Celts among the Shona
Deep in the Heart of Wedza
Mel Hill, O.Carm. First published – 1955.
Their correct name is the Little Company of Mary, but they are everywhere known as the Blue Nuns or simply as the Blues. It has nothing to do with their temperament. Their foundress, Mother Mary Potter was simply bubbling over with humour. They became known as the Blues in popular parlance because they wear a blue veil, whereas most nuns wear a black one. The next thing one would notice about them is that they are a young Order and they have all the fervour, ideals and enthusiasm of youth. They are what is technically known as a ‘mixed Order,’ that is to say, they combine a life of prayer with the active apostolate, which in their case is nursing. They consecrate their lives to the maternal heart of Mary as she stands on Calvary and intercede with her for the sick and dying. They do not neglect the role of prayer.
This side of their lives is of particular importance on the mission field where there are so many demands on their time and the Blues are wise enough to know that they won’t suddenly develop the spirit of prayer on the missions if they haven’t developed it before they get there. In Africa the Blue Nuns have two European hospitals, one in Harare (Zimbabwe), and one in Port Elizabeth (South Africa); they have two African hospitals, one in Wedza (Zimbabwe) and one in Korstan (South Africa). The staff in all these places are mostly Irish and thanks to the spiritual training they get at Milford House and the medical training they get at St. John’s Hospital, Limerick, people of all denominations are agreed that the Blue Nuns run the best and most efficient hospitals on the African continent. Their mission in Wedza was opened last year; it is out in the bush over 100 miles from Harare. It’s not exactly the place I’d choose for a picnic. I did the journey once from Harare and I nearly had to go to bed when I got to the hospital; the usual story, bad roads, car bogged down in mud, etc.
However, the Reverend Mother there had a soft Tipperary brogue which gave me a new lease of life and I managed to struggle through a meal before I presented myself to the Jesuit Fathers who live a mile down the ‘road’. The father in charge there was a German with an Irish brogue. Apparently he had been a patient with the Blue Nuns one time and he picked up the accent during his sojourn in one of their hospitals. He did not dream at the time that one day he would have a community of Blue Nuns on his mission, but it looks as if there is a destiny which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.
Wedza is an African Reserve. Reserves are big places, as big as an Irish county and sometimes bigger. No white men are allowed to live in a Reserve unless they happen to be missionaries and as a matter of fact a white man must get permission from the Local Commissioner before entering a Reserve. The land is mostly poor, consisting of sand and rocks, and a good many of the men have to go off to town to earn enough money to provide for their families; a good many of the men, but not the ngangas. These ‘doctors’ are always sure of making a living. This is where the Blue Nuns’ hospital comes in. It helps to break down superstition and to dispel ignorance which the ngangas thrive on. The Apostolate of the doctor and the nurse in Africa cannot be exaggerated and without Catholic hospitals, our schools would do very little good. The nuns in Wedza are also trained in maternity work and this too is a great gift to the people. Where there are no hospitals the infant mortality rate is alarmingly high, as most of the people know nothing about germs and less about disinfectants. There is a maternity block in the hospital at Wedza with cots attached to the beds, no baby sitters are necessary; the mother can shake the cot by simply moving it with her feet. They even have a hot water system installed, as up-to-date as anything you’ll find in Europe.
This was one of the things that impressed me most during my visit to Wedza: to find such amenities out in the bush miles from anywhere. However, the thing that surprised me most was the healthy complexions of the sisters there. Most nuns are supposed to look pale and delicate like a lily gown in a hothouse, but the nuns in Wedza looked like an advertisement for Palmolive soap. The local people are at a loss to understand this as most white women in Zimbabwe are dried up and bleached from the sun and they cease blushing as soon as they get out of the cradle. An African once told me that he reckoned the sisters had their own witchdoctors who supply them with the secret of perpetual youth. At any rate there is about these a freshness and a vigour and a zeal and irrepressible gaiety that no African can resist, and many a hard-bitten missionary has steered his truck for Wedza when, after a week slogging around the bush, he found himself like Ruth, sick for home and the alien corn.