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xSr Nilceia's Kids 1

Meet the Claverians feeding the needy with sisterly care

In the second of a three-part special report, Gerard Gough explains how Missio Scotland upholds the tradition of welcoming to help the poor and hungry in Malawi and east Africa.

In the Gospel according to St Matthew, there is a well-known and widely quoted line: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” That sentiment could apply in many instances in Scotland, as Scottish people are known for and proud of—and with some justification—their hospitable nature.

I remember speaking to Sr Stella Niwagira, a Claverian Sister from Uganda, who had spent some time with other sisters in Bellshill and she remarked that ‘although Scotland is a cold country, the people there have a warm heart.’ The same could be said of Sr Stella, and Ugandans in general, whose country I had the pleasure of visiting in 2017, or of the Zambian people, many of whom I was fortunate enough to meet during my time there in 2018.

Last year, I had a similar experience in Malawi, proving that it really lived up to its billing as ‘the warm heart of Africa.’ From the minute I arrived, everyone I met, both clergy and lay people, were so warm and welcoming to myself and the Missio team.

And that hospitality is infectious, spreading to other foreign visitors, such as Sr Nilceia Aparecida, a Brazilian Benedictine Sister of Divine Providence, working in the rural area of Lisanjala in the Zomba Diocese. She met us outside a clinic that she and other sisters from her order help to run, with a smile as uplifting as first sight of the great Amazon River.

 

God’s love

She was comforting a child who was suffering from a high fever at the time, which made that welcome feel particularly special. God’s love was evident in her actions, whether helping tend to adults and children at the clinic, or singing and dancing with the children at the nearby nursery school. It was through her words, more than her actions, that the depth of her love for those she served gained emphasis.

To provide a bit of context with regards to some of the healthcare challenges that Malawi faces, close to one million people in that East African nation live with HIV/AIDS—with approximately 34,000 new infections each year, some 37 per cent of Malawian children suffer from chronic malnutrition and Malawi is also a high-burden malaria country with an incidence of 332 cases annually per 1000 people and approximately 4.8 million episodes of malaria a year.

With regards to malaria, one of the most shocking facts we were made aware of while speaking to Sr Nilceia and the healthcare assistant Peter Chipete, was that paracetamol—used to treat the fever the disease brings—hadn’t been available to them for the past two years.

Sr Nilceia intimated more of the trials and tribulations she and her order face in Lisanjala with regards to the physical and mental wellbeing and the needs of the people. Every sentence she spoke was punctuated by passion for her work and making the lives of those around her better.

 

Health problems

She told us that the 80 girls at a home in the complex there were in real need of mosquito nets to protect against malaria and that a toilet block and sewage system were needed as they had problems with the current one during the rainy season, which, if not fixed, could cause health issues, too. She also lamented the fact that the children at the nursery school had no toys to play with and no playground equipment.

“When a child plays, they are stimulating their body and mind and it helps them to grow,” Sr Nilceia said. “But, unfortunately, children here don’t have that. They don’t know how to play.” As the father of a young daughter who, like many children in Scotland, has an abundance of toys and places to play, I found this story incredibly sad. There was, however, another account that Sr Nilceia relayed to us that would prove to be even more heart-breaking.

Before she had even begun recounting this tragic tale, she broke down in tears. It was a moment that no amount of media experience prepares you for and as she composed herself and started to speak about a young girl and her child, it was difficult not to react in a similar manner.

The girl, named Linda, suffered from mental health issues, Sr Nilceia told us, and was around the age of 15 or 16 when she gave birth to a child, a son named Blessing. If that wasn’t difficult enough to process, the child was conceived after Linda had been raped by an 80-year-old man, who was never brought to justice.

 

Care

Prior to delivering the baby, she came to the Benedictine Sisters suffering from malnutrition and they took care of her. After the baby was born, she returned to the sisters’ house as the baby was suffering from malaria and Sr Nilceia took her to a larger clinic in a place called Mambo for treatment. She refused an offer to stay with them after the treatment and the child caught the disease again, so the sisters looked after Blessing for a month to help him properly recover. Then, after that, the sisters handed him back to his mother, provided food for the baby and visited them every week.

The girl’s parents, however, eventually took the child from Linda and said they would look after him as she wasn’t capable. They then asked to be given milk for the baby, which the sisters agreed to do. The milk they provided, however, wasn’t given to the child. They had babies of their own and it is thought they took advantage of the sisters’ generosity and gave the milk to them. Blessing died of malnutrition at the age of 10 months.

“I was angry with them, I shouted at them after I went to their house to see the baby and they said he wasn’t there, he was in the hospital,” Sr Nilceia said, tears welling in her eyes. “When I went to see him, you could tell he wasn’t going to survive. It’s an experience that has caused me great suffering. It was so painful. We could have looked after him. He didn’t have to die.”

Although she, no doubt, felt a sense of hopelessness after that, Sr Nilceia and her fellow sisters overcame that emotion and, at the time of our visit, were in the process of helping another child, whose mother had died during labour and who was being looked after by a family member. The sisters made that family member promise to give the baby the food that they would supply and were monitoring this through regular visits.

 

Prayer

All this shows the fortitude that Sr Nilceia and missionaries like her the world over possess. They are outstanding people working in exceptionally difficult circumstances. For her part, Sr Nilceia draws strength through prayer, God’s providence and, in particular, from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 1, verses 1-25.

Verse 22 states: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” God’s love was evident in the words and actions of Sr Nilceia, but you could see it in her eyes, too. She is a shining example of Faith—like all our missionaries—and with your love and support, we at Missio Scotland will always endeavour to keep their lamps burning.

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