After our visit to Mpophomeni, we had the afternoon to get a few administrative things done and to lounge around the house. Many of the brothers were going to be leaving us the next day, as they began their journey to Johannesburg in the mini bus. Some would be continuing on to Br Ndabaningi’s ordination in Malawi, while others split apart from the group to attend conferences around the continent. We knew this day would be coming where we would have to say goodbye, but certainly were dreading it. After dinner, we went outside with Br Clement to take a few photos….which morphed into a mini photoshoot! It seemed a little excessive at the time, but now I appreciate being able to look back and remember those silly moments.
Once we retreated back inside where it was warmer, we ran into Brother Dominic and ended up talking for hours. We discussed how he was the first one to bring us around the neighborhood, and how much we had learned in the few short weeks we had been there. Finally, we talked about how different life at the priory was than we had expected. Amanda and I had talked about it before, but only between ourselves, and we really enjoyed hearing from Brother Dominic about his perspective as a student brother. I cannot make an accurate comparison to the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC because my only visit there was very brief, but Emephethelweni Priory seems much more relaxed and comfortable to me. (By this time I am extremely biased, though!) I’ll definitely miss having the opportunity for these fruitful late night conversations with the Brothers.
See you later!
The next morning we were able to sleep in a little, as we had no plans to leave until 11am with Fr Pheko. The kitchen was abuzz when I went down for breakfast – Brothers running here and there in preparation for their trip, and the others just watching. I grabbed some cereal and joined in the spectating! Their plan was to leave by 1pm…and I’m pretty sure only 2 of the 6 had packed their bags. With no plans, I joined Brother Dominic on a walk to retrieve something from a friend in the neighborhood, and others on a trip to Checkers for last minute travel items and airtime purchases. As it drew closer to the time when Amanda and I were to leave with Fr Pheko, we started going around the house to take the last photos and say our goodbyes. The brothers would leave while we were gone for the day, and would not be returning to Pietermaritzburg until after we had flown back to Johannesburg for our safari excursion.
Our outing that day was to visit the Dominican Sisters of Montebello, about an hour’s drive from Pietermaritzburg. Father Pheko spent a few years living and working in their community, and invited us along on his visit to see the incredible work that they do. In addition to being the home of a large community of sisters, novitiates and the inquiring, the sisters’ work is spread between many different ministries. Upon our arrival, we met two Junior Sisters who work in the crèche, teaching children between the ages of 5 and 8. After a quick tour of the main buildings from Father Pheko, we settled around the table for a meal made specially for our visit! Unlike his usual custom of simply showing up unannounced with visitors, Father Pheko had called ahead to make sure our visit would be timed well. During the meal, we met many more sisters, and watched with fun at Father Pheko reuniting with his old friends. Once dishes were put away, we continued further into the community, past the primary and secondary schools, towards the long-term care facility kept by the sisters.
Sister Antonia (in between Amanda and I) accompanied us further on the tour of Montebello. She explained the history of the long-term care facility, and tried to prepare us for what we would be walking into. Not too long ago, the facility was fully operational and at maximum capacity, serving both the physically and mentally challenged whose families could not afford care at private hospitals. Many of the children were orphaned or abandoned at birth because of their conditions, and taken into the loving care of the sisters. Recently, the facility lost all support from the government, and therefore all of its funding that it required to provide adequate healthcare. Many patients were taken back by their families, or relocated to different care facilities. But many more found themselves abandoned by their families. What could the sisters do? Now they fund the facility through donations and gifts from their own families, and continue to care for those who have no one else to.
We started in the children’s ward – a long room with a row of metal cribs spaced about 3 feet apart along each wall. Most beds were empty, but probably twenty children still remain. As we walked into the room, we found many big eyes following our movements. Our waves hello were met with different responses – most inaudible. Sister Antonia greeted each child that was awake, and paused to tell us a little about them. As we walked up and down the cribs, we were immediately drawn to one corner, where little Xolani shrieked with glee at our arrival. As he pulled himself to his feet, Sister Antonia explained that his parents could not be found, but he was the most smiley and happy little boy she had ever met. He entertained us for probably ten minutes with his smile and a game of peek-a-boo, and followed us with his eyes when we moved on to greet the other children. Now as I research his name online, I find that “Xolani” means peace in Zulu, apropos for a little boy who brought us joy and smiles on such an emotional day.
Promising Xolani that we would return to him, Sister Antonia led us to the adult wards of the facility. There were maybe a dozen patients in each of the men’s and women’s wards, set up much like the children’s ward – but with bigger beds. The patients varied greatly in their physical abilities; some were walking around and sitting in the sun outside, while others were confined behind the metal bars of their beds. We spent some time with the women outside, learning their stories through Sister Antonia. There was the woman whose family always promises to bring her home, but never shows up. Or the woman restrained by her bed sheets, lest she gets free and hurts herself. Many have been at the facility since they grew up in the children’s ward, and know of nothing beyond the grounds of the community.
Perhaps the most moving part of our visit to the facility was right at the end, as we were walking away. Sister Antonia situated Amanda and I off to the side as a 12 passenger van and a pickup truck pulled up to the front doors, asking if we would excuse her to help with the off-loading. I assumed they were bringing in supplies, and stepped forward to help. When the doors to the van were opened, I saw a woman stretched across the seat – not supplies. After a little struggle to bring her comfortably to the waiting wheelchair, the group of sisters moved onto the bed of the pickup. As they opened the tailgate, Amanda and I realized we were standing next to their ambulance – not just a pickup truck. The bed of the truck was lined with foam mattresses, pillows, and blankets which supported two little boys. We watched the little boys be lifted ever so gently out of their nest in the truck, and placed on to the metal stretcher awaiting them. It was in that moment that I realized how much I take for granted the healthcare that I have access to, simply for the accident of the location of my birth. These little boys did nothing differently than I, but to be born in South Africa. I can’t help but wonder how different those patients’ lives could have been if they were born in the United States. I am no doctor, nor do I know the conditions of their diagnoses, but I know the incredible things that have been done for the physically and mentally challenged in the US, and I feel as though something could be done for so many of those children. Here I was, standing on my own two feet after having been able to travel 10,000 miles away from home, wondering if their little lives would ever take them outside of those cribs, those grounds.
Our last memory of the facility is of little Xolani, gleaming with happiness as one of the Sisters pushed him up and down the aisle between the cribs in a wheelchair. We waved goodbye and walked away with the sounds of Xolani’s joy trailing after us, lifting our heavy hearts. Reuniting with Father Pheko who had stayed behind to chat with his friends, we hugged and thanked Sister Antonia for her companionship throughout the day. Exchanging emails, we promised to stay in touch and to return the favor of being a tour guide whenever she is able to come to the US. As she wrote down her email, she explained that her Zulu name, Sbongimpilo, means “thankful for life”. She was sick as a child, and her parents named her aptly – and Amanda and I couldn’t help but appreciate the meaning – for her, for the day, for ourselves.
The trip back to Pietermaritzburg brought us past the hospital founded by the Sisters of Montebello, although it has now been taken over by the government (and not doing so well, according to Father Pheko). We drove through the countryside, passing miles and miles of sugar cane, as Father Pheko kept us entertained with stories of his past. All throughout the ride, I couldn’t help but think back to the patients we had just met, and the Sisters who work around the clock to care for them. What a personification of God’s love.
Sister Antonia (Sbongimpilo)
We returned to the Priory exhausted and worn out. Thanking Father Pheko for including us in his trip, Amanda and I headed back to our room for a nap and reflection on the day. Once we decided we had our emotions under control, we walked downstairs for Evening Prayer, which we realized would never be the same for us. With more than half of the brothers gone, the chapel seemed awkwardly empty, and the chanting and harmonies that we came to love were not as full as before.
Poor Father Joe, Father Pheko, and the remaining Brothers – I don’t think they are used to having emotional women around all the time! The Brothers made sure to keep us entertained that night, and we had a fun time getting to know them better in the smaller group. Despite the amount of sadness we felt throughout the day, it was impossible to ignore the amount of love that surrounded everyone we came into contact with.
Love and prayers,