The Sustenance of Faith?

Yesterday my girls and I, along with mum who is with us from England, visited a home in the Outpost run by Mother Theresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity.

I had seen a couple of the Sisters in town, their blue and white robes trademark of their founder. And I had wondered about their work here.

Baptised a Roman Catholic, my faith is potholed. And selective inasmuch as I don’t believe spirituality has to equate with regular attendance of Mass. Lapsed perhaps. Even lazy. But it does not render me incapable of appreciating the Faith of others. No matter where – or who – they worship.

So we went and said hello to the Sisters, two tiny Indian ladies. One chuckled endlessly and told us she had been in the Outpost on and off since 1972, ”with the odd rest back in India”, she said, giggling. The other was beady eyed and fired a volley of questions:

where was I from?

Here, I said. She looked doubtful.  Really, I continued, I’ve been in Tanzania for nearly twenty years.

But originally, she pressed, where are you from originally.

I was born in Kenya, I tell her, like my dad and my mum (gesturing towards mum) was born in India.

Her interest piqued. Where? she demanded,

 ”Bombay” said Mum.

Do you speak Hindi? she wanted to know.

Mum apologised that alas she did not; she had left when she was just six.

Nor do we anymore, said both Sisters sadly, we have been here so long we have forgotten our own language.

We were given a guided tour of their home and said hello to forty orphans and almost 100 OAPs. The children, the tiniest barely a month, were about to have their supper, mugs of uji. The bigger amongst them, just four or five, laughed uproariously at their funny visitors. The older residents, some snowy haired and bent with age, greeted us cheerfully and ululated as we walked their dormitory which had been decorated for Christmas with a crib and lights which repeated tinny renditions of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

We left, feeling humbled. And lucky. But no more than I might feel encountering a beggar in the market, or a street child. Being up close and personal with abject poverty – the disadvantaged, the hungry, the abandoned, the despairing – is par for the course in Africa. You can drive by with tinted windows up, the air con blowing icily and your iTunes obliterating the sounds from outside, but poverty will stick out a leg and trip you up eventually, or hold out a hand, pleadingly.

So whilst the poverty wasn’t a new experience, meeting women like the Indian Sisters was. There was no piety in their demeanour, no holier than thou on account of their Good Works. They asked for nothing. They just asked questions. Are they always like this, I wondered, or does the hopelessness of the plight of so many Africans ever get them down? Perhaps when it does they are dispatched home for a ”rest”. They receive no assistance from the Government. And are reluctant to accept donations of cash. They’d rather, I am told, receive gifts in kind.  They regard their work as serious, without taking themselves too seriously. They demonstrate none of the sanctimoniousness that is sometimes found in those working to improve the lives of those less fortunate than themselves. They aren’t going to make poverty history either, but they’re certainly going to push misery into the past, if only briefly, for those whose lives they touch. Because they strung up a few balloons, set up a crib and strung it with lights that emitted tuneless Christmas Carols.

I have told Hat I will wait until one of the orange trees delivers a harvest and then I can go with fruit for the children, which will provide me with an excuse to know the Sisters a little better, to talk to them about who they are. Not what they do. Hat said she would come too. And that evening she donned a sparkly skirt, stuck a bindi to her forehead and danced like an Indian with armfuls of bangles jangling.

I suspect that would have made the Sisters laugh too.

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7 Responses to “The Sustenance of Faith?”

  1. Roberta Says:

    You make me wish I could send them something….

  2. R. Sherman Says:

    Thanks for this post.

    Perhaps the Sisters refuse to see the entire forest of poverty in favor of concentrating on a tree or two, in hopes that making many small differences ultimately add up to something greater than the sum.

  3. Roberta Says:

    Because I couldn’t find your Email address, I’ll post here.

    I just love that young African/American at the end. He is so joyous!

    Click here: YouTube – Straight No Chaser – 12 Days

  4. jen Says:

    exactly the sort of reasons i am trying so willfully to get an international post. failing, but trying.

  5. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thanks All.

    Mr Sherman; you are so right – I lay in bed the night after we met the sisters and almost came to the same conclusion: perhaps a little for a few is better than battling to achieve more for so many. For as you say, the forest of poverty would overwhelm.

    Good luck Jen! Look me up if you end up in my lonely part of the world!

  6. Kathleen Says:

    I was always taught to take a problem and break it down and handle each area on its own. I think at this point that is the only way to look at poverty. If you can help do it on a level that it will make a difference. Hope you and your family are having a good season, looking forward to ’08.

  7. iota Says:

    I worked in DfID (ODA then) in the early ’90s. They were very dismissive of previous aid efforts, pointing out that a lot of individuals had been helped, but nothing had changed. So they were very into projects that delivered change on a macro rather than a micro level. This was the way forward, even if there were “negative social effects” in the short term (people losing jobs, going hungry etc).

    I initially said that it seemed to me that a project which made a huge difference to the lives of individuals must, surely, be worthwhile, even if it was unsustainable, and I asked whether there was any evidence that the macro projects worked any better in the long term . The answers I got gave me the impression that I was naive and ignorant. I wish I could go back now, with the added confidence of 15 years, and ask some of the same questions again. Alas.

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