I CAN still remember when Sr Stella Niwagira arrived in Scotland. I was 18 and just a few months from entering the community in Bellshill where she had come to stay. From day one she stood out. She had an infectious personality and laugh that attracted people from all walks of life.
When I joined the community as Postulant, I accompanied her every now and then on her mission appeals. As she stood up to speak, the people would hang on her every word. She would tell them of her native Uganda and of her village, Nyarushanje. Nyarushanje is a sub county in the Rukungiri district in Western Uganda. The Rukungiri district is bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo to the northwest and by the Kabale district to the south, from where the name of the diocese comes from.
She told tales of the work of the Irish missionaries in her area, work that had been so significant in bringing the faith to her people, in supporting them in their needs, their education, healthcare and development.
Her stories kindled my imagination and my own longing to one day go to Africa. Never though in my wildest dreams did I think I would have the opportunity to visit not only Uganda, but her own village of Nyarushanje.
Fast forward 17 years and the Diocese of Kabale, Nyarushanje, was to play host 10 young people from Scotland, three teachers, Martin Mann from Missio Scotland and myself, as we embarked on a short mission experience in Sr Stella’s hometown (above).
There’s no place like home, right? And absence makes the heart grow fonder. When I would listen to Sr Stella tell of the beauty of her village, I wondered ‘is it really that beautiful? Maybe she is exaggerating because she misses it so much…’
It is. And she wasn’t. Nyarushanje is simply beautiful.
Generosity amid poverty
This was my eighth visit to Africa; my third to Uganda and it has fascinated and regaled me every time, but Nyarushanje was astounding. The churches and schools we visited where pitched with a background of majestic mountains, lush green plains and abundant banana plants. It was idyllic. A perfect picture postcard.
Yet while the stunning natural beauty is preserved in a place so remote, the poverty of the people who live literally hand-to-mouth makes an equally strong impression. Children attended school in threadbare clothes and bare feet. Teachers had to teach in the semi darkness as the budget wouldn’t stretch to light bulbs and they had to work in the evenings and weekends on coffee plantations as their teacher’s salary wasn’t enough to make ends meet.
However, what was more striking than their poverty is their generosity. The Ugandans didn’t stage anything. Theirs was not a rehearsed welcome but a welcome (above) that came from the heart. On one afternoon, we went to a lake in the valley, to admire the beauty and for a bit of rest. As we descended the hill, we passed the workers in the fields who waved and smiled warmly. On our ascent we found that they had all gathered around the small outstation church to welcome us, literally leaving whatever they were doing to come and spend time with us. Us? Who were we to warrant such a welcome? But welcome us they did. They sang, they danced and they brought us gifts of pineapples and potatoes. Fruit of their labour. Gifts given not of their abundance but from the little they have.
I was reminded of the story of the widow in the Gospel who Jesus observes putting two small coins into the collection box. That widow, said Jesus, put in much more than all those who gave of their excess.
That same scene played before my eyes as I sat in church on Sunday and gazed as every man woman and child rose to place something in the offertory collection. They were trying to complete the building of their church. The one that they were currently using was too small for the vast numbers attending Mass on a weekly basis.
Just to the left of the parish school, the frame of the new church stands. I asked the priest how long they had been trying to build the new church. “Eight years” was the reply. Eight years and it was a long, long way from completion. Yet with hope and trust, each Sunday they rose from their seats, walked down the aisle and placed their small coins in the collection box.
As I watched and reflected on this simple yet poignant gesture, I asked myself, ‘Stacey, are you giving of your excess? Or are you willing to rise, and place all that you have in that collection box? Are you willing to go without in order to give the fruit of your labour to strangers? People you will be unlikely ever to see again? Do you have a heart as generous as theirs?’
And the prayer of St Ignatius arose in my heart:
Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your Will.
Every visit to Africa has taught me so much and given me so much (above). This visit was no different and while the lessons they taught will stay in my heart, I also realise how much they rely on our help. No matter how much effort they put in, no matter the sacrifices they make, that Church is a long way from completion. They need the help of their brothers and sisters around the world through organisations like Missio Scotland.
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