From the second storey of any building in the Congolese town of Zongo, she has a clear view of the Central African Republic’s capital city of Bangui, located right on the other side of the river that marks the border between both countries. It was in November 2015 that she crossed the river by canoe in order to meet pope Francis, who was visiting Bangui.
The pope would later mention his encounter with 86-year-old nun and midwife Maria Concetta Esu in one of his speeches, seemingly impressed by her life’s journey. More than half a century earlier the young nurse had left her native Italy to pursue a degree in tropical medicine in Belgium before heading to the then colonial Congo. There, she would spend her entire life in service of mothers and children and helped deliver more than 34,000 babies, making hers a life spent for the life of others.
If it hadn’t been for the pope’s speech, most of the world would perhaps still not have heard much about this remarkable woman who has been quietly and persistently working in the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades on end. From 1984 onwards, she helped develop the maternity clinic her congregation, the Daughters of Saint Joseph of Genoni, runs in Zongo, in the far north of the vast country. There, she also laid the foundation for a new generation of nurses, who, as one of them put it, look up to her as an “example of dedication and competence”.
‘Being a midwife is a source of great joy’
When asked about the pope’s words by one reporter, sister Maria kept silent. All she did say, is that she had asked Francis to bless her hands; those, after all, “touch all the children” and these children and their mothers are at the heart of her vocation: “I came to this country to help women to give birth, to give life. My work as a midwife is a source of great joy to me because it is God who gives life but He doesn’t deliver the babies …”
Her incessant care for mothers and children eventually even saved her own life. Over the years, sister Maria was not just confronted with a challenging medical situation in Congo, including high numbers of HIV positive patients and high maternal and neonatal mortality rates. She also witnessed first hand the sometimes violent political struggles that tore up the country. During the First Congo War (1996-1997) the maternity clinic was destroyed by a rebel group. Although she was holding a baby, one of the fighters held her at gunpoint and threatened to kill her, when another one came along and stopped him, saying: “You have to leave her. She is the one who helps our women give birth.”
With their clinic destroyed, the sisters crossed the river and found refuge in Bangui. However, they could not forget the women they served, and soon they returned to rebuild their hospital and start their work again. It was a tough time, with the sisters sleeping on the floor and living of whatever food their already poor patients could spare. Sister Maria recalls how at one moment, “we spent a week with only one pineapple”.
Seeing the people she loved being faced with so much agony, she even experienced a short moment of despair. “I said that the devil had passed by and it was a moment of darkness. But I started again my work with joy and forgiveness.”
Being in exile
Soon however, refugees would be crossing the river the other way around. In 2002 and from 2013 on, thousands upon thousands of Central Africans fled the violent outbursts in their country and found shelter in Northern Congo. The sisters try to help as much of them as they can, regardless of their ethnic and religious background and of whether they can pay for it. Perhaps their own experience of being refugees helped them prepare for it, as they know first hand how painful it is to be forced to leave your home. “We have to understand them”, sister Maria says. “When something is missing and you are in exile, it is an even bigger suffering.”
In 2014, a remarkable donation of over 89,000 euros helped ease this suffering. After Italian freelancer Damiano Cavadi had managed to get hold of one of the pope’s skullcaps, he put it up for auction and gave the proceeds to sister Maria.
Forgiveness and reconciliation
The recent conflict in the Central African Republic is often framed as one between muslims and christians, but sister Maria vehemently opposes that idea. Her experience is entirely different. She fostered a decades long friendship with Zongo’s imam, the late Moussa Bawa, and worked with him on the basis of a shared vision that religions should unite instead of divide. She fondly recalls how he would welcome refugees and would teach their children about forgiveness and reconciliation - not an easy task given the atrocities that many witnessed.
The christian and muslim communities in Zongo still work together in serving refugees, regardless of their backgrounds. Zongo’s current imam, himself a refugee from the CAR, recalls how “all the refugees” go to sister Maria’s hospital. He himself met her when the first of his two daughters was born there.
Rays of hope
No one knows whether the future will bring the lasting peace that people on both sides of the Ubangi River long for. What is certain however, is that new rays of hope and light will continue to enter the world with every child that is being born in the maternity clinic sister Maria and her congregation helped to build. And as long as she can help it, she will be there as a witness to this hope. “I don’t want to be a deserter. I’ve given my whole life here and I shall also give my bones.”