Gertrude Yema Jusufu, “My Story: Hoping for a Path that Leads to Life” in Visions and Vocations:
My culture does not consider it important for girls to have educational opportunities, but I always had a deep desire to study. Money for school fees was a problem: my mother and father were separated, and that made it very difficult to pay for my studies.
Before their separation, I was threatened twice with rape. When I brought tea to my aunt’s husband one morning, he told me to sit on his lap. Of course I said, “No,” but he grabbed my hands. I wrested my hands away and slapped him; I ran to Ya Yeabu, who lived downstairs. She told me never to serve him tea again. The second time, I was approached by the son of the landlady. He offered me money to have sex with him and his two friends. Once again, I ran down to Ya Yeabu’s small place and was saved from a horrible experience.
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These experiences taught me to fear, but I was still bent on getting an education. A close friend paid my school fees initially, and then the principal of my school in Freetown, Fr Jude Lynch, gave me a scholarship because he was aware of my intelligence. After that, I left Freetown – still traumatized by what had happened to me there – and I went to the town of Bonthe to live with my grandmother. It took me some time to regain my health and sanity.
After successfully completing secondary school, I returned to live with my mother in Freetown, where she was teaching. Despite having little money, I went to Teachers’ College where I was considered a student of distinction, which made my beloved mother proud. When I qualified, I was able to teach in the same school as her.
During this time, I experienced a call to join the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a community with sisters all over the world, thus giving us many opportunities to learn about other cultures. I attended the order’s novitiate in Ghana from 1991 to 1993, and after profession I returned to Sierra Leone with another sister.
It was not long before the war came. The SSND provincial invited us to Rome for safety, and I enrolled for a course in acculturation. Sadly, our teacher died of the flu just two weeks into our studies. Perhaps attending his funeral was the greatest shock for me—in white man’s land, nobody cried! How sad that seemed to me.
A few months later, I was asked to go to the United States and teach in St. Louis where I had another opportunity to experience white culture; I was surrounded by white sisters. In Sierra Leone the novice mistress had told me to cut my hair to be a sister, but in the United States, I experienced the reverse message—they had a hair salon there!
During the day, I taught at a school in a low-income black community. When the children learned that I was from Africa, they asked me many questions. One black child asked if I was a monkey. He touched my skin and hugged me; somehow, he realized I was his sister.
After my experience in the United States, I went to Kenya at the suggestion of my superiors. I spent two years there teaching, working as a librarian and running the school canteen. It wasn’t easy to adapt to East Africa although my acculturation studies helped. I was longing to continue my studies at Tangaza University College in Kenya where the SSNDs were shareholders, but my congregation refused to let me study. Finally, I returned to Sierra Leone. At that point, I left religious life.
The war was still raging. All the neighbors came flooding to us for help. There was no food, no water, babies were crying—then a bomb fell in our compound. We picked up our things and ran to my father’s home. When the battle came closer, we ran to the mosque for safety—safety that didn’t exist. Many women were raped and killed on the spot. Pregnant women who were about to deliver would go into the bush to have their babies. Sometimes, rebels would slit open the mother’s stomach, remove the fetus, and kill it; they would drink the blood as part of a ritual to make themselves stronger for battle.
After the third attack on the mosque, I was separated from my father and stayed at the pastoral center in Kenema, where we experienced the fourth attack. Bishop O’Riordan, the spiritual director there, was shot in the leg. We crossed the river in a small boat. When we looked back, we could see that the secondary school had been set on fire.
I met a nurse from Germany who was treating the wounded with jelly water, papaya leaves, and papaya seeds. With the assistance of the Catholic community, I helped to feed thousands of people out of what seemed like nothing, and when it was all over, I had nothing left.
All of us who were left came out of the bush. Like the early apostles, we lived together and shared everything. During this time, I reapplied to college. I was admitted, but I had no money! Fortunately, a priest I knew helped to pay my fees, and I spent two years there making up for lost time.
Another rebel attack on Freetown meant that I once again had to escape with my mother and family. We were tired, hungry, and weak but relieved simply to be alive. Those times were incredibly stressful for us all.
Just when I thought my troubles were over, the male vice principal at the school I was teaching at took a dislike to me and made false allegations against me. I returned to Freetown and worked with the Christian Brothers and, though I experienced some difficulties and was not involved in any decision-making, I survived.
After that I worked in Kenema for five years with Caritas and with two major organizations – UNHCR and Catholic Relief Services. My work included travelling on terrible roads to conduct monthly supervision visits. I fell off my bike many times and even broke a few bones.
In 2012, my beloved brother Elis Jusufu died. This was very painful for me since I had taken care of him. I decided to take a break, so I went to Ghana and found a job with the SSNDs, but sadly my mother died later that same year, so I returned home.
Now, my blood sister and I are the only ones left here out of six children. Our lives are complicated and sometimes our struggles make me unhappy, but I am a woman who has never given up. In some way, I know God is present in my life. To all that has been, I bid farewell. For the future, I can only hope for a path that leads to life.