Literary Work: The Majella Project

I never thought I would be this good at doctoring. 

It is a very whole-hearted occupation - probably the most in the secular world. As a nun I never thought I was good at obedience, probably because of the things which weighed me down. I also never thought I was good at teaching children or escaping particular friendships and friars like the ones in Hunchback of Notre Dame. Frollo would have been an awful and awesome figure - even though he was taken down by bureaucracy several times.

My small parish was full of forests and gardens. There intense and steady work is needed every hour of every day. From the nons to the evenings. I always tried to get up for sunrise and sunset.

The other nuns thought they never had things to be good at either. Oh, to be dedicated, and to be shiny. The Sisters of St Cloudy were sent to Fiji to send the Gospel into a steaming land.

In fact, doctoring found me accidentally. It was when I went to a Field Day at a Medicins sans Frontiers workshop - to cover for a friend.

One nun never thought she would be such a good legalist. She was in the profession of judging people’s spiritual and secular worth. Wrongful birth suits require a degree of precision. You could decide someone’s life in six, seven or eight figures. You might very well be walking around with a price on your head.

I never wanted to know what the price on my head was, and I am sure that God didn’t either. Jesus was always on a premium - the unsafer he was, the more expensive. If each thought - each feeling - each action had this sort of price and this sort of worth.

It was not too long ago that children were considered worthless. In medieval times they were put out to work and in industrial times they became fact machines. It was really with the rising of the upper middle class in the last 150 years that they became … trophies.

What were children, really, to themselves? This is what my doctor-self sounded out in South Sudan. Three years ago I was sent to Juba.

Really, it should not have surprised me, these machetes in the street and the way the children looked down. I remembered a film where the children made an imaginary TV in the soldiering zone and at least some of the consuls believed it. The power! And that is why God had given us imagination. To glorify Him and to exult in the highest.

I wondered - what would be on my imaginary TV? Spittles and flickles, I supposed. In another life, I mopped and cleaned thoroughly other people’s pieces of technology which they had left in the coat room or on the trains. They always seemed to have a spark of life - of evolution. They reflected what was given them in the world.

In South Sudan there were lots of mobile phones as well. It seemed that every second child had one. I remembered what a strange moment it was when a child asked Siri about an ear infection that they had. It was easier to do this than to trust their father who didn’t even bring a meal upon the table.

Oh, this is savage, I thought. More savage still were the judgements of the world upon me and my associates. As is usual in a Medicins sans Frontiers mission telemoignage is of first importance. It gets the word out there to the world. When you see these pictures flickering on your imaginary television which takes up a screen, do think about these.

My current Sisters had a very bad time in Cambodia. In Angkor Wat they were trying to promote a mission which involved the girls and the boys in work for the villages. There was some rogue coverage from a social worker with big frizzy hair. The material apparently involved a child prostitute. She was a very ordinary girl who was about fifteen years old; dolled up in the latest jeans and button up sleeved shirt. She liked to play soccer and rugby.

“What sort of mission is this,” stormed the person in charge.

She was something like a Jane Wilson. I wished I had not left the media work to others. It was nine hours of sheets and pamphlets and bills. Obviously the rogue had quite the impact upon donations. As Tea Cross Mission had about twice as much as it did by the last financial year. How much of this was ill-gotten gains?

There was, too, a project in one of the tax havens which we had made our own in the Caribbean. On the Panama Canal where it was built at last by the Panamians.

You had all better have an answer, I thought. A forensically determined and followed-through and joined-up answer. And you, Wilson, had better ask the right questions. I hoped she would find the thing that she never thought she was good at.

Self-improvement has traditionally come last in a nunnish life. It comes out of being beautiful for God as a certain Malcolm Muggeridge once said about Agnes Hoxha. I had spent a great deal of my girlhood in Albania, learning the dark ways of accountancy before I became Sister Majella at the age of twenty-eight.

As was common in these times, I became a free-floating nun. Two years there, three years here, a year back home. It seemed that I was to tie myself between the six inhabited continents forever until retirement age at least.

They had us ranked with the cardinals at about seventy-five. I still had - by my reckoning - about fifteen years left before I was no longer competent and could use the tools of my trade less sharply.

There were various pings from younger noviciates who trusted me and looked upon my work and survival as a miracle in this pagan age. They often knew what they thought they were good at, but did they know what they didn’t think they were so good at? That would often be a question that visited them.

For example, there was a nun who was good at architectural draftsmanship. Another would shine at construction and building. There might be formal or conformal qualifications to bolster them all. One could identify a keystone and work from there into the gravel and make a path. One would build a 43-acre house; the other would officiate over a 43-story apartment.

Another found she had a talent for getting through to refugees and asylum seekers. Her talent was being put through the wringer at the moment. Constantly politicians and staffers would call about her “meddling ways” as if she were a Scooby Doo character. Often when she was swallowing a cough drop and spluttering her merry way. Fortunately the people she worked with had more germs than a sewer so one nun’s ways would not hurt them.

What sort of dehumanisation is this? she thought. Sister Majella, if there were an epidemic like Zika, you would have no cause to laugh.

She was a deep and phlegmatic soul, which is why her coughing problems were of no surprise to me. Whether they were bacteria or virus was fairly trivial.

Why were the children in the children’s hospital not with me for general practitioner type of work? It seemed my fellow child-life specialists were being negligent here - and why this, out of so many things?

My dear, I have seen epidemics like Zika before. I tried not to platitude or sugarcoat the situation. She would not have appreciated it anyway, being a truthful and mostly no-nonsense soul, like many of her team of six.

She was very enthusiastic to tell me about the mission in Guatemala which had started her dedication when she was twenty-two and with whom she had some warm and ongoing relationships. She and the team were known to get down on the ground when it came to deaths. There had been a lot of sewerage-type work for which she wore gloves and masks.

Masks could have come in handy in this disastrous public relations effort in Cambodia, I reflected. Anonymise, yes, and reflect and understand sensitivities, yes. In some countries masks were now not allowed on the field of battle, conflict and dissent. That was the decree of one particularly refractory governmentarian whose name would not be mentioned and who would be plenty ashamed of himself and try to backtrack.

It’s not easy to backtrack once a nun has you in their sights said one of the counselled behind my back. That person I am sure knew something about me in earshot and for their peers’ sake held it in reserve. I am sure they tried to keep their stories straighter and their heads up a little higher … preferably looking at the cross which was above my desk on a shelf.

Happily, I had a full and busy day full of practical things and not too much paperwork. Now everything which was scheduling-related was done on tablets. I found them less fiddly and messy as time got by. Some of my compeers and clients were even facetiming their grandchildren and building new relationships in the field.

The first session was a training one. There were ten keen doctors in the field. The one that was standing on the left near the edge of the wall was a gasterontologist. Two people away was a nutritionist and dietician who was sabre. We had always made a habit of training locals. The others included a gynaecologist and an obstetrician who always seemed to travel in pairs.

They remembered to ask me about the emotional sacralisation of children - a topic which I was all too happy to elaborate. It was good to have an opposite-gendered pair in this speciality.

I also corresponded with a worm surgeon and one whose pulmonary skills were brilliant. There were cardiologists and oncologists among this lot - those were increasingly needed in South Sudan as the country’s standard of living rapidly rose and the conditions and chronicity got closer to First World conditions - or as close as you could get in central Africa.

I remember very well the pan-African movement of the 1970s and how there were alternative ways to teach history. Certainly not the history chart of my girlhood which was one damn event after another as my brother-in-Christ Damian Roche had a habit of saying.

And why are the guns getting smarter? I asked someone in the field for my next task. It was a technological workshop which focused upon religion, the military and relationships/consultancies we could make in the next eighteen months. I saw those charts.

Because if they were in someone’s house they would have to be smart. They would have to have a mind of their own - a mind stronger than a child’s. Perhaps my interlocutor was right. If a gun was smarter than a phone or a fence, we were definitely doing something wrong.

I do remember the first time I handled the gun and the slow way in which gun safety had become a habit. I travelled as a chaplain for a group of sporting shooters who often did local agricultural shows and took their wares to the surrounding cities. I remember procuring permits for national parks and shooting various wildebeest for survival and culling purposes. I will admit that it tasted good and sweet to have my own frozen beef jerky in the height of the shiver.

And if a gun could be said to be intelligent - let’s get out of the military’s way here…

I filled my self and my spirit with music. The boys were playing Blink 182’s latest album. They would, now, would they? And there was to be syncopated jamming in the middle of the night at the club where we were meeting tonight. A balanced shindig on the weekend after something like a hundred and forty hours blocked in.

Music helped me find my rhythm in times when I was lost or missing or in need of spiritual repair. I would go in its general direction and the spirit would suggest answers and develop and deepen questions. Questions which were central to my faith and my practice.

The inspiration I used was not too far apart. I got in behind the skin of a camel drum and began to strike the drum for lunch. Each spoonful was a beat; each forkful was a scrape at the drum’s edge.

My first intimidation of how the drum would be was at a Japanese drum club I was sent to for professional development and entertainment some five years ago now. Up until this I had never really known the effect of percussion on my soul in a really personal way.

Now I felt the agitation, the rage, of the Blink 182 on the street. Things were going down in California and in Las Vegas the way I had never thought they would after the long recession which steeped into depression.

The State of the Worlds’ Children report wasn’t much better. In fact the indicators were slowly sliding into irrelevance. I thought the Millennial Development Goals were supposed to be a quantum leap. I felt the snip, the snap of the drum cords.

One goal; two goals; three goals; more. And the children used to love to do the Finger Family rhymes. Now that was a meme and a half! Even if you were a nun and you only spent an hour and a half on the Internet looking for new missions and mailing lists, you could not escape the Finger Family.

I knew the children in my care sure couldn’t. So I would often hear Mummy Finger; Daddy Finger; Brother Finger as an ear worm or an auditory anomaly during otherwise serious times. I would admit that it would crack me up as much as it did the children, who would cling into it in times of often painful medical procedures where they would feel every dull acre, every sharp sting.

There was a good study in York, Canada about children’s pain. It gave tips and pointers to counsel parents. Always my work and sympathies were with the parents and their spiritual development and formation. There were often some seething gaps.

In South Sudan it was often very different. There was hospitality and extroversion and high-octane entertainment. Probably even a few gifts which I would discreetly store away and give back. One of these was a pink diamond watch probably procured with Chinese money from the last ten pay packets of the average South Sudanese. The pink diamond would shine at 1200 and it would glint at me as if to remind of the imperfection of everything; how the crack of the light would get through.

Somewhere in all this there was Patrick Yumeto. He had some great ideas about how to make the flow of people connected to one another. I remembered him from some of the Mercy cruise ships I had worked on over the years and the decades. It had all started with cruising through the South Pacific and in Asia. The ships had been good for infectious diseases and laying it all out. There were various layouts and games and bonding experiences that people enjoyed and got to share something of one another.

Patrick was like something out of a Maugham book when I had read them almost compulsively during a lonely three months. I remembered the Ashdowns and the Ashcrofts and how they polled every single person on this Mercy Ship about the quality of life. I seem to remember how it was in Comoros and how there was a thievery every second day.

And there were these “skinny models” cavorting about and enticing the younger generations and some of the elder men. Some of whom I swear I saw on Apprentice being fired by a certain bouffant bon vivant. You may very well have heard of him in the US election of 2016, even though his candidacy is outdated.

So I read several Interviews and remembered the awesome exhibition I had gone to in one of my breaks. I wanted to case out some of the South Sudanese exhibitions and archaeology as well as some of the most modern and post-modern of art in existence. Art, like everything else, began in Africa and it had no intention of ending there any time soon.

I luxuriated in the columns from 1984, 1986, 1986. Thirty long years ago now where the lissom ones were talking about their philanthropy and their social lives in the East Coast Triangle. There was even one with Olivia Newton-John and her Koala Blue project which may or may not have been a disaster. People like Isayanake. The people with their sharp suits and rocky fruits.

Tofu is like feta? Now I was never sure about these fusion foods and the ways they would all jumble upon a plate when I would eat with the Ashdowns. They were the ones who introduced me to fermented foods - as if a Catholic upbringing wasn’t fruity and fermented enough! For example - sauerkraut and red cabbage.

And tofu was one of the fermentiest of the lot.

As it turned out the recipe was great. Someone had the right thing going - and I thought tofu was exotic in soup and other condiments like hot sauce and sriracha.

Tofu, too, depends on vegetables. Some which would be typically used might be broccoli and collards. I have even seen someone use silver beet when composing their meals.

Ginger and garlic complete a colourful combination. And if someone was to do black pepper, I would not be opposed in the slightest. Having said that, I flushed out this last meal with a great dollop of water. At least two Ashdowns - the younger ones - did the same thing. I am told Alka Seltzer works well to “wash the nasty taste away” as one anti-gourmet said.

Though I am not sure that this wasn’t strictly self-preservation on that anti-gourmet’s part. There are a lot of problems with onions and similar things.

One Ashdown remembered a trip to Swaziland which we had taken on portent to this other cruise. It was mostly looking at animals in their natural environment with the classical human arrogances and protections which we would wear as masks and through our movements.

I also had the privilege and the opportunity to learn about Swazi art, specifically weaving and various fibre art which was related to this. A lot of beadwork was extensively used. It was a good thing to be able to take a bag along on the Mercy Ship and hopefully customs wouldn’t get through it.

The metal detectors and their related rigmarole these days. It is a wonder how a nun can survive particularly if she happens to be fond of jewellery in her civic duties and guise. Of course in my doctorly work I had learnt to take everything off and put it in a box in the middle of the packaging so it could not easily be seen. A fellow passenger did not quite grasp this technique of evasion and so did not foresee the results. The effect on her was akin to an electric shock - and the rest of us shuffled through with a slight sense of embarrassment.

The lights were bold and our shadows appeared to be grasping. An arm, for instance, could be an elephant’s trunk if it were held too stiffly at an inopportune moment.

I felt sorriest of all for the person who was having to shift antiques around at short notice. The back of the aeroplane seemed to be vibrating. They had a side table and a dresser and a washbasin to take home full of the finest Swazi wood and carvings. And several little people who would not look out of place in a museum if they were there for fun and for profit.

Another thing which seemed to “get” the metal detectors was one Neko - the famous begging cat which is near every respectable establishment. I always preferred gargoyles or skeletons myself. It was delightful to see children put a coin in or get some small sweet out of one particularly lurid Halloween skeleton - and tease the gargoyles. It was a great relief to see their direct and non-superstitious ways.


On the office wall I would have at least one laminated picture of the Mercy Ship we were on at any particular time. It was either that or a world map.

No comments: