“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tunes without the words and never stops at all.” Emily Dickinson
The first thing you notice about Catherine is her smile and the sparkle in her eye that tells you she loves to banter. Her energy and vitality is completely infectious. She’s a model of hope, belief and perseverance.
We first met Catherine during our 2011 Tanzania volunteer posting. Confined to a wheelchair, she qualified to attend Olkokola Vocational School, a school started and overseen by Pat Patten, a Spiritan priest, over 30 years ago. Students with physical challenges learn one of four trades then return to their villages to become self sufficient. Catherine was going to be a tailor.
Her life-road had not been easy. At 16 she started losing the use of her legs and within a year couldn’t walk. No one knew why.
Doctors had identified a lump in Catherine’s back as the cause of her paralysis, but the cause was unknown. Part of the school’s medical support was to fly her to Nairobi. The diagnosis was cancer. Surgery removed most of the tumour and she was given 6 months to live. Everyone was devastated. Because the school didn’t have the capacity to care for someone in her condition, she had to be sent home.
One of the school staff’s great qualities is their care and compassion for current and former students. They didn’t write her off. Increasingly concerned with Catherine’s sadness in leaving the school and loss of hope, they decided that a sewing machine might be the motivation she needed to develop her trade. I was invited along to be part of the delivery team.
If hope has a picture, Catherine’s face would have been it. Her eyes lit up, her family helped her out of bed, and she immediately started threading, and trying to use the machine. She took it so seriously – it was clearly something she wanted to do and was going to make effort to continue. She became determined to return to Olkokola. Her six-month prognosis did not allow that to happen.
Little did we know the power of hope. Little did we understand the impact of one simple gesture. Over the past 6 years, the school staff has continued to visit Catherine. They have monitored her health, stayed in touch with her family and watched her blossom as a tailor. Catherine is pushed in her wheelchair 2 km each way, every day – down a dusty, hilly, bumpy road that leads from her home to the tailoring school at which she teaches. She is no longer on morphine. In November, she made a trip with some of her students to Olkokola, her first time back to Olkokola in six years.
Last December, we were fortunate to visit her. After hugs and greetings, the twinkle in her eye was back and the banter started where it left off. She took one look at John’s beard, shook her head and said, “Ahhh – Simba (lion).” She shared her passion for sewing and dreams of starting her own business.
Catherine’s hope did perch in her soul and continues to sing its tune, carrying her through challenges few of us could imagine and showing the rest of that that indeed, through all life’s struggles, sometimes things just turn out well.