From December 26, 2003 to January 22, 2004, Sister Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, visited Cameroon and Nigeria in West Africa.
While on her first trip to Africa’s Atlantic coast, Sr. Joyce was able to observe the many contrasts between the Eastern and Western regions of the vast continent. Besides topographical and climatic differences, Sr. Joyce saw first-hand, the extreme disparities of wealth within each country and how the sisters manage to operate their programs while they lack basic needs. Many missionary sisters have come to Cameroon as a result of the political instability and civil wars being waged in Central African countries. Yet through it all, Sr. Joyce noted that the religious of these countries were surprisingly assertive in their quest to assist the people of their communities.
The strong-will, faith and commitment of many of the sisters in Cameroon and Nigeria has enabled them to persevere through many obstacles. For example, in Douala—a city in Cameroon, Sr. Joyce visited a school that is managed by the Daughters of Mary Mother of the Church—construction on the school originally began in 1993. The Sisters’ Fund became aware that the school was never finished when it received funding for biology laboratory equipment. Although the school is incomplete, classes are still held on the “construction site” among building materials and equipment. The situation is not ideal, but the sisters can only continue construction on the school when they have a surplus of funds at the end of each year. Sr. Joyce found that in Nigeria and Cameroon, it is not uncommon for sisters to operate their projects in half-finished properties out of fear that the site will be sold by unscrupulous businesspersons because the land is seen as “unused or available” if it is left alone.
Beyond the hampered construction, the greatest need of the sisters who operate the school is running water. Piped water does not reach the school on a regular basis. This problem is seen as more than an inconvenience—it also has the potential to create unhealthy living conditions for the 100-plus boarders. Students have no other choice but to carry rainwater from large tanks located on the property to their dormitories in order to bathe. The sisters must also carry water to their living quarters on the school’s fourth floor. It is this determination—to work against all odds—that Sr. Joyce found to be characteristic of the women religious in both countries.
At another site visit, Sr. Joyce stopped by a leper colony. At the colony, four sisters look after 60 elderly patients because they have no one else to care for them. Even though the disease is dormant, the patients still suffer from infections in their arm and leg stumps due to injuries. The lepers who still have their hands are able to earn an income by weaving hats from grass, painting pictures and producing other handicrafts. The sisters also have a delivery room for wives of lepers and women with leprosy because local clinics refuse to assist them. Lepers and their families live near the colony in surrounding villages because the larger community does not accept them. There is such a stigma attached to leprosy that family members find it difficult to marry and secure employment—even though they are not carriers of the disease. Oftentimes, wives of lepers are rejected and abandoned. Primary school-age children of families with lepers are also excluded from advancing to secondary school.
There are many challenges that the sisters in Cameroon must deal with on a daily basis. For example, there are frequent gas shortages—this forces people to buy their fuel on the black market. Since Cameroon was a French colony, there continues to be many French influences in the culture, food and language. English is primarily spoken in the north/western areas while French is the most predominantly spoken language throughout Cameroon. It is also hard to travel in the developing country because it is expensive and there are many towns separated by vast, wide-open spaces.
Despite the obstacles sisters in Cameroon may face, they are still able to provide their much-needed services. Towards the end of her trip, Sr. Joyce visited a congregation that lacks the means to renovate their convent because their stipends are low. They do not have access to water on a regular basis and the plumbing system for their latrine does not work. The machines used for their income-generating projects—altar bread baking and sewing liturgical vestments—are also in need of repair. In spite of these difficult conditions, the sisters manage to operate a nursery school in a rural area and have applied for funding to purchase school materials and equipment. Through it all, the sisters were able to see the silver lining and expressed to Sr. Joyce that their situation was not too bad because there are other sisters who experience an even greater degree of than their own!
The programs enacted by sisters may help to alleviate some of the suffering of those they are trying to help, but the people of Cameroon still continue to live very hard lives. Towards the end of Sr. Joyce’s trip to Cameroon, she visited with a Muslim family that participates in an NGO project for women’s empowerment that is partially funded by the Sisters’ Fund. The mother of six borrows money to buy groundnuts—she roasts the nuts and resells them to students at a local school. For extra income, she also distills oil from the nuts—this is a very labor-intensive process. At certain times throughout the year, the mother returns the borrowed money and waits until her next turn to borrow. The mother is a widow and has no other means to support her children.
On January 6, 2004, Sr. Joyce continued her trip to Nigeria. While there, she found that the profits derived from oil production in the quickly developing, oil-rich nation have yet to trickle down to the people who need it most.
There were many times when Sr. Joyce traveled through city-slums only to find mansions being erected within its borders. She learned that the newly rich would use the mansions as second-homes during the holidays. In Nigeria, it is tradition for a family to keep a house in their native village—even if they no longer live there—so they can always have a place to stay when they visit. At other times, Sr. Joyce would see luxury cars parked in front of dilapidated huts. The owners of these vehicles preferred to live in run-down areas so they could be close to their family members—even though they may own larger homes on the other side of town.
This unbalanced economic scale has produced a country that is burgeoning with wealth even though the majority of the population remains poor and uneducated. But together, they are forced to cope with the problems derived from unreliable infrastructures.
At many of the missionary projects Sr. Joyce visited, a dependable form of electricity was still uncommon. Because of this very problem, one group of sisters is exploring the use of solar energy panels. They found that it was impossible to keep operating expenses low while using gas generators. At another site visit in the slum Meiran, Sr. Joyce met with sisters at a clinic who must perform pregnancy deliveries by candlelight at night due to lack of electricity.
Despite the imperfect systems set in place in Nigeria, Sr. Joyce was able to meet with many sisters who were making great strides in their local communities. At a model school that received a grant from the Sisters’ Fund for science lab equipment, Sr. Joyce met with the school’s principal who shared with her the progress that was being made. She learned that although the school is fairly new, students from surrounding communities are trying to enroll because of the excellent teaching reputation the sisters at the school have earned. Due to the influx of students, the principal is having dormitories built to house students that live out of the area; each room will accommodate 30 girls. The principal is also hoping to receive funding to purchase more lab equipment—this will help the school to become certified by the government.
In Kaduna, Sr. Joyce checked-up on the progress of Sisters of the Sacred Heart who were working to rehabilitate young, Nigerian women that recently escaped the sex trafficking industry. The center of this activity takes place in Benin City where women are either abducted from the streets or lured into the system. Once the young women are in, they are moved from one syndicate to another where they are eventually bought and sold, like their slave ancestors. In the end, the women become the property of Nigerian madams in countries like Italy and Germany. (The Sisters’ Fund awarded a grant for their extension project in Italy.)
In the Italy project, the sisters provide outreach to these young women by visiting prostitution areas to educate them about a way out of the system and other alternatives for employment. If the women are able to escape, they either return home to Nigeria or they stay in Italy and learn useful skills. However, there are serious consequences for those that leave prostitution behind. When a woman gets out of the industry, madams and syndicates find their families and force them to pay debts for travel and living costs owed by their daughters. If a woman’s family refuses to pay, they are often threatened with death. When this occurs, families are able to seek out the sisters in Nigeria for legal assistance to fight the prostitution syndicates. For women that return home, the sisters help to rehabilitate them and provide counsel for their legal issues. The work the Sisters of the Sacred Heart is very dangerous, on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea.
Towards the end of her trip, Sr. Joyce was able to meet with sisters from two other projects that she found to be very inspiring. In Enugu, she visited a vocational school that received a grant from the Sisters’ Fund. The school was unfinished and in desperate need of a new water source—their small well was nearly dry. Despite these conditions, the school was able to enroll 90 young women. Some of the women also live at the school because they have no where else to go. The students are being taught to sew, type and cook.
In the town Owerri, Sr. Joyce visited a home for abandoned babies. Nurses from the local hospital either bring the infants to the home or they are brought by their mothers who can no longer care for them. Unfortunately, a majority of these babies are carriers of the HIV/AIDS virus. Due to the growing number of babies being accepted into the home, the sisters have had to move their primary work—care of young, unmarried women—to a new site. The sisters at the home are waiting for funds to begin a pig-rearing project, along with a chicken hatchery and a turkey farm. Their current income is only supplemented by the sale of vegetables from their farm.
Throughout Sr. Joyce’s trip to Cameroon and Nigeria, she was struck by the staggering degrees of poverty and wealth in each country. Yet, she left West Africa feeling inspired by how tirelessly the sisters worked to sustain their projects.