Activism and Empathy
Drawing lessons from Sister Beatrice Chipeta
This first quarter Essay Competition Winner appeared in the Mail and Guardian’s blog Thought Leader here:
By the time, their daughter was born on 4th October, 1942 in Timeyo Chipeta village, Robert Chipeta, a carpenter, and Agness Shela, a nurse, had already lost a few children in infancy. They called her Bweleka, meaning loan, because God had loaned her to them and may take her back at any time. But it was they and not Bweleka who would suffer untimely deaths. She grew up an orphan and in Malawi, at that time, that meant, she was the child of many, raised by uncles, cousins and the many women of her village.
As a child, as the story is told, she rarely interacted with children her own age, preferring instead to sit at the feet of the women of her village, as they shared and taught her with their stories and practical wisdom. In this way, her education began. She learned to sew, knit, weave using reeds and sweep the compound and mud-floor huts of the elderly. To this day in hers and the surrounding villages, a story is passed down of how the child who would one day become Sr Beatrice Chipeta would diligently help the elderly.
Bweleka went to school and as she grew older, came to feel that her name did not fit her anymore. In Grade 5 (then Standard Three), she decided to change her name to Cephas, which was the name Christ gave to Simon to mean he would be a rock (Cephas), the foundation of the future faith. From that time onward, she dedicated herself to a life of service. It was highly unusual for a woman to rename herself or assume such a sense of destiny. She was after all in a moment of maturity that was considered more appropriate for marriage. In those days, and most often at their parents’ urging, girls could marry when they completed Grades 4 or 5. When Cephas, age 12, was in Grade 6, she escaped the attention of suitors by fleeing to St. Peters Catholic Full Primary School in Mzuzu city. It was at this school that Cephas came into contact with Catholic nuns for the first time. Drawn to their lifestyle, she applied to join and was enrolled.
When news reached elders in the village that Cephas was on her path to sisterhood, they hatched a plan to rescue her from the Catholic capture. They instructed her brother Jonathan to go to the convent, seize her and return her home, where she would take a husband.
When he arrived at the convent, the two were given a room for a private discussion. “I have been sent by village elders to take you out of this. The Elders want you to get married and have your own children, a good thing. Look, we are orphans and it would do so much good if we bear children for our family lineage”. He added, “I will not leave this place without you”.
She refused. “I am Cephas. I am a rock. I will not be moved. Tell them that I have refused to come back. … I will be a mother of many children in the future. So, I say no.”
After further failed attempts to dissuade her, Jonathan eventually returned to the village without Beatrice. In a community where children must take instructions from the elders without questions and where parental decisions were ultimate and binding, Cephas determination was provocative, to say the least.
She was baptised into the Catholic Church, and changed her name from Cephas to Beatrice. When she completed her Standard 6, she enrolled into St. John Bosco Teachers Training College. She graduated and was employed by government as a primary school teacher in 1964.
As a nun, she was mother, mentor and teacher in many parishes and schools across the Karonga district for 29 years. But all through that time, she was not satisfied with her profession. She could not reach the neediest children. So she retired from teaching, and was appointed to manage a programme to care for street children.
To this end, the sisters’ Congregation sent her to Tanzania to study pastoral counselling. A few days upon her return from Tanzania, she saw at a distance, a child pilfer money from a minibus passenger. The boy was caught and severely beaten by the people as they took him to the police station. Sister Beatrice stopped what she was doing and followed them to the police station. She found the boy locked up already, so she bailed him out.
“Why did you steal that money?” she asked him. The boy answered “I wanted to buy food for my siblings and me. We have not eaten since yesterday”.
When she returned to the convent, she sat down and reflected. Street children needed more than counselling. They needed guidance, care, vocational skills and education. In the following week, she met chiefs and many other gatekeepers in the Karonga district.
Community based child centres (CBCCs) were established in the areas of group village headman Katolola (with 10 villages), group village headman Mweniumba (with 17 villages) and group village headman Mwambimba (with 11 villages). The neediest from among the vulnerable children were discovered in the process. Some children had no home. They just slept along the roadsides. These centres became homes for many children.
Sister Beatrice came across a child who was very sick with HIV and AIDS. Both parents died a few months after his birth. Sister Chipeta invited Elizabeth Chawinga, the convent’s former cook, and a care giver at a CBCC to take care of the child. She would ensure resources were available, she promised. Elizabeth agreed. Every day she would fetch the boy from the old woman who looked after him. She would bath him, feed him and play with him daily. His health improved.
This experience led to the development of Lusubilo Orphanage, the work that today Sister Beatrice is most celebrated for. She would identify the neediest of the needy children in her district and offer what care she could so that they could grow up with dignity. Over the years, Lusubilo has steadily grown from its humble beginnings. It now offers expanded community services including scholarships, training young mothers in nutrition and infant care, food grants to orphan-headed households and the vulnerable, youth programs, vocational training and home-based care HIV/AIDS support groups. All these make a profound impact on the poor and help build more inclusive communities.
Many children who were given a home and scholarships, have gone on to study at tertiary level and find professional work. Perhaps her reserve of patience for the most difficult children drew from her own experience of orphanhood, for she was known for a patience that beggared belief. Today some of those children have studied accountancy, development, nutrition and education, and are contributing to Malawi’s economy and society.
“Asher’s” mother was a Malawian and his father, European. They had everything, but died when he was just a year old. Relatives grabbed all their property and the child was left alone. He was enrolled in the Lusubilo Orphanage, and given bursaries from primary school through to university. Today, he is employed as a Project Accountant and is studying a Master of Business Administration with the Malawi Institute of Management (MIM). There are many such stories. Sister Beatrice did indeed become the mother of many.
In 2010, Sister Beatrice was honoured as the 2010 Opus Prize Laureate, sharing the US$1 million prize with Fr. John Halligan of Quito, Ecuador. The Opus Prize, one of the largest faith-based humanitarian awards in the world, identifies selfless people and organizations that develop innovative solutions to transform their communities.
Pope Francis is quoted as saying “Life is much better when others are happy because of you”. Although Sister Beatrice Chipeta died on June 19, 2019, many people in Karonga now live happily and with dignity because of her work. She listened to her inner voice and used what little resources she had to champion real transformation for children of remote rural villages.
Although no formal recognition has been conferred on the late Sister Chipeta in Malawi, it is hoped that the 2009 Malawi Order of National Achievement (MONA) will be awarded posthumously to her – if only to inspire her example in others. The labour of Sister Chipeta in community service reflects the value of small things done faithfully without drawing attention to oneself; and the deep worth of her friendship with her God.
This article was the winner of the Troubling Power Essay Competition, part of the 40th anniversary of the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Assistance Trust.
Frank Mgungwe is a teacher in Malawi. He is studying family law in the hope that he can use his legal education to advocate for local bylaws under chiefs ensuring that every child attends school.