OVERCOMING DESPAIR

Some of the children at the Mgolole Orphanage in Tanzania are orphans because their parents died of AIDS. SARAH HOFIUS / STAFF PHOTO
Some of the children at the Mgolole Orphanage in Tanzania are orphans because their parents died of AIDS. SARAH HOFIUS / STAFF PHOTO

KAMPALA, Uganda — After eight years at the Little Sisters of St. Francis rehabilitation center for street children, Cecilia Nakubulwa knows what the next step is.

The 16-year-old wants to go to medical school and become a doctor.

Despite being an orphan. Despite the many obstacles she knows she’ll have to overcome.

Cecilia wants to take care of others, like the Catholic sisters took care of her.

A short drive away, at the Missionaries of Charity, Sisters of Mother Teresa’s Home of Mercy, care is given to 33 people suffering from AIDS, other diseases and physical disabilities.

A young boy named Peter Joseph opens the front gate, and when visitors enter, a little boy named Alex says “welcome” and waves.

Even under the gravest of conditions — AIDS, malaria and impoverishment — hope in Africa is abundant. The Catholic sisters say without hope, they have nothing.

The room at the Home of Mercy, which has few furnishings except for cribs, metal-frame beds and a poster of the alphabet on the wall, is full of children. Flies swarm on their faces. Many are not physically able to swat them away. In the corner of another building, a 20-something man with an active mind is forced to lie in bed because of a spinal cord injury.

At the Nsambya Babies Home in Kampala, the nuns care for 24 infants and toddlers — including abandoned children only days old.

Seeing such despair on a regular basis is trying.

“You cannot enjoy your religious life when behind it, things are not going well,” said Sister Jacinthe Tumwiine, of the Association of Religious in Uganda.

A spiritual renewal course is offered for the Little Sisters of St. Francis. Some sisters are given the option of taking a sabbatical. The rate of burnout among nuns was high before those options were available, Sister Delphine Njeri, of Jinga, Uganda, said.

“We do get depressed and discouraged, but one thing, we have each other,” Sister Pauline Namuddu, chairwoman of the Association of Religious in Uganda, said. “I think it’s faith that helps us do this because it’s not a human power.”

As overseer of the street children’s rehabilitation center, Sister Mary Alma has seen children make progress, but then turn back to the street. The life of stealing, begging and sometimes drug addition is hard to break.

The children are given the opportunity to attend school. They also learn how to tailor clothes and how to farm organically at the center, which overlooks the Kampala skyline.

For many, Sister Alma is the only mother figure they will ever know.

As an orphan, Cecilia found refuge at the center eight years ago.

“I had no people to take care of me,” she said.

That is why the sisters stepped in.

“That is our responsibility … to take care of the poor and needy,” Sister Namuddu said. “We don’t work for benefit or pay. We try to empower those people to give them hope. We give a future to these children.”

The sisters have big plans for the future, including learning how to better counsel AIDS victims and families.

“How do you show them, despite the condition they’re in, how God loves them?” Sister Tumwiine said.

Education remains a key for progress.

“You educate them to get a job so they become self-reliant. We train them in something and let them take care of themselves,” Sister Namuddu said.

At the Bigwa Sisters Secondary School in Morogoro, Tanzania, the chance for a better future motivates the 342 students to work hard.

Sisters hope schools similar to Bigwa will continue to make an impact.

The African Sisters Education Collaborative is also a source of hope for African nuns. The collaborative, started by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Marywood University, as well as three other Pennsylvania congregations and their colleges, is offering computer training and leadership skills development to African sisters. The training will hopefully enable the sisters in their ministries.

While the sisters are dedicated to remaking the continent one life at a time, the hope of Africa is left in the hands of the people, including the AIDS patients, refugees and street children.

The street will always be there, waiting. But Cecilia, the teenager who wants to be a doctor, has already moved on.

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