The Call to Africa
Living in Africa has been a gift
An interview with Sr Elizabeth Donnan ibvm by Michelle Gale
Sr Elizabeth Donnan currently serves alongside Sr Pat Hanvey and Sr Lenah Mambo in MWIA education and health projects in Zambia. Globally the Loreto Sisters often establish our MWIA projects, facilitate them and are the key to their success.
In The Beginning
I am inspired and motivated by issues around justice, simplicity and integrity. These are certainly Mary Ward values but these values were first lived by Jesus. In my years of teaching in Australian Loreto schools, I was encouraged by our evolving emphasis on the value of justice. At the same time, I was growing uneasy at the contradictions in my life. The affluent lifestyle I lived was at odds with the value of justice.
In 1988, aged 44, came my first time out of Australia and what an introduction to the wider world! I spent 6 months in Kenya. What struck me forcibly at that time was the value Kenyans put on their extended families, the Ubuntu factor that all humanity is connected – ‘I am because we are ‘. Secondly, I was struck by the fact that mothers carried their babies on their backs. The babies developed a sense of self and family. I saw firsthand the struggles of those forced to live in poverty.
A seed was planted and in 1997 I transferred to a Loreto community in a South African township teaching in a government school. In 2006, I moved to Zambia with Sister Pat Hanvey and Sister Lenah Mambo joined us in 2016.
One of the gifts of living in Africa is the gift of a simpler lifestyle. Somehow there is a greater integrity between what I say and do. Personally, working through education to make a small contribution to bring about a more equitable society in Lukulu provides this balance
A Day in my Life
The people of Lukulu incredibly survive against the odds. Most are subsistence farmers or fishermen. Food security is the greatest challenge. There are insufficient primary schools for all the children in the district. Village communities see the need for education, and start what are called community schools, with voluntary, untrained, literate members of their communities as teachers. These schools do an amazing job with very limited resources and are an acknowledged and important part of the Zambian educational landscape. They are slowly being integrated into the mainstream education system. My main ministry is supporting the 44 existing rural primary community schools and their teachers.
No two days are the same. People knock at our back door requesting support for their community school. Some have walked for two days, just to be able to get the basic needs for their classrooms.
Requests can be simple like stationery and chalk, for others they can include blackboards, desks, chairs, tables and bookshelves. Some come with oxcarts to transport the bulky items. We usually meet seated outside in a circle on low hide covered stools. Often there is more than one group waiting. We communicate across four languages, and the crowd assists in translating. Meetings are full of laughter with much news exchanged! Sometimes at the end of meetings I transport furniture to awaiting canoes on the Zambezi River.
What do you love most about what you do?
It is an absolute privilege to work at the grass roots with people. I like working with people who help themselves. The large numbers of volunteer village teachers and volunteer primary health workers is mind boggling. They creatively work out how they can use their limited resources and personnel for the betterment of their communities. I have never seen a community school fail. In 15 years, it has brought me great delight to see many community schools progress to mainstream schools with trained government paid teachers.
Do you have a special message for all our MWIA supporters?
I want to thank you for uplifting the lives of the people of Lukulu in so many different projects, and particularly, for saving the lives of vulnerable babies through the formula milk program. I am very conscious of MWIA’s support through the Australian Loreto school communities. The work we do is impossible without the support of MWIA. I have been given a gift to live like I do and I am truly thankful.
Dear Sister Elizabeth, we are truly thankful for what you do, serving alongside Sister Pat Hanvey and Sister Lenah Mambo saving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children. In partnership with you and our supporters, we change lives together.
Author: Michelle Gale
Feature Image: Sr Elizabeth Donnan ibvm in a community school in Zambia.