Former School Principal, Mercy College, Woodford, Mary Killeen shares the following fascinating account of her visits to Kenya and the great work that is been done by the Irish Sisters out there.

Having retired from Secondary Teaching in 2009 I am now in the middle of my second visit to Kenya (pop. 42 million) and will soon have spent three months here. Though based in the Capital, Nairobi I have also lived with Irish Mercy Sisters in two remote rural areas, Chepareria and Nuu, while giving lessons in the local Polytechnic schools.

My experiences have filled me with admiration for the Irish Sisters (and others), with whom I lived and worked, proud of being Irish, and compelled to let others know of the generosity, commitment and sacrifices made by these Sisters in often very difficult and demanding circumstances.

Sisters usually arise at 5.30am to attend to prayers and religious duties including morning mass, household chores and breakfast, before the working day begins at 8am. Many Sisters work in schools as teachers and social workers where they care for needy children providing education, school meals, home visits, food and clothes and are making great progress in rehabilitating street children, encouraging them to return to education and to learn a trade or get some skills.

Other Sisters work in the community, in clinics and hospitals, as nurses, midwives, doctors and social workers, caring for the sick, the hungry and often starving, supporting families in need because of illness, bereavement, fire, drought or sometimes flooding. Sisters regularly visit the sick and elderly in their homes and bring small gifts to those who are in prison and often neglected by family and friends.

Some Sisters manage donor funds, buying and allocating food to the hungry, paying school fees, funding training or small enterprises and supplying destitute farmers with seed to encourage self reliance.

I was so proud to experience the humanitarian work done by the Sisters and to observe many wall plaques acknowledging funding received from Irish donors including Sisters of Mercy, other congregations, Irish Government Aid and NGOs.

Sister Catherine McCauley realized that when people are caught in the “Poverty Trap’ education is the key. The Irish Sisters have brought this philosophy to Kenya and believe that educating girls/women will provide some stability for them and their children in the future. Sisters have founded Primary Schools (particularly in slum areas), Secondary Schools, and Polytechnic Schools (particularly in rural areas).

During my first visit to Kenya I was based in Nairobi, ’The City in the Sun’ with a population of 4.5 million. There I taught in St. Catherine’s Primary School, working with children from the slums who had fallen behind in their education due to family difficulties and also taught children in St Marians’ Home for orphans. I was privileged to stay with Sr. Mary, described as the ‘Mother Teresa of Nairobi’. For more than thirty years she has worked tirelessly to educate and support the children and families in the shanty towns.

From her I learnt a lot about the difficulties of life in the slums, ie. huge unemployment, no social welfare leading to hunger and real poverty, lack of education and opportunities, absence of basic sanitation or running water, homes destroyed by fire, floods, or demolished by the local Council.

When planning my return visit to Nairobi Kenya I wished to experience life in a farming district. Accordingly it was arranged that I would travel up country to stay with Irish Sisters who have come to live among the poor, in remote, rural regions. This involves travelling hundreds of miles in scorching, dusty conditions, often in overcrowded buses, using roads which deteriorate on moving further from Nairobi, frequently and dangerously eroded. Such roads end in even dustier dirt tracks. Sometimes travellers are attacked by bandits en route. Sisters’ houses are adequate but far from luxurious.

The Sisters live on carefully budgeted allowances and dine mainly on local produce choosing to give any spare funds to helping the needy. Supply of water and power are often erratic. Without constant supplies, hot showers, microwaves, electric kettles are but a dream. However the Sisters have developed coping skills and methods of survival long forgotten in Ireland since the arrival of the Celtic Tiger and indeed since his departure also!

My assignment was giving lessons on ‘The World of Work’ in two rural Polytechnic schools in Chepareria and Nuu. Both schools provide training for girls, equipping them with practical skills such as Dress-making, Tailoring, Hairdressing and Beauty, Catering and Hospitality and also Computer Training. Such skills should help them find employment or even start a small business.

The majority of students in Chepareria and Nuu come from small farms, badly affected by ongoing drought, particularly in Nuu, heavy rains when crops(mainly maize) are ready for harvesting or flash floods , causing soil erosion, burst river banks or impassible roads. Farmers’ incomes have been eroded or even fully depleted and families are experiencing hunger and even starvation while their animals, cattle, goats and donkeys, are struggling to survive.

Many parents are unable to pay school fees (eg 10-150 euro) and so schools struggle to cope as money is needed to pay teachers, purchase basic equipment /resources and supply cooking ingredients and other materials for students doing exams. The Sisters struggle and juggle against impossible odds but somehow seem to manage.

Their efforts are hugely appreciated at local level but get little attention in the public arena. In recent years/months the media has highlighted and exposed issues of abuse by members of the Catholic Clergy and members of Religious Orders, indeed a small minority have been guilty. We all experience shame and pain at such stories. Innocent members of the communities have been deeply hurt. In the interest of fairness, journalists who reported on these cases should now balance the scale and portray the other side of the story ie the many highly qualified Religious who forfeited salaries, pensions, homes and families to live in poor circumstances and devote their lives to the service of the poor, sick and needy, often risking their health and even their lives in doing so.

Some came to the missions after profession, others came following retirement. Many are now well past their prime but still filled with missionary zeal and commitment.

My purpose in writing this document is two-fold. I want to thank Sisters Mary, Patricia, Veronica and Goretti for their hospitality and kindness to me during my visits. I was inspired by their dedicated service to the poor and support to the many volunteers who came to help.

I wish to convey my gratitude to my family, friends and neighbours for the generous donations sent to support the work of the Sisters. I can assure them of how much such help is needed, how well it is spent and how far a few euro can stretch here in Kenya.

I hope to inform others of the work of the Sisters of Mercy (and other Religious) and to balance some of the hurt they have suffered. Finally I wish to encourage and inspire you to continue to support them in their good work. I will be forever grateful for the privilege of sharing a small part of their lives.

Mary Killeen 086- 1052022

PS. My time in Kenya was not all about work. There were many wonderful and memorable experiences including: Safari Trip to the Massai Mara, the beach at Mombassa, meeting former colleagues from Mercy College, Woodford (who had worked on building a new school near Mombassa), travelling on the overnight train from Mombassa, visiting Massai people in their traditional mud-hut village, visiting some elderly friends at a luxury retirement village, staying at Sanctuary Farm, experiencing the local village markets, purchasing and allocating food to the hungry, visiting the prisons, attending mass in the Parish and slum churches, graduation ceremonies in universities, attending a funeral and a wedding, praying at Edel Quinn’s grave, coffee at The Norfolk and The Stanley Hotels, walking in the Ngong hills, a truly ‘Out of Africa” experience.