Site Visits to East Africa: Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, August 2002
By Sister Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director
My visit to East Africa began with Uganda, a country with many natural gifts, fertile soil, many variety of bananas, Lake Victoria, and the most important, its people. The sisters I met were very impressive, energetic and industrious. I visited their primary and kindergarten schools, homes for abandoned and orphaned children, and a variety of educational centers for girls and women. The education centers offer courses in computer, tailoring, shoe making and other income generating endeavors. Sustainability of most projects depends on generation of income through the sale of chickens or pigs. The animals are sold to the local people, enabling parents to feed their children nutritious foods, along with Matoke, the delicious national dish of steamed bananas.
Water is scarce in many parts of Uganda. One school faculty boasted of its new water tank, funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters. In the photo workmen are scraping the metal roof of the school so that the water caught in the rain gutters would not be rusty.
When in Kampala, I had the privilege of meeting with the general superiors of Ugandan congregations at the headquarters of the Association of Religious of Uganda, ARU. From the sisters I learned about the many challenges they encounter in carrying out their ministries in often dangerous environments. Uganda continues to be plagued by rebels in the north who prey upon the local farmers. It also suffers the overflow of violence from Sudan and Congo, their neighbors.
I learned from the sisters the difficulties they encounter in supporting the daily living expenses of their members who work mostly without pay in parishes and schools. Lack of remuneration requires other sisters to engage in income generating projects for their congregations. In the photo below a sister sews shoes for the community and for sale in the local market.
From Uganda, I traveled to Tanzania, Mwanza and Bukoba in the north and Dar es Salaam and Morogoro in the east central part of the country. Throughout my visits I saw the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS on children and elders. Many are abandoned because their families have died or are dying. Sisters creatively find ways to provide food, clothing and shelter for these unfortunates. At one orphan’s home we had a tour of the family’s small farm and were treated to a snack of coke and roasted groundnuts. Many of the schools managed by the sisters enroll a number of orphans who have no one to pay fees.
Tanzania is struggling with terrible poverty. I visited many schools in desperate need of repair. Walls were crumbling and latrines were sliding off hills into rivers. Other schools were without roofs or walls, electricity, desks or other necessary equipment. One of the secondary schools, established in the 1960s to accommodate sisters who enter the convent immediately after primary school, suffers along with the others. Having an adequate water supply is the most significant challenge. The students and sisters walk for miles to fetch water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and sanitation.
From Tanzania I traveled to Kenya, where along with site visits, I attended an international meeting of sisters from English speaking East Africa. The meeting was held in Nairobi, at Chem Chemi, a new center planned in 1986 and only realized in 2001. The sisters patiently raised the necessary funds during all these years. The first day of the meeting was opened with a visit from the Apostolic Nuncio and the president of Kenya. It was a festive occasion.
After attending one week of the meeting, I began a tour of central and west Kenya. My first destination was Kisumu. Here I visited a fabulous water project once abandoned by the government and now resurrected by the people with the help of the sisters. Over 100,000 people, particularly women benefit from this project. They can now obtain water piped from Lake Victoria from spigots near their villages rather than walking long distances to streams or ponds.
During the next ten days I visited homes for children with disabilities, others for orphans and elders, schools, farm projects, HIV/AIDS projects, health clinics and hospitals, tailoring/sewing/catering education centers, refugee projects and education of Turkana children. I found unique projects such as schools using the Montessori method of education.
Travel throughout Kenya and the other countries was a challenging experience because once off the tarmak, the roads were primarily dirt and rock tracks. Bad roads make it very difficult to maintain vehicles.
My most memorable adventures in Kenya were the slums of Nairobi and Eldoret and a journey from Kisumu to Eldoret in a mutatu. Walking through the slums of Nairobi was a shocking experience. Nairobi is home to Kibera, the third largest slum in the world; Brazil and India have the first and second largest slums, respectively. The conditions of Kibera are made more horrendous because of the numbers of people. It was crowded and filthy. People are living in small shacks in unimaginably unsanitary conditions. They are plagued with "flying toilets", plastic bags used as toilets and thrown into the streets. It was hard to believe that families have to pay rent to live here. But, in the midst of this, sisters from various congregations provide health care, counseling, and education projects.
The second adventure was traveling in a mutatu from a local bus depot. Mutatus are small vans, privately owned. The drivers place signs on the vans to announce their destinations and then wait for passengers. The passengers sit in place waiting until the mutatu is filled, sometimes to over capacity, before starting out. I waited two hours for my mutatu to depart for Eldoret. Consequently, when I arrived in Eldoret, the sisters were not there to meet me. When a local taxi driver invited me to ride with him, I told him that I was waiting for the sisters to meet me. He said, "Stand right here. They will find you." And gratefully, his prophecy came true. I experienced the bus stations to be quite chaotic.
A spectacular sight I had on my way to the Eldoret airport was giraffe eating leaves from a tree. This was only one of the many beauties I discovered in East Africa: mountains, rich red soil, in some places lush vegetation and people dressed in colorful traditional dress. Lake Victoria borders all three countries, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. It has beautiful beaches of white sand , and it supplies water and food, especially for those who live nearby. In Uganda I was privileged to see the place where Lake Victoria and the Nile River meet.
I learned many things during my time in East Africa, but one stands out. There is a great need for education, particularly for girls. Women and girls bear the responsibilities of providing shelter, food and basic necessities for their families, and yet they have few resources to do so, whether it be money, land or education. Not only are they without rights to property, but they are always in second place for educational opportunities. Prostitution is frequently their only hope for survival for themselves and for their families. This of course, puts them at great risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
HIV/AIDS is a factor that makes this situation even more desperate. When husbands die from the disease, the wives and children are left to the mercy of traditional inheritance practices, where his brothers take nearly all their possessions, including the wife. At times when both parents die, the children dare not leave their family plots because these can be confiscated by the extended family. Thus, being threatened with total dispossession, the children rarely have opportunity for education.
I have the greatest admiration for the sisters and all they are able to accomplish with so few resources and I am grateful that the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters can be a partner in their endeavors.