It was the fourth day of our ASEC service trip to Nairobi, Kenya, and as our van bumped along the dusty and rutted roads of the slum, I found myself lost in thought. We were returning from St. Martin’s elementary and secondary schools, set in the middle of the Kibagare slum. It was my first time venturing into a slum, and as I had expected, I was quite taken aback by the extreme poverty that surrounded me. But that’s not why I was so lost in thought. I knew from my study and teaching about global poverty that such conditions existed and I was not surprised to be overwhelmed by the sight of its reality in the country of Kenya. Rather, what was causing my reverie was what I had been witness to since our arrival in Nairobi: several hard-won but significant social welfare victories that had been achieved despite the poverty that was all around me outside the van.
What was the cause of the social welfare successes that I continued to mark throughout our service trip? I returned from Africa convinced that the successes were the result of the work done by the congregations of Catholic sisters who were our partners on our service trip. And it is clear to me that the intentional empowering of these women religious, which is the work of ASEC, is a highly significant though underappreciated key to the unlocking of the development potential of African countries.
The biannual service trip enables students from ASEC’s four American partner institutions to get a glimpse of the real-world development work that occurs under the aegis of ASEC. This year there were 6 students from Chestnut Hill College and 2 students from Marywood University on the trip, and Jennifer Mudge (SLDI Evaluator at ASEC) and I served as chaperones. During the almost three weeks that we were in Nairobi, we partnered with several congregations of Catholic sisters and served in various ministries which were organized and coordinated by ASEC’s East Africa Regional Director, Sr. Lina Wanjiku Ndung’u. Thanks to her unstinting efforts and the hard work of the directors at the various service learning sites, the trip was an invaluable service learning opportunity for building life-skills, learning the power of transforming the world one person at a time, and seeing beyond ourselves and our experience as Westerners.
It would be hard to overstate the extent to which the trip was an eye-opener for us. There were iconic African moments, such as looking out over the Great Rift Valley where some of the earliest human fossils have been found, as well as sitting in our van in Nairobi National Park, surrounded by zebras and antelopes grazing peacefully all around us. There were also heart-wrenching experiences, such as looking into the eyes of hungry children as they lined up for the only hot meal they would receive that weekend. The students, Jen and I helped to serve this meal at the Saturday Feeding Program sponsored by the aforementioned St. Martin’s elementary and secondary school. While there we witnessed many young children carrying very young siblings, patiently waiting in line for their turn to receive a meal. We fed over 1665 children that day in a clean facility that was literally an oasis in the middle of the poverty and despair of the slum. The experience was a profound one for each of us on the service trip.
In addition to these group services, the students, Jen, and I also performed a variety of longer-term services while we were in Nairobi. These services included:
- Helping in the pediatric and maternity wards at St. Francis Community Hospital, which included attending births and helping young mothers learn how to care for their infants
- Teaching classes at Maria Immaculata Educational Center, a school dedicated to teaching needy children at the Kindergarten, primary and secondary levels
- Visiting with HIV/AIDS victims in the slums through the St. Francis community health outreach program
- Working alongside refugees in the St. Francis vocational training center for refugees
- Helping to care for extremely handicapped (and thus “unadoptable”) orphans at Mother Teresa Children’s Orphanage (run by the Sisters of Charity)
Each of these service activities brought new challenges and opportunities for spiritual and personal growth. But our service and self-growth would not have been possible if it had not been for the network of opportunities for service that the sisters had created. They opened their arms to us and welcomed us to walk with them as we participated in the work that they were doing to better their communities. The students rose to the occasion and were unflagging in their compassion and willingness to wade into difficult service settings. Each student was consistently able to see the person behind an often desperate and degrading situation. The commitment to bringing the ASEC mission of enhancing and expanding the sisters’ work in Africa was alive in all that the students did on this three week trip
One of our favorite service activities was to play and interact with the rehabilitated street boys from the Ukweli Home of Hope located right at the compound where we were staying with the Little Sisters of St. Francis. These 40+ boys were given a place to stay in the temporary dormitories run by Sister Agnes Wanjiru while they went to school (the boys have since relocated to a brand new, more permanent home not far from the compound of the Little Sisters of St. Francis in the Kasarani area of Nairobi). After a day at our particular service ministries we would often go over to socialize with the rehabilitated street boys who had free time before their homework and dinner time. During our interactions we learned how most of them had endured terrible circumstances as street boys and how they were trying hard to make it through primary school or secondary school and perhaps even go on to college. The boys were intensely supportive of each other, and the students and I marveled at their resiliency and joy in living. They were lacking in material possessions and regular family lives, yet their “mother” Sister Agnes was helping each one of them find a way forward to a decent life. We could not help but be impressed by the stability and sense of home that Sister Agnes had created for the boys, as well as by the firm-but-kindly supervision, guidance and counseling that she provided.
We were encouraged by Sister Agnes to share meaningful exchanges as we saw fit. The boys danced for us and displayed their gymnastics prowess, which a few of our trip participants could match, to appreciative cheers of the boys. One of my self-appointed ministries was to teach the boys about American baseball. Before the trip I had aspired bring something along with us that was quintessentially American and also something that I could claim was an activity that I myself enjoyed (I'm a pretty avid baseball fan). Baseball was something that the CHC and Marywood students could easily do with the boys and it was a way to relate to all of the boys no matter what their level of English proficiency (they were learning English at school but it was a second or even third language for all of them). I brought over wiffle balls and bats (I didn’t want any broken windows!), real baseballs, baseball gloves, major league baseball hats, and young-reader books about baseball legends and heroes. Once we got acquainted with the street boys we did batting practice with the wiffle balls & bats and played catch with the real baseballs and gloves.
Soon I had a dedicated "baseball team" of street boys on whom I could always count to play wiffle ball with me. One of these boys was Osman, a solemn 10 year old boy who caught on to the batting stance quickly, kept his eye on the ball, and clearly loved hitting 90% of my underhand pitches. Osman and I developed quite a bond even though his English skills were minimal. On my last day in Nairobi, I had to spend an hour consoling Osman with hugs since he was crying over my imminent departure. Kenya in many ways remains a traditional culture, and it was clear that I had become a “mother” figure to Osman. And I must say, Osman has settled into a special place in my own heart. This is just one of the many ways that the ASEC service trip has transformed my own appreciation of the value of service as something that is not just for those who are in need but also valuable for those who have the privilege of serving the needy in developing countries. I remain in contact via email with all the boys through one of the older “brothers” in the group, but I always manage to send a special greeting to Osman, my Kenyan “son.”
Of course my ability to reach out and connect with young people like Osman was possible only through the diligent application of love and opportunity given to him by Sister Agnes. She is one example of the overall ability of the sisters to not only alleviate suffering but also to build a safety net for boys like Osman to hope and dream, to reach out and aspire, to sometimes fail but ultimately to achieve. That sisters have been able to work with and effectively mentor dispossessed street boys, uneducated children, suffering HIV/AIDS victims, and so many others is a result of the education and training that they receive from ASEC.
What surprised me most about my learning during the service trip to Kenya was how unaware I had been about the obvious successes of Catholic sisters in helping the poor become educated, seize economic opportunities, and to lead healthier lives. Scholarship in my own discipline, international relations, has focused primarily on the efforts of international organizations and secular NGOs to address the problem of poverty in developing countries. There is very little academic attention to the special role that religiously-affiliated NGOs like ASEC have to play in catalyzing African development.
Yet it is very apparent that ASEC programs like Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) and Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) have established a notable track record in empowering a network of women religious who can make meaningful improvements in several African countries. Nearly 200 sisters have received college degrees through Phase I of the HESA program and over 1500 African sisters have received leadership and entrepreneurship training through the SLDI program. The effects of ASEC’s investment in the human capital of various congregations of sisters were palpable to me during my time in Kenya. I observed the sisters helping to address some of the greatest challenges that African nations face:
- presenting vocational opportunities to refugees
- helping the poor cope with the scourge of HIV/AIDS
- running schools for children who would not otherwise have access to an education
- combating hunger and joblessness
- and just generally providing dignity, hope and a listening ear to those who would otherwise have none.
This work is little recognized in studies on development in Africa.
The sisters are able to have such a significant effect because of the unique set of strengths that they as women religious bring to African development. They constitute a local presence in African communities that is networked regionally and globally through the Catholic Church and through ASEC. The sisters have earned significant social trust by local communities, giving the sisters an entree into slums and villages that Western-based NGOs lack. The sisters are known for their commitment to serving the common good and this commitment is unquestioned because of the sisters’ dedication to God and to serving the dear neighbor. Finally, the preceding assets are catalyzed and made more salient by the education and mentorship that is nurtured through ASEC.
This service trip to Kenya has opened my eyes to the tremendous impact that ASEC is having in Africa, and I am very proud that I was given a chance to support the work of this impressive organization. I hope that this is just the beginning of my opportunity to help ASEC continue their valuable work
 “Impact By the Numbers.” ASEC-SLDI Educational Insights. December 2016. p. 13