By: Matt Moran
Irish missionary, Sr Teresa McKeon - a sister of the St Joseph of Cluny congregation and a native of Streamstown, Co Westmeath - has been honoured by the President of Sierra Leone for her "dedicated and meritorious service to the state in the field of education and the development of women". She was presented with the award of 'Officer of the Order of the Rokel' by President Koroma at a ceremony at State House in Freetown.
Sr Teresa has ministered in Sierra Leone since 1954 serving as teacher, school principal, provincial leader of her congregation in West Africa, and in development work with rural women in Dambala near the city of Bo. When the civil war broke out in 1994 she and her congregation had to flee the country. She then moved into neighbouring Guinea where, until 2001, she worked with Sierra Leonean refugee women, children under five years, and young girls in five refugee camps.
On returning to Sierra Leone in 2001, she supported returnees in displaced camps in Lumpa. In 2002, she continued working in the Kono region for the development of rural women through practical training in basic business and loan management, awareness education in different facets of life, education of poor and marginalised children, and training lactating mothers to recognise the nutritious value of local foods in the diet of their babies.
The Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny Diomplor Programme in Kono operates primary, junior and secondary schools known as 'Cluny Free the Children Schools' which are funded by a number of international donors. Although now in her late 80s, Sr Teresa is still active helping to develop the capacity of teachers in the school at Koidu.
On receiving the award, Sr Teresa said: "Surprised to receive this national award for just doing the work I was destined to do in God's plan for me, I humbly accept it not for myself but on behalf of all the Cluny Sisters who have ministered in Sierra Leone, and our families and supporters who have made possible our efforts to help and to empower our beloved people in this beautiful country".
The Cluny Sisters have been rendering selfless service to the people of Sierra Leone since 1866 in the fields of education - especially for girls - health and women's development using the distinctive missionary holistic approach that fosters the total person and their dignity. Another Irish member of the congregation, Sr Mary Sweeney from Dungloe, Co. Donegal, was given a Presidential Distinguished Service Award by the Irish government last year recognising her long service to education for the hearing impaired at St Joseph's School in Makeni. Following her years of advocacy, Makeni University now trains teachers for special needs teaching.
The education system at all levels in Sierra Leone is low quality with inadequate training for teachers. The Cluny Sisters have now partnered with Irish-based Global Schoolroom in an innovative three-year pilot programme to develop the capacity of 130 teachers in Makeni and Kono. This programme - grant aided by Misean Cara with Irish Aid funds and accredited by UCD - commenced in July and will produce a template for teacher professional development and in-service for integration with the state education infrastructure. The impact of this programme will be to create a cohort of knowledgeable, professional and expert teacher tutors who will develop the skills to initiate professional development in their schools and surrounding districts. Sr Teresa sees this as a most encouraging initiative with potential to radically improve the quality of teaching in schools.
The recognition awards of the Government of Sierra Leone are equivalent to the OBE / CBE of the United Kingdom, and in fact replaced them when the country became a republic in 1961. Another Irish missionary, Sr Dr Hilary Lyons of the Sisters of the Holy Rosary was awarded Commander of the Rokel Award in 1984 recognising her contribution to medical health care especially at a hospital she developed at Serabu and for her 42 years of ministry in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone became a key partner country in the Irish Aid programme in 2013. In addition to that and the work of Irish NGOs - Trocaire, Concern, and Goal - a number of smaller groups support education and health projects in the country following in the tradition of Irish missionaries who remain active there. For example, the Schools and Health Foundation: www.schoolsandhealthfoundation.com has over the past eight years raised funds to build six primary schools and one secondary school in Sierra Leone.
The foundation has also sponsored five people to further their education and qualify as nurses, and raised €15,000 to purchase a generator for a hospital in Lunsar. This year the foundation opened the Liam Manley Primary School in the remote village of Mange Acre where children had previously to attend a school under a mango tree which is not ideal as Sierra Leone is a tropical country where it rains for six months of the year and there is extreme heat in the remaining months. Now the students benefit from a school building with a waterproof zinc roof which can be used all year round. A clean water supply has also been provided for the school and the village. Transition Year students of Scoil Mhuire Cork have volunteered to raise €30,000 for a school in Robombeh.
The Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership http://slip.ie/ keeps the needs of Sierra Leone to the forefront in Ireland with government, business people and development agencies.
(Matt Moran is author of 'The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On' which illustrates how the work of Irish missionaries is being continued in the global south by their local and indigenous colleagues, by local and diocesan congregations which they founded, and by lay missionary volunteers - www.onstream.ie )