Sr. Isabelle Kahambu Valinande – Living with the people

From Africa to Latin America. Continuing her studies in Texas (United States), Congolese Sr. Isabelle tells the story of her vocation.

I was born in Kinshasa (DRC) and, since my father was a forestry engineer, I spent my childhood in different parts of the country. I met the Comboni Sisters in 2001 when I was ending my pre-university education in Lubero, the home village of my grandparents.

I belong to a large Christian family of seven girls and one boy. My name is Kahambu, a name which is closely related to the fact that I was the fourth child in the family. I never used to think of converting to religion and certainly not a missionary. It was my sister Fabiola who encouraged me to follow that path. She had met the Comboni Missionaries in Kisangani. Right from our first meeting, I was impressed with what I learned of their founder Saint Daniel Comboni, a courageous missionary.

The Combonis follow his example by working, defending the rights of the poor, and training the youth. I was curious to know more about Comboni. I was very much influenced by the history of the conquest of Africa, and it was incredible that, while the conquerors, colonisers, and explorers sought their own personal advantage, Saint Daniel Comboni saw the situation in a completely different light. I was greatly moved, but I told nobody about this or about wanting to become religious and a missionary.

Influenced by my sister Fabiola, I began to attend the vocations group in my parish of the Good Shepherd where the parish priest encouraged us to contact the congregations we were thinking of joining. That was when I met a young man by the name of Gervais Mutsopi who is now a Comboni Missionary working in Kenya. He invited me to attend a meeting organised by the Comboni Sisters in Butembo.

It was one Saturday after school that we took our bicycles and went to the meeting. That meeting changed my life. A Congolese missionary spoke to us about the life of Saint Daniele Comboni in such a deep way that he seemed to have known him personally and seen all he did. I was deeply moved by his experience, and I felt I wanted to know more about that man who loved Africa. Three words stuck in my mind, words that even now provide the motivation for my consecrated religious life as a Comboni Missionary Sister: passion, Comboni, and Africa. Saint Daniel Comboni had a great passion for Africa.

The missionary speaker told us that Comboni was the only surviving child in a family of eight children. Despite everything, he made the sacrifice of leaving his aging parents to evangelise Africa. This decision cost him dearly from start to finish but his passion enabled him to accept it all for the sake of the continent. Back home, I said to myself: ‘Comboni left his nearest and dearest for the sake of Africa… so why can’t I?’. That was the moment of my conversion, the moment when my life changed.

I waited three years at Butembo, working and studying before starting the first stage of formation. I then did four years of postulancy: three of which I spent in Bangui (CAR) and one in Nairobi (Kenya), to learn English. After that, I did the two-year novitiate in Namugongo (Uganda).

After my religious profession, I was assigned to Mexico where I lived for nine years in three different places. I spent a year in Guadalajara working with the sick and elderly as well as in the parish. In Costa Chica, in the state of Oaxaca, I devoted two years to an African Mexican youth ministry. That was a beautiful experience during which I felt the joy of missionary life. It taught me to allow myself to be guided and I learned much from the young people. It also allowed me to really get inside the reality of the country and to open myself up to what was new and different while sharing what was mine.

The diocese of Puerto Escondido did not have sufficient pastoral agents, too few priests, and as a result, many young people were not being sufficiently assisted. Our parish in Huaxolotitlán had about 32 communities and just one priest who could not visit all the places during the year. The communities, therefore, organised the celebration of their faith themselves. I was one of four Sisters, and we shared the territory of the parish among ourselves. While accompanying the people, I was deeply moved by their testimony of faith.

I must admit that this situation surprised me, knowing that Mexico is a country with more than 500 years of evangelisation. In my diocese of Butembo-Beni, there are many priests and religious congregations. Even though it is not long since the coming of the Gospel, there are pastoral agents trained to accompany the Christian communities and the celebrations are very impressive. In Costa Chica, I had to turn my hand to all sorts of work. On Sundays, I would go to different communities for the celebration of the Word of God. I was also deeply moved by the celebration of funerals.

Traditionally, the dead are not buried without a blessing, so the people go in search of a priest, a sister or a catechist. They say these people are “closer to God” and that their prayers and blessings bring the deceased person closer to God. They have one ritual which is a mixture of African and indigenous traditions. As soon as a person dies, while the body is still warm, they place it on the ground in contact with Mother Earth. “From the earth, they come and to the Earth, they return “, they say.

When the body is cold, they believe that Mother Earth has received it. They then adorn the place with marigold flowers and lime, placing the dead person on a bed in preparation for the vigil after which they go to the chapel, something sacred for Catholics and carry out the burial. The community then gathers to share food. The communities where I worked also have the custom of having a novena of prayers for the happy repose of the deceased. I appreciated very much this way of celebrating the life and death of people.

Lastly, I lived in Mexico City for six years. There, while studying Religious Sciences, I dedicated myself to missionary animation and ministering to migrants. At the Casa Mambre, I helped them with their administrative formalities and to study the language, especially those coming from Africa. At the Cafemir Centre, I collaborated in the psycho-spiritual accompaniment and manual therapy for migrants to facilitate their social integration.

I am now in the United States where we are going to open a community in Texas to continue our work with the youth and migrants.

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