Democratic Republic of the Congo : An apprenticeship for life!

The Mother Marie de Jésus centre in Kinshasa is a place of all-round training for some fifty Congolese women. The courses are divided into three classes: the 1st, 2nd and 3rd years of "cutting out and sewing", not forgetting the little shop with the materials for sewing and the computer room. Four of us Little Sisters work there: Anne, Natalia, Mathilde and Patricia, and two postulants: Rachel and Agnès. At the end of this school year we are proposing, through this article/interview, that you meet the persons who live in this centre throughout the year.

– For you who are women who come here all during the year, what is it that interests you? 
Here is what they say first: ’We like to learn sewing, French, arithmetic, Lingala and, this year, we even learned to use the computer.’ But, a young woman in the second year said: ’At first, when I arrived, I wasn’t able to read Lingala, but now I can, and I can speak French a little.’ Her friend spoke up and said: ’I am happy because I have learned a lot of things, especially sewing. If I learn well, I’ll be able to work and sell the clothing.’ Finally, another woman in the class added: ’If I stay at home, I learn nothing. All day there is a lot of work to be done, we don’t have time for ourselves. Here it is good: we learn and we are with the others, we can laugh.’ 
In the next class, which is rehearsing for the end of year celebration, the young women in the final year, after three years in the centre, express their joy of having learned many things and, above all, of discovering all the things that cannot be mentioned at home concerning ’good manners’. ’Here we even learn things for our everyday life.’ ’I like learning, and I like to read the books in the little library that deal with friendship, that describe how to keep house…’ 
The final class discusses in a French that is more advanced. They are having an exercise, each one trying to write her name and surname so as to have the correct spelling. What they express spontaneously is their gratitude for the teachers, for the lay people from outside, for the sewing and Lingala classes, and also for the postulants who teach them writing, French and arithmetic: ’Here there is love and kindness. The teachers are anxious to teach us and want us to learn well for later on. I like to know more things.’ 
After that little visit to the classes let us listen to those who work daily with these women. In what they witness every day they are often happy to see the progress gradually being made by each one. A glance, a little word, makes it possible to give oneself completely in the lesson. But, at the same time, they understand the situation of the young women and they perceive that the centre is a place that goes far beyond simply teaching sewing. But we will let them speak for themselves. 
– Mathilde, would you introduce the centre to us and tell us what you do here? 
’After my first vows in Burkina Faso I was sent to Kinshasa where I participate in the first year of sewing at the Centre. While working there, I help the women with the needs they have. I also meet them when the centre is opening and closing. It is important for me to welcome the young women, to take the time to listen to them and to be aware of the family situation. The majority are teenagers with difficult situations in their family life. Their immediate family lives far from the capital and here they lodge with an uncle, an aunt or a brother or sister, and these often exploit them. Some have not had the opportunity to go to school and others have not been able to finish their courses (lack of money at home, moving house, the situation in relation to family work etc.) Others have a school certificate and come to learn sewing. Often their everyday life is not easy. 
In the morning to do a lot of work for the family where they lodge and then come here in the afternoon, depending on what is possible for them. 
I am happy and I like being in contact with each of them in sharing, dialogue and listening to one another. They feel free to tell me what their life is like. Sometimes we visit their families and it is there that we discover the reality of their life: they are young women who need help at a lot of levels. We accompany them and let them know that they are loved by God, in spite of the difficulties of this world. It is important that they become aware that they are useful, capable and that they can do something in society. Finally, I would like to say that it is a joy for me, in having this experience at the centre with these women, to see the progress made by each one. 
– And you Rachel, what is your experience at the centre, as a second-year postulant?
I am very happy to share this experience with you. I give the arithmetic and literacy (French) classes twice a week, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Most of the women have a lot of difficulties; they often speak Lingala or another language used in the country, and are not able to read. At the beginning it was very difficult for them. I went to a lot of trouble to teach them and, gradually, there has been an improvement. Now, some can begin to read and other can write their name unaided. So, that is a joy for them as well as for me. 
Sometimes we visit the families where there has been a death. The young women who are following the classes often ask to talk to me, either before or after the class. Then they can tell me of the joys and their sorrows. I listen to them attentively and sometimes I can go so far as to give them some advice. 
Finally, this experience I have with the women of the Mother Marie de Jésus Centre, helps me to experience the LSA charism more deeply. 
– Agnès, you who are a 1st year postulant – what joy do you have in what you experience during your four afternoons at the Centre? 
’What is done through love is always a success’…
’Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Ep 1:3 
It is in order to express my joy that I begin with these beautiful words. I am very happy with our mission and our charism in the centre and I give thanks for the day when it was confided to me. 
As for the teaching: I take the classes for French and arithmetic in a class that has students from the 2nd and 3rd years of the sewing course. This is on two afternoons a week and on the other two afternoons I sell what is need for the sewing. 
During my first days of teaching I had a lot of questions. I knew nothing of sewing and it was my duty to offer them good conditions in which to learn French. Also, in my classes there were women who were older than I was, but younger ones too. In all of these discoveries, I knew that the Lord accompanies us. 
With the love and the determination I had, as well as with the help of the women, after a while I managed to understand and to sell what was needed for the sewing. As they say: ’the beginning is always difficult, but what helps is having good relations with those around us.’ 
In the classes with the women I had noticed that they did not know how to read or write and that they felt embarrassed. From my experience I understood better that it is those among us who are poor, who are most deprived, whom we should help but, how do we help them? Each time I left to go to the centre I used to say to the Lord: ’May my presence be your presence. May all that comes out of my mouth come from you, Lord!’. And that helped me, especially when the women asked me questions that were not what I had been expecting and I was not short of a satisfactory reply to their enquiry. God was with me. 
’The mouth speaks to the ears but the heart speaks to the heart.’ Yes, we are indeed chosen, blessed and broken in order to be given. Let us pray for one another. 
- And you, lay teachers, what would you say of the classes and of your experience with the young women? 
’For my part, I have been a Lingala teacher here for a long time and what I like is to see how they grow over the years. Often, I receive them the first year so that they may learn to read and write in Lingala. Very soon, they like to learn, I see them sewing and that is a pleasure for me because sewing makes our children develop for the DRC. They develop very much here in three years.’ 
’The most important point for me as teacher of sewing is teaching these women to have determination and passion. Nowadays, sewing is not something easy, it is not just anything; they have to learn many things that they don’t know: arithmetic, logic and even French, because all the sewing vocabulary is French. We have to help them to have the desire to do things well. That is what will make them advance and become different to the others.’ 
And her colleague completed that by saying: ’What is difficult is that the young women do not have an easy situation at home. Often they arrive in class tired, with concerns about the house, worries about their relation with their "family". But, how can we ask somebody whose mind is preoccupied to study a subject? During the class, it is not rare that they confide in us and discuss these situations.’ 
We too – Sr Anne with a maintenance service for the 15 sewing machines, Sr Natalia for all that has to do with computers and the handling of papers, and myself, Sr Patricia, in various little services – we are surprised by all these precious moments of discussions, an opportunity for these women to talk of their family and of their difficult day-to-day reality. Often this makes it possible to detect a more specific need for one or other of them, like the young woman whom Sr Anne helps for arithmetic, using a game as the starting point. 
Yes, we are happy that this centre can transmit the charism that we have inherited by giving these women the desire to learn well, women who, in other respects, are often rejected. Each of us, women and teachers, by sharing the little knowledge we have, promote the progress of our beautiful mission in the heart of this very poor district of Kinshasa. 
Next week we will celebrate the end of the (school) year and the departure of those in the final class. It was a year rich in knowledge and learning, both very varied. Let us give thanks to God for all that has been experienced. 
The Women of the Centre,
Mama Wallé, Blandine, Francine and Malu (the teachers)
Rachel, Agnès (Postulants) 
and Anne Becher, Mathilde Lunzaba, Patricia Sacré (LSA)
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