My spear will protect you

My Spear will Protect You

“I will leave my spear here. It will protect you,” said the warrior, as he thrust his spear into the ground a few feet away from the Land Rover. Smiling, he hurried off after the other warriors who were, by then, disappearing over the edge of the clearing. I looked around. I was alone in a large clearing a few hundred feet up the mountain behind our house. The ridge, so impressive and distant from below, was clear and close in its every detail. All I could see were hills and more rolling hills, revealing even more.

The valley lay below, hidden by the trees. I marveled at the beauty of the scene, at the scented blossoms on the grey thorn trees. At the same time a sense of self-preservation dictated fixing the rear-view mirror on the undergrowth behind me, to watch for animal movements. I so wanted to capture that scene and my feelings of wonder, gratitude and praise, to be able to share them with you, to let you know of what you are now part, as we begin our new venture in Maasailand.

On the feast of Pentecost 1984, Sister Geneviève van Waesberghe and Sister Noeleen Mooney, as well as a team from the African Medical Research workshop in Dareda, arrived in Loolera . The team borrowed time from other activities but since living under canvas now was the only option for us, the erection of a pre-fab house was a priority. Four weeks later, in place of densely-populated thorn bushes, the house was erected. An outer kitchen was built using locally-burned bricks. The mud from ant hills is the most suitable. Multipurpose rooms and an outside latrine were added. Before Sister Noeleen went off to her own mission, the second member of the permanent team arrived: Sr. Lelia Cleary. By coincidence, Geneviève, Noeleen and Lelia, less than a year previously, had handed over a well-established hospital to local Tanzanian Sisters.

The Medical Missionaries of Mary had been invited to south Maasailand a number of years previously to establish a mission among the Maasai, to work with them in the provision of basic health care programmes. MMMs visited the area selected. They had traveled through trackless wastes from some 320 km away – the same distance that the people in this district would have to walk to the nearest hospital. It is also the shortest route to our post office! This deprivation is slight when I think that the people pay anything from 120-200 pounds sterling to travel to a bedded dispensary fifty km away in the mountains. Even then there is no doctor.

We know that it is a great honour for us to have been invited to live in Maasai country. This is endorsed by the welcome we received and the constant attentiveness of the Maasai warriors. Within a fifteen km radius there are over fifty bomas with approximately sixty family members in each. The boma is a circular compound with a few houses where the Maasai live. There is an outer circle of thorn bushes to protect them and their cattle. There are innumerable little sandy tracks and paths crisscrossing everywhere and it is very easy to get lost. The vegetation is thorn trees that all look alike. Getting lost is not advisable because lions, buffalo and elephants are among the many animals that inhabit the locality.

Half a mile from our boma there is a great open watering place for the thousands of cattle, sheep and goats. There is a domestic water point here, too. The water flows down the mountainside from a spring. The open place is the centre for everyone’s life. Here the people meet and the elders gather. The warriors come with their cattle and goats. The women and children fetch water for the home for cooking and other domestic needs.

What are we doing here and what was I doing up the mountain? A cow had broken a leg in a ravine and had to be slaughtered. We were asked for the Land Rover to bring the meat down for sale. The market was about a mile from where I was left with the spear protecting me from the lions. When the warriors returned with the meat, they brought me a third of the cow’s heart, beautifully cooked. That was considered a very big honour, and was delicious, too!

We are beginning with everything. It entails hope and prayers for wisdom, treading gently with great sensitivity in an area where there are incredible needs and boundless possibilities. We are blessed in having a local man with third level education to work with us. He brings our team number to four. We hope that he and others who are already terribly keen to join us may be the basis of a health service here that will continue after we have moved on. We are struggling with the intricacies of the extremely difficult Maasai language.

There are so many exciting things: the first antenatal clinic to be held in the local school; mothers of six children having their first antenatal check; our first twins born, the first call to a boma to help a mother with a retained placenta; the grateful father who gave Sister Lelia a goat as a gift. There are sad things, too. The other day a young boy came, blind in one eye and with damage already beginning in the other. We have started a health survey and have begun by visiting each boma to acquaint ourselves with people’s felt needs, expectations and their health picture. So far the biggest problem expressed is to be the need for medicine for the cattle, sheep and goats. The last ‘weekly’ dip for the latter was done nearly eight months ago. The reason for this: no medicine and no transport. Who can pay for transport to the nearest town?

In the evening as the sun sets behind the mountains and as the cattle pass by, their bells tinkling around their necks, we review the day’s events. We are very grateful to all of you who have made our coming here possible. To date we have not met any children under five years of age who have completed their vaccinations. Only about five or six children in the whole area have been registered at a clinic. We hope this will change over the coming months.

This article was contributed by Sister Ruth Percival.

MMM handed over our programmes in Loolera in 2003.

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All for the Price of a Goat: 1985

The radio telephone was not at all clear, but the voice was trying to explain that one of the containers en route from the port of Tanga had overturned some fifteen km from Loolera. Could they have permission for the Maasai warriors to open and empty the container, put it back on the truck and then reload it – and would MMM agree to pay for a goat!

Sister Genevieve remembers the day, “I had no choice. My answer was: ‘Yes.Over.'”

She put the microphone back on its hook, wondering what the goat had to do with it and what the next difficulty would be.

This was in May1984.The previous August she had gone to Holland to submit the new Primary Health Care project to the funding agency, CEBEMO. Then her uncle drove her to Dokkum in Friesland, where she ordered the prefab housing. “Are you certain this can be assembled in twenty-eight days?” she asked insistently. She was hoping the engineer would say, ‘Yes.’

Two English volunteers at the AMREF workshop at Dareda, Tanzania had offered to devote the twenty-eight days of their holidays to assembling the building that would house the new health centre, and build a three-roomed house and carport for the MMM community.
The Dutch engineer was very reassuring. Yes, it could be done in that time. He promised to have the house very carefully packed in two containers and sent by sea to Tanga. It was a great relief when the next call on the radio-tel gave the news that the contents of the overturned container were undamaged, and all was now ready for construction at Loolera. Nevertheless, because the work took two days, not one, the cost would be the price of two goats, which made a meal for the warriors each evening.

MMM handed over our programmes in Loolera in 2003.


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Gussoro, made up of twelve villages and seven hamlets, is bounded by the Kaduna River on the north and west. There are only two roads. One leads south; the other ends in the river..

The river serves as a source of income through fishing; of recreation through swimming; of water for drinking, washing clothes, dishes, sleeping mats, etc.; and as the main route to other nearby villages and towns. Gwari is the name of the local ethnic group tribe. They are mainly farmers.

When MMMs first went to the area in 1981, the general aim was to build a Christian community of care and self-reliance. Initial steps involved raising the level of the people’s health through a process of awareness, education and organized community action. This involved training leaders and volunteer health workers selected by the community. It meant putting existing facilities and resources to the best use in development of self-support systems for health promotion.

The pioneer Sisters, Pauline Connolly and Theresa Jane Ogu, saw themselves as animators and facilitators while the people led the way. They focused on preventive health services. Sick people were either referred to the local government dispensary or given a prescription for medicines in the local pharmacy.

As new adventurers, they encountered a lot of difficulties and resistance. In the early days, Sister Pauline wrote, “Here we must travel slowly, listen deeply, pray and await the birth of the unexpected. We must be prepared for a slow response and live in hope that things will grow patiently, like the tree which sprouts from a tiny seed.”

Teaching by Drama
They lived close to the people regardless of social, academic and cultural barriers and other differences. Most of the teaching was done by drama. The Sisters formed women’s organizations. They introduced the idea of the health festival. Each village presented a drama according to the topic chosen in agreement with the Sisters. The best presentation was rewarded with the winning cup while others got consolation prizes. No group was ever left without recognition of their efforts.

The programme expanded to many villages with great impact on the lifestyle of the community. Many people were able to build latrines and gutters for drainage. Sanitation was considered important.

As time went on, new ideas and methods were brought into the programme. As the needs of the community changed, the Sisters listened. Curative services became part of the project. In April 1996 there was an outbreak of cholera. It spread very widely and quickly and killed a lot of people in Erena and other villages. Gussoro lost only three people due to the care, education and leadership available there.

Many mentally and physically challenged children were helped through Liliane Fonds. Some were sent to special schools. Some had corrective surgery; others received walking aids. Wells were provided for potable water. Income generating projects were introduced, including the production and sale of soya beans and cassava. A HIV/AIDS programme was put in place.

Gussoro remains a very needy area with no electricity, good markets, or schools. Houses and roads are poor. Traditional beliefs and practices are highly respected. For example, sickness is still seen as a punishment for some offense against the gods. Usually a diviner has to be consulted when someone is sick to find the cause. Very few believe in children’s education. Changes or new ideas are rarely welcome. Nevertheless, the Gussoro people are very friendly and caring and they love the Sisters.

Hard Decision

Sadly, the question of sustainability forced us to make a hard decision. Due to shortage of personnel, one Sister was left on her own for almost a year. The local people were very supportive and caring, coming around in the evenings to make sure things were alright, but that could not substitute for a community life.

Around the same time, some major donors changed their funding system. A service like that provided in Gussoro needed a large amount of funding from outside. Also the uptake of the services was low while there were great demands elsewhere.

When the time came to say our final goodbye, the Bishop celebrated a farewell Mass. Many villages were represented but the local chief and his assistant did not come. It was unbelievable because they had always given us their support no matter what. I visited them the next day. They were still in shock that we had made the decision to go. The junior chief could not hold back his tears; he left us to cry in his room. It was very painful.

Unforgettable Day
The morning we were due to leave, people came early to say goodbye. They brought eggs and some local rice. What a widow’s mite! It is a day I will not easily forget in all my life. I left the house at about 7.30 am to see a neighbour who had had a Caesarean section and she started crying. Her mother came in and joined her. We could not say a word to each other except through the expression of our tears.

We finally assembled in the chapel to say our final prayer together. Some sang, prayed and cried. We had only praise for our friends and neighbours, especially those who helped us at the beginning and continued with us over the years.

We proceeded to the cars. I will never forget how the people gazed after us as we drove out.

The things we will remember about Gussoro are the simple lifestyle of the people, their hospitality, their generosity no matter how little they had, their appreciation, their attachment to culture and beliefs, and their great sensitivity.

Our gratitude goes to our beloved traditional rulers, who were like fathers, friends and brothers to us. We thank God for your generosity, support, protection and encouragement and will always remember you in our prayers.

We will miss Gussoro: the natural atmosphere and remoteness, the surging of the river, the early singing of the birds, the hot rocks, the fish and the special greetings of these lovely people.

MMM handed over our programmes in Gussoro in 2006.


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Gussoro, Nigeria, in 1996

Prevention can be a more difficult idea to sell to people than cure. That was the conclusion of MMM pioneers at Gussoro, in Niger State, Nigeria.

In June 1981, Sisters Pauline Connolly and Therese Jane Ogu opened a health education programme at Gussoro. For the first six months they lived in a mobile home. During this time they helped to supervise and draw up a list of materials to complete the building of our present house.

Here is how an early report described the difficulties and the progress.

“We began to meet with the chiefs, elders, and people of Gussoro. We had discussions and sought their opinions. They said they needed help with their health problems and would appreciate any way we could help them. A community-based preventative health education way was agreed, starting with what they knew and building from there. A programme outline had been drawn up in December 1980.

“We made visits to families and compounds trying to share their lifestyle, hopes and fears and see the causes and kinds of illnesses from which people suffered.

“Arrangements were made with the villagers to gather and hold regular meetings. During these sessions, through talks, discussions, visual aids, story, song and demonstration, people were helped to become more aware of causes of some of their community diseases and health hazards. Taking initiative and responsibility was encouraged as well as forming health communities and training health workers. Much emphasis was put on helping the people to realize how they could promote health by carrying out simple preventative measures.

“Along with these, a literacy programme was offered. We were open and hoped to promote pastoral care in any way we could, encouraging and organizing interested groups to hold prayer services and give classes.

“Initially, chiefs, elders and large groups of villagers came and participated, but many opted out after a number of meetings because of the challenge of the task and because we did not offer hand-outs. The men saw responsibility for health care as women’s role. Yet they continued to assure us of their gratefulness for showing them the way to better health and village improvements!

“Change of attitude was a very slow process hence any action was greatly impeded. Even though meetings invariably ended with a resolution to act, action seldom followed.

“Some impacts were made:

“Efforts to set up village health committees were unsuccessful. The community chose not to select them and no suitable persons emerged. Inability to overcome differences and pull together for the common good was reflected in lack of commitment to carry out suggested action. There was fluctuating interest in the programme. We could see that a programme of prevention was harder to implement than one of cure. Traditional medicine posed a problem because sickness was often thought of as a curse or evil spell.

“In July 1983, we commenced a child welfare and immunization programme and antenatal care. These have continued, with an estimated 3000 children registered in the vaccination programme.

“In November 1983, one of the villagers, who is a part-time health worker, opened a medicine store. Here simple treatments are available under supervision. It is an effort to help people learn to buy sensible medicines and know why and when to use them.

“In December 1983, we celebrated a health festival. Groups came together in the village to display in dance and drama a health problem that was of concern to them. It challenged them to look critically at their situation and motivated them to change.”

“In December 1984, we began tidy compound activities. Compounds were inspected and judged. Villagers were praised for their efforts and on what they had accomplished in health and hygiene practices. The men were further challenged to build better houses and make things easier for the women.

“Most of the homes in the locality now have basic health essentials such as latrines, soakaways, and refuse pits. The general environmental sanitation has improved. Six wells have been completed. There is progress in controlling malaria, anaemia, worm infestations, and other common sicknesses.

“The women and men often say, ‘Our children are stronger and they are not dying as before.’ The women have become more aware of the importance of antenatal care. The traditional birth attendants continue their practical training slowly. Now the women can recognize problems early and know when to call for help. Of the sixty-four cases the Sisters were called to attend when a woman got into difficulties, all except one delivered safely. That woman had already delivered and was moribund from loss of blood when they arrived. Ten other women were unable to deliver and were referred to hospital.

“Community orientation in health care continues to develop. Acceptance of the message is catching. There is a growing realization among the women to understand and control some of the factors affecting their health and to break down some of the feelings of fatalism and helplessness. Meetings and discussions on health topics and visits continue. After discussions, the women now pay a small contribution as members of the group. Nevertheless, the struggle to hold and carry out instructions poses problems. There is still apathy on the part of the men to become more involved.”


MMM handed over our programmes in Gussoro in 2006.

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July 2010 marked the end of fifty years of MMM presence in Ethiopia.
It was hard to say farewell. Like Sisters Jo Ann Mullen and Colette Ryan above, our Sisters have covered thousands of miles using many means of transport, including jeep and mule. For some of their work they often remained away from their base mission for a month at a time, living in tents among the people in their villages. 

Since we first went to Ethiopia in 1960, thirty-seven MMMs have served in seven of Ethiopia’s fourteen provinces and in the administrative region of Addis Ababa.

Sisters have been involved in work with people with Hansen’s disease, with people with disabilities, with pastoralists, in general medical services, in the struggle to prevent the spread of HIV, and in the care for those infected and affected by the virus. We were also involved in famine relief work, in running the health department at the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, and  in administration at the Conference of  Major Religious Superiors.

Our years in Ethiopia included some of the country’s hardest times, when the Regime was oppressive and providing health services was extremely difficult. There were good times as well and we learned a great deal about the history and culture of this deeply spiritual country. Its Christian roots go back to Biblical times.

Before we left a careful review of our work during these fifty years was carried out.

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Our involvement in Rwanda began as a response to the genocide in 1994. In May of that year, MMM leadership, in conjunction with Trócaire, the development agency of the Irish Church, put together a medical team to help with the relief work.

We remained in this capacity until June 1995. With other missionary groups, we then considered the possibility of a longer-term commitment. Eventually two MMM communities were established. One was in Huye (Butare), where MMMs were involved in rehabilitation services for women and children and in work at the university medical school and hospital. We handed over in 2009. The other was in rural Kirambi, where we opened an official house. In May 1997 we took over the running of Kirambi Health Centre, and in November 1998 started the Kirambi Community Health and Development Programme (KCHDP).

Through KCHDP/Kirambi Health Centre families were assisted with capacity development in health and nutrition and with economic empowerment through agriculture. This included water projects and model farms as well as basic health care and education. At the same time we realized that the people had been through an extremely traumatic situation. They could not begin to better their lives until deep wounds were healed. An important component of our work meant listening and accompaniment and using programmes such as Capacitar, which teaches simple wellness practices.

In all our projects, collaboration with local government and committees elected by the community ensured that what we started will be sustainable.

Sharing in healing

We were also blessed at MMM Kirambi with experienced and dedicated staff members. Several of them wished to live our MMM spirituality and healing mission in a deeper way and made their covenants as MMM Associates. They include social worker Xavier Bizimana and Aloysie Mukamana, KCHDP assistant coordinator.

Our dream is always for the people to be empowered to take responsibility for their own health. With the government now able to run the programme with the diocese and the local community, after much discernment, we decided  that it was time to hand over.

On 29 January 2017, Sr. Elizabeth Naggayi, MMM, addressed the congregation at Mass and thanked the people of Kirambi for the opportunity given to the MMMs to serve them over the last twenty years. On 31 January 2017, we transferred the MMM ministry to the Diocese of Gikongoro.

It has been a gift to be part of the story of the brave and resilient Rwandese people, witnessing the power of the Holy Spirit at work as they moved from hatred, fear and mistrust to reconciliation, collaboration and self-reliance.

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MMM connections with England go back to the early twentieth century, when our foundress, Marie Martin, went to school in Harrogate. Her cultural links with England were strong and she volunteered as a VAD nurse during World War I, serving in Malta and France.

Another connection was established in MMM’s early years when Mother Mary decided to have a film made about our work. In 1945 she contacted English film producer Andrew Buchanan, asking if he would travel to Nigeria to document our programmes in the control of Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Mr. Buchanan said the project ‘really began in King’s Cross Station [in London], whilst bombs were raining down on a world without light.… It was then [that] Father Gerard White told me of Medical Missionaries in Ireland.’ Visitation, premiering in London in 1948, informed people in many countries about the congregation.

Establishing a presence
A number of MMMs served in the apostolic delegation (now the apostolic nunciature) in Wimbledon from 1954 to 1983.    

In 1972 we opened our first house in England in Muswell Hill, London, and later moved to Ealing. Over the years we also had communities in Silvertown in East London; in Romiley, Stockport; and in Solihull in the West Midlands.

Many MMMs completed basic training in England and pursued higher studies, especially in tropical medicine. Some went on to pioneer services overseas in areas such as primary health care and obstetric fistula repair. Sisters often appreciated the hospitality of our communities in England, including students, participants in formation programmes and MMMs en route to overseas mission. Others were helped in obtaining visas and other travel documents.

A variety of ministries
MMMs in England did mission awareness work. They visited parishes allocated to us each year throughout the country, reminding parishioners that they, too, share in the missionary life of the Church. Some Sisters also did mission awareness in Scotland. Many women from England and Scotland heard about the Medical Missionaries of Mary in this way and later became vowed members.

We are very grateful to all the generous people who have helped us to bring God’s healing love to others through their prayers and financial assistance. Some have worked with us as volunteers and lay missionaries. MMM Associates actively live our healing charism in their daily lives.

MMMs based in England were involved in local charitable and ecumenical activities, worked with our partner development organisations, helped to address problems faced by asylum seekers and refugees, and advocated on global issues.

While in 2020 we handed over our ministries in England, we ask and encourage our many friends in the UK to continue to support our MMM worldwide mission. Thank you for sharing in our healing charism.

In 2020 we handed over our ministries in England.

At the same time we appreciate and encourage the support that we have continued to receive from our many friends in the UK.

MMMs in England were involved in:

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