M.C. Berkhousen in Africa

One of my great privileges while working in staff development at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Pontiac, MI, was going to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in 1991 to consult with the Franciscan Sisters though Trinity International. For a month I taught management skills to the ward sisters and their deputies, positions similar to the nurse manager & team leader positions in US hospitals. “Sister” generally means “nurse” in the UK model. I was working and living with the Franciscan Sisters, a religious order. I learned much about them and the joys and challenges of their mission in Bulawayo.

On weekends they took me to the Matopas, a national park, where we saw 6 rhinos near the road. Three men, rangers, stood on the grass next to their heavy vehicle, watching them. (We were in a tiny car.) The men looked at us, and then walked quietly to their vehicle and got in. When they started the engine, the rhinos turned, pivoting together like marines to face us. The armored vehicle took off, and we took off behind it. Thankfully, the rhinos didn’t follow.

The picture above shows rondavels (there were about seven or eight of these little round huts) in this rural group where we stopped on the way to Victoria Falls. Boys had one, girls had one, parents had one, cooking was done in one. There may have been a related family living there also. There was great poverty and great devotion to family.

Before we reached Victoria Falls, we stopped at a mission where there was a small hospital. (At that time, there were no McDonald’s or even gas stations on the lonely road from Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls.) The sisters there told us about a patient they’d just admitted who had his leg bitten off by a hippo. Thankfully, they were able to save his life.

Animals, especially snakes, were an ongoing threat. In the convent atrium I saw a pink fuzzy spider with a body over two inches long. It jerked around on the pavement while the sisters screamed, “kill it!” “Kill it!” Someone smashed it with a shoe and it oozed green stuff. (Maybe it was a Vulcan spider.) The nuns told me it was venomous and came from the basement. Two large spiders sat on the wall near the closet in my room. The bodies were about one half inch in diameter, but the legs were about two inches long. Sister Carol, the hospital matron who became my friend, saw me looking at them and said, “Don’t you kill those. They eat mosquitoes.” I didn’t kill them. As long as I could see them on the wall, I was fine. When they disappeared—probably into the closet—I was a bit nervous.

In Matre De Hospital, the sheets on the beds were flowered and urine drainage bags had flowered covers to match. Domestics (housekeepers) scooted around buffing the floors with huge fluffy pads on their feet.

We worked on issues that were surprisingly similar to those here in the US, i.e.: difficulty finding child care, billing issues, policy issues and how to manage in event of fire. I worked with all categories of employees. The people listened attentively to me or the interpreter. At that time men were still thought of as much superior to women, which created reporting issues between ward sisters and male employees. But all of them, men and women, were kind to me.

When I returned to the US, the airport was bright, luxurious and decorated for Christmas. I was dazzled by the color and the music and people toting armloads of pretty packages. I remembered my dad saying how, when the ships landed in the US bringing them back from WWII, soldiers fell on their knees and kissed the ground. That was how I felt when I returned from Africa. I was so grateful for what we have here, and that I lived in the land of plenty. My world view had changed forever.