Whether the name was given in a hope-filled moment, or as a cruel joke, or given for some other reason – is uncertain. His father has trouble with language, and has developmental disabilities. The same is true with his grandmother. His mother is dead.
Bright, for a long time, resided in a mud-walled hut. The floor was mud as well. The roof was grass. In the same hut lived the grandmother. The father’s whereabouts were generally unknown.
This was all in Malava, which is a hard day’s drive from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Malava itself, according to Mike Gable, the Mission Director of the Cincinnati Archdiocese, “is in a tough spot.”
“It’s a way out place,” he says.
“It’s not what you’d call a boom town,” says Sister of Notre Dame Gerry Bolzan.
The big trucks make it dusty hauling out the sugarcane. A new road is supposed to make it better, but hasn’t. There are a few stores. A market. A church. A small hospital. A great many huts.
And a mile or so out, the Notre Dame Education Centre.
Which brings us to Bright. Each day Bright’s grandmother carried him on her back to market. There, they begged for food. Some, the “well-wishers” as Sister Esther Onditi calls them, responded. Sister Esther heads up the Sisters work in Malava. She and the other Sisters know Bright well.
Some years ago they saw Bright was of school age and persuaded the grandmother to bring him to school. There would be no fee for his studies, and two meals besides. The two meals clinched it. And so each day the grandmother brought Bright upon her back to the gate, whereupon, at the insistence of the Sisters, he walked inside. And each day afternoon the grandmother returned, stooped for Bright to climb on once more, and off they’d go to the market.
There are 300 children at the Notre Dame Education Centre. Some, like Bright, are in the most dire of situations. A good number are from single-parent households. All are from families who are poor. Which is one of the reasons Mike Gable was in town – to bring people from the United States who were in a position to help financially, or who knew others who could.
Mike Gable, Director of the Archdioecese of Cincinnati Mission Office, with a student who recited the essay, I Am A Teacher, for Archdiocese Cincinnati visitors.
“Only a few children are able to pay something,” says Sister Esther. “Some can only depend on God’s grace,” she says, “and the well-wishers.”
The Notre Dame Education Centre has grown as money has become available. It began with a four-room preschool and today runs through the eighth grade. While Sister Esther is the Head of School, she is also an English teacher, a music teacher, a home science teacher and a French teacher. She is assisted by five other Sisters of Notre Dame and twelve lay staff.
The Kenya Province of the Sisters was established in the 1960s not long after the country established its independence from Great Britain. In Congregational terms, it’s a new province compared to others such as Ohio (1840) or the Democratic Republic of Congo (1894). Sr. Rosemary Wach, an Ohio Sister and a member of the Rome-based Sisters of Notre Dame Congregational Leadership Team, conducted an exploratory visit in early 1965, then later returned as a missionary. Since then, the Province has grown to 26 professed Sisters, five novices (two of whom are from Zimbabwe), and eight postulants.
Sister Gerry Bolzan, herself from the Ohio Province, has seen a lot of this growth, and has played a large role in making it happen. After twenty years teaching biology at Notre Dame Academy for Girls in Chicago and Mount Notre Dame in Cincinnati, she packed her bags for another career – this time as a missionary – and has been in Kenya since 2005. She’s served as Novice Director and most recently as Director of Sisters in Initial Commitment.
“There seems to be a strong identification with St. Julie among Kenyan women,” she says. “The poverty, the persecution, the illness – they can relate to this.”
Most, too, can relate to Malava.
“Everybody identifies with the village, not Nairobi,” says Sister Gerry, even if they now live there. And so, from the Sisters’ main convent in the ‘Little Vatican’ area of the capital, Sister Gerry often sends the Sisters in formation back to the village, back to Malava. There, they hitch rides on pickipickis the mile to the school, pickipicki being Swahili for motorcycle.
Sister Esther, five years ago, and while in formation, was one of these Sisters.
In the Time of Covid
The children say, ‘I fear I will get corona,” says Sister Esther. The school, beginning in spring of last year, and by decree of the Kenyan government, was only allowed to teach grades four and eight. It was the same in other Kenyan schools. Families relocated because they couldn’t pay the rent. Jobs dried up.
It’s been much the same in Nairobi. “It’s tense, there’s always tension,” says Sister Gerry. “You have to think a lot, you have to think twice. It’s just here constantly.” Four students live with Sister Gerry, each going to school in the capital. “They are exhausted,” she says.
Sister Susan Libendi, Coordinator or Social Outreach at Notre Dame Educational Center, visits the parents of students at their home.
Sister Gerry, Director for Sisters in Initial Commitment (right) works with members of the Kenya formation team: Sister Lucy Musembi (left) works with Novices; Sister Praxides Awino (center) leads the Postulants; Sister Elizabeth Sichangi (2nd right) is a social worker and vocation promoter.
Yet still, in Malava, the Sisters are providing children with two meals a day. Still they are going out into the community, as prudence allows, to visit children and families.
“It’s our work,” says Sister Esther. “We come to teach. But there is the extra mile to give these children what they need.”
Some of the things they need currently, now that the school has resumed a full, if tentative schedule, are hand-washing stations, masks and a tent so they can attend classes outside.
But regardless, they are doing their best, says Sister Esther.
“The weather is not friendly, it is very hot. And when it is hot with the masks, it is not easy to maintain them.” But the children are doing it. “They always have their masks on, which is contrary to the adults.”
One of the children, Maureen, lived in conditions similar to Bright – mud house, mud floor, grass for a roof. She is five now. When she was two she was abandoned by a roadside. A woman happened past, saw Maureen, and brought her into the home of mud walls. She notified the authorities who said they’d investigate, but who never did. And so the woman kept Maureen as best she could – for years – sharing her food and shelter, and each day going the distance to the river to draw water. Her only income was as a casual farm labor.
“She digs,” Sister Esther says, “then she gets something. And the house, it was a trouble to them, the rain coming in.
Students at Notre Dame Educational Center arrive joyful each morning, excited to be at school.
“And so we asked, ‘what help can we give you?’ We expected it to be about the house, but she said, no, get this child an education.”
And that’s what the Sisters have done. Maureen is in Kindergarten now. She receives two meals each day. There is no fee for tuition, and the Sisters have purchased her clothes.
“Before she was very rough, she would fight anyone,” Sister Esther says. “But not now.”
When jetliners fly high in the sky coming out of Nairobi, Maureen stops what she is doing, looking up. She wants to be a pilot.
“This is a very intelligent girl,” says Sister Esther. “We believe she will achieve her dream.”
The Interconnectedness of Notre Dame
With jet travel, internet, WhatsApp on every Sister’s cellphone, the geographic world of Notre Dame is as interconnected as ever. Mike Gable flies from Cincinnati. Sisters from Ohio and the rest of the world travel back and forth to Kenya. Women from Zimbabwe profess vows in a nation two thousand miles away. But an interconnectedness often referenced by Sisters speaks more to a relationship spanning centuries, and is that relationship to Sisters who have come before – and to St. Julie.
“Most of our Sisters worked with children who were poor,” says Sister Esther. “It reminds us of where we all came from. And they depended on the well-wishers to move ahead. That is still the same.”
“I love sharing about her [St. Julie’s] life,” says Sister Gerry. “I feel a little like the one telling how things were, how it was. And it gives me joy to see her life in the life of young people and to see her example motivating them, and to see some of the young Sisters I worked with taking over roles of leadership. It just gives me such joy!"
“I can’t predict my longevity but as long as I can make a contribution . . . ,” Sister Gerry says, trailing off – a contribution to the formation of Sisters and to children like Bright.
Bright is growing and now in boarding school away from Malava. The Sisters are paying his way. They’ve paid too for his shoes, his clothes, his books. They pay for his milk he is required to bring, and for medical checkups. No one is quite sure of his age. The official who gave him a birth certificate looked him carefully over, considered, and said, “The age he is, is the age I will give him.”
And so it is he’s on a set path of education and no longer riding his grandmother’s back. Instead of handouts, he has his sights on being a doctor.
“So I can inject them,” he says, “instead of them injecting me.”
Published in Cross Currents Magazine, Winter/Spring 2021 Volume 17 Issue 1