By Sisters Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters.
The main purpose of my visit to Tanzania was to attend the Association of Women of East and Central Africa (ACWECA) Conference. The weeklong conference (August 15 – August 20) was partially supported by the Sisters’ Fund. This year, the conference took place in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, located on the Indian Ocean. I also attended ACWECA’s last conference in 2002. The conference serves as a forum for sisters from different congregations and focuses on the formation of religious. The majority of the participants attending this year’s conference came from Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. There were also representatives from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Eritrea. The conference drew 167 sisters. Organizing a large event like ACWECA can sometimes be a daunting task because it is difficult to obtain travel visas between African countries. The lack of reliable transportation also hinders access to traveling—some sisters arrived at the conference after a 40 hour bus ride.
The ACWECA Conference included prayer, workshops and discussion groups. The three main topics of this year’s conference was: the apparent crises of faith due to social and political influences in these developing countries; a serious lack of funds to meet basic necessities for food, housing, health and education; and exploitation due to the patriarchal societies and Church structures that tend to move women to unhealthy submission and powerlessness.
I was one of the speakers at one of the meetings and addressed issues that have arisen since the last ACWECA Conference. I also informed the grantees about future funding possibilities and commended them on the improved quality of their applications. During the week, I had the opportunity to meet with leaders from individual congregations and representatives from national conferences. The meetings provided me with valuable information about how congregations are functioning and what challenges they are facing.
A few days before the conference ended, August 21st,another sister and I took a bus trip to Sumbawanga, the largest town in southwestern Tanzania. The sister was my travel companion throughout my trip. Sumbawanga is on the border of Congo, Zambia and Malawi. The first leg of the trip took 14 hours over a paved road. Tanzanian law prohibits the operation of buses at night, so we stayed at a convent in Tunduma before beginning the rest of their journey the next day.
In the morning, Monday, August 22nd, I was able to tour the congregation’s compound and inspect the borehole installed with a grant from the Sisters’ Fund. The borehole serves the sisters’ health center, convent and surrounding village. The locals line up each morning to pump their water for the day and each family pays a small fee to help maintain the pump and motor. Due to the area’s extremely dry climate, the current borehole is not adequate enough to meet everyone’s needs, so the sisters are planning to apply for a second grant to drill a new borehole.
The next leg of my journey took six hours, along a dirt road in a Land Rover. Along the way, I was able to visit three missions near the main highway. First, I met sisters living in a small convent who live in very simple, basic conditions. The sisters choose to live in the same manner as the villagers they are helping so they may be closer to them.
Next, I visited a convent, study center and a local secondary school. The main problem for the sisters at this station is that they lacked water. I repeatedly saw the same dilemma throughout my travels.
The third stop I made was to a minor seminary. The sisters work in the seminary as cooks and cleaners and a few attend classes.
After six hours in the Land Rover, we finally reached Sumbawanga. My last site visit of the day was to girl’s hostel with 50 residents. The girls live in two, three-room and four-room homes. The sisters own a large piece of property that also has a dining hall/study room, a garden and pig and poultry project. The girls attend a co-educational secondary school nearby. Unfortunately, the property is not secure and the sisters are requesting a grant to protect the residents from thieves and intruders. They also need a borehole. Parents are required to pay a small fee for room and board.
In the near future, the sisters want to build a secondary school for girls on property they recently purchased from the government. When the school is built, it will be the only one of its kind in the southwestern region of Tanzania. The government required the sisters to secure the perimeter of their property with a foundation for a wall before construction for the school could begin. Raising the funds to purchase the land and construct the wall required a major sacrifice among the sisters from the 400-member congregation. The congregation saved money by collecting salaries from sisters working in government schools, rationing their food and going without new clothes and shoes.
The next day, Tuesday, August 23rd, we visited Chala, a town about two hours north of Sumbawanga. Some of the sisters in Chala work at the local, government primary school, which is about a two-mile walk in the burning sun. Others work in the diocesan health center, some do pastoral work and others oversee the formation of postulants and novices. The sisters were able to drill a borehole with a grant from the Sisters’ Fund. The borehole supplies water to the health center, garden and many village families. Villagers are charged a small fee for maintenance. The novices and postulants live in a novitiate house located on a hill, they also use the same borehole, but it is laborious form them to carry the water buckets up the hill.
Unfortunately, the water at the old borehole seems to be decreasing and the sisters have applied for a grant to drill a second borehole. Before the sisters had the borehole, they used water from a dam in the mountains behind the clinic—the dam also generated electricity for the novitiate. Scare rainfall and lack of money to repair the dam’s pumps and tanks have brought the system to a halt.
In the afternoon, we returned to Sumbawanga and visited an orphanage for 60 small children with HIV/AIDS. Four sisters and several lay women look after the children.
Next, I was taken to a congregation’s motherhouse that had many projects operating on their large property. The sisters have a borehole on the compound with a water tank for storage and running water for their convent, carpentry shop and kindergarten. Unfortunately, the water tank is in disrepair and the sisters cannot afford to have it serviced. The sisters must pump and carry all of the water for cooking and drinking to the sites on their property.
One sister managed the carpentry shop and 12 young men were enrolled. The students learn income-generating skills and fulfill orders for schools and dormitories. They took great pride in their work and were proud to show me the furniture they made.
The kindergarten on the property used to be a one-room school. With a grant from the Sisters’ Fund, they were able to add a second room and increase their enrollment to 60 students. Parents in the area were very thankful to have a kindergarten nearby.
The last project on the site was a pig and poultry unit. The sisters started the project to provide income and food for the people they serve. The sister who supervises the livestock wants to expand the project and drill a borehole to provide water for the animals.
In the morning, Wednesday, August 24, we traveled six hours east to Tunduma and stopped in Mbeya along the way, where we visited another convent that received a grant for a borehole. The sisters purchased their property from the government and built a small convent and kindergarten. The sisters also have a small shop where they sell the produce and plants they grow for income. Finding a means of earning income was a major concern of all the congregations I met.
Later that evening, we were taken five hours, northeast through a mountainous region to Iringa—a town perched on a mountainside. We stayed at a local convent for the night. The convents I visited had many things in common—all clean water had to be carried from boreholes for drinking and cooking. Every bathroom housed large rubber barrels to hold water for bucket bathing and toilet flushing. All beds were fitted with mosquito netting to protect against malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Malaria is the main cause of death in Tanzania.
The next day, we visited PASAI, a project for HIV/AIDS orphans. Three sisters live and work with 100 youths, ages 7 – 20. None of the children have parents and most of them are HIV positive. They are enrolled at local schools and the PASAI center is their home. The Sisters’ Fund awarded PASAI with a grant for food for the orphans and a monthly feeding program for poor families in the area. The sisters provide the families with packages of rice, corn and millet.
That afternoon, we left Iringa and went to Nyamakuya to visit a dispensary—the trip took four hours on red-dirt roads. Along the way, I saw many Masai tribes people herding their cattle. The Masai are nomadic herders who have maintained their way of life for hundreds of years.
The health center was opened at the request of local leaders—it is the only one in the region. The nearest government dispensary is on the other side of the mountain—which is too far away to travel to when ill. Common diseases in this region are malaria and HIV/AIDS. There is also a high mortality rate among pregnant mothers because they never had access to prenatal care.
The leaders came to the sisters because they had heard from others that sisters were good at providing health care. When the sisters told them they had no resources to open a dispensary, the leaders promised to give them a house and to collect money for medicines.
Four sisters live and work at the dispensary—which is constructed from mud bricks with a dirt floor. The small, three-room structure is divided into a registration/examination area, bedroom/dining room and a kitchen/bedroom/storeroom. A cramped hallway is used as the laboratory. There is no electricity and latrines are located outside. With a grant from the Sisters’ Fund, the sisters will begin construction on a larger dispensary on land they recently purchased.
After leaving the dispensary, we passed through Iringa again and proceeded down the mountain to Mtandika, to visit another health center. The health center is only one in the region outside of Morogoro—a northern town about five hours away by bus. The sisters literally built the dispensary one brick at a time. Whenever they saved enough money, they would add part of the roof or walls. There is no electricity in the area, so the sisters also saved money to install solar panels—which they use for a few hours at night. The center is surprisingly large—there are wards for women, men and children, a tuberculosis unit, laboratory and examination rooms. There is also a hostel nearby for visiting families.
The sisters plan to build a maternity surgery room. The nearest maternity wards for women with difficult pregnancies are in Iringa or Morogoro. Most of the women referred to these clinics die on the way because it is too far to travel. Another major risk factor they face is HIV/AIDS. Four out of five pregnant mothers are HIV positive. They contract the disease from truck drivers traveling through the region from Zambia, Malawi or Democratic Republic of Congo. The sisters also want to build a more comfortable hostel for their nurses—their current building has no kitchen, electricity or toilets. These living conditions make it difficult to keep qualified nurses on staff.
When I was traveling through Tanzania, I was struck by the serious deforestation of the landscape. Along the highway, I saw entire villages without trees for shade from the unrelenting sun. Women are forced to walk for miles each day in search of firewood for cooking. The government recently began a reforestation program, but because the locals do not understand the connection between trees and rainfall, they automatically burned the seedlings and grass to clear land for the planting season. Subsistence farming is the main source of income for most families. They use the land for "slash and burn agriculture"—a method that had been adopted for hundreds of years, although it is ineffective for long-term, productive farming. The Masai also overuse the land in this region for grazing their cattle.
Another main concern is that wells and boreholes were dry in most of the places I visited. Those without access to water must to wait until November for the rainy season to start, so they can collect water. I met some sisters that owned holding tanks to collect rainwater, but their capacity was not large enough to store water until the next rainy season. During the dry season, sisters must dig around nearby rivers and streams to find drinking/cooking water and water for their gardens, their primary food source.
The encroachment of the desert is also just beginning to raise concerns. The Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa and the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa is slowly expanding across the continent because regions that once had many trees (and received seasonal rainfall) is now barren and dry. The sisters are doing their best to educate the people about the environment, but it has been a slow process.
During my trip through Tanzania, I found the country to be beautiful but I am mystified by what will happen to the landscape if more is not done to protect the environment and if droughts continue to persist. After meeting with sisters at the ACWECA Conference, I felt reassured by the commitment and stamina African sisters have in their desire to learn and bring about change in lives of the people they serve.