With the global spread of COVID-19 hitting second or third waves, Catholic religious sisters have mobilized to secure the safety of the elderly and sisters in Africa against the pandemic.
The move followed a partnership between the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa (ACWECA) and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation that saw 62 congregations of sisters implement a health emergency project that seeks to protect elderly and sick sisters in care homes.
“Hearing what was happening in Europe and elsewhere about the impact of the pandemic on older adults and those with preconditions was alarming,” said Sister Hellen Bandiho, ACWECA’s secretary general.
“This was worrying because, as a coordinating body, ACWECA management was aware that most of the congregations in the region are locally founded with little financial resources,” she further explained.
Sister Hellen also recalled that the news of the severe impact of COVID-19 on persons of old age and with preexisting conditions caused panic in many religious communities, too. She said the sisters’ fears were further reinforced by their awareness of the ill-equipped health systems of African nations, coupled with lack of adequate resources to ensure the safety of the elderly sisters.
The Tanzanian nun said the grant was primarily created to cover the costs of protective gear, medical supplies, specialized professional care and food and other necessities. “We did not reach everybody, but we are happy that we were able to support some congregations,” Sister Hellen said.
Before disbursing the funds to beneficiaries, her team at the regional secretariat in Nairobi came up with criteria on how the funds would be distributed. “Since we could not reach all the 300-plus congregations in the region, our first priority was to reach congregations with elderly and sick care homes,” Sister Hellen said. They also considered the number of the members in the care homes to determine the amount of money to be allocated.
Thus, with grants that ranged from $1,000 to $5,000, ACWECA was able to reach deserving congregations in all of its 10 member countries of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“The grants may seem small, but even the ones who received $1,000 were equally very grateful,” the secretary general said.
The ACWECA’s financial administrator, Sister Betty Grace Atim, added, “The fact that Hilton Foundation thought of supporting our elderly sisters in the region at this time of the pandemic means so much to us as ACWECA and as sisters in the region.”
The preidentified criteria notwithstanding, Sister Hellen explained that there were some cases where they had to consider the situation at hand. “For some congregations, it was the general economic situations of their countries coupled with the situation of the sisters in some specific countries which moved us to support the sisters,” she explained.
She cited the Sudan, where all 10 congregations serving in the country benefited. She said the leadership of the national association requested her office for this permission, which they granted.
And in South Sudan, ACWECA also reached out to the Sisters of Our Lady of Peace in Tombura-Yambio Diocese and the Nazareth Sisters of Wau. Each of the two congregations, founded in the 1950s, has four and two members, respectively, and have been challenged to financially sustain their communities.
Meanwhile, the ACWECA financial administrator who was responsible for the disbursements of the funds to the congregations said the pandemic experience was a wake-up call to the sisters in the region. She noted with concern that from the outset most congregations were not prepared for such an emergency. “It is difficult to be firefighters; we need to plan and save so as to avoid future emergencies,” she cautioned.
The nun also went on to propose the care of sick and elderly members be taken up seriously. “Congregations need to prioritize the training of their members on how to care for their elderly and sick members,” Sister Betty Grace said.
While the implementation of the project has given the ACWECA team a sense of satisfaction, the secretary general noted that grantees reports’ showed an immense sense of appreciation from congregational leaders. “Some reports indicated that the grant proved to be a springboard from which some congregational leaders took off from to care for their elderly and sick members,” she said.
But with the pandemic now hitting second or third waves across the globe, many African governments have remained on tenterhooks. And as of March 9, the Africa Centre for Disease Control (ACDC) has reported that the continent has 3,975,045 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 106,095 COVID-19-related deaths.
In April 2020, the ACWECA secretary general wrote a letter to the national conferences in the region, noting with concern the growing numbers of infections on the continent. She warned that the pandemic was real and invited the sisters to read the signs of the times and respond accordingly. The challenge spurred many congregations across the region to join their government’s efforts to combat the pandemic on the continent.
So when Kenya confirmed its first case of coronavirus back in March 2020, Sister Jane Wairimu’s first instinct was to secure the safety of the elderly and sick sisters at Our Lady of Lourdes Mwea infirmary.
“The first thing I did was to put a notice at the entrance that ‘visitors are not allowed into the facility,’” Sister Jane recalled, adding that her aim was to limit external interaction with those in the facility. While the notice barred visitors from coming into the facility, it also encouraged telephone interaction between residents and potential visitors.
Sister Jane’s next action was to ensure that the sisters had access to nutritious meals so as to boost their immunity. “We included a lot of proteins, fruits, fresh vegetables and milk in the diet of the care home,” she said. “This is besides observing the [protocols] laid down by the ministry of health,” said Sister Jane, who is a trained health worker.
She acknowledged the financial support as a huge boost. “The grant enabled us to provide a balanced diet, improve cleanness within the infirmary as well as pay salary for specialized medical care for the members,” she explained.
For this Sister of Mary Immaculate of Nyeri, caring for the elderly and sick sisters, especially during this time of the pandemic, is like giving back what they gave “us as an institute.”
“We are here because of them,” she said, adding that the institute now cares for them because they are unable to take care of themselves.
Another congregation in Kenya that benefited from the grant was that of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto Sisters). “When coronavirus was confirmed in Kenya, it was not easy for us to get the Personal Protective Equipments (PPE) because every Kenyan was very aggressive when it came to securing those protective gears,” Loreto Sister Lucy Nderi recalled.
The nun who spearheaded her congregation’s implementation of the project noted that the impact of the coronavirus in her country has been very devastating. She said the protective gear was not only expensive, but often in short supply on the market.
“The help we received came at a time we least expected, and we could never be grateful enough for this timely assistance,” Sister Lucy said.
The funds enabled them to procure protective equipment not only for their elderly and sick members but also for those working at the facility. “We used the whole amount for the procurement of protective equipment and other medical supplies as well as cleaning detergents in bulk,” she said.
Like the Loreto Sisters, the Missionary Congregation of the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary in Tanzania spent the grant they received in a similar way. “Medication has taken over 73% of the money received because the national health insurance does not provide all the needed medicines for our care home,” Sister Agnes Mugaya explained in her final report to ACWECA. Other items that came up with higher expenditures included protective gear and cleaning detergents, followed by food and salary.
Scattered Yet United
In Uganda, the government took proactive measures ranging from imposing lockdowns to shifting public-health measures before even recording a single case; however, the Sisters of Our Lady of Good Counsel still left nothing to chance.
The congregation ensured that their 68 elderly and sick sisters who have been spread out to 29 communities (with 42 of them residing in three care homes) were safe and well taken care of. According to Sister Romna Nyemera, the community’s superior general, the strategy to scatter the community’s vulnerable made prudent sense.
“It would have been very good to have them all together, but for want of enough space, it has not happened,” Sister Romna said.
Despite the other communities being far-flung, they visited all 26 communities “to take their precious gifts all the way from Hilton-ACWECA to those communities.”
Sister Romna said they used the grant money to procure food stuffs and medicines. “The joy of the elderly sisters was indescribable,” she said of the experience as she visited the communities.
“You truly appreciate what we did when we were still strong! So we are still treasured. I feel so loved in my institute,” she recalled some elderly sisters telling her.
The nun was overwhelmed by how much the experience meant to their elderly members.
“It helped me as a superior general to understand that such a gesture was essential for all people, especially those who are retired and have the feeling that they are not remembered. It inspired me deeply,” she said.
The congregation’s treasurer general could not agree more and added: “Hilton-ACWECA have given me an extra push in taking care of my sisters. They have reduced my pressure and tension caused by limited funds. Oh, how relieving it is!”
Meanwhile, Queen of Peace Rest House of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Reparatrix Ggogonya in Entebbe, Uganda, is home to 28 elderly and sick sisters. And according to the superior general, Sister Speranza Namusisi, most of the sisters there have serious health challenges that require around-the-clock support. As such, slightly more than 70 per cent of the funds received from the grant were used for medicines and other medical supplies.
And at the Dominican Sisters’ House of Adoration in Zimbabwe, where 20 elderly and sick sisters live, the members greatly appreciated the gift their congregation received in support of their care home. Most of the members there, who range in age from 74 to 105, either use a walking aid or are wheelchair-bound.
To the Dominican Sisters, the financial aid couldn’t have come at a better time. “Your donation came just at a time where we are facing lots of economic hardships in our country. Our currency is very unstable, and many goods, especially medical supplies, have to be purchased in U.S. dollars,” explained Sister Rosemary Lemmermeir, the care home’s superior. The grant enabled the sisters to buy things in bulk, which she said was a great relief to them.
Striving to be true to the name of their care home — House of Adoration — the elderly sisters living in this convent continue to have daily Eucharistic adoration after morning Mass until lunch time.
Added Sister Rosemary, “But since the start of the coronavirus, we also started to have Eucharistic expositions in the afternoons, too, and we pray for all the people to be protected, while not forgetting our dear benefactors who support us.”