and that makes two this week. I am not sure which was is "up" at present. I had the phone call while I was out. For once I had the mobile on in case the Senior Cat needed me while I was doing some essential shopping. As soon as I heard Z....'s voice I knew it had to be bad news. He would have e-mailed me with anything else. It was the middle of the night in Belgium.
It was bad news, the worst sort of news. Our friend Sister Claire was dead. Two of the older girls had found her on the floor in the room they use as a kitchen at Pana Mtoto Mlangoni, the refuge for unaccompanied children she ran for so many years. The girls tried to revive her but couldn't. She was 72.
I was stunned. I am still stunned. I came home and upset the Senior Cat who also knew Claire. We sat there holding each other and asking that unanswerable question, "Why?"
I knew Claire from my first days in London. She was African. She was a nun. She was a devout Catholic. All those things were rather foreign to me. She knocked on my door in the university hall of residence and asked me if I knew when mealtimes were. She wasn't being greedy. She was wondering if she had time to go to church. We smiled at one another and I took to her immediately.
She had a wicked sense of humour. She was practical, sensible, and determined. She made the most of life in London even without any money to spend. I was poor. Claire was poorer still.
"Let's go and look at this," she would say and I'd find myself padding after her to see a free exhibition or a garden or a building or something else she had "found". She was always prepared to slow down for me, to wait, to hold my paw.
Gradually the rest of us discovered other things about Claire, about things she had never experience. Claire had never celebrated her birthday. It wasn't something that happened in the orphanage she was brought up in. My late friend Eleanor attempted to make her a birthday cake, her first ever. It didn't work so we all took Claire out for afternoon tea at the local bakery instead and then scattered the crumbs of the cake that didn't work for the ducks and sparrows in the rose garden in Regents' Park. I think she found it strange but she said, "If that's a birthday I think I like them very much."
When she went back to Africa she was asked to take on the setting up and running of a "small" place for unaccompanied children. "Small" ended up being more than 600 children at one time...everything from babies to young teens. She dealt with everything from AIDS to epilepsy, intellectual disabilities to severe physical disfigurement brought about by machete attacks - and much, much more. There was never enough food and clothing for the children in her care but she fought for them. Over the years, organised by Z... we have sent things in whatever spare space there has been in containers... everything from repainted baby cots to powdered milk, truckloads of disinfectant and other cleaning supplies, tins of food, soap, and clothing for the children, mosquito netting, material for hammocks - because there were no beds for the "house of the angels" - the little transportable hut she used as a hospice for the dying.
One year we asked her what she would like for Christmas for herself. Eventually she responded with a "A nice smelling bar of soap." Z....went out and bought her a box of soap. I suspect almost all of it went on the children.
One year Z....brought her out here to speak at a conference. She did as was asked of her but she was also anxious to get back to her children. Would all the boys be going to school if she wasn't there? Was A.... coping? I think she was homesick. We sent her back with extra luggage - things for the children - and the airline didn't charge a cent.
Things changed over the years. They moved the youngest children on to another place three years ago and left her with just the 5 to 14yr old children - and the boys were going at 12 unless they were too ill to move. In the past year there really have been only about 60 children. She managed them almost single handedly- by training them to take more responsibility for the little ones as they grew older.
She worried about their education and their future. She kept a firm hand on them but they obviously loved her. We corresponded frequently. Her letters would always begin, "Jambo Cat" and end "Tukutendereza". When she finally had access to a computer and e-mail life was easier. She could ask my advice about schooling and how to help those with learning difficulties or behaviour issues. She could tell me things she could not talk to her superiors about. We could discuss whether the available money went on repairing the roof or buying another goat to provide milk for the youngest and sickest children.
I had an e-mail from M.... last night, the winner of the scholarship we set up. In her immense distress, especially as one of those who found Claire, she had found time to send me an e-mail. She knew Z...had told me by then but she wanted me to know exactly what had happened and how they were coping.
"We did Morning Circle by ourselves while we waited for Father A... to bring Sister A... to us. Everyone was quiet except for the crying. Nobody did anything wrong but we couldn't sing."
Sixty children had come together for the usual way they start the day, a sort of assembly where they sit around in a circle and have their "thinking time". Claire had to cope with children from a variety of religious backgrounds and chose to keep that time free of religion but still, in a sense, spiritual.
Then M.... went on to say,
Father A... says I am to tell you that G... and J... are coming to help for a short while. Sister A... says to tell you that she will write very soon."
(G... and J... are former residents of PMM. They are the only two boys to have gone on to university and both now teach maths. G... has done it all without hands - he lost his in a machete attack when young. J has been disabled from birth and was abandoned by his family as a baby. Claire took them in, recognised high levels of intelligence and fought for their right to be educated. Now they are contributing members of society.)
Their response was immediate and since then both of them have left messages for me saying that they were on their way and will let me know how Sister A... is managing. Claire trained them well.
And Z... will be there soon. He has been Claire's strongest supporter for many years - and thereby supported my attempts to support her too. I know he has donated thousands of Euros over the years - just to keep the children fed.
And again this morning I am sitting here crying as I write this.
RIP my friend. You gave your entire life to the service of others. You should have had, if not retirement, a slowing down. It was not to be. You are another one I will miss more than I can say.