Tuesday, 31 January 2017

60 years of ‘Sister Act’





Sister Maria Regina. Picture by Jack Zimba

JACK ZIMBA

 AS A little girl Regina Kuhlmann dreamt of travelling to Africa and serving as a Catholic nun.

And so in 1952, when she was only about 18 years old, Regina, who would later be known by her Christian name “Maria”, decided to follow her dream. She left Germany for Africa to begin her new way of life.

Although her parents were devout Catholics, Maria, who is the oldest of five children, says it was very hard for her family to let her go, but they never tried to stop her.

Perhaps what made it even harder for the Kuhlmanns to let their daughter leave the family and travel to Africa was the fact that they, like millions of Germans at the time, were still trying to rebuild their lives after World War II.

Now aged 85, Maria still has fresh memories of the war.

“When the sirens went off, we had to get out of bed and look for a safe place. Before the war ended in 1945, we had lost everything,” she says.

Maria’s father, who was serving in the German army at the time was captured by Russian soldiers and kept as a prisoner of war for years.

“It was an anxious waiting. We were not sure if he was alive or not,” says Maria.

But in 1950, the captured soldier did return home.

However, by then, Maria had become even more determined to leave her country for the missionary field – Africa.

Maria first arrived in South Africa in 1952 where she trained to be a nun, and then later did her training to become a nurse.

In 1956, Maria began working in a hospital in South Africa until 1962 when she was posted to Zambia (Northern Rhodesia then) and begun working at a small missionary outpost in Lukulu.

She speaks about Lukulu with some fondness.

“We were not rich that we could get all the medicine and food, but it was nice to help the people; and the people were happy, and we were happy. What else could we want?” she says. 

In the evenings, Maria and her fellow nuns sat down together singing and working on handicrafts.

Years later, Maria was posted to Lewanika General Hospital in Mongu where she worked in the theatre.

In 2007, Maria was posted to Lusaka, where she has devoted her time in establishing a school in Chalala.

And on January 7, this year, Maria Regina Kuhlmann, who belongs to the Congregation of Holy Cross, celebrated 60 years of a life given to poverty, chastity and obedience, but is very unpretentious about her long service, attributing everything to prayer.

“If you pray in the morning and put your day in God’s hands and say ‘Lord, what comes, comes, I will take it. If it is nice, I will be happy, and if it is hard, I will offer it up,’ then you can make it,” she says.

KEEPING CHASTE

There has been a push within and outside the Catholic Church to change the celibacy law to allow priests and possibly nuns to marry, but for Maria that is unthinkable.

“I’m old fashioned, I couldn’t imagine that,” she says. “If I had a family with four children, how would I go out and do all the work?”

“I have chosen celibacy and I will stick to it,” she says.

When asked if she ever desired to have a family of her own, Maria replies:

“It never really occurred to me that I would like such.”

She instead talks fondly about the children she helped to nurse during her active service.

Maria also dismisses any suggestion that she chose to become a nun because she did not have a social life.

“I did have a good family and I had a good life,” she says.

Maria talks of going out for movies and attending parties as a teenager.

“I never had a real friend from the male side. I had male friends, but we were friends, like friends, open. There was never anything,” she says.

Maria says she was never swayed from the thought of going to Africa and becoming a nun.

“I’m simply different, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” she says with a chuckle.

“If you had to make a decision again today, would you still choose to be a nun?” I ask her.

“Yeah, of course,” she responds immediately, almost as if that answer had been there all the time.

“I don’t regret a minute. No!” she says.

But Maria admits times have changed, and talks implicitly about the social influences today when one is making such a decision.

“In 1951 when I entered [the sisterhood] there was no TV, there was not much social life,” she says.

But Maria almost loses her composure when she talks about the behaviour of young women today.

“I’m ashamed the way some women here behave, the way they dress, the way they show themselves. What about your dignity as a woman? It has been lost,” says Maria.

“It’s their life, but I feel ashamed to be a woman that you can get your dignity and throw it away,” she says.

About twice a year, the convent where Maria belongs in Kabulonga, Lusaka, invites young girls to stay with the nuns as a way of showing them their way of life, after which they can then decide whether to join the sisterhood or not.

Maria says the girls are never talked into joining the sisterhood.

“It is their decision not our decision. We lead them towards it, but we don’t say ‘come and join us’, they come out of their own free will,” she says.

BASIC LIFE

For six decades, Maria has led a Spartan life, completely devoid of luxuries, including cosmetics and jewellery.

“I wouldn’t know how to apply lipstick, but still I’m happy so why should I apply it?” says Maria.

The octogenarian is softly spoken, with a genial face now touched by age.

Among Maria’s treasured possessions is an old photo of her family, a wooden cross, a curved image of the Virgin Mary and some curved images of guardian angels she was given by her family in Germany.

She also treasures a rosary she received from Pope John Paul II when she met him at the Vatican years back.

And when she dies, Maria wants to remain modest. She does not want an expensive coffin.

“I wouldn’t like that,” she says.

Once every three years, Maria goes to Germany to visit her family, but almost scoffs at the idea of her going back to live there. 

“I don’t feel at home any more in Germany. We don’t fit in the life of the people outside the convent. We don’t. Perhaps if I was younger, say 40 or 50 years old, but no,” she says.

Even when she dies, Maria wishes to be buried in Zambia.

“We have no money to fly a body to Germany, and who would look after me in Germany?” she asks.

“I wouldn’t go back, alive or dead,” she says with a chuckle.

Maria wants to reach 100 years, but does not want to become a burden to the people around her when she is too old to do things for herself.

Outside the small convent, Maria shows off her garden with banana trees heavy and bent-over with fruit. It keeps the old nun busy for now.

 

 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Stockholm: A picture-postcard city



 
Beautiful Stockholm.

JACK ZIMBA

Stockholm

 

THERE is nothing more comforting than the screeching of tyres on the runway and a little jolt back and forth.

It is that sound and feeling, not the assuring voice of the pilot or flight attendant that confirms you have safely landed on terra firma. 

“Welcome to Sweden,” said the waiting taxi driver with a broad smile on his face.

After 13 hours of flight, I was relieved that I was not going to spend time at Arlanda Airport before my arranged transport arrived to take me to my hotel in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. Airports, no matter how big and posh can be such boring places, and the niggling thought that one is in-between places can be sickening.

Well, at least for me.

I was in the Scandinavian or Nordic country on invitation by the Swedish Institute to look at some of its novel innovations meant to reduce greenhouse emissions and encourage sustainable living.

The taxi driver, a Turkish migrant, was kind enough to point out some important buildings on the way to the hotel, including the Nobel Museum.

I was booked at the First Hotel Reisen, an 18th century hotel situated in Gamla Stan or the Old Town.

The hotel overlooks a picturesque waterfront with white boats of varying sizes and shapes moored along the river.

About 200 metres from the hotel is the Royal Palace, a grand and imposing building with 600 rooms. 

Stockholm is a scenic city surrounded by water. Actually the city is made up of 14 islands connected by bridges, and one can even take a tour of the city by boat.

The city also has a well-developed and integrated transport system combining tramlines, bus lanes and bicycle lanes.

Every morning at breakfast during my short stay, I sat by a large window and watched the Swedes as they traveled to work. Many of them cycled.

The city also has an elaborate subway, and it is not just an underground tunnel, but an art gallery.

Large cruise ships, some as high as six stories can also be seen docked at various harbours in the city. Some vessels are so big that they appear to be part of the city blocks.

Stockholm is devoid of skyscrapers, which is by design, really. Few buildings rise above 10 floors. This provides a panoramic view of the landscape from various vantage points.

The city also has many green spaces, after all this is a country of tree huggers. Swedes place such great value on nature; they go to great lengths in protecting it.

And every citizen has the right to roam. No, I’m not talking about mobile phone connectivity. Rather, it means anyone can set up camp at any open space for a few days. This law is based on the belief that everyone must have access to nature.

Sweden is a land of freedoms and almost everything is subjected to a vote. In fact, Sweden was the first country to legalise same sex marriage in 1944, not surprising for a country that is deeply irreligious, as I was constantly reminded.

It is hard to define Swedes in terms of dress or music – I heard some Bob Marley and even some Paul Simon in the hotel restaurant and lobby. But no doubt, one of Sweden’s most popular contributions to the music industry is ABBA. The quartet were such a sensation, they have a museum dedicated to them.

Life in Stockholm

Life in Stockholm appears very beautiful, but also very uneventful and predictable. Every car stops at the red light, and the night is devoid of the sirens that characterise big cities.

Besides, the Swedes themselves seem very reserved and private people, showing little interest in strangers. It did not matter that I was the only black person in a restaurant; very few eyes rolled my way, which made me feel rather bad.

Discussing Nordic social trust and radical individualism in a journal, Henrik Berggren and Lars Tragardh predict that “…the world might be a more reasonable but also possibly duller place if it were inhabited solely by Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finns.”

And I could not agree more.

And for all its beauty and serenity, Stockholm is a super expensive city, a fact that its residents will readily admit.

But that is not a huge problem in a country ranked by the World Bank as having the seventh highest per capita income in the world. The poor are far fewer here. I did come across three or four women begging on the streets and when we visited one of the poor areas, a colleague from Estonia had to ask how “poor” was defined in Sweden.

The Old Town

One remarkable thing about Stockholm is how the old masonry has been preserved and blended with the new.

The Old Town, with its cobbled narrow streets and medieval alleyways between centuries’ old buildings is really a remarkable place and attracts hundreds of tourists every day.

The town, which dates back to the 13th century, is like an open air museum with many curio shops that sell memorabilia of all kind, including Viking helmets and Viking dolls. 

Some buildings in the Old Town are as old as 700 years. Most of them have undergone some form of modernisation such as being fitted with electric door locks for card entry, but their original architecture has been maintained.   

Gamla Stan is such a welcoming place and gives one the feeling of going back in time many centuries.

One frigid evening, we sat in a pizzeria located on the ground floor of a seven centuries old building. The room looked like an old mine tunnel with an exposed woodwork and Spartan furniture.

It is here where I met Safi, a handsome chatty young Afghan man who migrated to Sweden nine years ago, and now works at the pizza shop.

“The Swedish people are good people,” he said after laying a plate of sizzling peperoni pizza before me.

“Maybe out of 5,000, you can find only one Swedish who is racist, but they won’t show it,” he said with a middle eastern accent.

Safi’s statistic may not be accurate, but Sweden has a large number of migrants. A large community of Somalis and Iraqis now call Sweden home, while the current immigrant crisis in Europe has brought many Syrians to the borders of the Nordic country.

Inevitably, the migrant crisis has become topical among Swedes and clearly not everyone is welcoming to the newcomers.

Two days after I met Safi, a school teacher and a pupil were killed in a racially-motivated knife attack.

I wonder if Safi changed his opinion about the Swedes after that.

During my short stay in Stockholm, I added two words to my vocabulary: fika and tack.

The two small words mean a lot to the Swedes. Tack means thank you, while fika, put simply, is a coffee break, although it seems to have more meaning among the Swedes than just sipping on a brew made of roasted bean seeds - brotherhood, perhaps.

 “Tack,” I said to the taxi driver after he dropped me at Arlanda Airport.

 

* Here is a tip for men when you are flying abroad, put on a tight fitting trousers that does not require a belt to hold your waist. It saves you the trouble and embracement during those annoying but necessary security checks.