A socially significant event took place in Nairobi, Kenya recently with the opening of the Mary & Joseph Life Center (MJLC) which is another outreach programme of the Shalom Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation founded in 2009 by Irish missionary priest, Dr Patrick Devine SMA, who has ministered in Africa since 1988.
The new centre is located at St Josphat’s House on the outskirts of Nairobi where seven informal urban settlements or slum areas – Kawangware, Kabiria, Satelite, Kangemi, Dagoretti, Waithaka, and Kibera – interface with or are close to each other. It is also accessible from Mathare and Kariobangi slums where Shalom also works to transform inter-ethnic conflict and religious ideological extremism.
Fr Devine explains that “the three main purposes of the Mary and Joseph Life Center are to offer pregnant women and girls, fathers responsible for the pregnancy, and families, who are considering or are being coerced to have abortion other options to have their babies born:
- Educational workshops and seminars aimed at preventing crisis pregnancies and helping those already in need with supportive guidance for psychological, spiritual and economic livelihood resilience, and
- Counseling, medical support, guidance, and empowerment to women who have had abortions and are seeking assistance for trauma, self-esteem and healing in one form or another.”
Thus, the centre supports an expectant mother by providing care and support during the prenatal period and an opportunity for her and her newborn baby to live as a family unit. This involves promotion of the wellbeing and dignity of women, children (unborn and born), motherhood, parenting and family.
Judith Akedi Otsieno, Lead Project Officer, points out that “women who have had abortions and are seeking assistance of one form or another, such as trauma or medical care, will also be able to receive counselling, spiritual, and medical support and guidance” from the well qualified staff. “The Centre” she says “will assist mothers who have made the difficult decision or were coerced into terminating their pregnancy, to instill renewed self-respect, and to give empowerment on how to be leaders to other women and girls and families facing a similar predicament. The Centre will provide trauma healing and other forms of physical and psychological assistance related to past abortion experiences. At the core of our ethos and service will be the commitment to respect and dignity, and to show compassion for everyone it can help without exception.”
Power imbalances and a lack of morality, ethics and rule of law are some of the major factors that have created a paradigm in which women and children are frequently treated violently. Esther Njeri Kibe, Project Officer, explained how “women are often placed in difficult situations with decisions being made for them. Despite the significant proportion of young people residing in slum communities, little attention has been applied to the sexual and reproductive health challenges they face during their transition to adulthood within their harsh environment. The informal marginalised urban settlements create a confluence of factors that place adolescents at heightened risk of poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Consequently, the rise in unintended pregnancies and irresponsible sex, especially in the urban slums, is among the most troubling public health problems.” She says: “It is a major reproductive health issue imposing socio-economic, psychological and spiritual burdens, among other problems, on young women, children (unborn and born), and families.”
Sr. Catherine Mutua, a member of the Daughters of St Anne and the Community Development and Social Worker at the Center, says that within the framework of human rights and human dignity, “our work ethic will try to reduce or eliminate immoral, unethical, and illegal abortions that kill human life in the womb. The Centre will help to transform the physical, psychological and spiritual damage inflicted on pregnant mothers and their families, and avoid the termination of the lives of innocent unborn babies. Our services will include access to counselling and prenatal crisis support during pregnancy, and reproductive health information to educate women about their bodies and prevent crisis pregnancies in the future.”
Sr Lucy Njori of the Dimesse Sisters is the Center Administrator. She says there is an urgent need for professionally administered services for women and girls in crises pregnancies, who are considering or being coerced to have abortions, to have opportunities to continue with their pregnancies. “In the interest of those living in informal marginalised urban settlements and rural locations, often suffering the negative impacts of violent conflict and war” she says. “We are equipped with high quality counselling and related services as well as utilising all other related medical, psychosocial and spiritual institutions located in adjacent areas.”
Sr Sarah Ngigi, also of the Dimesse Sisters and a nurse and counseling officer, explains that the Mary & Joseph Life Center “will equip women with services to help them to make enlightened decisions, knowing that they are not alone then or in the years ahead, for their own well-being and the life of their unborn baby. When a woman with an unexpected pregnancy enters our doors, we will offer her a free ultrasound in the presence of qualified personnel to help her decide on the way forward for her, her baby and family. Thanks to the generosity of donors and the fundraising work of Fr Devine, we will offer ultrasound that gives a pregnant woman an incredible view of what is occurring within her body – with amazingly detailed images in 3D/4D.”
Sr Sarah explains that “the Centre is committed to spreading God’s powerful and transformative message of desiring great love, mercy, reconciliation and happiness for us. Providing counselling services will be a significant part of this process. We especially strive to reach young people who are on the threshold of their adult lives and young married couples. Educational workshops and seminars will be geared to help prevent crisis pregnancies and to help those already in need. Our educational programmes will include issues such as fertility care and support, religious freedom, theology of the body, and more to be determined on the basis of need.”
Nancy Mirera, who is a Counselling Psychologist and Mental Health Worker at the Center told me: “We seek to provide a loving and empowering environment, emotional and spiritual support, immediate and practical guidance, pregnancy information and counselling, prenatal health and parental education and career advice. We will endeavour to link the well-being of women to that of the child (unborn and born), parenting, the family, and to the health of society as a whole. Empowering or restoring the dignity of women damaged in any way by past abortions is of vital importance in the ministry of the Centre. We believe that all women should have access to the information, support and understanding necessary to make informed decisions regarding their lives, that of their children (unborn and born) and the resilience needed for family life ahead.”
“True equality and social inclusion requires social protection systems to ensure that no human being, from conception to natural death, is denied his or her right to life and dignity” says Godfrey Okoth, Senior Project Officer. He points to the preamble to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child which says: “The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” “Particular attention” he says “should be given to the unborn who are voiceless, yet endangered, hoping someone will speak for them. Our programmes will seek to rescue pregnant women and children (unborn and born), from violence in the areas we serve.”
Another Irish missionary, Fr Oliver Noonan SMA, is Executive Director of the Shalom Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation. He refers to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: “Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.” Fr Devine points out how the elimination of violence against women and children is a human rights obligation as set out in various UN declarations and quotes Article 3 of above Declaration which states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
He says that “Every day women in Eastern Africa face crisis pregnancy situations, threatening their own and their child’s dignity. Medical, psychological, spiritual, emotional and economic livelihood resilience support are essential to those in crisis and the Mary & Joseph Life Center is the first organisation of its kind in Nairobi to offer this range of essential services to these women and girls.”
The main purposes of the Center are aligned with the broader objectives of the recently-established “Shalom Empowerment Center addressing Violence against Women and Children” that operates from the same location. These two centers are a logical addition to the valuable work of the Shalom Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation focussed on the transformation and resolution of inter-ethnic and religious ideological extremist conflicts throughout numerous marginalised terrains of Eastern Africa and in the informal urban settlements or slums around Nairobi.
What impresses me about the three centres is the quality of the personnel involved in each who are all Kenyan, the strategic planning that has gone into their respective structures and programmes. The vision and leadership of Fr Devine and Fr Noonan is unique and exemplary. That vision and enthusiasm has been recognised and valued by their donors in the United States, in Ireland and in the U.K. whose generous funding has made this work that is so essential and life-saving become a reality in poor and marginalised communities in Eastern Africa. As Fr Devine put it to me humbly: “they have made a dream possible… they are an integral part of our work amidst the marginalised… they are what keep me and my wonderful team going, often in very difficult circumstances.”
The title of my 2016 book was “The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On”. The vision of Fr Devine, who holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in Political Science and Public Administration and a Master’s Degree in Peace Studies and International Relations, is a fine example of that enormous legacy in Africa and the global south. He is a great international ambassador for Ireland in the true spirit of the Irish missionary tradition that was the foundation for international development as we know it today. That tradition is now being carried forward with the same values by local and indigenous missionaries.
The Mary & Joseph Life Centre, along with the Shalom Empowerment Center, will make a life-saving change through its unique range of services for women and girls. Readers wishing to support its work can do so at: https://maryandjosephlifecenter.org/. Fr Devine can be contacted at [email protected]
Matt Moran is a writer based in Cork in the Republic of Ireland. He is author of ‘The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On”‘ and will shortly launch ‘The Theology of Integral Human Development.” He is working on another book – “The Cultural Colonisation of Africa by the West.’