Presentation Sister Aletha Madziro: This is My Story
Every vocation story is different. Here SR ALETHA MATISWAYIRI MADZIRO tells hers, as a Presentation Sister in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe was once considered the breadbasket of Africa, a country rising to prominence. It declined into poverty when its leader, Robert Mugabe, initiated a land reform that would return white-owned lands to black Zimbabweans.
Decline and ascendancy have been common cycles for Zimbabwe.
One was marked by a magnificent city, known as Great Zimbabwe or the House of Rock (the meaning of the Shona word “Zimbabwe”), built 900 years ago.
It was so impressive that Westerners often argued that Africans could not have built it. Archaeologists—particularly Gertrude Caton-Thompson—proved them wrong.
Here I was born and have lived my life.
The first African woman to join the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, part of my story is about how my life was shaped by this ancient culture, and part by how I have navigated intercultural living for the past 47 years of my life.
People often ask me what it was like to be the first African to become a Presentation Sister. There have been challenges, but I have had a happy and adventurous life and am proud to be a Sister.
My early life
Born in 1942 into a Catholic family of 12, I lost three brothers to Aids and one (at age 15) to heart problems.
Zimbabwe was under British rule when I was growing up, so I learned English very young. I started school when I was nine rather than seven, because the school headmaster judged my age by how little I was.
Immediately after finishing school I was invited to enroll in nursing at Regina Caeli mission at Nyangha in Manicaland. I refused to follow my parents’ desire that I be a teacher.
But, getting into the nursing school was not easy, again because of my height. The day I registered, the head nurse refused me, saying: “We do not train babies.”
Thankfully, the parish priest testified to the Sister about my age, and she relented.
I graduated as a state-certified nurse and midwife at 23.
My favourite part of school had been the practical part — going out to the villages in an ambulance driven by the parish priest, to collect women close to delivery.
One adventure I will never forget was in a village when I delivered a breech baby all by myself. I had been trained well and the baby came out safely!
Later, the same priest found me a job at Avila mission, also in Manicaland, even before I knew my certification test results.
It was there I met the Presentation Sisters, who ran a clinic and worked in the mission school.
How I became a Sister
The first four Irish women to open the Presentation mission in Zimbabwe had been missionaries in India. They settled first in Harare and later some went to Mount Melleray mission, a primary boarding school, and Avila mission, a high school and hospital, to teach in the schools.
Later on, the Sisters opened a boys’ school in Harare and a girls’ school in the town of Marondera.
What impressed me was the way the Sisters related to the poor who came to their door. They were always respectful and kind.
As I spent time with them, the desire to be one of them grew in me. One day the Irish parish priest, who saw that I came to Mass every day, asked me if I had ever thought of being a religious sister. When I said yes, he priest suggested that I might join the Presentation Sisters.
The priest told the superior about me. She asked me if it was true that I wanted to be a Sister. She was happy, but surprised, as the Sisters had not really thought about local vocations.
I had to wait a long time before they let me join. Then they learned that two other women were also thinking about being Sisters—but on the day I was to enter, they did not show up!
There was no novitiate in Zimbabwe, so the superior said that I would probably have to go to Ire-land—but I had another idea.
I knew the Precious Blood Sisters, a congregation founded in South Africa, had young women joining them, so I asked if, instead of Ireland, I could do my novitiate with those Sisters.
The Sisters of both congregations discussed this idea and the two groups came to an agreement that I could join the Precious Blood novitiate.
The Presentation Sisters came to visit me regularly and taught me about their way of life and prayer.
I entered in 1970 with 12 others who became Sisters of the Precious Blood. At the end of the two-year novitiate I took first vows, on January 6, 1973.
My mother, a sister and nephew came, but not my father. He had not supported my choice in life. But he did come for my final profession.
After profession I went to Hwange Colonial Hospital for a three-month renewal nursing course and was assigned again to Avila mission hospital for two years, until it was time to prepare for final vows.
Cultureshock in India
After a two-year wait for a visa, I was sent to Mater Dei College in Goa, India, for two full years.
It was my first time travelling alone outside Zimbabwe. I felt frightened and worried.
Our first stop was Nairobi, where my passport was taken and I was put under house arrest for 48 hours while authorities investigated me, because there was a rebellion going on in what then was still Rhodesia. An old man from the kitchen secretly brought me food and water.
I finally was released and flew to India, and met more challenges. We landed in Bombay (now Mumbai), where I was told I had no onward ticket to Madras. I got very angry and asked for the manager. He listened, let me go and escorted me to the plane.
Two Sisters met me and took me to the convent. I was overwhelmed by the numbers of people on the road.
The change in India was extremely difficult. I had become used to Irish culture, and now I was faced with Indian culture.
The Sisters had never met an African woman before. Because of my dark skin, they took me for being of lower class and treated me this way.
They could not understand my African English, and I speak very frankly—which offended them.
I also missed my own food of vegetables, meat and sadza (what South Africans call pap), often feeling sick from the unfamiliar Indian food.
I did enjoy the studies and got to like the Sisters, especially dancing with them.
Back to Zimbabwe
In 1978, I returned to Nagle House in Zimbabwe, named after the Irish foundress of the Presentation Sisters, and eventually went with an Irish Sister to a new mission, Chiduku.
The people still had the spirit of war. The locals thought they could take over administrative positions in the clinic without any form of training. Hence, they did not welcome Sr Margaret, who was put in charge of the clinic.
This put our lives in danger. Twice we escaped being killed.
During the first attack we locked ourselves in a tiny closet and spent the night there. In the morning we left to stay at another mission in Rusape.
When we returned that evening, the gang came and hid behind the building. We got a tipoff from a lady who cooked for us, and we managed to escape safely.
After these traumatic experiences, I was assigned for six years to a clinic in Marondera, then finished O-Levels (high school) and did some vocation work.
From there I was missioned to Guruve, a rural mission, where my Sister companions and I helped build a new convent— burning the bricks and digging its foundation!
I spent 20 years in Guruve before being forced into retirement by illness in 2003.
After retirement, I had the privilege of going to Canada, England, Ireland, the Philippines and the Holy Land.
Looking back over all these years, I realise that this work made me experience God’s love and his presence more than I know. I thank God for guarding and working with me in both joyful and difficult moments.
I am so grateful to the Presentation Sisters for their support, for the privileges which made me grow spiritually and emotionally, and for their care in my retirement. May God richly bless them and every other person who made my journey possible.
This article was first published on the www.globalsistersreport.org website and is reproduced with kind permission. Sr Aletha Matiswayiri Madziro now lives in retirement in Nagle House, a convent and education centre in Harare.