Kenya: Whatever We Have, We Share

Superior of St. Joseph's Community Tells of Hunger, Sickness, Dignity

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ROME, JUNE 22, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid the Church in Need interviews Sr. Lucy Thuo, the superior of the St. Joseph’s Community in Kenya.

Q: Sister Lucy, the charisma of the community is to spread the love of Jesus as ‘teacher, prophet and merciful’. How do you live this charisma?

Sister Thuo: We live among ordinary people, doing whatever they are doing and helping them in whatever need arises, principally in their basic needs like education, health care and farming.

Q: Can you tell us about life in Kenya at the moment?

Sister Thuo: Life in Kenya is not easy. The economy is not doing well, the cost of living is expensive and the income for most is very low. So there are people who are surviving on almost nothing.

Q: What are we talking about - just to give a picture?

Sister Thuo: One meal a day - but not even a complete meal … they need to find something more just to keep going. You wake up in the morning and somebody is knocking at the door because she is hungry or has a sick child and has no money to bring the child to the hospital. We encounter this every day.

Q: How do you respond? You live as they live already; so you don’t have a lot to share. Do you just break the little “bread” that you have and give that as well?

Sister Thuo: It is true that we don’t have a lot to share and life for us is also very difficult. Most of the sisters are not making a lot of money from what we earn where we work. Whatever we have in the house we share. If we receive a donation then we give. In our schools we provide lunch, a meal for the day, so that child who came without having eaten anything is able to go back home. That is the best we can do.

Q: You have built your own schools to serve the poorest?

Sister Thuo: Yes, we have. There are children today who cannot go to school because of the lack of school fees. Such is the reality. We are trying to build schools to address these issues. We have built four and one is still under construction. We hope in Divine Providence. That is what we are trying to do in our schools. They are open to everyone. And any scholarships, if we manage to get them, are given to the poorest of the poor.

Q: You are also running orphanages: What is the reality of street children in Kenya? Why is there a need for orphanages?

Sister Thuo: Yes, we also have orphanages and programs for street children. Often there are girls who give birth and they perhaps do not want or are not able to care for their children. So they abandon these children. The police collect them and they are brought to us. Others are abandoned in the hospital. Others are children whose parents have died from HIV/AIDS. We have to take care of these children. We pick up the orphans and we give them free education and for those who have homes - there are some who are claimed by their relatives - we follow them in their homes to see that they get food. It is like a home based care. Those who remain with us, we provide vocational training.

QL How do you deal with the psychological scars of rejection at such an early age?

Sister Thuo: We try to make the children feel at home as much as possible. They are usually withdrawn; they do not want to talk, do not want to be involved. Some are easily annoyed for no reason. Love is the first thing we give and we appreciate them. We have sisters with degrees in child psychology and who are trained as counselors.

Q: Sister you, earlier made a distinction between street kids and orphanages. What is the situation of street kids in Kenya? Where are they coming from?

Sister Thuo: We have a street program known as “Grandsons of Abraham” to help boys and girls on the streets. They come from other parts of Kenya to the capital, Nairobi. Some run away from their parents because of poverty - perhaps looking for greener pastures, but they end up on the streets. Others are orphans and have no relatives except the street boys. If possible, we try to rehabilitate and after a time reunite them with their relatives. Others we give a free education and if they qualify for secondary education, we look for sponsors. It is a long process and there are so many. We cannot keep them for long. We try to rehabilitate and help them to go on so that we can give room to others.

Q: How many requests do you receive for example in a week?

Sister Thuo: It is a huge, huge number. This is very painful. Our house can only accommodate 60. We cannot take more than 60.

Q: I read in your web site that there are very young girls who come to you because they run away from marriages. Why the very young marriages?

Sister Thuo: These girls are forced into marriages at a very young age – some as young as 13 – done mostly by their fathers.

Q: … a daughter is promised to a man she does not know?

Sister Thuo: Yes, forced marriage is still a part of the culture in some parts of Kenya. As long as the man can afford a few cows. Most often, this man is her father’s age or even older and often the poor girl does not know the man.

The mothers never agree to the idea. If a girl is forced into marriage, a mother will often hint to us that her girl is being taken to such and such a place, and we try and rescue that girl. We have a place, a rescue center run by the Sisters of Charity. Some of these girls are pregnant and so they are cared for until they give birth and then when she is stable and has given birth, we try to bring the family on board. It is not easy because it is culturally ingrained.

Q: Sister another area of your service is in HIV/AIDS. What is your work here?

Sister Thuo: Our sisters run an HIV/AIDS shelter, which is called the St. Joseph Shelter of Hope. One of our sisters, who initiated the program, saw the needs of many families that were just dying unattended in the hospital, so she first started a program of home-based care. Sisters go to the homes with food and provide whatever they can to help the patients. They have been doing it now for a number of years. This same sister has now put up a hospital. It is not complete but it will soon be operational. Many people come to this center and I must say that we have managed, not to cure but at least provide an avenue to have a peaceful and dignified death. We help the patient to accept the reality that even if they take the anti-virus that it is not a cure but just prolonging their life.

Q: So the clinic in effect is a hospice where people come to die?

Sister Thuo: Partly and the other part is open for everybody because people do not want it just to be identified as an AIDS hospital. When you make it open for everybody, they come in like any other patient without the stigma and then what you discuss with your doctor is your business.

Q: Is the stigma of AIDS still a big problem? Do families reject them?

Sister Thuo: They are no longer really rejected by their families because of education, but before they thought: “If I sit with you and you are infected, I will be infected”. Now families are taking care of their own. The stigma is not as it used to be.

Q: Many of your patients are not Christians. How do you address this? Are they open to the Word of God?

Sister Thuo: We just talk to them about God; God as a healer, God who does not reject and judge. Even when they are very sick, they are very accepting and some want to be baptized even at the last minute. For those who have journeyed with the sisters for a long time, they are aware and most of them go to Church. For the non-Christians we give them a choice: do you want us to pray with you or do you want somebody else to come to pray with you?

Q: How do you spiritually cope with this suffering?

Sister Thuo: The challenge is the situation you find the patient in. You come to bring him or her medicine and words of consolation and you realize that this person is hungry. He or she does not only need the medicine but also sustenance. And you do not have something to give. You only have the medicine, but there are so many other basics that are lacking. You pray and empathize. You feel that you have not given enough.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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