Sisters of the Daughters of Divine Love congregation in Nigeria are providing relief packages and other supplies to street children across the country who have been left homeless and abandoned as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
At a charity home located in Enugu state, Southeast Nigeria, the sisters are reaching out to children to deliver supplies to them. The home, run by three sisters, also houses some of these children. At the home, they are rehabilitated, cared for, and provided with an education. Most of the children are from poor homes and disadvantaged communities and have either lost their parents or were living with guardians who maltreated them and forced them to the streets. The sisters have so far rescued more than 50 such children and are providing for them at the home.
“We take care of the poor no matter how hard it is for us, because it is one of the most important calling in our ministry,” Sister Veritas Onyemelukwe said. “So many people are hungry, and that is why this is necessary.”
Nigeria is presently rated one of the poverty capitals of the world, behind India. Although the country is also one of the world’s largest producers of oil, an estimated 87 million Nigerians live on less than $2 per day, according to reports. While the government announced the distribution of relief packages to vulnerable people across the country, distribution was uneven and concentrated mostly in urban areas, leaving those in rural areas without aid. Many people have protested and called for the easing of the lockdown so they can go back to their businesses to support their families.
On February 27, Nigeria recorded the first case of coronavirus in the country; an Italian who had flown from Milan tested positive. Subsequently more cases were recorded across the country. As of May 3, Nigeria had 2,388 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 385 recoveries and 85 deaths, according to Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Experts say the number is expected to rise in the coming weeks with poor health systems and low testing capacity. Nigeria, a country of more than 200 million, has tested fewer than 20,000 people for the virus.
The sisters go to the streets to distribute supplies while observing the guidelines from the NCDC.
“We observe social distancing because we cannot risk endangering people’s lives,” Sister Onyemelukwe said. “We are not bringing anybody inside the home in order to observe some safety measures against the virus.”
In Southwest Nigeria, the Daughters of Divine Love carry out the same commitment to helping the poor amid the pandemic. At their congregational house, the sisters prepare meals and serve them to the poor in the streets.
“Our fulfillment is that these people are happy amid a pandemic that has affected our lives. They appreciate our little kind gestures,” Onyemelukwe adds.
Before a partial lockdown was announced, the sisters went to the local market in the area to buy food supplies and restock for distribution to the poorest in the community. Onyemelukwe said the food supplies are arranged in parcels for the people. When they go out, they hand them those parcels at designated points.
“Our sisters out there in their communities are doing their best to provide for these people,” she said. “We are just using what we have to reach out to them.”
The congregation also produces face masks with local materials which they distribute to the people alongside hand sanitizers.
“Their work is much needed at this time of a global challenge,” said Father Simon Okoye, a priest at a local parish in the area. “Many people are more scared of hunger than the virus. So, what they are doing now is very important to the church and the community.”
The Daughters of Divine Love are not alone. Sisters from other congregations in the country are providing food and other supplies to the poor as a way of supporting and helping them amid the pandemic.
In a community in Ilorin, Southwest Nigeria, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are providing for vulnerable and hungry people during the lockdown. Last week, the sisters cooked food and went to the street to distribute it to more than 50 people.
“People are hungry because of closure of markets and various institutions, and I wonder how we can reach out to these people while we still maintain our social distancing,” Sister Eucharia Madueke of the Notre Dame congregation says.
Sister Madueke, who also works with the African Faith and Justice Network, further explains what the congregation is doing to respond to the pandemic.
“Here are just a few things we are doing to help,” she said. “People are putting out their extra food and donating to food banks for those who need them. Churches are making little funds available to members who need them. Some people have learned to make face masks that they now produce and take to those who need them the most but cannot afford to buy one.”
Recently, the government announced it will relax the lockdown across the country, despite the growing rate of the virus.
Food supplies that normally come to the home have become scarce. To supplement what they have, the sisters, alongside children from the home, traveled to Abakaliki—some 40 miles away—in order to harvest some farm produce and to prepare it for the poor in the community.
“We got farm produce, which we shared to the people, and the communities are also helping out in their own little ways,” Onyemelukwe said. “We do not have people giving us money, but sometimes people do bring supplies or donations for us to share with the poor.”
There are also security concerns. Two years ago, armed robbers, disguised as Catholic men who had come to their convent for morning devotions, attacked the sisters and dispossessed them of their belongings.
During Lent and Easter, the sisters often get a lot of supplies for the charity home, but Onyemelukwe said the lockdown has affected those who come to make donations to the home. The Diocese of Enugu, where the congregation is located, and local parishes sometimes send donations and food supplies to help the sisters in their work.
As for the children in the home, Onyemelukwe said special provisions were made in attending to their needs. After the lockdown was announced, schools—even the ones run by the sisters—were closed by the government. But in the home, the sisters have started teaching the children math, English, and science, based on the school’s academic calendar. The sisters have also assigned the children other jobs as a way of keeping them busy in the home.
“Once they wake up in the morning, and do their morning devotion, the next thing is for them to do their [chores],” Onyemelukwe said. “After that, they take their breakfast and the next is to start their classes, which last for about three hours.”
After the classes, the children go for lunch. In the evening, after their devotions at 6 p.m. and dinner, the children are allowed some time to watch television and cartoons.
“This is how we have been spending our time during the lockdown,” she said.
There are many challenges facing the sisters in their work. There is shortage of funds, as people who often come to the home to make donations have stopped coming as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, the small businesses that they run to make money have all closed after the lockdown enforcement was announced by the government.
“We have a bakery industry, but it is also on lockdown, and because of that, we cannot make sales to get money for food supplies,” Onyemelukwe said.
She adds: “Those who have received some supplies still come back again and this affects those who have not received. But you still have to give them, because there is hunger everywhere.”
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