Help for Africa's Poorest


SAMUEL NJAU is one of Africa's ``poorest of the poor,'' who is getting food, shelter, love, and respect as part of the expanding work of Mother Teresa. Blind, without family, Mr. Njau was living alone in central Kenya until a local priest brought him to a Mother Teresa home here.

``God sent them to help people like us,'' he said of the sisters who work at the home.

As poverty deepens in many African countries, Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic order, are steadily increasing their presence on this continent.

Mother Teresa is expanding the number of her homes in Africa faster than in any other part of the world, says Sister Shanti, of the order's headquarters in Calcutta, India. There are more than 200 homes worldwide in 77 countries. ``The need is great,'' she said.

In the past 15 years, Africa has been wracked by drought and famine. Income levels are declining and wars and hunger have created more than 4 million refugees and up to 11 million other displaced people, living in temporary locations in their own countries, according to the US Committee on Refugees, a private research organization.

Only a fraction of the needy find help in Mother Teresa homes: those with no family, often the physically or mentally handicapped, abandoned babies, and the severely malnourished. No regard is given to beliefs, and while religious services are held at the homes, attendance is not compulsory.

Mother Teresa is undaunted and emphatic about admitting only the most destitute. ``We can not take just anybody and everybody,'' she said in a Monitor interview in Nairobi last year. ``We must take the poorest of the poor and give them tender loving care.''

Born in 1910 in what is now Yugoslavia, Mother Teresa was 12 when she decided to become a nun and 17 when she left for India to join an Catholic Irish order in Calcutta. In 1948 she started working among the city's poor. Two years later, she launched her Missionaries of Charity - a sisterhood whose members take vows of chastity, poverty, moral obedience, and wholehearted service to the poorest of the poor.

Starting with a couple of homes in Tanzania in 1975, the order is scheduled to open its 50th home in Africa in Morocco this fall. It will then have homes in some 20 African countries.

On a visit last November, Mother Teresa opened the first of two homes in South Africa. And in Ethiopia there are now 10 homes, more than in any other African country. In cooperation with other churches, the sisters will soon be helping Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government also has authorized the group to open the order's first home for AIDS patients.

A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa links helping the poor with peace. ``The fruit of prayer is a deepening of faith, and the fruit of faith is love, and the fruit of love is service, and the fruit of service is peace. And so the more we put our love for God in a living action, in loving each other, the more there will be peace in the world.''

There have been challenges: Earlier this year, one of the sisters at a Mother Teresa home in Sudan was beaten by Muslims who were incited by a local Islamic leader. The man was reportedly sentenced to two months in prison. Muslim-Christian tensions have flared in Sudan in recent months as the predominantly Muslim government attempts to break the deadlock with Christian and non-Muslim rebels in the south.

In South Africa, the interracial composition of the sisters running the home in Cape Town speaks a message of racial harmony: One sister, from Rwanda, is black; one is a white South African; the third is from India.

Some in the city ``Couldn't believe a black and [a] white could work together,'' says Sister Teresina, who works in the older of the two Nairobi homes, in Hurumu, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

The Hurumu home opened in 1979 in a small hut. Today it accommodates some 200 adults and children, many of them handicapped or elderly. The 10 sisters there also teach school to some 360 children.

World-wide, provisions for the sisters and those under their care come from private donations to the Calcutta headquarters. In Nairobi, James Lobo, a Kenyan, heads a group of 50 supporters who furnish most of the food and other supplies. An anonymous Irish benefactor is paying for the new home, and an Asian has agreed to buy beds and bedding when the home opens.

``Somehow God provides, always,'' says Sister Teresina.

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