ZAMBIA — Franciscan Sisters Margie Hosch and Connie Fahey experienced 30 days in Zambia in Southern Africa that left them with a better understanding of the country’s dual nature of beauty and suffering.
Sister Margie said they decided to take the trip after meeting Sister Bella Vethemuthu, who is from India but works in Zambia. Sister Bella attended one of the Wholeness Holiness Retreats hosted by Sisters Margie and Connie and told them how beneficial it would be to those serving in Africa.
“We gave three retreats on dealing with grief because there’s so much death and dying there,” Sister Margie said in a phone interview.
The two sisters were welcomed by the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary and met other religious women from India, Ireland, Zambia, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Micronesia, Mexico and Italy.
Sister Margie called the ministry of the sisters “one point of hope” in a land where women and children struggle with AIDS and starvation.
“We went to journey spiritually and psychologically with the missionary sisters and their lay ministry partners who are finding their life by giving it away to those living on the margins of Zambian society,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Miscellany. “They are women who are sacrificing comfort, health, security, family, safety and financial security.”
Both sisters brought gifts to help the Presentation Sisters in their mission. Sister Margie, who is based in Greenville, said the generosity of friends allowed her to give $2,400 for the ministry to disabled children in Mongu and Lukulu. Sister Connie, a member of St. James Church in Conway, brought $3,000 raised by parishioners to help the same ministry, which will build a small house for a handicapped child and her family.
Sister Margie said the next project is funding a well for the village that will pipe into the house.
One of the greatest struggles for survival for those in the landlocked, drought-plagued country is the daily search for water.
“Women are seen walking miles in dust and dirt searching for water as multiple children huddle by her side,” Sister Margie said.
“In the midst of this most dire situation we were met with graciousness, smiles, and always a greeting accompanied by a slight curtsey and a small clap of hands which means thank you,” Sister Margie said. “I experienced their gentleness and kindness. I also perceived their deep pain of struggling to survive.”
The first Wholeness Holiness Retreat was held at a Franciscan seminary outside of Lusaka. Sister Connie spoke of the healing power of the retreat and the stark beauty of Africa.
“The retreat center had many lemon, grapefruit, orange, banana trees and a working farm,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Each night we gazed at the African skies, brighter than bright, filled with millions upon millions of stars.”
Yet the violence of the country forced them to lock up inside each night so guard dogs could be released.
Sister Connie said traveling the roads was like driving through a dust storm, and when the drivers could see, they weaved constantly to avoid deep potholes.
When they reached their destination, they were greeted by the splendor of Victoria Falls. She said they rested on a deck overlooking the Zambezi River and watched the hippos and crocodiles.
In the remote village of Kizitos, the sisters spent time at a pastoral center run by the Handmaids of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an indigenous community of sisters.
They also visited the Zambian sisters’ hospital in the Monze diocese.
Sister Margie said the small hospital had little or no funding as the poor are unable to pay for services.
“The sick were found sleeping on the hospital grounds waiting for a room inside,” she wrote. “Pregnant women were sitting on a hospital wall until it was time for the delivery of their child.”
Sister Connie said there was one nurse for 70 patients so family members stayed to take care of their sick relatives. At the time of their visit, the pharmacy had run out of money and had no medicine to dispense.
She said one of the hardest situations facing the country is the AIDS epidemic.
To help, the Presentation Sisters establish farms and set up small communes of 8-10 houses for vulnerable women and their children, and teach marketable skills to both the women and the orphans.
“The women religious in Zambia are not only pioneers but are valiant, holy women as they navigate the systems and culture which subjugate women and children to life-long poverty,” Sister Connie said.
They sisters also run a hospice and a youth center. The teenagers from the center operate a restaurant for the tourists of Livingstone that helps fund their needs. Sister Connie said they enjoyed pizza there.
Sister Margie said the experience was powerful and moving for everyone involved.
The sisters who attended the retreat had a deep need for rest and rejuvenation, and Sister Margie said they all found that together.
“They wished to renew their deep love for Jesus and a willingness to follow in his footsteps in reaching out to the poorest of the poor,” she said. “I made the retreat right along with the sisters. They were truly models of discipleship that took away my sighs of deep pain only to be replaced with shouts of praise and thanksgiving to God for inspiring such love and service in these women of grace reaching out to the people of Zambia. Awe and wonder and hope still dwell within me when I bring the sisters to mind.”