by Sr. Helen Aherne MMM Ireland/Uganda 22.09.2023
(Editor’s Note: This story was first published in 2009 when Sr. Helen was still in Uganda)
I once read that every person who touches our lives leaves an indelible mark on us. Looking back on the many people whom I see as having had a big influence on my life, I think of Maria.
I met Maria when I first went to visit and work with prisoners in the large town in Uganda where I live. I wanted to start some kind of ministry to prisoners as I had retired from an MMM hospital and as there is a very big prison there, I felt I could be of help. Maria was a young woman who spoke a little English and was obviously a leader among the forty women there. She was out-going, friendly, and literate.
At that time she was on Remand, accused of having killed her husband. Over the next months she told me all about it. Her tife was not an easy one. She had four boys and one girl of school going age. But at the time they were all out of school because there was no money to pay there fees. She told me how it had been with her husband: how he had mistreated he and how he wanted to sell their firstborn son to a witchdoctor to get money. On that Friday, she had waited all day for him to come home with his week’s pay. She and the children were so hungry, the little ones crying. She promised them there would be food. But when he came in, he was drunk again, with all his wages spent. Anger overcame her.
Over the next three years I got to know Maria very well. I watched her use her leadership talents among the other women. She advised, comforted, supported, and counselled them without ever using the word ‘counselling’. She prayed with them, and this is always a help to prisoners. It gives them courage and hope and helps to mould them into a living community. I would say they form even a kind of family, so that their life in such a confined space id more bearable.
Then an awful blow came. Maria was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. Women are not executed in our country, but they are on Death Row for ever and never released. She was transferred to the capital city and placed on Death Row.
I began visiting her as soon as it was permitted. It was painful to see her trying to come to terms with this terrible thing that had happened to her. She had always thought it would not actually happen. I now visit her every month; just one hour and there is always a guard present. We hug each other, talk, and pray and cry and even laugh. I know that is some way I am supporting her. She keeps a journal now and writes in it after every visit.
I come away sad, but also encouraged in some way; glad that I have spoken with her and convinced that my visit has helped both if us carry on with our lives. She prays for me, and I pray for her every night, and I find this an enormous help.
Every year Human Rights groups make an appeal to have the death sentence repealed, without success so far.
A prisoner can only be pardoned by a direct word from the President. So, I would ask everyone who reads this to join me in praying for Maria and for her family. And for the removal of the death Penalty in every country where it still exists.