Nun's Struggles Helping Cameroon Orphans Get Focus in Milford Gallery
March 16, 2012 | By Jessica Cohen of the Pocono Record
Babies often arrive in taxis at the Good Shepherd Home for Orphans in Cameroon these days, sent by relatives or by anyone who finds them.
But the boy who sparked the idea for the orphanage was found sleeping on the street in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital by Sister Jane Mankaa. She was recently at the Artery Gallery in Milford for a gathering to celebrate a book about her founding of the orphanage — "I Am That Child" by Elizabeth Geitz.
The author is an associate priest at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Milford. When Mankaa talked to the homeless boy and several others in similar straits, she found they were alone after their parents died of AIDS. Relatives had fed them meagerly and beat them. At the time she was an Episcopalian contemplative nun, and gathering funds to start an orphanage was challenging, she says, as many worried about corruption in Africa. But she persisted. The orphanage that Mankaa began in 2003 is now self-sustaining, guided to success by several failures, which is detailed in Geitz's book.
Geitz was living in Summit, N.J., when Mankaa arrived in nearby Mendham in 2000. Mankaa came from Cameroon to study to become an Anglican nun at the Community of St. John the Baptist. She had arrived with $25 and a wealth of exuberance that Geitz found compelling.
The book emerged from Geitz's visit to the orphanage in 2008. What particularly intrigued Geitz was the way Mankaa learned from failure. When dogs took the rabbits from the rabbit farm that Mankaa had hoped would support the orphanage, they began raising cows, which proved too expensive to feed. Then swine flu undid their pig farm. But a chicken farm has worked out well.
"They have the knowledge and expertise to solve their problems. We need to partner with them, not come up with things from the outside," said Geitz of Cameroon and other struggling countries.
For her book, Geitz transcribed the stories of seven orphan children. For instance, one boy described how, when he was nine, his mother had died in his arms, and he crossed a difficult river at night to get to his mother's village. But families often failed to provide for AIDS orphans.
"Their extended families treated them like slaves," Geitz said. "They did all the chores and weren't allowed to go to school. They didn't get enough to eat."
Geitz returned to the United States with her story. But, she says, "I was very aware that I'm a white woman. It's Sister Jane's and the kids' story."
Geitz grew up in Tennessee when the South was still segregated. But she mentions in the book that her grandfather was a leading figure in the underground railroad that helped African-Americans escape from enslavement. And she had been concerned with "justice issues" in her ministry, working with women in GED programs in inner city Trenton, N.J., for instance. But she knew the limitations of her perspective. So she asked an African-American book group in Princeton to critique her work.
"They were honest about what was offensive to them," said Geitz.
Geitz said she also had many others "road test" the book.
"I got perspectives from many people," she said, including a Milford book club of which she had been a member.
"They said I needed more detail, though I had it in my mind's eye," she recalls.
She took their feedback seriously and elaborated.
"Now," says Geitz, "people say the story reads like a novel."