“I grew up in Dublin. When I was 18, I saw a film about people in Africa with leprosy. I felt a call to go out and to show people there was somebody who loved them. I was young – it all sounds so innocent and simple now!
I was impressed by the Franciscans. They seemed to me a joyful group who enjoyed the simple things in life, and I felt if I was going to become a nun I would go the whole hog. My mother was upset, because she knew I would become a missionary. But that was what I wanted to do, and I never doubted my call.
I trained in nursing and midwifery, and served an initial posting in Zambia. Then in 1978 I was sent to Uganda, just after Amin had been ousted. Everything had been bombed; there were very few basics. We would still hear shooting all night long, and every morning there would be an influx of people to our hospital who’d been shot in the night, who’d had to wait to travel because of the curfew. It was a hard time, but you just had to get on with it.
In my order, you go wherever you’re appointed. That’s what your vow of obedience means. The three vows are chastity, poverty, and obedience. People are sometimes taken aback that at my age I can’t choose where I want to be, but I tell them that’s why I joined the service.
In 1981, I got a letter about an appointment in Ethiopia. I hardly knew where it was at that time, but I went, and I stayed for 15 years.
We were up in the mountains, about 6,000 feet above sea level in a region called Chencha Gamo Goffa. They used to call it the forgotten province. It had very few services, and heavily pregnant women would have to walk six to nine hours to get any care. There was a very high maternal death rate.
We were there as professionals, not religious people, and one of our main aims was to train traditional birth attendants. We started regional clinics, and when the government had enough personnel, we would hand them over. When I left in ‘96, there were no maternal deaths recorded across our area of 46 villages. I believe the clinics are still going well.
We were there during the big famine, and then a smaller one in a remote region near us, which took three hours to get to. There was total destitution.
HIV raised its ugly head in the early 90s, as the soldiers were returning from the war. There were no drugs at that time.
During this time, I did a year’s sabbatical in Uganda. What I found there shocked me. There were so many people, beautiful-looking young men and women, all devastated by AIDS. All I could think was, was there nothing we could do to prevent this happening?
We started a lay group, and developed a number of courses for children of different ages. At first there was a lot of resistance, but now all the schools are asking for it. It’s become very successful and highly structured, with backing from local councils and leaders.
The children we work with live in slum areas and are exposed to sexual activity at very young ages. Drugs and prostitution are common. It’s a trucker stop-over area, and they send the prostitutes looking for younger girls because they think they won’t get AIDS that way.
After 10 years, I have seen an improvement. Children are becoming more aware, and are continuing on at school where they didn’t before. There are fewer teenage pregnancies.
We look at self-awareness, image, how to say no, how to be self-confident, making positive choices, and we try to give children a focus in life. We’re developing it all the time. We visit primary school children six times, and then when they’re two years older, we take them out of school for a three-day seminar.
The No Strings Kibing! films are so useful for us at every stage of this process. They are a very powerful tool.
Classes can be very large, with up to 100 pupils, so we split them in two. We create a safe environment so children can talk about their problems, and we have trained child counselors.
I’m 65 now. In religious life, you don’t retire as such. When I’m no longer able to manage here I’ll go back to Ireland, but before that I’ll stay on in the background and be a companion and mentor for younger ones, and train local people. That’s our policy.
I loved Ethiopia – there was something wonderful about it. I grew up there in a sense. But I’ve got very used to Uganda and the people and the work. And I will be here as long as there is a need.
Some of our sisters have been in Uganda for 50 years. They go home at 80. We have one sister of 82 working with street children in Kampala who don’t have money for school fees. She just says, why would I be sitting around in Ireland when I can help these youngsters pass their exams?”
Sister Maureen Carroll, FMSA (Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa), Mbikko Integrated Development Programme, Uganda