At the end of a selfless vocation, nourishing the minds, bodies and souls of others, the aged nuns too face similar or even more serious challenges to their existence far beyond their vows of poverty.
Within the Monastery of the Daughters of Mary (Bannabikira) sisters, in Bwanda, Kalungi District, is a permanent retirement home known to them known as, “Sanatorium” specifically reserved for aging nuns who affiliated to this congregation.
According to the Rev Sister Rosemary Namaganda, the congregation’s presiding superior general, the “Bannabikira daughters of Mary” is the first indigenous nun’s congregation to be formed south of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1910; by the late Archbishop Henry Streicher who established their convent in Masaka Catholic Diocese.
Sister Namaganda, who spoke from her official residence with rather a measured tone known for Catholic priests, summarised their nunnery core principles that guide the vocation, which according to her, binds them together despite numerous challenges.
“We consecrate ourselves to God through public vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and strive to work for the diffusion of the Kingdom of God and the Salvation of Souls,” she recites.
Although Sister Namaganda appears to be more radiant, a considerable number of her fellows in the convent are already in their advanced age which make them more vulnerable and in need of extra care by either fellow nuns or hired helpers.
Each other’s keepers
Providing for these persons who spend the lifetime serving the communities in charity work, is increasingly becoming a big challenge to the administration to which they entirely rely for survival for the rest of their lives.
According to Sister Namaganda, a few nuns who are still active and energetic work tirelessly, to secure resources for the continued care and holistic support of more than 200 aging and ailing fellows who reside at the convent.
“I have an obligation to ensure that the aged sisters also get a deserving decent lifestyle at their permanent retirement place, but we are overstrained by this responsibility due to the meager resources and yet the numbers of the aged are skyrocketing each year,’ she says.
Insufficient care for the elderly
The sanatorium at the convent accommodates a total of 130, categorised in groups of three; those who are purely bedridden due to old age (above 90 years) –these are currently 27; the aged ,but a little energetic are 70, whereas those that were retired to the convent due to age beyond 68 years are 33.
Their advanced age means there are more medical bills that need to be paid and more time dedicated to caring for the older nuns who at the same time need a special diet, full-time emotional and physical support because of their current situation, says Sister Namaganda
In her narration, Sister Namaganda explains that as part of the pastoral work, majority of these nuns offered voluntary work, like teaching catechism, preparing couples for Christian marriages and other various charity work that are not pensionable; hence a complicated life after retirement.
“They dedicated their life to serving community and God, mostly in the area of education, but some were in both health and pastoral care,” says Sister Betty Nalubega, the monastery treasurer, as she explains how every nun has a mission within the congregation.
She however, notes that although there are a few who had formal employment in the civil service, their retirement benefits are too little to sustain them in their remaining years on earth.
Today, space for accommodation is not enough and the medical bills are getting harder to pay. “They are members of our community, so of course, we want to take care of them, just like you would want to take care of your grandma,” Sister Nalubega says. “They have needs, and we’re a family.”
“Our sisters are aging and we don’t have a big cadre of young, vibrant nuns coming in every year. Now, we have people who are getting older every year, so we can’t do everything they want yet they’re still very committed to our ministry,” she adds.
Much as these nuns are required to have decent amenities deserving of the elderly, the cubicles in which they sleep, are highly congested and only comparable to students’ dormitories.
A cubicle that had been planned for one individual is now being occupied by two, three and sometimes four of these aged servants of God, who have no alternative, but to share the available space.
Some nuns’ stories
Sister Donozio Ssebugwawo is now 88 years old. She was born in Kiyinda-Miyana diocese and joined the congregation at 20. During her time in active service, which spanned more than 60 years, she worked as a catechist and educator who taught at the grade one schools in various parishes across all regions of Uganda.
She was on the board of religious consulates that prepared for the establishment of Our Lady of Fatima Kijjukizo Catholic Parish in Lyantonde District in 1958, and was the overseer of catechism and primary schools.
Sister Donozio, who walks with the help of a wooden cane, faces numerous challenges in her current state of life, problems which would have been solved if she had one sort of retirement benefit or other.
While, Sister Donizio says, they would determine their own meals and schedule back in the day, all this is now strictly dictated upon her by the administration. Besides staying in a dilapidated home, the nun walks barefoot and has a pair of blue uniform dresses with one worn-out.
At the veranda of a congested rest house is 97-years-old Sister Nicodemus Nalubega, who seems to enjoy the morning bright sun .The former headmistress of Bujinu Primary School in Hoima district is among the few lucky ones whose memory has not waned with age. She can recall some of the events during her hey days although she cannot talk for long thereby cutting her conversations short due to her fading voice. Many of these aging nuns are subsisting with illnesses such as coughs and isolated cases of cancer and tuberculosis. This observation is one that the administration did not want captured on our camera. Inside some the rooms are a number of puns beneath the beds, which the incapacitated ones use to answer nature’s calls, and some of them were half-filled with nobody to attend to them. However, one of the caretakers who speaks on condition of anonymity says the workload is proving too burdensome to them compared to wages given to them. “These people (elderly nuns) are so complicated to take good care of, especially those who are bed ridden. You can find the beds already wet moments after you cleaned them,” she said when asked about the stench from the dormitories.
Over time, however, the commission took the initiative to establish another structure to accommodate the elderly members with self-contained utility services, but the project stalled due to inadequate funds. Through the media, Sister Namaganda recently made a public appeal to render them a hand and raise Shs200 million required to complete the project. Of late, they opened up the Bannabikira endowment fund to attract donations from well-wishers.