One of my prouder moments came during my trip to Africa in 2001 when I was out walking on morning in the West Usambara mountains. I'd left the lodge where I was staying armed with maps and a general idea of just looking around. There was a school and a maternity hospital two small valleys away, I was told, and so I thought, great! I'll see kids on their way to class and I'll get an idea of what health care in rural Tanzania is like.
The youngsters had a lot of questions for this white face, the mzungu, and collaborated to come up with the right way to ask a question in English: where was I from? did I have children? would I give them 100,000 shillings (this last to peals of laughter at the absurdity of the request, which wasn't begging but sheer cheekiness.)
I expected that sort of thing because kids elsewhere had asked me similar questions. What did give me pause was the man I encountered a little past the turn off to the school. "Jambo, Sister," he said with a big smile.
"Jambo" is a greeting, I knew. But the "Sister" business puzzled me until I made it to the hospital. There I discovered neat and tidy buildings and a couple of signs indicating that Irish nuns were in charge here. Since one glance at me suggested that I was from the same gene pool as they were--blues eyes, red hair, fair and freckled skin--the most reasonable thing to assume ws that I too was a nursing sister.
Tanzania at that time had relatively good maternal and infant mortality rates, in part because of these nuns and others who worked hard off the beaten path to provide safe deliveries for thousands of women. Tough ladies, doing good work.
I've been thinking of them in the last few weeks as Pope Benedict XVI tries to clamp down on North American nuns and their strong, principled positions on a number of issues. The discussions they are in the midst of is as important to the future of religion, feminism and social service as was the great opening of Catholicism after Vatican II to the modernization of the Church..
You go, Sisters!
Photo: the West Usambara Mountains of Tanzania. That's not fog you see but smoke from fires set to clear land.