce and strengthen the “shift in the balance of power” and take advantage of this unique moment for women religious in Africa and the advancement of the global sisterhood.