18. St Maria Goretti Girls Skills Training Centre, Mukono, Uganda


A Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope – UGANDA [3]

When he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” (Luke 10:33-36).

 The Good Samaritan saw, had compassion, helped.

Pain” and “hope are the two words which, according to Emmanuel Cardinal Emeritus Wamala of Uganda, most aptly capture the past and the present of life in Uganda, certainly for the masses who are poor.

Gaining independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda is decades behind in economic and infrastructural development compared with Malaysia, for example, which joined the ranks of independent Commonwealth states around the same time. Like every war-torn economy, Uganda struggles from devastation to a path of sustainable economic recovery. Add that to the ravages of HIV/AIDS and rampant corruption in high offices, what we see is a sorry state of affairs: more than 50% of the Ugandan population is below the age of 15 years and many of these are orphans.

Like everywhere else in the world, wherever poverty, sickness, and losses through deaths are the norm, it is always the poor in society who suffer the most. Furthermore, wherever the general populace has to struggle to eke out a living, it is always the girls and the women who bear the brunt of economic deprivation. Here, we may talk about justice and entertain discussions on the difference between doing charity and doing justice – where, indeed, “charity” can become such an inadequate term when “justice” demands that the goods of the world be distributed and shared more equitably. Affluence and abundance can dull us into a tragic state where we do not recognise the difference anymore. And yet, nothing is comparable to the worst of it all, the deprivation of one’s God-given fundamental dignity. In the most dehumanizing ways, women and young girls, over and above economic deprivation, suffer the most in sexual violence – rape, abuse, prostitution. And wherever young girls are caught up in all this, they are more likely than not orphans or those who turn to the streets to escape from violent and abusive homes – only to find their fundamental human dignity robed in dehumanizing ways. God knows they deserve help to turn their situations around. Here is a culture and a society in desperate need of restoration to hope.

And thank God, in the midst of all these all too familiar stories of pain, we came across powerful stories and distinct voices of hope as well. Heroines in the form of female religious visionaries are resisting victimisation of vulnerable women and young girls by rallying them and setting up orphanages, skills training centres, homes. They inspire and complement the much-needed social justice voices.

One such visionary is Sr. Mathias Mulumba, a member of the Good Samaritan Sisters (GSS), a local congregation of Catholic nuns. She is a simple, unassuming woman of faith, but she is one inspired and inspiring religious! We see in her five qualities that stood at the beginning of great work for God.

  • First, we see in her a compassionate religious – she reflects the compassion of God. “A God’s child in Uganda can suffer in ways you cannot imagine”, she said, as she began her self-introduction to our pilgrimage group. She has a heart that hears the vulnerable girls spiritually crying out for restoration to their God-given dignity, for peace, for fulfillment,  for a chance in life. She burns with desire to extend a helping hand to these girls who cannot help themselves, to train and empower them to become productive and self-sufficient mothers everyone of them.
  • Next, in her, we find the positive energies of “restlessness” – a restlessness for God and His suffering children. She shows us what friends of God do, by loving what and whom God loves. In her protective ways, she teaches us that God has a special love for the orphans and the vulnerable children in society.
  • Third, in her, we see a “rebellious” religious who comprehends what God’s purpose is as she rebels against the status quo. She would not sit back in her convent enjoying her peace and contentment, minding her own business, saying her own prayers. Helping the poor and afflicted is her business.
  • Fourth, in her, we see a “stubborn” religious – she refuses to treat what is dished out by society to the poor and abused children of God as acceptable. She would not be silenced by the paralysing situations into passivity.
  • And fifth, and above all, we see in her a “friendly” religious, who is willing to be a friend to these underprivileged girls after the manner of her Lord who said, “I call you friends” (John 15:15). These girls come from hard places, and are marked by tremendous suffering and serious poverty. They need help. But even more, like us all, they are seekers of friends. By being a friend to them, Sr Mathias lives out the character of a good God in a world that has ample reasons to question the possibility of God’s goodness. By being a friend, she helps them recover their dignity – the divine imprint of God they each has. And by being a friend, she helps grow a faith in the possibility of a good future and thus bears witness to hope.

The Making of a Centre

Visiting a home one day, Sr. Mathias noticed a young girl had kept looking at her from a distance. When she left the home, the girl chased after her and begged to follow her home, “Sister, please take me with you. I don’t want to stay here.” “Why, girl,” Sr. Mathias asked, “you have a proper home here. Why don’t you want to stay here?” “I don’t like it here, Sister,” replied the girl, “they abuse me.” This little girl was an HIV/AIDS orphan. The stories are too many and too common to be ignored – little girls used for cheap labour, treated to domestic violence, sexually abused, running away and turning to prostitution on the streets… Sr. Mathias knew instantly what she had to do. She went back into the house she just visited, spoke to the owner and asked for the girl to be released to her care. The owner consented. She soon found another girl in similar situations. So there were three of them. Now they had a crowd. Now she needed to start a settlement of sorts. Did she know exactly what to do? No, she did not. Did she know what future hold for them and what colossal amount of work awaited her? No, she did not. But did it stop her? No, it certainly did not.  Why? “Because if God wants me to do this work, He will send me the help that I need. He will show me the way. He will create the conditions of possibility for work to be done.”

Like the Good Samaritan in the parable told by the Lord, Sr. Mathias goes out of her way to help another who is afflicted and in dire need of help. She places herself on the road to Jericho, and gets on with what she sees needs to be done. She just gets on with it. She does not ask, “Who is my neighbour?” Like the Good Samaritan, she behaves as neighbour to others in need. She becomes neighbour to the needy and afflicted without first checking their ID’s. She manifests the type of religious agents who themselves demonstrate solidarity with the afflicted. To her, “Word without deed is in vain.”

Inspired to restore hope in the vulnerable young girls of Uganda, Sr Mathias Mulumba became the founder and director of the St Maria Goretti Girls Skills Training Centre in Takajjunge village, Mukono, Uganda.

This Centre is dedicated to the transformation of under-privileged young girls – mostly orphans, primary school dropouts, and destitute teenagers who come from very poor families ravaged by HIV/AIDS. These are vulnerable girls “worn out with dreadful experience” and in a state of “hopelessness”. The Centre takes them in and trains them to stand on their own two feet, so they do not have to walk the street and have their God-given dignity trampled on, or live in some adopted homes and be abused. They deserve help; they must be helped. Society owes it to them.

The Centre’s vision is clear: “Educate the poor girls, educate the nation.” We cannot cure all the ills in society, but beyond an iota of doubt if we take care of young girls in any society, especially in societies where young girls are particularly vulnerable, we are doing serious good for those societies as a whole. Oprah Winfrey is rightly inspired in setting up a girls’ college in South Africa. That is the right thing to do in spirit and in truth.

The Centre’s mission in pursuit of this vision is: to “develop the capacity of the orphan and vulnerable girls to alleviate the adverse psychosocial and economic effects of HIV/AIDS and become self sustaining.

The programme offered to these girls is “a two-year vocational training in different courses so that they become self-reliant when they leave”.

Beginning with 6 girls in the year 2000 with the barest of facilities, and not knowing where she was heading, Sr Mathias now has 107 young girls under her care in 2010. The Centre provides the all-important protection for these girls ranging from 14 to 20 years of age. It offers counseling for these wounded souls, and empowers them with basic skills training for two years after which the Centre helps them either find work-placements or become modestly self-employed. From pain, Sr Mathias gradually steers these girls towards hope. From sorrow, they find joy; and from death, they grow towards resurrection and new life. This is resurrection-practice. This is practical theology. This is walking the talk.

The Driving Force of Hope

Seeing what Sr Mathias is doing at her St Maria Goretti Centre, our minds take us back to two stories in the Word of God. It is marvellous to experience the spirit of the Word coming alive in human work.

First, is the spirit of charity in the parable  of the Good Samaritan. [1] The Good Samaritan does not check the victim’s ID to see if he qualifies as “neighbour”; he becomes neighbour to the afflicted man when he at once gets on with giving the urgent help. [2] He does not look into the beaten up man’s financial background, or does his calculations, before paying the bills to find the man rest and care. [3]What he does may be summarised thus: he sees; he has compassion; he helps. [4] Knowing that “word is cheap” when help is needed, he demonstrates the kind of solidarity with the afflicted that involves him using his own money, his own time, his own energy – charity at its best! [5] He just gets on with work to help restore hope in a situation of pain and hopelessness.

Second, is the spirit of hope in the rainbow God drew across the sky for Noah. The rainbow was God’s symbol of hope for Noah. As Sr Joyce Rupp puts it, Noah had “braved long, lonely moments, wondering what life was worth when all that he knew about life was being destroyed.” and wondering how he and his family would survive. The rainbow was truly a sign of hope. “The moment when Noah opened the window and sent out the dove was special and hope-filled,” she writes. People who suffer, who are oppressed, who are discouraged, are like Noah who silently call out to God and others for help, for signs of hope, for reasons to believe and trust the goodness of life again. Fr. Stephen Lim of Kuching, Malaysia, puts his finger on what really matters when he says that the love of God is useless, unless it is something concrete that we can feel, that we can touch, that we can experience. This is the essence of Incarnation – Word in action: “For God loved the world so much He gave His Only Son.” With similar insight, John Swinton writes: “Peace follows the shape of the Gospel. It needs to be seen to be believed.”  People bent low under the system, people who had their God-given dignity trampled on, need to be empowered to find the courage to live life with joy, to be enthused about life again. Concretely, they need to feel, to touch, to experience the meaning of life. Noah, we recall, was blessed with a profound confirmation of hope when the dove came back bearing an olive leaf in its beak (Gen 8:11). That was a concrete sign of new life, a gift of fresh hope. Now, he could believe in the future. Now, he could trust what was to come. Now, he had reasons to believe that all would be well again. In Noah’s story, we see that hope lies in the memory of God’s previous goodness to humanity. It is a memory of a world that is both bountiful and harsh. From her reflection on “The Gift of Hope”, Sr. Joan Chittister writes:

  • Hope is not based on the ability to fabricate a better future; it is grounded in the ability to remember with new understanding an equally difficult past – either our own or someone else’s. The fact is that our memories are the seedbed of our hope. They are the only things we have that prove to us that whatever it was we ever before thought would crush us to the grave, would trample our spirit to perpetual dust, would fell us in our tracks, had actually been survived. And if that is true, then whatever we are wrestling with now can also be surmounted.”

Like Noah, the underprivileged and vulnerable girls in Uganda deserve to move on from pain to hope, from darkness to light again. But there is a dimension of community-witness in Sr. Mathias’ Centre that deserves special mention. Since the year 2000, 127 girls have graduated from the Centre. Most of them are now self-employed and living a meaningful life of hope. So what we see about the Centre highlights for our understanding the importance of community witness. It is crucial for the girls already in the Centre, and others who will come in after them, not only to see and hear from other girls who make up the community at the Centre at any given time. That living together, hearing and seeing, touching and experiencing, laughing and crying together with other girls who “know” the same harshness of life, must bolster confidence in a big way. But even more than that, the success stories of other girls who graduated from the Centre, who now succeed in life, offers a kind of powerful community encouragement that is quite priceless, for it is of a kind that only those who have travelled the same road can offer. Hope comes from seeing other girls, just like them in age and in misery who had suffered and survived similar ravages and traumatic experiences in life, having turned their lives around.

So Sr Mathias would quote from Lin Yutang: “Hope is like a road in the country; where there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.” The Centre stands tall with evidence of past girls having come from the same dreadful situations of pain and suffering, who are now doing well and living in hope. This is not only life-changing and life-sustaining; it goes on to become life-giving.

Arriving and getting off the coach

On arrival at the Centre, our entire group was warmly greeted by the girls. They welcomed us with warm handshakes and tight hugs. We knew at once that these girls live in a community that practises hospitality. They had been deprived so much, and had so little to go by. Their stories are ones of struggle, pain, victimization, and poverty, and yet, they were so cheerful. In some cases, the fact that they could smile were miracles enough, yet they were such a picture of hope! We learned something that day. From their “invisible” and “overlooked” state, they taught us resilience and hope. They reminded us of the divine image in which we are all made. We have not built up a deep friendship, but the togetherness for a half-day has forced us to rearrange our assumptions. They are a deep well from which we can draw truths, inspirations and insights. God is always teaching us through others, in friendship.

The Urgent Need to Improve Facilities

There is no escape from reality though. The lack of funds is reflected in the facilities at the Centre being grossly under-provided. Pictures taken during our visit give some ideas of the urgent help Sr. Mathias could use for her Centre.

The only “nicely finished” concrete block, housing all the classrooms.

Sr. Mathias explaining the importance of the only well at the Centre. The group from Joliet, America, has volunteered to raise funds for the much-needed mechanized system of water-distribution to different parts of the Centre.

The Tailoring and Fashion-Designing Class. Hairdressing class

Nursery Teachers Training, and Secretarial Studies Classes. “No computers”.

The Hotel and Institutional Catering Class. They prepared our lunch.

Of the facilities at the Centre, what hit the group the hardest was the girls’ dormitory – no lights, no tables or chairs, and the girls cramped a few dozens to a room, sleeping on triple-bunk beds, and eating their meals sitting on the edge of their beds. As Sr Mathias would go on to point out, looking into the girls’ dorm was an urgent priority. She lamented: “We need to create more space so the girls can breathe!”And as Deacon Ralph from the American contingent on seeing the state of the accommodation remarked, “This is not good. When one girl gets sick, the rest of the girls in the same room risk falling sick as well.” So Sr Mathias in her write-up drew attention to an urgent need for “a sickbay and clinic rooms so that girls who fall sick can be treated in isolation and drugs can be stored safely”.

Fr Thomas, Fr. Sebastian, Fr Emmanuel (all from Uganda), Jeff & Peter (both from Malaysia) outside the girls’ dorm, the triple-bunk beds visible through the open window.

Seeing the cramped state of the dormitory, the whole pilgrimage group realised that we needed to do something to help improve the situation. Both the American and Malaysian groups responded positively to Sr Mathias’ urgent plea on the spot. Like the Good Samaritan in the parable, we did not ask for ID’s to see whether the vulnerable girls were Ugandans, Americans  or Malaysians before promising to help raise funds for the Centre. What we did was to seek Fr Emmanuel Katongole’s assistance to get plans professionally drawn up for a new building that would incorporate a few added features. The drawings and cost-estimates had since been done. The new building will have 12 rooms, each sleeping 4 girls (for a total of 48); each girl having a bed, desk and storage; a shared set of bathrooms at the end of the hallway; a nice balcony (verandah); soft board ceiling etc. – pretty basic provisions which are as yet missing in the existing dorm. Estimated construction costs on materials and labour totaled at US$35,000. Evidently, Sr Mathias needs help to improve the girls’ accommodation in stages: first, get a new building up and running to relieve the congestion; and later, renovate the existing block and upgrade the facilities. It warms hearts and brings delight to see the readiness with which friends whom we spoke to about this Centre are willing to offer help – without a second word, ‘without checking ID’s!’

We learned something else as well that day. Hearing the stories of those girls and seeing how little they had to live by, one member in the group turned somber, shook his head and declared that he felt ashamed of his lifestyle back home. Another member remarked that he would have scaled down the renovation to his house had this pilgrimage taken place before the renovation. At lunch, some members were clearly avoiding the chicken dish or taking one small piece instead of the usual two or more big pieces. Instinctively, we behaved differently, realizing that we should eat less, and eat simply, so that those girls could eat more and eat better. We learned that even if we were not actually called to be guilt-ridden and anxious about our lifestyles, we certainly needed to move in the direction of justice and generosity.

It is heartening to see that Sr Mathias’ spirit is so contagious, that people who come in contact with her are naturally drawn to her cause and to want to help. What we each experienced deep in our souls was that this was a visit that grew hearts. We all felt softened, became less “competitive”, and were brought closer to Christ. Yet she is most humble and is blessed with a grateful heart. Clearly she knows the challenges of her calling and the weight of the responsibility on her shoulders. When our entire pilgrimage group, led by Fr. Emmanuel, blessed her and prayed over her, she was visibly overcome with deep joy and gratitude. It was all that she could do to hug us one by one, soaking our shoulders with her tears of immense joy, softly repeating these words: “Thank you for blessing me.” She is a great witness for Christ. Her burning compassion for the afflicted turns her into a bringer of hope. May she continue to draw us closer to the heart of God.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, October 2010. All rights reserved.

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