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Roxane B. Salonen, Published May 17 2013

Healing sister: Nun helps women, children cope with effects of war in Sierra Leone

FARGO – As a lifelong educator, Okechi Bernardine Njoku sees distinctions of places not just through landscape, food and language, but by observing the faces of children.

During her visit here, the nun from the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary has quickly noted contrasts between children in North Dakota and those from her current home of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

“Children are so lucky to be born in this country,” says Njoku, looking reflectively at her calm 5-month-old nephew, Wisdom, at her sister Viola’s Fargo apartment.

It’s the difference between being born into an environment of peace and one marked with war.

DIVIDED NATION

Having been commissioned to help those ravaged by 12 years of civil strife in Sierra Leone, Njoku and the 11 religious sisters with whom she works has witnessed the latter far too often.

Some children in her care were conceived through the rapes of their mothers and sisters by brothers and fathers, she says – acts done through the threat of death.

Now, when these children ask who their father is, there are no easy answers. “It was an internalized war, not one nation against another,” Njoku says. “Reconciliation is very difficult because they face one another each day.”

Though the war is over, survivors have been physically, emotionally and psychologically damaged, she says. “Some people’s hands and legs were amputated. Their houses were burned.”

That’s why, along with checking in on family, Njoku hopes to appeal to hearts during her short time here by sharing with local churches and other civic-minded groups the sisters’ vital work.

Though a slowdown of financial assistance coincided with the war’s ending, the need remains.

The sisters run both a primary and secondary school and train future teachers using a program focused on child protection and non-violence. They also provide meals for students on a daily basis, and require maintenance for themselves to see their work through.

Last August, an outbreak of cholera took many children’s lives.

“As the rain comes again this year, my heart is beaten because a lot has not been done,” Njoku says. She’s taken it upon herself to dig latrines and treat the water system with chemicals to prevent another outbreak at the school.

DESPERATE STEPS

Aside from the practical, everyday needs, wider issues also require their attention. It’s not uncommon for parents from poverty-stricken homes to push their teen daughters to become prostitutes, Njoku says. Many fall into the hands of sex traffickers.

“We went to these girls standing on the street waiting to be picked up by men and asked them to come to our school,” she says. There, the girls learned trades like sewing and hair-dressing and were given tools to continue their work.

“We think the way to end human trafficking is by educating them so they will have a means of livelihood, and then they will stand in a better position to shun people who want to take advantage of them,” Njoku says.

The sisters also help former soldiers find a new life away from the theft, vandalism and drug addiction that is so common, and counsel those traumatized from the violence of rape and having watched family members being decapitated and other atrocities.

In addition, they help students understand the richness of the soil and what crops grow well there.

Along with the physical, they treat the needs of the soul by serving as spiritual directors for the local Catholic Women’s Association, offering retreats and support, and training catechists for religious instruction.

Though the country is predominantly Muslim, Njoku says, no one is turned away from their help; all are treated as children of God.

Her passion for children and the poor began in her own childhood in Nigeria, which also suffered civil war. “I saw (religious) sisters helping the sick and giving mercy,” she says, “and I started thinking that I’d like to give my own life for people like that.”

Her work in Sierra Leone certainly has offered the chance to fulfill that yearning.

“When the war ended, the country built schools and hospitals, but they didn’t rebuild the insides of people,” she says.

Njoku invites anyone wanting to help to email her at bon4childd@yahoo.com or call her temporary phone number, (701) 885-9151, where she’ll be for a few more weeks.

“I don’t want to just report bad things, but to share our ministry and call together men and women of good will who can support our work,” she says, noting any amount helps. “As dedicated women we have given ourselves to the service of all humanity, and we depend on the charity of people to sustain our mission.”

Readers can reach contributor Roxane B. Salonen at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com