Sr Mary Sweeney’s mission in postwar Sierra Leone: enough to restore faith of greatest cynic
Sisters of St Joseph’s of Cluny’s work with children in Makeni is nothing less than heroic
Despite the concerted effort made by various charities to keep the Makeni school alive, St Joseph’s has to battle for every cent: on current projections the school will run out of money next month.
Sr Mary Sweeney speaks proudly of the Makeni school, its achievements and its facilities, which include running water, something of a rarity in Sierra Leone, and of her order, St Joseph’s of Cluny.
There was no mistaking the presence of the Catholics in Makeni, a large town three hours inland from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
Past the dilapidated shops, the shacks passing for homes and streets in such bad disrepair that even the potholes have potholes, stood the best building in the town – St Joseph’s.
This pristine concrete complex of schools is home for Sr Mary Sweeney, a nun from Donegal who has spent the past 40 years in Sierra Leone.
She is a modest woman, who over the course of the day underplays her extraordinary life in one of the poorest countries in the world, where she is devoted to giving deaf children a chance in life.
Her selfless work through the “blood diamond” war and with these doubly disadvantaged children would restore the most jaded cynic’s faith in the missionaries, whose only association for many Irish adults of a certain vintage is the unPC “pennies for the black babies” collection box.
Surviving the war
Over her time here, Sr Mary has been evacuated three times. During the war, the rebels made the compound their headquarters. Initially it was just used as a makeshift hospital, with the nuns still in situ. But, as the war intensified, the rebels installed ground-to-air missiles – one pointed over the town from the verandah outside the dining room and eventually the nuns were forced to leave.
One of the school buildings was used a brothel, which Sr Mary says matter-of-factly the soldiers were reluctant to relinquish when peace broke out.
Sitting in the upstairs kitchen, Sr Mary speaks proudly of the school, its achievements and its facilities, which include running water, something of a rarity in Sierra Leone, and of her order, St Joseph’s of Cluny.
She recalls with photographic detail the horrors of the war and in particular the evacuation on December 22nd, 1998.
“We had the amputees and their families here. The bishop called us all over to see if we should go and we said ‘no, let’s wait another while’.
“Then the older sister called us to say ‘we don’t want to stay here and get killed’. The next morning the bishop came up and we went out on the road – everyone was leaving the town. We were given an hour to leave, but we didn’t leave till 1pm, because we had all the amputees.
“It was Christmas. They were so upset. Most of them were Muslims. We had holy water and we blessed them.”
To be born in Sierra Leone is a handicap in itself – eight out of 10 people here are classified as poor by the UN. Malnutrition and stunted growth is common, hurting the nation’s capacity for development.
The work Sr Mary and her team of teachers, almost all of whom are local, do is heroic on many levels. Some of them haven’t been paid for years and get by through doing other jobs outside the school.
“Two of them haven’t been paid for five years, two for four years, then there are others who haven’t been paid for two years,” says Sr Mary. The government has suspended certification of teachers while it gets rid of fraudulent “ghost” public sector workers.
It is clear from my tour of the classrooms that Sr Mary is devoted to her work – she knows each of the children and their stories, each one more horrendous than the next. One boy, lost hearing in both ears at the age of eight from an overdose of quinine by his aunt (a common mistake in anti-malarial treatment).