As she struggled to feed disabled children in a Tanzanian home Catherine MacMillan was troubled by doubts about God’s benevolence hen I was in my final year at St Aloysius’ College in Glasgow, I found out about Jesuit Missions. This volunteer missions group, based in Wimbledon, looks for people to do some volunteering abroad.
As I had not yet really made up my mind about university and study this seemed a great option for me. I applied for a placement for teaching English in Africa for six months. I was then paired up with another volunteer and we were told we would be working together in Tanzania. There were several training seminars which I attended in June and December 2008 where we were taught about different cultures, how to behave appropriately in different situations and given advice on teaching.
So after I completed all the relevant stages of training on January 6 2009 we flew off to Dodoma, the capital, to teach English to children at a Jesuit primary school. When I arrived there, I started teaching English at St Ignatius’ Primary School every morning from Monday to Thursday, and teaching English at the youth centre in the afternoons.
We then discovered the Cheshire Disabled Home in a very poor township, Chainombe, so we started working there every Friday. The “carers” of the children were, to say the least, very old fashioned in their ideas about disability. Although it was difficult, I began to look forward to Fridays at the Cheshire Home, as it was working with those kids that really made it for me. They would always be so happy to see me and although conversation was a no-go (as most of the kids couldn’t speak their own language, Swahili, never mind English) we just enjoyed one another’s presence and sometimes it was very moving.
When I worked at the primary school I was working with relatively privileged children in comparison to the children in the disabled home, who had next to nothing. They had no money and therefore no teachers. A lot of the time the children were left alone and this was extremely dangerous considering their conditions. I experienced a very, very strong calling in my fourth month. If I had ignored it, and returned to Scotland in June without having acted on it, I would have deeply regretted it.
After speaking to the Jesuit Fathers and the head teachers of both the school and the disabled home, I started working at the Cheshire Home every day. Those four weeks were the most difficult of my life, but by far the most rewarding.
There were a few children who needed to be fed through a feeding tube, but obviously those kind of materials were non-existent there, and they just needed to manage without, which made feeding times very difficult. On days when there were other teachers or helpers around it was much better. But most days there were none and I had to sit for three hours, sometimes more, trying to feed the children.
If there was one thing I had to develop while doing this it was extreme patience. When it got to the third child’s turn to be fed I would almost be in tears with frustration. Not at these children, but at God.
Ibegan to doubt my faith. Working with these children I was constantly thinking: “How could God allow this to happen? How could these children be made to endure lives of constant suffering, while others have complete health?” For two weeks I found it completely exhausting and would go to bed as soon as I got home, and was always on the brink of tears.
But then I started to change. There were many moments when I was working with the children when I experienced complete and utter joy, and this made me cry not from sadness, but because, for example, I had just helped Nema, an autistic four-year-old girl, learn the numbers one to five, and I saw how proud of herself she was. We clapped and applauded her great achievement for 20 minutes together.
Another child who could not swallow or feed himself took a spoon in his hand and for the first time in his life swallowed a spoonful of food by himself. I then realised that I had been put there for a reason and through working with these children had helped them not only to learn but to experience happiness and forget their suffering, if only for a short time. But for me this was a huge joy. It also showed me that the simplest gestures could be life-enhancing for these poor children.
At the end of June the children were to return home to their families. On the last day some cars arrived for some children, but some cars didn’t. I feared that some would be abandoned there for good.
Working for the Church in Tanzania opened me up the harsh realities of life for the poor. It is a source of great pride that the Church still wants to be with them, as Jesus commanded.