at ‘peace’ Mass
Conversation: Sr Christine Martin, missionary - Where little children bury their parents
By Marilyn Rodrigues
“No one should have to die alone; nor should little children have to deal with the enormous task of burying their parents in the backyard,” says Australian missionary Sr Christine Martin (pictured).
For Christine, immersion in the daily struggles of children in South Africa’s Tzaneen diocese, the country’s poorest rural area, which borders Zimbabwe, is often overwhelming.
Each day she must cope with death, disease, poverty, injustice and people’s heartbreaking and dangerous misconceptions about AIDS, all written on the faces of Tzaneen’s orphans.
She needs “courage to face the plight of these little ones”, she says.
“I can only keep going because … I have had to learn that I can’t do the front line all the time by myself.
“So I don’t go to all the funerals, for example … it just broke my heart so much.”
Sr Christine joined her order not out of any particular desire to be a missionary but because she was attracted by the example of her teachers, all Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, at Our Lady of the Rosary School, Kensington, where she was a student.
She taught in schools for 10 years before answering an SOS in 1986 by the bishop in the Tzaneen diocese (himself a Missionary of the Sacred Heart) for two English-speaking teachers to help set up a secondary school.
She came back and worked for seven years with Centacare in the Northern Territory before returning to South Africa in 2000; this time it was her experience working with children’s grief that was sought after.
Sr Christine is now one of four Australian Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a missionary order whose headquarters are at Kensington, working in the area of HIV and AIDS in the Tzaneen diocese.
“My chief responsibility is to care for the orphans and vulnerable children, who are increasing every day,” Sr Christine explains.
“While in Northern Territory I had written some books for children on processing feelings of trauma and grief, books that are needed so desperately in South Africa now.
“The situation is grimmer than ever. There are more and more AIDS deaths all the time.”
Sr Christine says that in every village, more and more children must attend funerals of their parents or other close family members.
“There’s no escaping the tragedy and trauma,” she says.
On a recent sabbatical back home last month she spoke in several parishes and schools asking for help for the order’s work in Tzaneen; for prayers and donations.
Time did not allow her to visit as many parishes or catch up with old friends as she would have liked, especially those she wanted to thank for supporting her work to date.
She needs funds to translate and publish her six age-specific books called Glow Worms, Fireflies, Shade Trees, Gardens, Galaxies and Galleries.
“I didn’t know I had a gift for writing children’s programs until I had to do it and it worked,” she says.
“Now I have adapted it to Africa. The children need it so much.
“I want to have trained facilitators to lead small support groups, but I can’t do that before I’ve got the materials to give them to work from.
“Also, we’ve got to feed the children first; they can’t process their feelings of grief if they are starving.
“So our first task was to identify the child-headed households and now I want to start to run the programs.”
The four nuns have identified 634 child-headed households in their area.
“There is no way we can scoop them all up and bring them home, even though our hearts long to do this,” says Sr Christine.
“They are brave little children, used to hardship and have tremendous resilience.
“Children with no income have to be fed, but the situation is so grim that we have to adopt the tough love policy of topping up their meagre diet only if they have shown some effort in planting vegetable seedlings given by the government and trying to help themselves by cutting firewood and saving the water.”
Young girls are the most vulnerable.
Sr Christine tells of an orphaned 15-year-old raped when she was 10, who came to tell her about her eight-year-old sister being interfered with as well.
Both were victims of the myth some men believe that “to be free of AIDS they need to find a virgin child whose pure body will take their sickness away”.
Sr Christine’s response was to set up a hostel for little girls thought to be at high risk, in an old clinic buildings next to the Catholic girls high school.
The sisters’ work can include helping with children’s school fees, and getting them or their parents to hospital.
They have also established a palliative centre, called the Holy Family Centre, to provide care for children and new mothers who are dying of AIDS.
A lack of medicines and supplies in hospitals and clinics across the region means that patients who are dying are sent home once it is clear that nothing more can be done for them.
Most heartbreaking are the AIDS deaths, because so many could be prevented.
The sisters work closely with the health department, through which they learnt that nine out of 10 mothers are found to be HIV-positive when giving birth.
Sr Christine tells of a family who, having lost their mother and toddler sister to AIDS, then lost their father to AIDS as well.
Before he died, he tried to educate his remaining children about the disease.
Sr Christine wonders if they were too young to understand.
“He kept telling his children about how AIDS spreads and how they have to be strong and brave and realise that behaviour change is the only way to prevent the disease taking more of their family,” she says.
“He impressed on them to show great respect for their own person and the body of another.
“His children are 13, 10, seven and five. Can they really grasp this message so that they will survive past 20?”
Here the Church has a role to continue the work with schools and families to teach about fidelity within marriage, she says.
“Such a pandemic as is sweeping Africa cannot be turned around by latex companies all vying for a place in the market.
“Health facilities cannot deal with the pandemic, nor can we make up the difference.
“Morality has to become a value that is seen as sacred and lifesaving as well as noble and healthy to human wellbeing.”
Sr Christine hopes to utilise the resources of the small Christian communities from the local villages to see whether they can set up centres where sick children can be cared for, orphans can go for a meal and a health check and simple life skills such as home maintenance and gardening can be taught.
The sisters’ residence, located in the diocese headquarters grounds, is called Kurisani, which means “we help each other to grow”.
And it is true. With help they have received from the Church, the child-headed households of Tzaneen diocese are now places where there are “signs of hope in the eyes of children who see a possible future after all the grief they have experienced”, says Sr Christine.
But, she adds: “There are thousands of children, orphaned and vulnerable, that we haven’t reached yet and that disturbs me.”
Donations can be sent to: Sr Christine Martin, c/- OLSH Overseas Mission Aid, 2 Kensington Rd, Kensington NSW 2033. Donations of $2 and over tax deductible.