The two women and their formidable team of Catholic sisters are loving the Karamojong one soul at a time, through their rural women’s group, prison ministries and home based care centre.
Story and photos by Jill Vine
Sacred Hearts was first introduced to me by Sister Mary when I learned she had been urgently flown by MAF back to Kampala for medical treatment. In May last year, she suddenly became paralysed and unable to walk because of a compressed prolapsed disc.
After her recovery, Sister Mary invited us to visit and see the Sacred Heart’s work in Karamoja first-hand. We were welcomed warmly. Sister Paulina took my hand and said, ‘You coming here from so far away means a great deal to us. It shows us your great love.’
‘[We] have always had a great admiration for the MAF pilots...May God bless all of you, all over the world.’
Solidarity amongst sisters
Our first stop was the growing Women’s Rural Group which has grown to 150 women since it started in 2000. It now provides accountability, education, and the support and solidarity needed to tackle social problems like domestic violence and alcoholism in the community.
‘We searched villages looking for widows and vulnerable women and started teaching crafts, reading and writing, tailoring and hygiene,’ Sister Paulina explained, filling in some of the background of how the ministry started.
Her eyes were shinning as she added, ‘Now they have gone on to be the ones that teach and evangelise! We have a saying ‘One woman alone cannot change anything, but a group together can change everything.’
After a long, hot walk, we arrived at the traditional Karamojong village and knelt down to crawl through the small bracken entrance that protects the village.
The settlement is crammed full of grain pods and huts with clay tubular entrances. This is the ancient Karamojong’s way of life; cattle-tribes who place their livestock in the very centre of the maze to keep their most prized possession safe from thieves.
‘I tell them that God is compassionate, that He came for sinners, not for the just - who think that they can save themselves.’ Sister Margie
We were introduced to Sacred Heart’s ‘Home Based Care’ led by Sister Mary, where women with AIDS are trained to do tailoring and other cottage industries.
The testimonies that poured out from these AIDS survivors were moving. Person after person shared how their lives had turned around through Sacred Hearts’ steady intervention.
Sister Mary shared what she loves the most about her work. ‘I love seeing these women happy. Just to hear their stories, we know where we can begin to help them. I love the creativity of my work being able to give them hope and also counselling."One woman alone cannot change anything, but a group together can change everything."’
Sister Margie agreed to take me to the local prison to visit the inmates. As we entered the locked gate, we were surrounded by prisoners dressed in yellow and orange shirts. The colour-code was simple; those in orange were serving 10 years plus for serious crimes like murder. Those in yellow, under 10 years for lesser crimes.
I was in awe as the sisters, all over the age of 70, strode across the open prison courtyard unaccompanied by any guards. The prisoners clearly cherish the nuns that visit them week after week.
‘Coming here from so far away means a great deal to us. It shows us your great love.’ Sister Paulina
Inside the chapel was a sea of orange and yellow clad men reciting their prayers. It was hard to see the despondency and brokenness in their eyes.
Pointing out a tall elderly prisoner who entered with a walking stick Sister Margie whispered, ‘He looks like an old warrior probably stole some cows.’ She hopped up and spoke to the men and then introduced me and asked if I would speak.
Finding the words
I knew whatever I was going to say, it would be brief. Who am I to speak to a group like this when I know nothing of their stories or hardships? Many were probably innocent after being falsely accused.
‘In the bible Jesus tells us to visit those that are in prison.’ I said. ‘I think He said that, because you’re important to Him.’ The men gave a cheer as the message was translated. It felt awesome to have had a glimpse of the joy the sisters encounter working with these broken people.
‘Every week, every chance I get, I tell them how much God loves them...'
Later I discovered that Sister Margie often shares the same message. ‘Every week, every chance I get, I tell them how much God loves them, no matter what they’ve done. I tell them that God is love and is compassionate, that He came for sinners, not for the just who think that they can save themselves.’
Release for the captives
Sister Margie runs Alcoholic Anonymous classes for the prisoners. ‘Many in prison are there for crimes committed while drunk, and that is why I feel a good AA training may help them to stay sober and avoid violent crimes,’ she explained.
Margie shared the story of a prisoner who was distressed because his daughter had done well at primary school, but didn’t have the means to continue to secondary education.
The sisters’ response on hearing this was to rush over to the school and persuaded them to give the prisoner’s daughter a bursary. ‘The joy of the prisoner was touching. He is in the Alcoholics Anonymous group and determined never to touch alcohol again. He killed someone in a fight while drunk and is in prison for that.’
‘I love seeing these women happy. Just to hear their stories, we know where we can begin to help them. I love the creativity of my work being able to give them hope and also counselling.' Sister Paulina
Decades of dedication
Sister Margie and Sister Paulina have been in Karamoja since the 1960s and 70s and have a treasure-trove of stories to tell. In fact, Sister Paulina casually mentioned how one night Idi Amin turned up at their convent with a group of 20 and asked for food to be served and a place to rest for the night. The next day one of his wives delivered a child. They were terrible days.
‘Between 76 and 77 we were very scared because the soldiers would pull over every bus and tell the foreigners to get off the bus to be searched. We had pebbles in our bag for our garden, and they made us get rid of them. They asked us ‘What do you think you’re doing? Are you planning to kill our president?’
Flying for the faithful
The sisters have long been aware that our MAF planes fly in medicines and fly them out in an emergency. MAF hope to fly Margie, Paulina, Mary and their sisters more regularly in future.
Sister Margie passed on the following message, ‘We really enjoyed your interest in what we are trying to do here, which is not much, but done with trust that God can do what He wants with it.
‘Paulina and I have always had a great admiration for the MAF pilots (who the Karamojong call ‘Lokuwam,’ which means ‘the one who rides with the wind’), all of whom are courageous in carrying out their mission, often a lonely and risky one. May God bless all of you, all over the world.’
Loving and praying
As you pray for the work of Sacred Hearts, please also pray that the rains will arrive this April after Karamoja has had 3 months of drought. The people have been sowing their seed in the hope that it will rain.