Africa: Religious Sisters and Fathers on the front lines against COVID-19

A number of congregations are helping to combat the pandemic. Their services range from providing key COVID-19 messages over the radio to opening sharing their own resources of food and hygiene facilities with those most in need.

In Zambia, sisters from six congregations have teamed up and taken to local airwaves to bolster their government’s efforts to combat COVID-19. On radio and on the ground, the sisters are reaching out to communities in rural areas where there is little access to information. The sisters are using a radio talk show format in local languages to accurately inform people about the pandemic.

The sisters in Zambia have also partnered with an organization called Young Leaders Art Club that shared with them brochures and posters that have proved helpful in their campaign. “The brochures in local languages were especially helpful in the rural communities where radio and TV networks are inaccessible,” Sister Astridah said. Several congregations have also donated an assortment of critical equipment and supplies, such as face masks, soap and hand-washing facilities, and pamphlets with key COVID-19 messages. They also gave out surgical masks and boxes of surgical gloves to a health facility managed by sisters.

In Tanzania, a sister of Our Lady of Good Counsel is using radio to help families cope with the psychological impact of COVID-19. A trained counsellor and psychologist, Sister Grace Mkosamali has been working at St. Augustine University of Tanzania, lecturing on educational psychology at the faculty of education. She is also a counsellor at the guidance and counselling unit of the university; and now her skills have become very handy in helping communities to cope in this era of the pandemic. Sister Grace said: “There is urgent need to talk about psychological health, especially at this time when most families are facing a lot of challenges arising from the impact of COVID-19.”

In Malawi, the sisters under their umbrella organization, the Association of Women in Religious Institutes of Malawi (AWRIM), remain actively engaged in spreading the truth about the pandemic by sharing COVID-19 messages with sisters throughout Malawi through radio programming and print media such as posters. So far, AWRIM reports, 1,500 sisters from 35 congregations have been reached with the messages.

In South Africa, despite the precautionary measures religious sisters are taking, COVID-19 has claimed its first confirmed deaths among nuns on the continent – four nuns, all belonging to the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood died in a span of one week in their community’s motherhouse in the Diocese of Mthatha.

“These are the first confirmed deaths in our religious communities in Southern Africa, and they serve as a reminder to all of us of the vulnerability of religious communities to COVID-19,” said Sister Nkhensani Shibambu, president of Leadership Conference of Consecrated Life in South Africa. “With the scarcity of religious vocations in the country and in the Church, this is a grievous blow, for the death of one religious is a death too many.”

The Scalabrinians in Johannesburg offer financial help. For weeks, every day, the community in Johannesburg provided food to the poor townspeople who were unable to go to work. Thousands of people were assisted who, since early morning, lined up for help. Father Pablo Velasquez said: “Covid-19 is not only a health emergency, but also a serious economic emergency. In addition to food, people also seek financial help. Unemployment is rampant. People have no money. An increasing number of people come to ask us for financial support to pay the rent. To get any occupation, people are ready to pay bribes to mediators. Corruption increases. These are also the consequences of the pandemic.”

In Kenya, the Little Sisters of St. Francis (LSOSF) stepped in to assist families with food supplies, water storage tanks, and hand-washing facilities. According to LSOSF’s regional superior, Sister Lucy Wanza, they gave out food items such as maize flour, rice, cooking oil, beans, and washing bar soap to those living in the slums of Kenya’s capital and largest city, Nairobi. “Water is a challenge to the families in some areas, and we thought it critical for them to have somewhere to store some water at this time of the pandemic,” she said. “It was clear that the people who knocked at our doors could neither fulfil the hand-washing directives nor observe the government’s ‘stay at home’ directives, as they had to look for food to feed their families,” Sister Lucy noted.

Another community of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Nyeri in Keny used their own resources to support the needy by handing out food stuffs such as maize flour, beans and fresh vegetables. The Nyeri sisters also distributed cooking oil, bars of soap, hundreds of face masks and hundreds of liters of liquid soap that they prepared themselves. “If God has given us what to eat and use, why not share some of it with those who don’t have?” asked the congregation’s Mother Superior Mary Isaac Waithira Chage.

In Nairobi, Sister Grace Njau, coordinator of the rehabilitation centre and the Amani primary school, managed by the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, said: “We decided to dedicate a day to the distribution of foodstuffs and other basic necessities that we had purchased to help the most needy families during the Covid-19 pandemic.” The nuns, assisted by teachers and social workers, have reached the families through the contacts of the children in the suburbs of Kawangware and Riruta.

In Angola, Father Renzo Adorni, priest of the Society for African Missions (SMA) said “Parish Caritas and the Justice and Peace Commission, with the support of the SMA fathers, try to alleviate extreme situations of misery. In the different neighbourhoods of our parish of Bom Pastor in Luanda we have assisted about a thousand people including the sick, widows, orphans, street children, the disabled, single mothers, foreigners. Through Radio Maria Angola, we have broadcast information on COVID-19 and its prevention.”

In Togo, Father Silvano Galli, a priest of the Society for African Missions, missionary in St Léon IX parish in the mission of Kolowarè said: “Parish Caritas has tried to be close to the most vulnerable through the basic ecclesial communities (CEB), identifying in particular needy families in the five communities present in Kolowarè. Everyone was given a food parcel.”

In Ivory Coast, Fr. Norbert Erick Abekan, parish priest of Sainte Famille de la riviera, in collaboration with Grand Conférences d’Abidjan and Radio Espoir, has organized a series of conferences to reflect on the challenges that Africa will face after the COVID-19 pandemic, in the light of the Gospel.

From 1 July every Wednesday and Friday, at 8 pm GMT, on Radio Espoir (the diocesan radio station of Grand-Bassam) and on other Catholic media in Ivory Coast, speakers specializing in sociology, anthropology, philosophy, theology, and psychology have been contributing to the discussion “After Covid-19: Will another world be possible?”

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