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Shining example of faith in Lisanjala

Gerard Gough

IN MATTHEW’S Gospel, the line: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” is well-known and widely quoted. It could apply in many instances in Scotland, as Scottish people are known for and proud of—and with some justification—their hospitable nature. I remember speaking to Sr Stella Niwagira, a Claverian Sister from Uganda, who had spent some time with her fellow sisters in Bellshill and she remarked that ‘although Scotland is a cold country, the people there have a warm heart.’ The same could be said of Sr Stella and her fellow Ugandans whose country I had the pleasure of visiting in 2017, or of the Zambian people, many of whom I was fortunate enough to meet during my time there in 2018.

Love and care in Lisanjala

Last year, I had a similar experience in Malawi, proving that it really lived up to the billing as ‘the warm heart of Africa.’ From the minute I arrived in the country—everyone I met both clergy and lay people—were so warm and welcoming to myself and the Missio team I travelled with.

And that hospitality is infectious, spreading to those who are not native to the country, like Sr Nilceia Aparecida Padilha (above), a Brazilian Benedictine Sister of Divine Providence, working in the rural area of Lisanjala in the Zomba Diocese. She met us outside a clinic that she and her fellow sisters help to run there, with a smile as great as the Amazon River. She was comforting a child who was suffering from a high fever at the time, which made that welcome feel particularly special. God’s love was evident in her actions be it helping tend to adults and children at the clinic, or singing and dancing with the children at the nearby nursery school. It was through her words, moreso than her actions however, that emphasised the depth of that love for those she served.

To provide a bit of context with regards to some of the healthcare challenges that Malawi faces, close to one million people in the country live with HIV/AIDS—with approximately 34,000 new infections each year—some 37 per cent of Malawian children suffer from chronic malnutrition and Malawi is also a high-burden malaria country with an incidence rate of 332 cases annually per every 1000 people and approximately 4.8 million episodes of malaria per year. With regards to malaria, one of the most shocking facts we were made aware of while speaking to Sr Nilceia and the healthcare assistant Peter Chipete, was that paracetamol—which is used to treat the fever associated with the disease—hadn’t been available to them for the past two years.

Trials and tribulations

Sr Nilceia made us aware of more of the trials and tribulations that she and her sisters face in Lisanjala with regards to the physical and mental wellbeing and the needs of the people. Every sentence she spoke was punctuated by passion for her work and making the lives of those around her better. She told us that the 80 girls at a home in the complex there are in real need of mosquito nets to protect against malaria and that a toilet block and sewage system were needed as they had problems with the current one during the rainy season, which, if not fixed could cause health issues too. She also lamented the fact that the children at the nursery school (above) had no toys to play with and no playground equipment.

“When a child plays, they are stimulating their body and mind and it helps them to grow,” Sr Nilceia said. “But unfortunately, children here don’t have that. They don’t know how to play.” As the father of a young daughter, who, like many children in Scotland, has a fecundity of toys and places to play, this story I found incredibly sad. There was, however another account that Sr Nilceia relayed to us that would prove to be even more heart-breaking.

Before she had even begun recounting this tragic tale she broke down in tears. It was a moment that no amount of media experience prepares you for and as she composed herself and started to speak about this young girl and her child, it was difficult not to react in a similar manner. The girl, named Linda, suffered from mental health issues, Sr Nilceia told us, and was around the age of 15 or 16 when she gave birth to a child, a son named Blessing. If that wasn’t difficult enough to process, the child was conceived after Linda had been raped by an 80-year old man, who was never brought to justice. Prior to delivering the baby, she came to the Benedictine Sisters suffering from malnutrition and they took care of her. After the baby was born, she returned to the sisters’ house as the baby was suffering from Malaria and Sr Nilceia took her to a larger clinic in a place called Mambo for treatment. She refused an offer to stay with them after the treatment and the child caught the disease again, so the sisters looked after Blessing for a month to help him to properly recover. Then, after that, the sisters handed him back to her mother, provided food for the baby and visited them every week. The girl’s parents, however, eventually took the child from Linda and said that they would look after him as she wasn’t capable. They then asked to be provided with milk for the baby, which the sisters duly agreed to do. The milk that they provided, however, wasn’t given to the child by his grandparents. They had babies of their own and it is thought that that they took advantage of the sisters’ generosity and gave the milk to them. As a result of that, Blessing died of malnutrition at the age of ten months.

“I was angry with them, I shouted at them after I went to their house to see the baby and they said he wasn’t there, he was in the hospital,” Sr Nilceia said as her eyes began to well with tears again. “When I went to see him you could tell he wasn’t going to survive. It’s an experience that has caused me great suffering. It was so painful. We could have looked after him. He didn’t have to die.”

Love and strength

Although she no doubt felt a sense of hopelessness after that, Sr Nilceia and her fellow sisters overcame that emotion and, at the time of our visit were in the process of helping another child (above), whose mother had died during labour and who was being looked after by a family member. The sisters made that family member promise to give the baby the food that they would supply to them and were monitoring this through regular visits as well. That just goes to show the intestinal fortitude that Sr Nilceia and missionaries like her the world over possess. They are outstanding people working in exceptionally difficult circumstances. For her part, she draws strength through prayer, God’s providence and, in particular from Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 1, Verses 1-25, which is rather apt given that Verse 22 states: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” God’s love was evident in the words and actions of Sr Nilceia, but you could see it in her eyes too. She is a shining example of faith—like all our missionaries—and with your love and support, we at Missio Scotland will always endeavour to keep their lamps burning.

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