In his book Adam: God’s Beloved, Henri J. M. Nouwen describes vividly his encounter, transformation, and life lessons after living with and serving mentally and physically challenged persons. During a recent site visit to the alumnae of the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative in Ghana, Uganda and Kenya, Nouwen’s reflections brought new meaning and understanding of the work that Catholic sisters are silently doing in the rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa as they strive to change attitudes towards mentally and physically challenged persons. In Dompase, Ghana, Sister Florence Adevour, a Sister Hospitaller of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is working with her community to quietly transform life for the mentally and physically challenged who would otherwise remain alone and hidden from the community because of long-held attitudes that consider these challenges a curse to the family. Entering the doors of the Benito Center a place many mentally and handicapped children will call home; one encounters the impeccable love and openness of these mentally challenged individuals. Indeed, theirs is a genuine embrace of boundless love that certainly does not keep a record of wrongs. The sisters here work tirelessly not only to serve mentally and physically challenged individuals but also to utilize the center as a public ministry where the children teach the world about personal invisible disabilities through their open and welcoming spirit.
Photo by Donald Miller, Director Center of Religion Civic Culture at USC, CA. Residents welcome us to the Benito Center, Dompase, Ghana.
In all the centers that I visited in the three African nations (Ghana, Uganda and Kenya) where sisters are working with the less fortunate, harmonious music and drumming is not only a uniting social factor but a language that these challenged persons speak so well. This also communicates that although they cannot do many things for themselves, there are things they can do expertly—thanks to the sisters’ patience and courage in enabling these individuals to recognize their talent.
Providing care to people with psychiatric illness, people with physical and mental disabilities, and people who are elderly or suffering is in accordance with the charisma of Sisters Hospitallers of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Sister Florence explains that the Dompase community needed a health care center; however, as time went on and sisters visited the community around, they recognized that mentally and physically challenged children were hidden from the community. Some of these challenged children were tied all day in a separate room, living in isolation—which only added to their plight. Parents have to work to feed and care for other children, and so cannot afford to stay home all day to care for handicapped children.
Culturally, disability has been perceived as a curse to the family, so many parents hid their children from the public eye. “Some families tied the children because of frustrations and helplessness, not knowing how to take care of the challenged individual,” Florence said. Sisters Hospitallers of the Immaculate Heart of Mary established Benito day care center to care for the children, and as a result the community is changing their attitude towards mentally and physically challenged persons.
Though it has taken a long time, slowly many have begun to appreciate the day care center—it is providing a public life to the children, something beyond confinement at home. Usually a bus picks up children at 8am and returns them to the community in the evening. The sisters are careful to keep these children continually connected with their communities. However, a majority of parents are unable to pay the $2 required monthly for transportation, so they keep their children home, Florence said. Sisters provide a free hot meal for the children and work with them all day. On this particular day, only 28 of the center’s 58 enrolled children turned up. Providing upkeep of the day care center is one of many challenges, but the sisters will not give up for they can see the effects and impacts that the center has on of these children.
Using visual images, sisters and the staff volunteers teach lessons such as grooming, music, and drumming. Recognizable change is evident in the children, who are friendlier than when they first came to the center, Sr. Florence said. I was moved by the children’s hugs, and their joy was contagious, but above all I was impressed by their coordinated drumming and dancing. Sr. Florence noted that the “SLDI program enabled me to acquire financial management skills; it has allowed me to not only understand but also ask relevant questions to financial managers and auditors at the health care center.” Sr. Florence has established a water purifying plant, an income generating project that not only provides income for Benito Center but also employment to the locals.
Photo courtesy of Donald Miller, Director Center for Religious and Civic Culture, CA.
Adjacent to the day care is a health care center where Sr. Florence serves as a nurse midwife. Here they serve over 3,000 patients a month. Sisters are teaching the community about the dignity of these children. Although they may not understand or do things for themselves, the spiritual bonding opportunity offered by these children is huge—their docility and openness to receiving help speaks volumes.
At Cape Coast, Ghana, Daughters of Mary and Joseph are caring for persons suffering from leprosy. Sr. Gladys Kyoshabire attends individuals suffering from leprosy at Enyinndakurom meaning (beyond dreams), the village had dirt houses, through the donors houses were rebuild using cement bricks, it was beyond their dreams to have such houses. A Daughter of Joseph and Mary, Sr. Monica has been here for many years, “it’s a life giving experience to give hope and confidence to these people” Sr Monica said.
A resident at the Enyinndakurom. Courtesy Donald Miller.
In Uganda, another life changing experience of sisters rendering services in rural village of Nkonkonjeru. At the Providence Home in Nkonkonjeru, Uganda, Sister Bernadette of the Little Sisters of Saint Francis is changing one life at a time. Providence Home is the place that 78 totally orphaned, mentally and physically handicapped children call home. They receive lifelong education; many children have been educated up to college level. As the name suggests, “providence” sisters depend on donations and support from well-wishers. Bernadette explained that on graduating from the SLDI where she learnt financial and resource planning, she established poultry and then a piggery project. These projects have not only generated income for the home but also augmented meals for the children in the center. “Education helps to transform individuals; it did for me and it can do for others”, Bernadette said. Catholic sisters continue to make a difference one life at a time. Though rarely recognized or appreciated in the public arena, they are deeply convinced of the value they add to many a life in their communities—be it through education, healthcare, social welfare programs, alleviating homelessness, service to the elderly—and all they do, they do with love. Sisters in the most rural areas where slowly transforming life away from global politics – true evangelization.
Now I know it is not about the sisters but about the people they so willingly serve – the underserved, marginalized, neglected – in all of them Sisters see a face of Jesus the Crucified.
By Sr. Jane Wakahiu, LSOSF, PhD.