Friday, 24 July 2009

Sisters, Sisters, never were there such devoted Sisters

From left: Calista, Goretti, a friend, Leonarda

One of the benisons of life here is falling within the orbit of the sisters. 4 foot 10 dynamos, from tribal India, at first they seemed to belong in a batch. They are much loved, much accepted here. They visit and sit with the old and the sick. Women come round to discuss marital problems, violence they dare not yet stand up to, children running wild. There is a steady, unobtrusive stream of grateful visitors with fish, a few fruit, a little box of buns. The sisters told me just after I arrived “we feel our home is over the next hill only”. They merge right in. They arrived in 2006, and three of them have not been back to India since.

As we settle in here, they become more distinct. I know how each prefers their tea (no mean feat, since they always say “as you like”!). I know who will get up in front at church, who will catch birds or iguanas, who prefers teaching teenagers and who is more comfortable with the little ones. I guess who is the best cook, who dreads laundry, who kills the chickens. Their community life is very private, but every Saturday now they come to our house for afternoon tea. We have a truly lovely time together. I have thought several times of attempting to word-paint them, but have only now plucked up the courage. Since they have appeared on Picture of the Day (Sister Calista holding the bluebird), it is time to usher them gently out of seclusion and on to this stage too.

Her smile is twice the size of her voice. She is the oldest, at 68 (hard to believe), but in many ways the youngest. She has an innocence that has something to do with never studying while always learning- but always for use, never for power. She is too humble to get up and speak in front of a crowd. She would lose all her words. Her beam and call of “Ahhh!” whenever I appear rejoices my heart. You would choose her to visit your touchy relatives, for company on a journey, to sit with you when you were ill.

Sister Goretti
The first time I went to a birthday lunch with Sister Goretti, I got a shock. I had thought her the quietest of the four, but get her at a party and she whoops and rushes, initiates singing, drags people up for speeches. I have rarely seen someone do this without wanting attention for themselves. She doesn’t. She has a wonderfully dismissive nod when you thank her for her manifold and tiny acts of kindness. Her English is weak, and I think there must be a reason for it. I’m not sure she believes in words very much. You would choose her to shoo everyone into the front rows of church, break the ice at a stilted party, work wisely with a depressed person.

Sister Lucy
A sweet name and a sweet face. You could mistake Lucy for early thirties until you look closely. We know her least because she recently returned from three months in India. Last week I saw her playing Chinese whispers with a group of streetwise and relatively disaffected ‘yoof’ I know from the secondary school. They stood in a circle holding hands. They have no defence against her happy and expectant cajolery.

Sister Leonarda

‘Leon’ for ‘Lionheart’, definitely. Leonarda is a trained midwife and health worker. The first question she ever asked me was “how is your urine?” (Not without reason, I hasten to add!). She is rotund and vital, stout and doughty, an Indian Sister Cadfael. The sparkle in her eyes fits with the revving motorbike roll of her ‘r’s. She is that rare combination, a great talker and a great listener. Not a dreamer or a judge, but valiant and hopeful in the teeth of her own pragmatism. Resourceful, nobody’s fool, generous to the faults and weaknesses around her. You would choose her to run your orphanage, have a word with your flirtatious daughter, give short shrift to a slimy politician.

These four live humbly and generously amidst the physical hardships that make up normal life here. To me they represent everything that is admirable about dependency- interweaving, mutuality, the risk of loving. The fact that their graceful stamina goes unremarked makes it if anything even more remarkable.


  1. 1)I want to meet sister Lucy! 2)I want to meet you at xmas 3) Why would you catch an iguana and what would you do with it once caught. 4) Sarah, your writing is amazing. This coupled with your willingness to take on experiences I feel will be your future. You put across the colours of life with such vividity I sometimes need to pause for breath. Stunning. Love Win x (The latter of course could be trapped wind)

  2. I agree with Winston! The descriptions of these wonderful people are a gift to the rest of us.
    E xxx

  3. Win, thank you for 2) and 4). Now to answer 3)! You catch an iguana because it's eating all the greens you have struggled to grow and protect from hens and sheep. Then you tie its legs behind its back in pairs, show it to all visitors, and then you kill it and eat it of course! Iguana steaks. B tried it, but I didn't. A life without reptiles in any form (including handbags) wouldn't be missing much in my opinion...

  4. Wonderful, to read about these lovely bunch of sisters. I really enjoyed talking to them and their company. Sarah your writing is excellent I really wanna take lil bit of your talent hahhaha