From Auburn to Africa: My Ministry in Uganda

July 9, 2012

By Sister Frances W.

My first connection with the African culture was through my volunteer work at the Catherine McAuley Center on Baggot Street in Dublin from 2002-2005. It was there that I was drawn to working with African women in particular. During these years in Ireland, many refugees and asylum seekers were entering the country at an enormous rate, coming from, not only African countries, but also from Eastern Europe.

My first visit to Uganda from 2009-2011 was initiated by Mary Moran, director of the St. Francis Family Helper Program in Mbarara, Uganda, which also had a counseling component. My skills as a professional marriage and family counselor were much needed in Uganda, and I saw an opportunity. If I were able to share those skills, I would be able to create sustainability by training the students to continue the counseling program on their own.

As the director of the counselor training institute, established 10 years earlier, I was also a teacher and trainer of students who would be getting certificate, diploma and bachelor degrees in counseling psychology. I felt my job was to put these students forward and empower them to envision themselves doing this work on their own. At no time did I have the mindset of a long-term stay or take-over of their program. This required, to some degree, a distancing or a detaching relationship for me, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.

It was by no means easy living in a different culture. I was a minority in a very different culture, very visible because of skin color, and therefore, there was nowhere to hide! Not knowing the local language was very humbling. Language is a way of communication so basic for most of us, that if it is taken away, a sense of vulnerability sets in. We are left to survive the best way we can.

For the most part, the students taught me much about the culture and local practices, as well as more general traditions of African culture. Beata Birungi taught a course on narrative therapy, which included African philosophy and psychology. I took part in this myself as often as she gave the course, and I always learned something new. An openness to and acceptance of the culture helped me change my attitude that West is best.

It became easier when I came to an acceptance of what is without having to change anything. I often found myself ‘sitting on my own wisdom,’ as it were, and watching from the outside when culture and new counseling methods got all mixed up as if it were a ball of multicolored clay. It would be impossible to remove the different colors without destroying the whole ball! My biggest challenge was not trying to fix things and offer them a ‘better way,’ when what they knew was serving them quite well.

However, the students are very hungry for new knowledge and ideas. They are curious and excited about what is happening in the Western hemisphere. Education is very important for them, and this is one way they can empower themselves in their communities. But change happens very slowly, especially in the rural areas.

One of my biggest challenges was the gender inequity which seemed so egregious for the most part. When I experienced this myself, I was even more empathetic with the women with whom I worked or visited in the villages. Female students who graduated with a diploma or certificate in counseling often found it very challenging to continue living with husbands who demanded that they not change, even in the smallest way.

African culture is also an oral culture, which also requires getting used to. Accountability with written documents is not the default program!  Word of mouth is the norm there, and we know that a narrative passed on by word of mouth can become quite different from where it started. Also, professional counseling training challenges many of our dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviors. This was also a tricky area when it came to assimilated cultural cognitive distortions.

For example, ideas associated with witchcraft and superstitions were often in complete contradiction to what was being taught in a course such as cognitive processing therapy for trauma. How did we deal with that? Mostly not by negating the cultural beliefs, but by compartmentalizing them to some degree or giving them less energy or voice.

The Volunteer Mission Movement (VMM), Ireland, is extending my time in Africa as a volunteer missionary. I hope to be doing more training and teaching in creating sustainability, which is a millennium goal for VMM’s partner projects in East Africa. VMM also sees a great need for pastoral ministry for their own volunteers who often suffer from ‘burnout’ or vicarious trauma, after working many years in the same project. The volunteers themselves have requested that they have a safe place and person where they can go from time to time, and feel they can be understood and heard. This project is in the beginning stages, and since I am the only professional counselor among the volunteers, its shape is evolving. I would be required to visit the East African countries where volunteers reside, or I will be stationed mostly in Kampala, as most of us work in partners in Uganda.

I see myself offering counseling services and spiritual direction to volunteers from time to time. This will be a more structured ministry when it is more firmly established. I also see myself continuing to teach counseling psychology courses, as well as training master’s students in clinical supervision out of a center in Kampala. This training would qualify these six students and 14 more from Kisubi University, Kampala, to start their own counseling centers and to create a more sustainable future for the counseling profession in Uganda.

This post was adapted from an interview with Sister Frances by Liz D., originally printed in the Mercy Connection: West Midwest Community Newsetter.

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  1. It must be very satisfying to be a counselor and to give support wherever you see a need. Most times we understand things alot better when we understand culture, rituals and tradition. I remember being at a conference in Barcelona and one of the presenters sharing his experience of living in Africa especially not being familar with all the different dialects but on a one–man mission to understand the culture and the people. Wherever we go we have to ” do as the Romans do.” In English culture, it is impolite to enter someone’s home with their shoes on their feet–it is perfectly acceptable in America. God bless u on your mission and bless the work you do amongst God’s family.