Faith is an interesting concept. It is most often synonymous with religious belief, and can be a controversial topic. However, the comprehensive concept of faith, and the ideas of keeping faith and faithfulness, are so much more. It can mean being loyal, being confident in something or someone, or simply remaining hopeful. While iACT is a non-religious organization, we work with many organizations who are faith-based. For example, our implementing partner in Cameroon is Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), a Catholic organization. During our time spent in Batouri, Cameroon, delivering Little Ripples teacher training, we have been hosted by three wonderful women; two of whom are Catholic nuns.
When people think of nuns, they often think of Sally Field, the Flying Nun; Julie Andrews, the singing nun; Mother Teresa, the do-gooder nun; or a severe kind of Mother Superior wearing a habit, wielding a crucifix, and walloping school children. To be honest, my personal pre-conceived notion of nuns was a mix of all of those things, but mostly guided by ignorance. Must they pray multiple times a day? Must they remain chaste? Are they not allowed to drink alcohol or eat certain foods? I had no idea. I was somewhat surprised when we arrived in Batouri and I learned that we would be working and living with two nuns for half a month, and thought to myself, “I should watch my language and tone myself down a bit.” Boy, was I wrong.
Nisha, a fun-loving 43-year-old nun from Mumbai, is anything but toned down. She is the coordinator responsible for managing all of JRS’s pre-primary education activities in the eastern region of Cameroon, and is whom we work most closely with each day. She is an ultimate character and leans into it. Nisha is extremely self-aware and refers to herself as a cartoon, often making silly faces and gesturing wildly (not unlike myself). She loves to laugh, tell cheeky jokes, and enjoys passing out small sips of what the JRS ladies jokingly refer to as “medicine” (A.K.A. the local hooch) once or twice a week. She is an actress, a storyteller, a singer, and loves to use the leftover coffee grounds that Sara-Christine and I leave her in the mornings to make a home-made scalp and body scrub. She takes her work very seriously and is extremely passionate about educating children. She is maternal and nurturing, but firm and fair.
The yin to Nisha’s yang is her colleague and travel companion, Agnes (sometimes referred to Anessa); also a 43-year-old nun, from a town called Kikwit in western Congo. Agnes coordinates all of JRS’s primary school activities in eastern Cameroon. Although she knows little English, Agnes is always eager to chime in to any conversation in French. She is somewhat reserved compared to Nisha, but has a deep and joyful belly laugh and a light behind her eyes that conveys a loving warmth and sense of serene tranquility. “Bonjour, as-tu bien dormi?” she asks me with a big smile each morning, laughing a little and squeezing my arm affectionately when I respond in my sing-song, broken French. Agnes is also very passionate about her work, and while she deals with multiple challenges on a regular basis, she operates with a quiet confidence that conveys, “Don’t worry, I got this.”
Nisha and Agnes are both part of a congregation called Sisters Contemplative in Action, which describes what they do so perfectly. They were paired together by JRS and have been working and traveling together for the last year, starting in the Central African Republic (CAR) and then moving to Cameroon. They have developed a loving relationship akin to an old married couple, which makes Sara-Christine and I laugh when they poke and prod each other, making fun of the other’s habits and mannerisms. “When Nisha can’t find me, she calls out my name is such a way that makes me laugh,” Agnes says, performing an impression of Nisha calling out, “Agnes! Agnes!” in a high-pitched, panicked voice. We think the pair of them would make an excellent reality show: Nisha and Agnes on a Mission!
On our first day in Batouri, we came to learn that, when working in CAR last year, Nisha and Agnes were attacked by a rebel military group. While they themselves were not physically harmed, they watched, with guns in their faces, as their house was ransacked, their personal possessions stolen, and their education program materials pilfered. They had just purchased a new generator for their work, which the rebels took apart and carried off. They had enjoyed buying some new clothes and trinkets together while on holiday, all of which were taken. They spent the following days seeking safety in a UN compound as they figured out what to do next. When they returned to their house, it was completely bare; the intruders didn’t even leave a crumb for the mice.
This type of experience is one that can scar a person for life, break an individual’s spirit, or shatter someone’s faith. It would not have been surprising if either Nisha or Agnes had decided not to continue with humanitarian work and returned home to process and cope with what they had experienced. Instead, they took a three-month break and got right back to work. When their contracts were up in CAR, they decided to continue together, relocating to Cameroon to support local communities and refugees from CAR. Today, they carry out their work with love, compassion, patience, and faith in a way that is awesome (in the truest sense of the word) and inspiring.
A word must also be said about Nisha and Agnes’ colleague, Laetitia, a 30-year-old Cameroonian woman. Laetitia grew up in Yaoundé, Cameroon, spent the last 10 years studying and working in Québec, and recently returned to Cameroon to serve in the post of Project Director for JRS’s eastern Cameroon project. While young for the role, Laetitia is a strong and confident woman who runs the office with professionalism and integrity, but also values work-life balance and bringing joy to the work that she and her colleagues do. She serves as the audience for the Nisha-and-Agnes show and often rolls her eyes lovingly when they start to bicker. Laetitia has an infectious laugh that is quiet, but she rocks her shoulders up and down, leaving no choice for those around her but to follow suit. Sara-Christine and I have often found ourselves sitting at the dinner table long after the meal is done, chatting with Laetitia, like an old friend from college, about anything and everything. It is truly enjoyable, and simply effortless.