An inspirational person for me here is a young girl named Mado. She was born with hydrocephalus and now is bedridden with contractures in her legs and arms. Her mother gave birth to her illegitimately but the beautiful thing is that the husband of Mado’s mother returned from being away and instead of seeking revenge or letting out his anger on his wife he forgave his wife and the man and took Mado as one of his own children. Since his passing Mado has now been somewhat rejected from the family in a way. She spends all day in her dark room, is washed once a week (maybe) and is fed once or twice during the day and sometimes not at all. Her bed is made of a few wooden planks with mattress as thin as a dime with a dirty tattered sheet over it and no pillow at all. The only possessions she owns are in a black plastic bag and include a few photos with Liz, a past volunteer from the States who visited with her, some stickers I gave her, some knitting wool (she makes AMAZING knitted centre pieces), and a bar of soap. She eats in her bed, since it is difficult to get her out of bed all the time; actually to get her out of her bed is a lot more difficult than I presumed it would be. I thought that I would be strong enough to lift her into her wheelchair by myself but I really couldn’t. Her head is rather large and weighs quite a lot. With this burden to carry this means that if she needs to go to the bathroom or wants to sit up in her chair she needs the help of two people, and not just any two people but her older sister or her Mom who are strong enough. I had to leave to go open the bakery and had to leave her there waiting for someone to come home who could take her to the bathroom. I felt so terrible to leave. The next time I tried to lift her myself and I found the strength within me which has really helped me be able to help her a lot more.
One time when I visited Mado she was in tears and told me in her broken French how her mom says that she is not her child. I try to console her with words but they don’t really do much. Instead I give her a hug and she holds me in her arms tightly for a good 2 minutes. I think I almost cried. I could feel her body giving into me, needing a hug more than anything in the world. She just needs to be loved. She lies in her bed all day long without any one to visit her. Myself and the other volunteers take her to mass on Sundays which is really nice for her. She waves her arms back and forth with great joy during the singing and praying and I think to myself, “how does this girl find the joy within her to praise God in her deep misery and rejection in this world?” She truly amazes me with her courage and her faith in God. We pray after each of our visits and I can see in her that she truly trusts in God’s power to answer her prayers.
For Easter us volunteers worked together in creating a wonderful head rest for her wheelchair. Before she would sit in her chair with her head leaning against the handle of the chair with her body at a terrible angle. I noticed this right away and thought of the idea to create a head rest. With the help of the handiwork of Clara and Stefano and the useful chord my Mom sent me we assembled (with much effort!) a helpful head rest for her. It was a beautiful thing for us volunteers to each be able to contribute in our own way with our skills and to see the face of Mado when she received this gift. It is great to be able to help someone live with a little more comfort. Here I am learning that you can’t “change and solve the problems of the world,” but you can make little differences in the lives of people. You can help one suffer less, make their life more comfortable. There is always hope even when you first encounter such suffering and it seems rather impossible to give any hope to the situation…it is possible, just with a lot patience and a lot of LOVE.
Another person who has inspired me is a young man named Francoise who works at the high school where I teach as the secretary. He shared his life story with us one Sunday afternoon which really was quite a history. First of all he didn’t go to school until he was 10 years old because it was during the war and he was not able to. During the war here in Congo he spent 1 month living in the bush with nothing. He also showed us a scar he had on his hand which he said was caused by falling out a truck filled with people fleeing during the war. When he did finally end up going to school he said he would walk to school alongside soldiers terribly afraid every day. He finally graduated with a 60% average, which for Congolese students is considered as very well and means much celebration amongst family members for this great achievement. He then searched for work here and there and finally found a job as the high school secretary in Aru. Many people during the time of the war he said are still suffering some with injuries and many with much psychological trauma. He told us that if you look at the steeple in the parish Church you can see near the bell tower where it is still black from when the church was burned. The life of Francoise has not been easy and it doesn’t get easier when you need to consider finding a wife. For men here in Aru you need to give the family of your bride 12 cows which is not cheap at all. Francoise then promised to come every Sunday to share more with us and us with him but as for now this is all I have of his story. Francoise’ story so far has shown me how simple things I take for granted require much struggle here in Africa. For example to afford paper and pens and books for school he had to travel a distance every day to the market to sell bananas and other things. When you talk to Francoise he is always smiling and seems very joyful. It makes me wonder why so many people in North America are always so hostile, distraught and grumpy when they have everything they need surrounding them and have to work so little to get the things that they do want, and then of course when they have all these things they are still unhappy. It is people like Francoise who teach me to appreciate all the blessings that I have received in life and be grateful to others. Just offering tea to Francoise was a great gesture for him and he thanked us truly from the heart. People here are grateful and happy for just the slightest amount of kindness you show towards them which is something I am not used to back home.
Sister Angela, not the one who walks with slouched shoulders whom I mentioned in my last blog, comes from Italy. She has spent a large portion of her life in Congo as a missionary Sister teaching and doing prison ministry. When she was younger she used to bike from Aru to the village of Ariwara which is about a 50 kilometer rough road through the Savanna a few times every week. Unfortunately this rigorous undertaking took quite a toll on her body causing her severe nerve damage. When I first met Sr. Angela I had no idea that she spent most of her day in pain and sometimes had no sleep at all during the night. She carries herself with the most glowing and vibrant spirit that one sees only joy in her. When she came to me asking me to help relieve her pain with reflexology massage I was very surprised to know that she even had pain or a any form of illness. I have now been massaging her feet and hands twice a week and I cannot comprehend how it is possible to go on living with the amount of pain she suffers. With reflexology there are certain points in the hands and feet that correspond to other parts in the body such as the head, neck, spine, lower back, intestines etc. When I slightly touch her middle toes for example she feels extreme pain in her cervical spine and it shoots towards her head. It is a rather frightening thing when you cause other people so much pain. She has been so close to tears during one of our sessions and it is sometimes hard for me to see someone suffer so much. I know that afterwards she will be able to sleep well which is what I try to think about. She told me just the other day that on Saturday and Sunday she worked so hard without much time for relaxing that she was unable to sleep for 3 days straight. She then told me, “God gives me the strength to go on.” This statement of faith really blew me away because God truly does come to the aid of our weaknesses and he is powerful enough to carry one through days without sleep. Sr. Angela continued to say how her pain is her cross to carry and that she can relate to how Jesus felt when the nails were driven through his wrists. The point in the wrist is where many nerves channel through and to have all your body weight to put there must be excruciatingly painful. When I massage Sr. Angela’s hands I can see Jesus in her. She is lying there close to tears but with such courage and strength that it almost brings me to tears. She also told me how she went to Italy for treatment and for one month in the hospital she did not sleep at all. Also she said that the doctors in Italy said she would have to have surgery for her nerves. She returned to Congo where when she prayed to St. Bakhita (the Saint who is from Sudan and was also a Canossian Sister) told her to clean herself with the red earth of Africa which she did and when she returned back to Italy the doctors were amazed that she would not require surgery.
Another story to add about Sr. Angela is when we visited the prisons here in Aru on Easter Sunday. When we arrived at the prison we waited as many of the prisoners were issued from one small room to another small room. We placed Jesus on the bench surrounded by flowers and a candle and Sr. Angela began to preach to the prisoners about Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection with joy and gladness I have never seen reflected in a human being before. She honestly is a living Jesus to me. The prisoners, all men except one woman, respectfully listened to her and answered all her questions correctly with excitement and renewed spirit. Sr. Angela asked simple questions where they would have to fill in the response and all of them responded with such passion as though breaking forth from a hiatus. The majority of the prisoners were Catholics but many other non religious sects and just on Friday when Sr. Angela visited she said about 7 or 8 received confession. The prisoners were not aggressive which I had expected but very respectful. I noticed one or two really young guys and the rest were probably in their 30s; they looked like ordinary young Congolese men who work in the fields with tattered clothes, bare feet, strong arms and skinny legs. Sr. Angela read the Gospel from St. John about the Resurrection and preached about how Jesus is here with all of us right now. His Peace is for all of us. Even on the cross he forgave us for our sins, in the midst of his suffering. The prisoners all had their gaze on Sr. Angela and there were many nods of understanding and agreement. When I sat there I thought to myself, “Jesus’ love is so strong that it surpasses the walls of prisons. These prisoners are ‘free,’ inside with the Peace that Jesus offers to them.” We then sang some songs in Lingala and ended with a wonderful Congolese Alleluia with loud and energetic beatings on the drums and dancing. It was really an unforgettable experience to see roughly 40 prisoners dancing and singing praises to God in a tiny cell room with a religious Sister, 4 white people, and 3 young African girls. Just last week we watched the film Shawshank Redemption and the character ‘Red’ says that “hope is a dangerous thing.” He does not want to hope in things that will only set him up for disappointment such as the hope of escaping from Shawshank Prison. But we see the hope in the man ‘Andy’ who despite his many setbacks he continues to have hope and we see at the end of the movie how he achieves his freedom and escapes. That day in the prison in Aru hope could be seen in the faces of those prisoners. They had hope in Jesus’ Resurrection. This hope is stronger than evil, it is stronger than the force of man and is stronger than the walls of prison.
There are many things I am learning here in Africa and I hope that all of you who are keeping up with my blog appreciate what I am learning as well.