‘Jesus has no other arms but ours’

On the outskirts of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the women religious of the Sisters Hospitallers run the Telema center which takes in men and women who have been abandoned by their own families, and offer them shelter, hygiene, psychological care, and job training.

By Salvatore Cernuzio

“¡Escucha… la niñita!” Sister Ángela indicates a window with gratings at the “Béthanie” Shelter, recently built in the Telema centre in Kinshasa’s peripheries.

Présence, aged 11-months, screams in her mother’s arms because of the burning abrasions on her back and thighs. Until two days prior, they had lived on the streets in the Kimtambo neighbourhood of the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, surrounded by dust, garbage, rats and mosquitoes.

Présence caught a terrible infection. Her mother, Geneviève, looks at her catatonically as she spreads talcum powder on her. She seems absent and goes through the motion mechanically. She sits on the ground, while the little girl is stretched out on the bed in one of the center’s 23 rooms.

Sister Ángela Gutiérrez, 74-years-old, from Asturia, Spain, who has been in the Congo since 1989, helps her get up. “They arrived a few hours ago. She was all dirty... They had accused her of witchcraft and she was living on the streets. Now she is home.”

A patient at the Telema centre
A patient at the Telema centre

“Les gens de la rue”

The “house” is a small white building amidst uncultivated grass and the debris of new construction. The complex is an offshoot of the more famous and older centre that the Sisters Hospitallers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have run since 2007 on the centrally located Boulevard Lumumba.

Sister Alina Lyna Kana explains that the “new” Telema, — which in the local dialect means “to put a man on his feet” — arose last May thanks to the generous help of a “donor”, the father of two sick children, who was scandalized by the misery of his fellow citizens and in awe of the sisters’ work.

At any time of day or night, with an influx of nearly 50,000 people per month, Sister Ángela and the other sisters — Ida, Alfonsina, Ortensia, Prisca, Odette and Maria — welcome and host in the small rooms “les gens de la rue”, people who wander the streets.

They pick them up every evening from the crowded, smoke-imbued sidewalks of the Congolese capital. Or they let in whoever they find outside their door.

One of the sisters at the Telema centre
One of the sisters at the Telema centre

Accused of witchcraft

They are primarily people with mental illness, affected by depression, self-harm, cognitive impediments, alcoholism, epilepsy, oppositional defiant disorder, accused of being possessed and thus marginalized by their own families, who are reinforced in these beliefs by many Pentecostal pastors who, Sr Alina says, “see witchcraft everywhere.”

“When a relative dies, when someone is restless, he or she is accused of having evil spirits inside. A sister was telling me about an 18-year-old girl who was almost burned alive on Holy Saturday. She found her where people throw their trash, took her to the hospital and missed Mass because she stayed to keep watch over her all night.”

Abandoned women

Most of the people who end up at the sisters’ house are women. They are alone, mentally and physically vulnerable, and for this reason, at anyone’s mercy.

Some are rape victims, like Madeau, who was thrown out onto the streets with her two children, in front of whom she was repeatedly raped.

Her children were taken from her by a police officer who, after a few days, realized he was unable to look after them and so, turned them over to social services. “After eight years, we know where the boy is. We have no idea what happened to the girl,” say the sisters, as they open the door to Madeau’s room.

The woman had been to the centre before, but she had gone back to the streets: “She was looking for her children”. After some time, she returned, covered in scabs and filth. The other women were the same.

“We wash them, disinfect them, cut their hair, burn their clothes,” Sister Alina explains. The next step is setting the young women and men on the path of psychological and psychiatric medical treatment, made possible thanks to the work of volunteer specialists. Physiotherapy, a testing lab and a pharmacy are among the services offered in the equipped clinic.

One of the sisters at the Telema centre
One of the sisters at the Telema centre

Traumas and activities

While the patients are undergoing therapy, the sisters get them to do handicraft. The main activity is the “atelier”: a large room with some 10 sewing machines.

There is a small room in the back where “their works” are displayed; cotton dresses and robes, “Mama Africa” dolls stuffed with sand, crosses and trivets mad of bottle caps, purses with beads or tribal patterns.

Sister Ángela teaches the women to sew so as to help them learn a trade. The sisters try to sell as many of these products as they can, above all to cover their many costs, primarily for food.

Food from the garden

For any needs, there is produce from the garden, another activity for the sick. “Look!”, says the sister, showing a pot of water with tufts of spinach, “they picked them.”

“We have never been without food,” echoes Sister Alina. “Of course, we receive little aid.” The sisters have spoken with city authorities, with the Church: “But ultimately, only the generous people help us. In general, we are abandoned.”

A life for others

Darkness falls early on the house. The only light is the one at the entrance of the Bethanie Shelter, under which the sick gather with some of the sisters.

They have dinner, a change of clothes, wash up and get their medication. Some go out to patrol the streets, and they start again. The sisters spend 24 hours a day tending to the needs of others.

Why do you do it? Sister Alina smiles: “Jesus has no other arms but our arms to touch the sick. He has no other eyes to see the suffering of others... He sends us to continue what he started.”

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14 March 2023, 11:39