Sister Maria Cristina Vargas’ Experiencies in Zambia
By Carlos Gutiérrez Bracho
Sister María Cristina Vargas is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who have ministries in the United States, in Mexico and in Peru. An offering to go to the ministry in Africa led her to know her religious faith more deeply. For 15 years, she worked in one of the most vulnerable sectors in Zambia: patients with HIV. She shares her story with us here.
“Everything started in the year 2000, the Jubilee Year. My Congregation promoted the idea of taking the mission to new horizons. Two countries in Africa were considered: Zambia and Ghana, and also Haiti. Different sisters visited these places, presented reports and presented them to the Congregation. A discernment was held and the country that was most convincing was Zambia, which had 13 million peace loving inhabitants.
One day, the administration requested volunteers. I was one of them. I had a desire to go out, to have a different type of experience in another culture. I said: ‘Yes, I will go. And I did. I was moved by the idea of serving others. I was called to give service in another culture, different from the one I knew in Mexico, a culture I had lived with, because I worked at the National Cardiology Institute for about eleven years, working with patients. I also worked in the Valle del Mezquital, in the Otomi area. I had lived with people who had great needs”.
During the preparation for the mission, we became aware that going to Zambia was not inculturation, because you cannot leave your culture and go into a different one. What you do is a process of acculturation, knowing and appreciating the other culture, which is different from yours, so you are able to live with the people in that culture.
I was one of the two sisters who traveled first. Then three more sisters traveled to Zambia. We arrived at the capital, Lusaka. It was an unknown place to us, but we felt a great strength from God. When we arrived, we attended the first Mass celebrated by a new priest. My first surprise was seeing so many black people together. We were received by a group of Comboni Missionary Sisters. We were there for about a week before we went to Mongu, the capital of Zambia Western Province, where I would spend the rest of my ministry.
To travel from Lusaka to Mongu required traveling through a national park with wild animals. There were elephants, zebras, deer, lions… they cross the road, because they are used to doing that”. “We arrived in July, a season that is not very comfortable. It was winter and everything was dry, dry, dry. Rain comes at the end of the year, because as this area is south of the Equator, the seasons are changed. When I saw the park in March or April of the following year, after it had rained, it was incredibly green.
It was very risky traveling from the capital to Mongu. The roads were bad and sometimes the car broke down causing a delay of several hours before assistance arrived. Also, crossing the park at night was dangerous, especially due to the animals. You should not make noise near the elephants. If you are driving and an elephant is in front of you, you stop the car so the elephant does not hear the motor. Once, we saw an angry elephant, and it was horrible. Hippos are also dangerous. Sometimes they come out of the water and move around.
Mongu, the capital of the Western Province, is also the biggest administrative region in Zambia. We went there to discern with the Bishop regarding our ministry. He proposed a ministry with orphans and with HIV patients, because at that time there was no medicine available to treat AIDS and many people were infected. The prevalence of the virus in the province was estimated at 15.2% of the population from 15 to 49 years of age. The infection rate is higher in women, with a 16.1%, while in men it is a 13.9%.
To serve the AIDS patients, I prepared myself through a seminar on programs for AIDS patients and background information on the situation. All this made me live and work closely with the people. We installed a laboratory in the Center for AIDS testing, which is not obligatory in Zambia. At this time, it is obligatory for pregnant women, in order to prevent transmission to the babies through their mother’s milk.
Many girls were single mothers. The children were fatherless, often the father was married to another women and had abandoned their mother. The worst part was that many of them were infected with the HIV virus, while very young, sometimes, they were only 15 years old, others were under 20 years of age and already had a baby while they were ill. This made me feel sad. Sometimes the children were well, but the poor women did not have a job nor the means of living. For seven years I worked in a program to prevent transmission of the virus to the babies, and that was another incredible experience It was beautiful, because we saved many lives, even though some children died because of the infection.
In the Diocese of Mongu, I coordinated the program to take care of the patients in their homes. At the level of the health sector, I collaborated in the advances and investigations regarding this malady, especially to prevent the transmission of the AIDS virus from infected mothers to their new-born babies, and especially, saving lives through the program to Care for Mothers and Children, sponsored by my Congregation.
There is still a great deal of rejection and AIDS patients are greatly stigmatized, although, now things are better than in the past. People used to isolate themselves, they did not want anybody to know that they were infected. When we arrived, in 2001, the patients were at home waiting for death. Antiretroviral drugs came to Zambia at a later date, between 2003 and 2004. And in 2005, the government started to distribute them without cost.
Africans do not give up. They have a great capacity for suffering. They struggle to find solutions and they succeed. I was impressed with their capacity to suffer.” Their work is tough, because the weather is very hot and they live in a very sandy region, which can be difficult. It is a flat region. Only corn and rice can be cultivated, because the Zambezi River flows from the north and it floods the lands in that area. Rice requires care and investments. Not everybody can save rice, but they harvest the seeds. I had to walk through the rice fields many times when I went to visit patients, because the car could not travel into those areas. It was difficult.
In Zambia, people have quality. Sometimes it was difficult to work with some of them, especially those who exercised power in their relationship with their tribes. They are also artists. They are great dancers, singers and actors. They can prepare a play with short notice. We took advantage of that to teach women through theatre. Every month, we presented a show in the market, in a clinic, in different places. They wrote the plays themselves. In the church, their singing is wonderful, because they have… incredible voices. The choirs in the churches are beautiful.
There is not a large Catholic population in Mongu; ten percent of the population is Catholic, the rest may be Pentecostal, Adventist of the New Apostolic Church, Evangelical, Presbyterian, Adventist of the Seventh Day… all denominations have very good relations with each other! They have ecumenical celebrations,” “They also have a great solidarity. For funerals, well, you should see them! Cars, cars, and cars arrive. One day, a little boy who worked with us did not attend a funeral and he did not say why. We asked him why he had not attended and he told us nothing. ‘It’s because so and so died’, he told me. ‘Was he your relative?’, I asked. ‘No, but we were in the choir and the boy who died was in the choir. We always go to the choir’. You have to give them their rights on the day of the funeral, because it is an act of solidarity. I don’t know where they find cars to go to the cemetery. I was always impressed by the solidarity of the people.
They have a festival for sexual initiation, even though it is supposed to be forbidden. They hang some flags. When you see them, you know there will be a party that lasts all night. The girls are around 15 years old, and there are parties for boys too, but the parties for girls are stronger. I never really understood what the ‘initiation’ for boys was all about. There are many pregnant girls. They are in junior high school or in high school. Parents do not handle sexual topics themselves but have aunts take care of it. They teach them how to give pleasure to men, but there are still many taboos.
In Mexico, indigenous communities are more open. They invite you for a ‘taco’ or whatever they have, but in Africa they do not do it, because they do not have anything. You have to think what to take to the family. It is not easy to be invited to their home.
Visits were difficult. Another sister and myself could not make visits alone, it was not recommended. We had to go with one of the workers. People mistrusted a little, and more because we were not part of the group. There is a word that they use to say that you have white skin, even though you are not really white *****.
I lived the presence of God deeply working with them, serving them in whatever way we could. It was seeing God in their suffering. This helped me in my prayer; I prayed for them, I treated them as family. Being there brought me very close to God. I felt in communion with nature. My faith became very deep from dealing with the people. It brought me very close to them. It isn’t that I was far from them, but it was in a different way, due to the cultural differences that presented themselves.
This ministry was a great gift from God, because as a Good Shepherd he prepared a table for me, as we read in Psalm 22(23), and thanks to my preference for the ministry in the area of health, He opened the way to make this a reality for me.”
Magazine “In their own voice [En su propia voz] / Christus October * November * December 2017.