Nuns have a reputation for being strict. While the ‘Soeurs de la Providence’ of Solenzo have no interest in breaking that stereotype, these particular brides of Christ shatter just about every other presumption. Sisters Elizabeth, Jeanne Marie and Marie have played a pivotal role in my service as my mentors, colleagues, counterparts and teachers, and it is finally time for me to give them the attention they deserve in their very own blog post.
Being a member of a religious society in Burkina Faso has many benefits, not the least of which is support from the religious apparatus. Nuns in Burkina Faso and, from what I can tell, Africa at large, are particularly empowered within society. A woman in Burkina Faso without formal schooling may fall prey to a host of complications and find herself uniquely disenfranchised, but becoming part of a religious order provides an education in and of itself. Apart from learning to read and write by way of the bible, nuns are called upon to serve wherever their congregation sends them, meaning that many nuns have what most Burkinabe don’t: a passport. Congregations support their members financially and often make sure they have very decent accommodations in larger towns so as to welcome travelers and support the local church. (When I was given my site assignment my section head assured me that I was lucky because nuns usually had refrigerators and, consequently, cheese). In Burkina Faso, nuns from different congregations independently run a host of businesses including restaurants, welcome centers and, of course, alternative education centers for girls.
Solenzo’s three dedicated nuns play an integral role within the community. Not only are they strong in reading, writing and speaking French, they also boast a plethora of technical aptitudes from computer skills to accounting and management. This is to say nothing of what they bring to the table in cooking, weaving, soap-making, animal husbandry, bike maintenance, farming, bible instruction and so on. They live together in a small complex with tiled floors and mostly reliable electricity a stone’s throw away from the church. On religious holidays, after congratulating myself for having sat through a four-hour mass, I always look forward to sharing an indulgent meal and one too many bottles of beer, wine or dolo in their comfortable living space. In Burkina Faso, Catholics like their alcohol, and the nuns are no exception.
While the Sisters take their duties as religious mentors and shepherds very seriously, living a Christian life for them can mean many things. They make certain that the girls at the Center understand that all religions and systems of belief are welcome and respected, and they have never mandated any kind of religious activity. Though the Center celebrates, prays and worships in the way of Catholics, the nuns’ primary goal for the girls at the Center is to produce young women with skills to support themselves and a place to stay out of trouble. As for the spiritual enigma that is their blasphemous Peace Corps Volunteer, never once have I been scolded, pressured or encouraged to actually get up at 6am mass.
Solenzo’s nuns are the kind that ride motorcycles, host dance parties, enjoy a cold beer and thank Christ for every good harvest season. They have always endorsed my insistence to teach sexual education and family planning at the Center and have supported me in all my crazy endeavors. They are strong examples of independent self-assured women that, while keeping the girls at the Center on a short leash, care deeply about their futures. Recently Sister Elizabeth, the primary manager of the Center, told me a story about one of her struggles with a girl that had attended the Center the previous year. Her uncle had tried to marry her off to a man who already had 3 wives, so the Sister intervened, got a social organization involved, and saved the girl from forced marriage. This year, that girl will be coming back to the Center to continue her education in traditional weaving and earn a little money by way of the commissions that the Center receives.
I hope it’s clear by now just how lucky I got in Solenzo, and not just because my closest colleagues have a refrigerator with cold beers. One of the toughest things about serving in the Peace Corps can be finding motivated partners to work with. Not only did I come to a site with an already functioning organization, the three nuns and my counterpart, Madame Dioma, form something of a dream team when it comes to completing projects. Strong in French, worldly in their education and motivated in their pursuit to improve the lives of others, these four women have supported me despite how many times I’ve fallen on my face, put my foot in my mouth or simply failed to achieve what I had hoped. Despite the fact that I am not religious, I mean it with all my heart when I say may God bless them.