By Sean Sprague
Coralis Salvador quotes part of a homily a Kenyan priest gave many years ago: “We are the body of Mary and we give birth to Jesus … not by words but by how we relate to one another.” That message, she says, has kept her on the path she has traveled for almost 18 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Mombasa, Kenya. Today we are walking through Gwanahola, a slum on the western outskirts of Mombasa, as Coralis, wearing a giant sun visor, takes us on that path.
As we pass little shacks of mud, cardboard or recycled wooden crates, with tin roofs and mud floors, residents give us a friendly wave.
We come to the home of Nazmin, a tiny woman with a bashful smile, who is HIV-positive. (Her name and the names of other clients are pseudonyms to protect their identity.) Nazmin introduces her 9-year-old son, Ali. He is not only HIV-positive but also deaf. He attends a special school, with costs and uniforms covered by the HOPE Project, which Coralis administers. HOPE, she says, is an acronym for Helping Orphans Pursue Education.
Coralis explains that the HOPE Project is an offshoot of a community-based health care and AIDS relief project, Mombasa Catholic CBHC, which was started by the late Maryknoll Brother John Mullen in 1997 and modeled after a similar project in Nairobi. HOPE began in 1999 to assist children of CBHC clients. It has served more than 2,600 children.
On our walk we are joined by Floriana Mwandoe, the HOPE Project’s social worker, counselor and project manager. Mary Mwandingo is also with us. She is one of 400 community health volunteers (CHVs) who visit the sick in their neighborhoods, identifying children in need and helping them get back to school. Mary gives Nazmin some welcome gifts of milk, flour and beans. She explains how essential proper nutrition is for staying healthy while living with AIDS.
Fifteen years ago in Mombasa, those with HIV were virtually under a death sentence. Since 2005, thanks to the widespread use of antiretroviral medicines—which are free in Kenya—people with HIV can go on living normal, healthy lives if they continue taking their prescriptions. Part of the work of the volunteers is to ensure clients take their medication every day.
Under the auspices of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa, the health volunteers receive training at workshops run in each of 11 parishes by visiting nurses and clinical officers. They discuss their work in the communities and share the feelings that inevitably come in performing such a heartrending ministry. “As they go from house to house, they must be totally fresh and not carry accumulated emotions around with them,” Coralis explains.
The 71-year-old missioner, who has five grown children and four grandchildren, has a special fondness for the community health volunteers. “The women I work with are prayerful and an inspiration to me,” she says. “They work hard and have their own suffering. … They see God’s presence in their lives because of their strong faith.”
Moving on, we come to the home of Mariamu, who has had AIDS for many years. She is skin and bones but has an enormous smile. She and her healthy daughter, 12-year-old Halima, live in a single room off a courtyard shared by several families. It is stiflingly hot and dark inside their home.
Coralis gives mother and child a hug while Mary gives them flour, beans and milk. Halima is a HOPE client. Receiving a uniform and supplies, she attends a local primary school that otherwise would have been unaffordable, despite school being officially “free” in Kenya. It is the required extras that cost and so exclude many children from education.
HOPE, Coralis explains, also runs a learning center that provides additional schooling for children on Saturdays. During school holidays the kids come three or four times a week for tutoring and a light meal. The center keeps them off the streets while providing a safe place offering workshops, sports and library books.
Coralis, who was born in the Philippines, says she became sensitized to the needs of people with HIV and AIDS when she lived in San Francisco, Calif., in the 1980s and knew many people who died of the virus before medication was available.
After her children had flown the nest and Coralis was pondering what next, her parish priest suggested she apply to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. “I contacted them, got approved and here I am, in Kenya since 2001!” she says.
A short-term volunteer, L. Susan Slavin, once came to help in Mombasa and was so moved by Coralis’ work that the two women co-authored an Orbis book titled, What’s so Blessed About Being Poor?
Coralis explains that serving and living in the moment in Africa may sound easy, but it takes a long while to get there. “We have so many attachments and fears and you need to totally surrender,” she says.
Coralis has truly surrendered herself in Africa. She has renewed her contract with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners several times.
Walking with Coralis, along with Floriana, Mary and the other health volunteers and seeing their love for the people they serve, is indeed seeing Jesus born today.
All photos by Sean Sprague
From the November-December 2018 issue of Maryknoll Magazine