Catherine Mahony writes:
I’m an emergency response officer for CAFOD and I’ve recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia. During my visit, one of my tasks was to help develop a programme of support for a group of clinics run by Catholic nuns in southern Ethiopia, and I wanted to visit them to see what was going on.
I’ve never worked with people in religious orders before, and realise now that I had a lot of preconceptions that I had never had cause to question. It was only when I registered my surprise on meeting the sisters that I realised what my expectations had been: I’d imagined quiet, meek and sweet-smelling older ladies, who would cast their eyes dolorously upwards when faced with the bitter challenges confronting the communities living in grinding poverty. I imagined a serene, sympathetic detachment, the other-worldliness of the divinely inspired.
What I found was a collection of dynamos – laughing, smiling, bold and brave women who bounced round the clinics, one minute giving high-fives to toddlers and the next assiduously checking patient record cards. I don’t think I’ve ever been as humbled or inspired by anyone as much as I was by these women.
The clinics that the sisters run are heart-wrenchingly difficult places to work in and yet these women are positive, energetic and loving to a degree that I’m not sure I’ve witnessed before. I was struck by the level of care that was bestowed on everything they touched: not only does the clinic serve hundreds of people in need quickly, cleanly and efficiently, the sisters also find time to tend to the allotments where flowers bloom. Even the two dogs, who the sisters have adopted, are sleek-coated and waggy-tailed, which is a rarity in a country that doesn’t usually hold dogs in much esteem.
The clinics are a life-line for communities. People travel for miles to come to the Catholic clinics because they offer high quality care to everyone, regardless of their faith, and are cheap. I met the father of a little girl who was being treated for severe malnutrition. She was very tired and hollow-eyed, but interested to see visitors. Despite her condition, her dad seemed cheerful and told me, “We call her ‘the dead one’.” I was shocked and didn’t know how to respond, but he went on to explain:
“When she became ill I took her to our local doctor, and he told me it was too late, that she couldn’t be saved and that I should take her home to die. I wouldn’t believe it, and so I thought, ‘let me see what God can do’ and brought her to the Catholic clinic.”
This was three days earlier, and since then, with the care of the sisters and the nurses, his daughter’s condition had improved and she had taken the first steps along the road to recovery.
While I was so glad to see that the clinics were saving lives, it was difficult to see small children suffering from something as simple as a lack of good food. I felt quite choked, but I thought it was inappropriate to display these emotions when the families affected were being so strong and positive. As we left, I asked Sister Terry if she found it difficult, if she was frustrated by the challenges they faced. She answered that she did, all the time, but the only solution was to keep going on, finding ways through, and to keep faith that they were doing the right thing because it was their mission.
As we talked, I realised what a special relationship CAFOD has with the sisters. They trust CAFOD, and will tell us things that they might not share with others about the pressures they face. Muluneh, the manager from our local partner organisation which works with the clinics, introduced me by saying, “It’s ok sister, she’s from CAFOD, you can talk to her – she’s with us.”
It made me see the value of CAFOD’s faith identity in a different light: we have a shared understanding that binds the communities that support us right the way across the globe to the people that deliver assistance. I know that connection is felt strongly by our partners, who often movingly express their appreciation of the support and prayers of people in England and Wales, who they have never met, but know stand in solidarity with them. I think that demonstration of faith is what helps people like Sister Terry keep going.
CAFOD would like to thank supporters for the generous support and prayers for our partner’s work in Ethiopia, and hope that this account of the Catholic clinic provides a glimpse of how donations may be used to fund projects that benefit whole communities and save lives. We continue to pray for the safe-keeping and continued good work of all the sisters at the clinic, and pray that their endless enthusiasm and positivity lives on to support their patients and inspire hope.