Emusoi: Maasai Girls Tell Their Stories by Kasia Parham

Front Cover

Kasia Parham relates the story of the struggle the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania as they face extinction as a people. The Maasai have lost much of their traditional cattle raising lands through drought, encroachment from large-scale farms and the expansion of national parks that cater to lucrative tourist safaris. In response, many displaced, young Maasai men have migrated to cities in search of employment as security guards and other trades while the uneducated young women have remained at home, ill-prepared for the changes that swirl around them. Emusoi means: discovery or awareness, so The Emusoi Centre proposed an innovative alternative to pending extinction: the education of girls.

Gareth Thomas, a Minister in the UK Department for International Development wrote in the forward to this book, “educating girls is one of the most important investments any country can make in its own future.” For some, this is a radical concept. Too much of the world regards girls and women as property. That portion of the world asks, “Why would a father educate his daughter when he plans to trade her to her future husband, perhaps a much older man, already with many wives?” Maasai fathers have exchanged their girls, as young as twelve, for cattle or even cases of beer.

The author presents stories by six Tanzanian Maasai girls, a perspective from one of their teachers along with addenda and testimony by Maryknoll Missionary, Sister Mary Vertucci: Director of The Emusoi Centre. The author enumerates the benefits of and obstacles to the Emusoi project as she unravels the complex interactions within the ecological, political, social, economic and cultural forces arrayed against the survival of the Maasai.

At first appearance, this richly illustrated, 56 page book seems destined for a young audience. Actually, young adults may find its contents challenging, but will, perhaps learn why the Maasai girls and their mothers have placed such a high premium on education. Both generations have risked emotional and physical suffering, including running away from home and beatings by husbands and fathers. All of this happened so that educated girls could begin to save the Maasai from assimilation and cultural extinction.

The author’s startling description of the role of women in this ancient society will evoke an immediate response in all readers. The good news is that The Emusoi Centre and its mission to educate girls have endured. In its first ten years, the enrollment at Emusoi sponsored programs, rose from six to more than 600 girls in primary, secondary, university and graduate schools. Some early graduates of the Emusoi program have joined the Centre’s staff. These and future alumnae will insure the longevity of the Emusoi dream for generations of Maasai girls. Through the efforts of The Emusoi Centre, the Maasai may also endure as a unique people.

Unlike many developmental efforts that separate native peoples from their land, heritage and language, the program of The Emusoi Centre arms the Maasai with the means to resist the destructive influences of disease, poverty, ignorance, and bureaucracy, with women trained in medicine, business, education and law. The Emusoi Centre offers the prospect of a Maasai people surviving indefinitely on their own land, with the best of their culture intact.

This publication, certainly appropriate for school-wide teen reading programs, fits many a niche. Every school child in the developed world needs the perspective provided herein, not only as a lesson in cultural diversity, but as a means of appreciating their own educational and economic advantages. The book could serve as a prologue to that famous “coming of age” conversation between parents and children. It can assist citizens of developed nations as they refocus their world view to embrace and revere a broader vision of cultural diversity. It also details contact information and specific directions for channeling funds to The Emusoi Centre.

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Selfless: The Story of Sr. Theophane’s Missionary Life in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea, by Sr. Immolata Reida, SSpS

Selfless: The Story of Sr. Theophane's Missionary Life in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea

This time-capsule, written in 1946 and published for the first time in 2013, transports the reader to the first half of the twentieth century. The author recreates the language, values and simplicity common to that time. The reader observes as the “Greatest Generation Ever,” grows to maturity.

Inez Maier, born in 1906, the baby of the family, although innocence personified, loved mischief. She viewed each boundary as a challenge, whether it was the fence around her family’s property or the Pacific Ocean. Her parents, often the last to find out, struggled with her early explorations.  The focus of her life sharpened when a missionary sister visited Saint Michael’s School. Inez decided that she too would become a missionary sister. In preparation she collected money for the missions (including the pot from her father’s weekly poker game). Inez strengthened her soul, body and mind through prayer, especially a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament; exhausting manual labor and diligent study, especially geography.

As a young girl, she favored horses, dogs, turtles and snakes over dolls. She cared little for fashions, but socialized, engaged in pranks, plays, practical jokes and proved an effective matchmaker. Never one to remain silent she challenged adults when she observed injustice or impropriety. Her academic and parish achievements earned her a New York State Regents Scholarship and an unsolicited Diocesan offer of a full scholarship to the Catholic University of America in hopes that she would later work for the Rochester Diocese. Instead, she completed a year of nursing school as she waited for admission to the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters. In an effort to keep busy following her high school graduation, she single-handedly conducted the census for a new parish, exposing her to the need for missionaries in her own town.

During her years of religious training, Inez enjoyed a more complete participation in the liturgical life of the church. Along the way she practiced patience, a virtue that would support her for the rest of her life. She took the religious habit and the name Sister Theophane, SSpS, in honor of a recently beatified Vietnamese martyr and dreamed of her eventual departure for the foreign missions. Patiently she accepted an assignment to teach in the American home missions. The classroom proved more difficult for her, than she or her superiors imagined. They assigned Sr. Theophane to the completion of her nursing training and eventually she was asked to pack for work in Papua New Guinea, arriving there in 1935.

The photographs added to the original manuscript by the editor, Gregory J. Maier, one of her nephews, demonstrates how Inez emphatically embraced her role as missionary. Back straight, clothed in the traditional habit and veil, she sat upon a spirited horse or the seat of an outrigger canoe. She traveled hours to and from mission stations in every kind of tropical weather imaginable. She was often soaked from rain, river crossings, rough seas or sweat. She loved it. If the horse was afraid to cross a swollen, crocodile infested river, Sr. Theophane dismounted and led him across. She then led him back and remounted. Now that she had taught him not to fear, they crossed together.

She found that despite ceaseless and difficult labor, progress in the missions often proved elusive. Local customs and traditions, including a brutal indifference to the suffering of neighbors and even family members, challenged the imagination. Sr. Theophane remained focused and joyful. She would rejoice if after a difficult and dangerous journey she could bring a soul to the Lord, in the minutes before his or her death.

She demonstrates her attitude toward her calling in her description of a mission building:

“It’s a load of fun to live in such a weird house. The whole thing shakes at every step you take; all sorts of insect life enjoy the hospitality of the bush material, and funny little animals fall out of the roof quite often…. This is the life!”

She had fallen deeply in love. She loved her congregation, accepting every difficult, dirty and inconvenient assignment. When her Sisters came to the end of a difficult day, she helped them finish their tasks. When people at the mission stations needed medical assistance in the middle of the night, she gave up her sleep to ride horse-back in the rain or paddled over miles of open sea to reach them in time. Even as a prisoner in stifling hot solitary confinement, she amazed her Japanese captors with her ability to sing joyfully.

“She had always given herself entirely.” As she matured spiritually, “Her laugh was even more joyous…. Her strong soul had become mellow under the anvil of suffering. The beautiful work of the Lord, which she had tried so hard and successfully to hide, was shining through. Sister Theophane could no longer conceal the fact that she was constantly in communion with God.” Sister Theophane never grew old. She died in 1944, a victim of “friendly fire.” Her last words quoted the apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” spoken as she reached toward the wound in her chest.

Through “Selfless,” the reader listens to Sister Theophane, often through quotations from her many letters and the testimony of her confreres within the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters.  You might say that she was just an ordinary nun. She founded no order, started no movement nor did she perform miraculous deeds. What made her so special was that she gave herself joyfully and completely through her love for God and for her neighbors, giving herself especially to those who had no previous opportunity to hear the gospel and see the good news in action. This book resonates with happiness, love and innocence. It might appeal to mature young adults looking for their mission in life and to persons of every age who seek happiness through collaboration with the Holy Spirit. An understanding of the mystery of Sr. Theophane’s devotion to her Lord and her God require prayer and reflection. I have been blessed to have received the opportunity to read “Selfless” and begin the process of internalizing its message. I recommend it to all.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)