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Catholic Education

Sacred Heart schools unite for Uganda’s future


They jumped rope for Africa. They sold lemonade at the Rye, N.Y., suburban train station. They donated money at Christmas to build a school for African children instead of using it to buy presents for their friends.

The 650 girls, their parents, alumni, staff and faculty at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, Conn., raised $200,000 so that girls in Uganda could have an education. “We have a sister school in Uganda and we want our sisters in Africa to have a nice school like we do,” was how one 7-year-old explained her fundraising efforts, according to Sr. Joan Magnetti, headmistress at the Greenwich school, which is staffed by the Religious of the Sacred Heart.

Last month Sacred Heart sisters in Uganda celebrated in song and dance the opening of Sacred Heart Primary School in Uganda. The boarding school has been the dream of the Sacred Heart sisters in East Africa and around the globe. The order counts 3,500 religious in 45 nations.

Greenwich was part of a network of Sacred Heart schools and their supporters in 14 nations that raised more than $1 million toward the construction of a dormitory-classroom building. The next phase of building will add a kitchen, dining room and convent.

A significant amount of donations came from the alumni, faculty and friends of the 20 schools run by Sacred Heart sisters in the United States. Efforts are underway to expand knowledge of Africa in the curricula of the 20 schools.

On Feb. 10, 70 girls -- ages 6 to 11 -- started their studies in grades 1, 2 and 3 of the new classroom-dormitory building. Another 30 girls will arrive at the school as soon as they can arrange their transportation. The school is located in a rural area seven miles from the city of Masaka, two hours south of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. The area of the Masaka diocese counts a population of 1.5 million that is 60 percent Catholic.

Boarding schools are a rarity in Uganda. Fewer than 10 percent of students -- and only those whose families can support them -- attend. The school plans to add another grade to the school each year. In Uganda primary school lasts seven years, secondary school follows for four years and the few who go on to university attend two years at a college-preparatory school.

Milestone for Africa

For Sr. Hilda Bamwine, provincial of the Society of the Sacred Heart in the Uganda-Kenya Province, the new school represents a milestone in the long journey to educate women in Africa and for Africa. It is a moment for the sisters, the new enrollees, their families and their worldwide backers to pause and envision what the future might hold for Africa if it could educate all its children, especially its girls, who have traditionally been given few chances for formal learning.

In recent years the United Nations and the Synod of African Bishops have affirmed the benefits of educating girls -- improved health, lower mortality rates, a decrease in the spread of HIV/AIDS, contributions to the environment and greater efforts for peace.

“What our sisters have known instinctively is now being documented by UNESCO and UNICEF and validated by Africa’s Catholic bishops,” said Sacred Heart Sr. Irene Cullen of San Diego. Cullen directs development for the sisters’ Uganda-Kenya Province. She spent much of last year with sisters in the two countries, visiting the hospitals, clinics, parishes and the five primary and four high schools where they work.

Since 1961, the society has been in East Africa, where today it has 65 sisters. While 45 of the nuns come from East Africa, the others hail from the British Isles, Spain, Poland, Japan, the United States, Canada and Argentina.

Bamwine entered the Sacred Heart novitiate at 25, with only a rural education. “I am the third generation in my family to be baptized,” she said, noting that her grandfather was a convert to Catholicism. The nun, who has three sisters, a brother and eight nieces and nephews, grew up in a village. Like many African girls, she was unable to attend school until she was 13. “I was needed at home to help mother raise the other children, to collect firewood for cooking and do other chores.”

Once she started her education in a rural school, she had little time to do homework. Bamwine often found herself taking shelter under a banana tree in the rain, trying to catch up on her studies, she told NCR in New York last year. The provincial was on tour visiting eight Sacred Heart schools across the country.

Bamwine is familiar with American education, having received her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Religious Education degrees from Loyola University in New Orleans in the 1990s. Still, she said, tears fell when she visited Duchesne Academy, a Sacred Heart school in Houston, and heard Kate Rainey, a student in the middle school, compare educational opportunities and the work life of American girls with those in Uganda.

While the U.S. literacy rate is around 97 percent, it is just 62 percent overall in Uganda. Most Ugandans who can read are males. Only 50 percent of girls under 15 are literate. “If the boys’ education is paid for and there is enough leftover money, the girls can receive an education. Unfortunately, women are still considered inferior to men,” Rainey told her classmates.

The youngster went on to relate how education is the way to a “bright future” for African girls. “Just one person in a family receiving a good education could break the continuous cycle of poverty,” she said.

Rainey urged her classmates to help achieve their $6,000 goal for Sacred Heart Primary in Uganda. “Instead of buying new shoes that are not needed or extra food at the cafeteria, just donate your money. Everything helps because each brick costs less than $1. Just remember you can change a girl’s life. It’s all up to you,” she said.

“What I saw in our schools in the United States, I envision for our women in Uganda,” said Bamwine, who visited Sacred Heart academies in Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Omaha, Neb., San Francisco and St. Louis, as well as Houston and Greenwich. Bamwine would like to see Ugandan girls “go beyond themselves. She should speak for herself, speak for others and have no fear of being herself,” she said, noting this is what she saw in young girls in the U.S. schools she visited.

“Our women are capable if given the chance to learn. One educated woman will change another woman and that woman will change someone else and the change will go on and on,” Bamwine said. African children are “disciplined and capable. They need the opportunities, the classrooms, the desks, the books.”

Universal primary education for all children became law in Uganda in 1997. While the sisters rejoiced with this promise of national improvement for girls as well as boys, they also saw the challenge that emerged from severely overcrowded classrooms -- some with 100 pupils per class -- and a shortage of teachers and schools.

The new Sacred Heart Primary hopes to enroll 500 students when it is completed, and plans to have two classes per grade of no more than 35 girls.

AIDS orphans

Many of the girls coming to the school are orphans as a result of the AIDS epidemic. Uganda led Africa in the late 1980s and early ’90s in the percentage of people suffering from AIDS. Its national leaders launched an aggressive program to halt the spread of the killer virus. Educating women was a key part of the campaign. The government mobilized civil society, schools, religious institutions and the media to educate about the disease.

The campaign targeted 15- to 23-year-olds -- especially young women -- informing them about male promiscuity, and about the traditional submissiveness of females. “If girls can stay in school longer, they can delay pregnancy and make better choices,” said Cullen, who pointed to statistics indicating that more than half of the HIV/AIDS infected Ugandans are women ages 15-49 and that AIDS has orphaned 1.7 million children.

However, the percentage of AIDS cases has dropped dramatically in a decade. In 1993, 30 percent of Uganda’s pregnant women were infected. In 2001, the figure had fallen to 5 percent.

Sex is not an easy subject to tackle in Africa, Bamwine said. AIDS may come up in science and health classes, she said, but added, “We don’t promote sex with condoms. We say to girls, ‘abstinence,’ and we ask them to respect themselves.” Ugandans “needed a behavior change to get the number of AIDS cases down,” she said.

Sacred Heart sisters preparing for their final profession in the East Africa province attended a workshop at which the abuse of sisters by priests, especially those in Africa, was the topic. The story was first published in NCR two years ago, and the sisters used the article to inform their discussions.

Bamwine said that she worries “that the article was not put right,” leaving too many readers thinking that sexual abuse of nuns is an African phenomenon and that African clergy are the perpetrators. Not so, said Bamwine.

“Religious life is not easy. We look at abuse as an issue for all of us -- not just a problem for African sisters or white sisters. When we look at this issue, we know it is not in one place,” it affects all women, everywhere, she said.

Since the article’s publication, women religious leaders in African have talked about the sexual abuse of nuns, she said. “If it happens, what should we do?” was the question on everyone’s mind, Bamwine said. “We have to know that we’re religious women. We have to be able to stand up and say, ‘No, I’ve chosen the Lord.’ We must not create fear by not speaking out,” she said.

“I know the Sacred Heart sisters will continue to address sexual abuse, no matter what,” she said. She believes that girls educated in the sisters’ schools will learn to believe in themselves and through building their self-esteem and self-respect, they will be able to make mature decisions about sex when they grow into adolescence and adulthood.

When Bamwine asks young girls in Uganda what they wish for, the answer is not for material things like a TV or a bigger dwelling. They want to learn how to boil water or how to help their sister with her homework when their parents cannot read, she said. “These are minor changes, but they’re good for health, for the family and the country. We want our girls to go beyond their limitations, to discover their gifts.”

Besides studying mathematics, science, English, reading and writing, students at the new school will also learn typing, cooking and agriculture. The 26-acre parcel of land on which the school sits was a gift from Ugandan Fr. Joseph Musanya. The land provides acreage for raising vegetables, sweet potatoes, bananas, cassava and other staples of the local diet.

The school intends to create a spirit of love, generosity, kindness and gentleness, Bamwine said. “We want to share and to spread God’s compassionate love through education,” she said, reflecting the core philosophy of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, who founded the Religious of the Sacred Heart in France in 1801. “For us God is love. Everything is through love so we encourage being kind, loving your neighbor. To be educated in goodness and grace is to be shown God’s love.”

Fixing our gaze on Africa

In celebration of its 200th anniversary, the society’s superior general, Sr. Clare Pratt, wrote a letter in 2001 to all members worldwide from her office in Rome. “We must fix our gaze on the continent of Africa where the piercing of the heart is taking place. We must have those at the margin of society at the heart of our future planning.”

Pratt, of Bethesda, Md., the first American head of the society, hoped that Sacred Heart religious would allow Africa to “become a little more part of your consciousness, accompanying your prayer, affecting your choices, invading your hearts and expanding your understanding.”

When visiting the inner-city school of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Houston -- an affiliate of the Sacred Heart school network -- Pratt spoke to fifth-graders, asking them how they would feel if they knew someone believed in them. One student replied: “I would grow up in hope, knowing my life has meaning.”

In that answer Pratt and Cullen found the basis for the society’s work in East Africa and throughout the developing world. In Greenwich, headmistress Magnetti was so taken with Pratt’s letter that she circulated it to teachers and staff, who shared her enthusiasm. Soon the school assembled an African Task Force of 25 parents, alumni, staff, faculty and Sacred Heart sisters.

Besides raising the $200,000 for the Ugandan school, the high point of the Task Force’s efforts came March 10 when the school suspended regular classes and held a Day of the African Child. The day including African storytelling, dancing, a presentation on AIDS, a presentation on French Africa, visits by the Ugandan ambassador to the United Nations and his wife and from other speakers specialized in African affairs.

“We wanted to celebrate Africa not as a dark continent of poverty, problems and AIDS,” Magnetti said. The school intends to do some distance learning with Ugandan students once the African school’s Web site is up and running.

The link or twinning program with Uganda has prompted all kinds of activities including building an African hut at the school. Some of the older students want to visit Africa and the new school. “They are very sensitive as Americans that they’re not going over there to solve problems, but to learn more about Africa,” said Magnetti.

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003