Sr Alphonsa’s mission of presence in war-torn Central Africa
By Sr. Alphonsa Kiven with Sr. Bernadette Mary Reis
A Tertiary Sister of Saint Francis, Sr. Alphonsa Kiven has spent most of her life as a woman religious in positions of leadership. After being Provincial Superior in her native Cameroon, she is now in her third term as General Councillor. Sr. Alphonsa always wanted to be a missionary. As she celebrates her Golden Jubilee, she looks back and recounts how the Lord fulfilled her wish in a very unexpected way….
Sr Alphonsa continues the story…
The word ‘mission’ – I entered with it. I always had a dream…. I had read a lot of the lives of the saints in the novitiate. I always liked saints who struggled when they were young – Francis, Augustine, Therese of the Child Jesus – and secondly, people who went to missions alone, far away, challenging. These stories fascinated me.
While here in the Generalate, I have been sent to difficult missions, especially in situations of war, or conflict. So, when there was this conflict in Central Africa in 2015, we were reading frightening stories. It was decided that I would go to the Central African Republic because I had opened two missions there when I was provincial of Cameroon. Because of this, Central Africa has always been a ‘darling child’ for me. Anything about Central Africa enters right through me.
So we began collecting things. Then I began experiencing a conflict within me – my love for mission to go to a challenging place, and the reality – that was different. Several people promised they would pray for me. One sister offered one hour of Eucharistic adoration throughout my visit to Central Africa.
I left Rome and was met by two sisters. Our truck was escorted by the Cameroonian military till we reached the border. Then, it’s very difficult to put words to what I was feeling. What I had in my mind was, ‘Where will we be attacked?’ I was sitting stiffly in the car because of the fear inside of me. We spent a lot of time at the border, and night was falling. I said to myself, ‘When we’re attacked, we won’t even know where we died.’
We arrived at the bishop’s premises in Berbérati around 9:00 pm with full moonlight. The children came crowding around me, dancing and chanting, la mère es arrivée (mother has arrived). Tears ran down my cheeks as some pulled on my habit and others wanted me to carry them. I arrived with fear, tension, stiffness – only to be met by the children’s jubilation. At that moment the only French word I could remember was merci. I went to bed that night – I couldn’t put words to what was happening to me at that moment. I was lost – the joy of the children.
My experience that week was getting up in the morning, praying, I would go out to thank the soldiers for watching and guarding us and the people during the night (thank God I recovered my French), then greeting the children and giving them food (the children were well-fed).
During the day I would meet with different groups. They were all so happy that I would sit down with them – even the Muslims. The leader of the Muslims said to me one day, L’Évêque et les Soeurs sont Allah pour nous (the Bishop and the Sisters are like Allah for us). At that moment, I thanked God. All I could do was stand there and look at the man. I couldn’t remember any words in French.My experience that week was getting up in the morning, praying, I would go out to thank the soldiers for watching and guarding us and the people during the night (thank God I recovered my French), then greeting the children and giving them food (the children were well-fed).
During the day I would meet with different groups. They were all so happy that I would sit down with them – even the Muslims. The leader of the Muslims said to me one day, L’Évêque et les Soeurs sont Allah pour nous (the Bishop and the Sisters are like Allah for us). At that moment, I thanked God. All I could do was stand there and look at the man. I couldn’t remember any words in French.
I spent time with the Sisters too, listening to them who were traumatized and overwhelmed by the challenging situation they had lived for almost a year. I thanked them for their witness of faith and to the Franciscan values of presence and compassion. I told them that I had seen how the children would hang on their habits every time a sister went out of the house. I spent time with the women, listening to them. They told me their stories – how many people had died, some had seen their husbands, children killed before them, their houses burned – all kinds of atrocities. Those are the stories I listened too.
Then I went to their village, a vibrant village I had been to before. There had been a beautiful Mosque there. Now it was completely in ruins. I moved about that village as though in a cemetery, asking the question, ‘Why, God?’ When I went back to the compound, the only thing I could say to them was, ‘I have seen’. That was all. And they replied, merci, ma mère. Merci. And the gratitude was truly beyond me. I don’t easily cry. But as I stood there, the tears flowed freely.
There was also a lot of joy with the children. When they finished school every afternoon, they knew there were sweets. The sisters would line them up – more than a hundred of them – and my work was to give a sweet to each one of them. And then they would shout! The joy of the children was the greatest contrast.
That is how I spent my week in Berbérati. What I remember most is the contrast between my fear and the gratitude and joy of people who had lost everything…everything. I was not appreciated for the blankets and the things I brought. I was appreciated for my presence. My journey to the Central African Republic during this time of conflict was a journey where my faith was strengthened and where I experienced God working in the Gospel witness of our Sisters.