Sister Therese Wetta has learned a lot teaching in Liberia
Sister Therese Wetta has learned a lot since she left the Diocese of Wichita 15 months ago to minister at a Catholic school in Liberia, West Africa.
The Adorer of the Blood of Christ has learned that the devastating effects of that country’s two civil wars will take many years to overcome.
“Until you’ve been in a country that has had war, I don’t think you can really understand the effects of war,” she said last week at the Wichita motherhouse of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.
Even if the war has ended, many severe effects remain, she said. “That’s been a startling realization for me.”
Liberia suffered two civil wars, one from 1989 to 1997 and a second from 1999 to 2003. Over 250,000 died as a result. Five of those killed were Adorers of the Blood of Christ who stayed in Liberia to care for war victims and to be in solidarity with the people. All of them were originally from Illinois.
Sister Therese said the psychological and sociological trauma has affected the people of Liberia who also suffer from a distressed economy, severely limited government financial resources, and Ebola outbreaks that killed over 11,000 people in Liberia and neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone from 2014 to 2016.
Another Adorer of the Blood of Christ, Sister Zita Resch of Lichtenstein, is serving with Sister Therese. Sr. Zita previously worked in Liberia for seven years, but left in 1989, just before the civil war started.
“She says the people are so different today than they were then. Today they tend to not talk, but shout, to be really loud. Some describe it as rudeness,” Sister Therese said. “I would say that they’ve lost, in some ways, the sense of the human dignity of the person.”
Many of them fled into the forest, into the bush, during the civil wars, to escape the enemy, to survive, Sr. Therese said, adding that it’s the parents of the school children who were traumatized by the war and did not get a strong educational foundation.
“The grandparents taught pre-war and in schools that were stable, seem to have been affected less by the war, are polite, have a good command of English and a vocabulary that is developed, and can more easily engage in conversation.”
Sister Therese said some Liberians and missionaries to Liberia believe it will take another two generations before the trauma of the civil war can be overcome.
“I think truly the church has made, is making, and will make a significant contribution to the healing process. But it’s much slower than I think people anticipated,” she said, adding that reconciliation was the theme of a recent week-long meeting of the three bishops of Liberia and others.
Sister Therese arrived in the United States late last month and is planning to return to Liberia May 18, just in time for the last session of school.
She and Sister Zita minister in Grand Cess, located on the coast, nearly 400 miles from the capital of Monrovia. The trip from Monrovia to Grand Cess takes two or three days because the unpaved, clay roads are often nearly impassable. During the rainy season a one-week trip is not unusual.
Sister Zita has been teaching hand and machine sewing classes to women, a continuation of a previous teaching stint. Because of the lack of electricity, the students are using hand-crank and treadle (foot-driven) sewing machines. The hand-crank machines were recent donations from Germany.
Sister Zita hopes to be able to teach the women to sew school uniforms, which would be less expensive than purchasing them, and would be a source of income for the women.
Sister Therese is currently teaching seventh grade English and religion to seventh, eighth, and ninth grades at St. Patrick School. Because of poverty and because the government will not give textbooks to private schools, one of the challenges that all the teachers and Sister Therese faced and have overcome, with assistance from donors in the United States, is readers and textbooks for all the classes in the school.
She has been able to acquire 50 textbooks per class for grades five through nine and sufficient readers for kindergarten through fourth grade. Without textbooks, teachers are forced to write a story or lesson on a blackboard and teach from there.
Grand Cess has a population of about 2,000, and although the teachers are extremely underpaid compared to the public school teachers, many non-Catholics, including some Muslims, send their children to St. Patrick’s because they believe the education is better.
After the ninth grade, most students continue their education at the public high school. Some are able to get scholarships to a Catholic high school in Harper, three hours away. Arrangements must be made with families, though, because it is not a boarding school. Some, who have relatives in Monrovia, may attend high schools there.
Sister Therese said she will be returning to Liberia with new altar server cassocks to replace the threadbare cassocks now being used. The parish is building a new church and is currently using the school auditorium for Mass. The parish has Mass daily, except when their priest is gone. A Communion service is then conducted by catechists or one of the Sisters. Sister Therese now assigns and works with the lectors.
The Sisters have been able to take small steps in their ministry with the people there. “Part of why we’re there is a witness value,” Sister Therese said. “We live as they do.”
They reside in a former rectory that is primitive by Western standards but slightly above the standards of the general population of the region. Their house has no workable plumbing but does have showers (dippers and buckets of water) and toilets flushed with buckets of water. The water is drawn from a well near the school or from a nearby spring. All drinking water is boiled.
The Sisters have acquired a small refrigerator, powered by a generator, and a gas stove.
Many of the children’s parents have a limited understanding of English, and although the children must speak English-only at school, when they go home, they speak the local language, Kru, spoken by many who live in southern Liberia and southwestern Cote d’Ivoire.
“Every day I pray for patience,” she said, in overcoming the hurdles related to student motivation and misbehavior resulting from lack of proper parenting and differences in Liberian and U.S. diction.
One of the other challenges for the community is that there is a lack of opportunity for the young. Most of the work in the region is related to farming or fishing.
“Another aspect that makes teaching so hard is that for most of the children there is no vision outside of Grand Cess,” Sister Therese said. “There are some students who really have a lot of ability. I tell them to dream university, dream college, dream a career – something you would like to do…that you can do if you do well in secondary (school).”
She said she hopes that she is planting seeds that will bear fruit after she returns to the United States.
“It’s going to take time,” Sister Therese said.