By Sr. Prisca Ovat, MMM
First Published in Global Sisters Report, June 2023
Responding to God with creative fidelity, I left my home in Nigeria in 2013 to go to Kenya, trusting in the God of the missions to help me blossom wherever I was planted. Like the spring flower, I did bloom in my new home.
I am a sister of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, an international missionary congregation of religious women founded in 1937. As our website states, as a congregation, we work collaboratively with the communities we serve by creating unique medical, human and social services to help people in challenging circumstances. To meet these needs, we “are trained professionally in (holistic) medical, social and related services with a particular concern for women and children.”
Apart from medical services, some of our other projects address food insecurity by helping people create small gardens and do seed-sharing projects. We also combat gender inequality through empowerment programs like computer training, hairdressing, tailoring and crafts. Overcoming gender-based violence and human trafficking have been two of our major advocacy programs.
In recent years, we have focused much of our ministry with the people of Kibera, Kenya. Kibera, the largest urban slum in Kenya and one of the largest in Africa, is a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Nairobi. Gender inequality is especially evident in education. Teenage girls are forced into early marriages, so their “bride price,” given by the groom’s family, goes to educate the male children.
The practice also exposes girls to the risk of human trafficking. Many girls that come to us have been tricked with the promise of a better life from young men. This promise lasts until the young girl becomes pregnant, and the man disappears, never to be seen again. The situation becomes complex with the evident reality of teenage single motherhood and the surge of street children.
In the spirit of our charism, Sr. Liana de Jesus, a Medical Missionaries of Mary sister from Brazil, engages youth and teenage single mothers in skills acquisition — such as sewing, fabric designs and painting, bottle bricks, and wall painting. She shares her creativity with these enthusiastic young people who want to change the direction of their lives. The skills training is free, and the participants are empowered to set up small-scale businesses upon completing their training.
In Eldoret, another Kenyan city, Medical Missionaries of Mary sisters have been deeply engaged in health and medical services, targeting people experiencing poverty in the slums. As part of our healing charism, I worked in this mission, coordinating the medical outreach program. I accepted this responsibility with great enthusiasm, as I was unaware of the task ahead. It turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined, the most profound aspect being the palliative care unit. Every day of the week, I was working in the field of home-based care, listening to all the heartbreaking stories and keenly noting the devastating impact of poverty on the people. I soon established that every patient in the program suffered from one or more disabilities and needed total or supported care.
The healing charism is a broad concept that reshapes our understanding of disease and well-being. Beyond the physical and medical interventions, counselling appears time-consuming in an attempt to convince a patient that their well-being is their responsibility and our priority. Yet, such counselling or orientation is crucial. Determined to harness all our power to convince, we get the obstinate person off the street sometimes with a cup of porridge, especially when their health status has become a public health concern. That was the case of Moses, who recently completed his tuberculosis medications successfully, thanks to the availability of porridge and the power of words.
In the final analysis and evaluation, it appears that poor or inadequate health education can be a major root cause of noncommunicable diseases, thus contributing to fatalities within the communities. Responding to this threat, and because some chronic diseases have proven difficult to manage in underdeveloped areas and in settings of poverty, I have prioritised health education for volunteers who, in turn, teach the people about the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases in their locality; how to recognize the signs of each disease; and how to ask for help in a timely manner. We hope many of those we encounter can be helped to take responsibility for their own health.
Indeed, every success story is a challenge, but God has always shown the way as often as he wanted the work.