She has helped deliver 34,000 babies. Close friendship with a Moslem Imam; she has lived in the country for more than half a century. Witness to much suffering but also to great hope like that of the new-born child.
There is no sign of stress on her face with those attentive eyes. Those hands helped deliver more than 34,000 babies in that country that welcomed her in 1959, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Italian Sister Maria Concetta Esu is now 81 years of age and is still working at the maternity in Zongo, a small town on the southern bank of the Ubangu River.
Of short stature and wearing glasses, sister Maria has spent more than half a century in the country that straddles the Equator and has lived through the history of the Congo, the move to independence and the various civil wars that ravaged the country. In 1996-1997, Zongo was in the front line of the First Congo War. Sister Maria tells how the AFDL rebels invaded her hospital and pointed their rifles at her. “But one of them – she recalled – protected me saying: ‘leave her alone. She is the one who helps our women give birth’ ”.
Having escaped death she found refuge by crossing the river at Bangui. Some years later it would be her turn to welcome in Zongo the refugees fleeing the violence in the Central African Republic.
Seeing her hurrying from one department to another and always busy in that clinic run by her order, The Daughters of St Joseph of Genoni, one would never guess her age. She is a nurse specialised in tropical medicine, fluent in Lingala, the most widely-spoken language in the region and has won the hearts of all. “I came to this country to help women to give birth, to give life. My work as a midwife is a source of great joy to me because it is God who gives life but He doesn’t deliver the babies …”.
Sister Maria has no plans to return to Italy. “I want to stay here – she declares with determined serenity – I have given my life here and here I wish to be buried”.
It is not easy to get her to stop and chat and the best thing to do is to follow her around the clinic. In one of the wards Tshela is waiting with her new-born child Mita. “She is just three days old, – Sr. Maria says – they came from the Central African Republic just a few months ago. There are thousands of them like Tshela. This is the third time we have helped refugees fleeing from Bangui”.
For four years now, the RCA has endured conflict and instability. After the coup by the Seleka rebels in 2013, there were violent clashes with the anti-Balaka in 2014 and the country was partly pacified thanks to the intervention of Pope Francis and the efforts of Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui. The clashes between different militias have diminished but are still going on. The RCA still has no regular army and the UN troops, with 12,500 troops in the country, is finding it hard to defend the people (either because it cannot or will not). While President Faustin-Archange Touadéra continues to call for a disarmament process, those with arms continue to fight for control of the country.
The capital Bangui is relatively safe but most of the country is in the hands of militias. Apart from the anti-Balaka groups beyond all control (they were created in 2013 to counteract the abuses of the Seleka), there are clashes between Islamic militants that formerly belonged to the disbanded Seleka coalition. Among these are the UPC and the FPRC that, in certain areas, are allied with the anti-Balaka for the control of the territory.
Recently, there have been very violent clashes in Bangassou, 470 kilometres east of Bangui, close to the natural border with the DRCongo. Until a few days ago it was thought that there were only a few victims but the CAR Red Cross now speaks of 300 dead. Some anti-Balaka militias attacked Tokoyo, the Islamic quarter of the city, forcing many Moslems to flee: around a thousand sought refuge in a mosque and a further 1,500 in churches and five hundred in a hospital.
A further 3,000 fled to the DCR. There were also six UN soldiers killed in the clashes. Because of the clashes, thousands passed the border to find refuge also in Zongo.
While measuring a patient’s blood pressure, Sr. Maria tells us, “the clash between Christians and Moslems is nothing short of absurd. We hear all sorts of stories but none of us here thinks it has anything to do with religion. It is obviously a game of politics and power. The people you see here are the ones who pay the price. They have had to abandon everything and seek safety here. We do what we can to help them”.
Sr. Maria has been in Zongo since 1984. She has seen the growth of this clinic and the many nurses who gained experience there such as Josephine, a specialised nurse. She was greatly helped by Sr. Maria and tells us: “Sr. Maria not only developed the clinic but also trained many of us to do this work with commitment and professionalism. Many of us followed her example of dedication and competence”.
It is now evening and the clinic is growing quiet as the night shift commences. Sr. Maria takes one last look at the various files and says good night to the person responsible. We go on foot towards the Ubangu River to visit an old friend of hers, the Imam Moussa Bawa. Seeing us coming, he greets us in Lingala, all smiles. Imam Bawa is 72 and was born nearby. He has lived in Zongo for 34 years. Sr. Maria met him soon after she arrived and they formed a close friendship. They spend some time speaking of various things. The Imam greatly admires this little woman who changed the lives of many people in the region.
Sr. Maria tells him about the refugees who arrived today from the RCA. Shaking his head, Imam Bawa comments: “There has always been respect between us Moslems and Christians. We know each other very well and we celebrate events together. I think what is happening in RCA is absurd”. Sitting on a wooden chair the Imam looks at the flowing river and, turning to Sr. Maria, says: “We must make the refugees feel at home and that Christians and Moslems can stay here together, living and praying together. We must understand that no religion should divide but unite us”. Sr. Maria nods in agreement.
We say our goodbyes to Imam Bawa and, as we walked back, I asked her how she felt when she heard Pope Francis had mentioned her during a general audience when he said: “In Bangui I met a Sister, an Italian. She was no longer young: ‘How old are you?’, I asked. She answered 81. ‘Just two years older than me, I said’. That Sister was there since she was 23 or 24 years old: all her life! And there are many others like her. She had a child with her who called her, in Italian: ‘Granny’. And the Sister told me that she had come from nearby DRCongo; she told me that she had come by canoe with this child. And I asked her what work she was doing, and she said she was a midwife and had helped deliver 34,000 babies. She spent her whole life, a life for the life of others. It is wonderful to see this”.
Sr Maria makes no comment. She just remembers the caress of the Pope in Bangui.
Tomorrow she will be there again to help with the birth of new lives. Yet another sign of hope for Africa.