Angels in Benin

CRS President Ken Hackett with Ange, a child cared for by the Missionaries of Charity in Benin. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Ken Hackett and Ange. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Ken Hackett, the President of Catholic Relief Services, recently visited the Missionaries of Charity — the order founded by Mother Teresa — in Cotonou, Benin. Lane Hartill, CRS’ West Africa Regional Information Officer, accompanied him and writes about the visit:

Ange and his twin sister, Angel, 11 months old, showed up here a few weeks ago. Their mother, who has three other children at home, couldn’t care for them. And it showed. They have thinning hair, twigish limbs and skin mottled with rash. But the religious sisters here are nursing Angel and her brother back to health. The twins have greatly improved in the three weeks they’ve been here. When the sisters think they are healthy enough, they will go back to their mother. The sisters will then visit their home to make sure they are cared for.

As the sisters tell us the children’s stories, the toddlers sit on the floor and stare up at their new visitors. Ken quickly spots Ange (pronounced AHN-je, which means angel in French). “Hey Spike!” he says, as he squatted and picked him up. Ange likes the attention and Ken immediately takes to him. He bounces him in his arms and listens as the sisters tell us that the number of Beninese coming to their center has jumped in recent months. Food prices have shot up here, and the poorest of the poor — those who they serve — can’t manage.

One sister says that one portion of corn in Cotonou used to cost about $.75. Now it costs about $1.25 — out of the reach of many people.

“The poor people are starving because it’s too much for them,” says the sister. “People here are living hand to mouth.”

The head sister shares anecdotes, one after another, that illustrate the problems: A woman went to the local Catholic Church and left a baby boy with another person and told her she’d be right back. She never returned. And the baby, it was later discovered, had a serious wound on his back.

Not long ago, a baby was found in a Dumpster, tied up in a sack. A passer-by heard the cries, opened the sack and brought the baby to the Missionaries of Charity.

But despite the rough circumstances, the sisters say Beninese still have hope and are persistent, many showing up at 5 a.m. to wait for food. “Even though they are suffering day after day after day, they accept it,” says the sister. “It’s amazing how they accept it.” What’s more remarkable, she says, “They have a place in their heart for God.”

“At the Missionaries of Charity,” Hackett says, “you’re in the midst of giants. [The sisters] are not trying to change something; they’re accepting it. They’re not like the rest of us who think we’re going to fix all the problems.”

Carla Brown-Ndiaye, the head of CRS’ Benin office, who is in the process of adopting a little girl from the Missionaries of Charity here, says the sisters are incredible.

“I find them to be just amazing women,” she says.

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