Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Africa, Part II

Guest blog by Sister Maxyne Schneider, President of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, who is currently visiting missioning Sisters in Africa.

From Nairobi to the Kisii Diocese

The seven-hour trip from Nairobi to Kisii brought us on Wednesday, October 7 from mile-high Nairobi down to the floor of the Rift Valley, which runs from Israel and Jordan down to Southern Africa. The scenery of the descent was breathtaking. At one point I was surprised to see a small troop of baboons by the roadside.

As we crossed the Maasai territory of the valley, we were in the midst of herds of cattle and goats and those who tended them. Lack of rain left the area brown and dusty. As the afternoon progressed we saw saw children going home, all in the various bright uniforms that are used by both public and church-sponsored schools. The ascent into the high territory of Kisii brought us back to green vegetation and spectacular views of fertile hillsides.      

Our Sisters' First Mission in Ichuni in the Kisii Diocese

Ichuni was the site where Srs. Cecilia James and Bernadette were part of the early years of the first school for girls, a harambe, i.e., a school created by the people rather than by the government. Arriving in 1971 and living in very simple housing, they taught 300 girls in that school and taught boys in a neighboring school. Later on at various points they were joined in community living by Pat Smith, Sue Landry, and Dorothy Pilkington.

This is the house where Srs. Cecilia James and Mary Bernadette
first lived and where other sisters joined them.

As we had arrived in Ichuni we were met by a woman and her family to whom both Srs. Pat Smith and Dorothy Pilkington had been present. Beatrice was the first social worker with whom Pat worked in her ministry to women of the Diocese. Beatrice's smile and the presence of her daughters and grandchildren at the roadside as we arrived spoke of the importance of the family's relationship with our sisters. So did the fact that two of Beatrice's now adult daughters, Dorothy and Patricia, are named for them.

Fr. Thomas Matoke, another priest, and a seminarian
bring us to the old church, the one our sisters knew. 

The new church!

Sr. Bernadette's bedroom.

With Beatrice we went to the parish, meeting the current pastor, Fr. Thomas Matoke, who delayed plans to leave for another engagement to show us around. The house in which Bern, Ceil, Dorothy and Pat once lived still stands, but is used only for storage. As you look at the photos of the exterior of the house and of Bernadette's former bedroom, you may get a little sense of the simplicity with which they lived. The original church still stands, but a new church has been added to accommodate a congregation of 2000.  As I saw the young children in the schoolyards, I wondered if some might be the grandchildren of Bernadette's and Ceil's first pupils.

 After touring the church and school property, we were invited to visit with Beatrice and her daughters and three of her grandchildren in her simple home. Large posters on the walls spoke of the role of faith in their lives, as did Beatrice's request that we pray together before we left. Hospitality was extended in offering us milk from their cow tethered in the front yard. The impact on their family was further highlighted thorough Pat's receiving a few calls from Beatrice's son Nicholas, now a schoolteacher at a distance from Ichuni.

Beatrice, the first social worker with whom Pat worked in the diocesan
outreach to women, is joined by her daughters and grandchildren
in bidding farewell to Pat in Ichuni.

Our Stay at Nyabururu

On Wednesday night we arrived at Nyabururu,about a 45-minute drive from Ichuni. Now a house of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, this was a site where Pat Smith lived for several years when she was engaged in other ministries nearby. Down the road is St. Paul's Teachers College, where Sr. Mary Magdalene taught home science. One of the teachers, Elizabeth, left a meeting in order to show Pat and me around. While she didn't know Magdalene personally, having arrived just after Magdalene left, she said that she was grateful for the teaching materials that Magdalene left; these had made her first classes so much easier.

Young students preparing for teaching stand at the entrance to the campus
where Sr. Mary Magdalene taught home science. Her classroom is still in use for science studies.

When we left the College, Pat led us to the house where Magdalene lived and to the small building where Bernadette taught at the Upgrading Center, providing very basic schooling to sisters from an indigenous congregation. Bernadette taught them home science once a week. The sign on the door, "Home Ec," while faded, still remains.

The wider campus area that encompasses the college also has other schools. Education, apparently a Kenyan goal after achieving independence from Britain in the very early 1960's, is evident everywhere. Religious sisters are, it seems, everywhere, as well. We met young sisters from two different congregations on this property yesterday, all not yet born when our first sisters came here.

Friday's Visit to Our Second Mission Site in Sengera

Later this afternoon we drove to Sengera, where Pat and Sr. Kathy Gallagher were first missioned. Both began as teachers in the school.  Just before we left, I had a conversation with one of Pat's first students, Amina, who had traveled two hours from near the Tanzanian border for a farewell visit with Pat. She spoke of how education was in those days, when women in their twenties who had not had prior schooling had the opportunity to learn.  Pat and her students, she said, were age peers. The warm friendship begun then has remained through the years, and significant life moments were often shared. Pat used her tailoring skills to sew Amina's wedding dress. Pat was there in times of illness and times of celebration. Again today I saw the testimony to Pat's fruitful ministry here and I expand my thoughts to encompass the ministries of each of our other sisters who served in East Africa.

Srs. Kathy Gallagher and Pat Smith came to Sengera in 1973, two years after Srs. Ceil and Bernadette
went to Ichuni. What was a very small school when our sisters arrived now has an enrollment of 600.

Pat had not been back to Sengera in about 20 years. Some things had changed greatly, while others had not. The dirt road, probably the most rutted and rough that I had ever been on, had not changed. The boarding school for girls where Kathy Gallagher taught math and Pat taught biology and home science has grown to include a large campus and 600 secondary school girls. (Pat recalls that the enrollment earlier might have been 100 or fewer.) We were given a tour by the secretary, were surrounded by first-year students eager for their pictures to be taken, and introduced to staff from the kitchen to the library. They were so pleased to meet a teacher from the school's earliest years. Most staff we met were not yet born when Kathy and Pat came there in 1973.

We saw the exterior of the house where Pat and Kathy and later Noreen Moran lived as well as the exterior of the former church; a new large church has been built. The Catholic population and population in general appeared to have grown substantially.

As we returned to our lodging in Nyabururu, heading toward Kisii Town, we went into the campus of what is now Kisii University, now a beautiful and expansive campus. Dorothy Pilkington taught in the Education Department when the institution was Kisii College and had limited buildings. This was Dorothy's second mission in Kenya and part of the 11 years she spent in the country.

Impressions So Far and What's to Come

As I write this on Friday, October 9, I have been in Kenya just over four days. While it gives me no basis for any in-depth commentary, it does allow me to share the sharpness of first impressions. These are among them: the depth of the impact that our sisters have had on individuals and groups and the vibrancy of faith in the lives of those we have met.. As we went to the outdoor market, I was keenly aware of how hard people must work in order to support themselves and their families at the level that they do. I have found myself challenged by the contrast between my first-world living and the people's living with simple necessities

After meeting some truly beautiful and gracious people, it could be tempting to generalize the experience, but even these few days have shown that that would be a mistake. Beauty is not the whole of the reality; other human realities are surely here, too. The need for safety is apparent almost everywhere, from gates and fences around properties to refraining from taking pictures with the iPad as we are in the marketplaces. Poverty is all too evident, too, both in Nairobi and in this more rural area. It is a country both of great beauty and of great contrasts.

Tomorrow we will leave Nyabururu for a three-hour drive to Molo, where the SSND's will honor both Pat and one of their sisters as they return home from their many years of service in East Africa. This will be one leg of the journey back to Nairobi, where we plan to arrive on Monday.

We hope to visit in Nairobi the college where Sr. Pat Kane established the Communications Department and where one of her protégés now continues what she began. Perhaps this is a good theme for what this pilgrimage of remembering has been: seeds planted have borne abundant fruit. We can be proud and grateful for what our sisters have done in the course of 44 years.

Sister Maxyne Schneider

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