ONE of the first things Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Sister Rita Grunke will do when she arrives back in South Sudan is find a village that needs a water well.
Sr Rita is not expecting it to be all that difficult in the newly independent country with more than two and a half million people in the Diocese of Rumbek alone to find a village that needs the well.
She does however have a few specific criteria for the chosen village before she commits the $10,000 funds specifically donated by Bracken Ridge parish, Brisbane for the project.
Sr Rita spoke with The Leader as she prepared to return to the OLSH South Sudan ministry team based in Mapuordit parish, Rumbek diocese.
She said the community she eventually chooses would have to be prepared to make their own contribution towards the well in terms of labour or by providing infrastructure for the outlet pipe.
“I would select a community that is self sustaining, that is interested in self development, that is interested in education and that you can see that the water well would be really looked after,” she said.
She knows what she is looking for as foreign mission is a passion for the Queensland born OLSH sister who has spent barely a handful of her 49 year ministry at home in Australia.
Sr Rita has a passion for foreign mission that goes back to her childhood.
“I was unsure about many things in life, (but) this thing of foreign mission was really a strong influence,” she said.
So much so that at the age of 15, Rita the eighth child in a Queensland dairy farming family of 13 children moved to Leura in the Blue Mountains to undertake her high school studies at the OLSH juniorate for “anyone interested in Mission”.
Four years later she enter the OLSH novitiate at Hartzer Park near Bowral.
Sr Rita was professed in 1963 and began her first overseas foreign mission posting at Yule Island in Papua New Guinea in 1969.
On Yule Island she taught in the Sisters boarding school for girls.
“I stayed there for 19 years and I just loved it, the girls were terrific, all country girls and we did all kinds of things,” she said.
Talking to Sr Rita her passion for the betterment of women and children in her mission postings is evident. She said there were around 50 students when she arrived on Yule Island with numbers rising to 400 during her stay.
“They absolutely wanted an education and this was the only way to go,” she said.
Sr Rita said the girls studied high school subjects based on the Australian curriculum until independence.
“After independence they explored their own curriculum and oriented it to Papua and New Guinea,” she said.
“In addition to our normal school activities we had to be really self reliant and the kids did the painting, the gardening, we grew a lot of our own things.
“We built a wharf so that we could manage our own supplies coming from Port Moresby, the local community built a double hulled canoe for us that could go back and forth to the mainland.
“The kids just worked tremendously hard.”
Sr Rita was invited to return to Port Moresby last year by some of her past Yule Island students with many of those from the early ’70’s now the grandmothers of the community.
“They had a tremendously strong impact on the development of PNG’,” she said.
“Many of them went on to be teachers, nurses, several went on to university.
“(Prime Minister) Michael Somare had his eight-point plan following independence and one of those points was women’s development and equality and our kids were coming out of school with their certificates at the end of their high school and they were just lapped up and they had a really good name so they were greatly sought after.”
In 1988 Sr Rita was posted to Manus Island to a coeducational high school, then spent three years in Bema in the Papua mountains before returning to Port Moresby.
She said her time in Bema was the epitome of her years in PNG.
“Those kids were the poorest of poor, they had nothing and they would walk over these mountains to come to school, they desperately wanted school and it was a sad thing because the education authorities on the Coast didn’t really want them to develop and it was just a real joy to help them,” she said.
After returning to Australia for a short time, Sr Rita put her hand up at the start of 2004 for a posting to South Sudan.
“I still had really good health and energy so I put my hand up and went and spent six years in South Sudan,” she said.
She was posted to Mapuordit in the Diocese of Rumbek.
With South Sudan reported as having the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world, infant mortality at over 13 per cent and women having little value, Sr Rita said she knew she wanted to do something in women’s ministry.
“It took me almost a full year to decide what I really wanted to do,” she said.
“I knew I wanted to be involved in a women’s ministry but it took me a year to become familiar with the needs of the parish, so I taught a little bit part-time in school and then the women’s ministry developed and that is really the reason now why I want to go back to continue that work.”
She said the ministry involved practical things such as sewing and simple craft and art so she could get to know the women then develop pastoral courses.
“The one I most recently did and enjoyed doing was one on marriage and God’s hope for marriage because marriage there, as the people tell you, is not a love based relationship at all,” she said.
“It depends on cows and I used to see the women suffer so much.”
Sr Rita said during her previous South Sudan mission she also worked with the nurses on her village visits who would do a health talk on maternal child health or HIV/AIDS.
“There was this group of women one morning and the nurse said to them ‘what is your experience of home birth’ and just with one chorus they shouted ‘death’,” she said.
“This was their experience and it happens all the time for so many of them as it is expected they will give birth at home.”
She said the OLSH hospital at Mapuordit was helping with the problem.
“Traditional Birth Attendants (TBA’) are trained at our hospital at Mapuordit and they are available in the small village areas and they are always brought back again for further training and refreshment courses, but when they are on their own in the village and birth is about to happen and they see an arm protrude then what do you do, some say they pray, this is why they (the women) say ‘death’.
“It is very complex, difficult in every way.”
She said there were a number of areas Australians could support OLSH overseas mission work particularly in Sudan.
“Funding is probably the best way to go, posting goods is a handicap to us as we have to pay heavily on the other end to have those goods released from the post office,” she said.
“People can donate into our overseas aid and all they have to do is to say where they want the money to go and that is absolutely what it will be spent on.
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