A Conversation with Sister Restituta Francis Kokulamuka, A Sister in the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart Sisters
April 22, 2023
Background: Sister Restituta Francis Kokulamuka, IHSA, has wide experience in Tanzania as a Catholic sister, focused on education for girls and support for women in families. This discussion with Katherine Marshall in Washington, DC, during a fellowship visit explored the different dimensions of her diverse career. Throughout the need for girls to gain practical skills as part of a broad approach to education is a centerpiece.
The discussion with Sister Restituta forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters participating in the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. The fellowship works to amplify the visibility, vitality, and voice of Catholic sisters in responding to the complex challenges and opportunities faced by women religious leaders within their organizations and communities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University have collaborated in the design and delivery of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. Funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Sister Restituta is a fellow in the inaugural cohort, and this discussion forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters in that context.
Can we begin with your story? Where were you born, and how did you become a sister?
I’m Restituta Francis. I was born in Tanzania, in the Kagera Region. I’m the firstborn in my family. We are seven: five boys, two girls. My parents, both of them, have passed away. Both dead. So I’m the one who my family looks to for counseling and guidance, because I’m the first, and we have no parents now. But my brothers are already married and they have their kids. They struggle to give them knowledge, send them to school. My sister is a younger one, the last born. She is also married, but her life is not good. Her husband beats her, and she is unhappy in her family. She has three kids, but she is not happy. But she’s still living with her husband.
I’m 54 years old now. I got a vocation when I was 17 years old. After primary school, I entered the congregation, before entering secondary school. Our formation takes five years, so after five years, I served for three years, and they sent me to train at the secondary level for O-Levels. I did that. After O-Levels, I went to serve again for three years. And then I earned a certificate for teaching religion for three years, and after that I taught religion for 10 years in different schools. And I served as a matron in different schools for three years.
Then in 2017 until 2018, I ran a [program called] “Training for Transformation in South Africa” for one year. I then went back to teach in my country. So I received a diploma certificate. My congregation sent me there to serve as a novice mistress, which I did for one year.
After that, now, currently, I live in Dar es Salaam. We have a service program there. And the community focuses especially on girls now, in education. They don’t learn well. They end primary school. After that, many of them can’t continue their secondary education because their families are poor. And some of them, they enter secondary school but do not finish it. Some get pregnant, some disappear. So in that area, the communities are not good in supporting their girls.
Where is your community now? Where are you living?
In the community we call Kisarawe. My general superior wants me to get training for transformation. I can help in this area, especially the girls in the community.
Why did you decide to become a sister? Was your family Catholic? You went to Catholic schools?
My family is Catholic, and when I was growing up, I liked religion so much. I loved to pray and to be alone in prayer. It’s an individual vocation.
Was your family Catholic? And you grew up going to church?
Yes. They are Catholic.
So it’s very personal. It came out of your heart.
I still have this feeling, this vocation. I love to be a nun. And until now, I’m okay. I’m happy with this vocation.
How many are in your community where you are now?
Six. Focused on schools.
So you’re teaching in Catholic schools?
Yes, Catholic schools.
But what is the relationship to the government? Are they government schools or owned by the Catholic Church? Are the Catholic schools different? Separate?
I have experience with government schools and work in several different schools. Five are Catholic schools in the district.
And you focus on religious studies.
Yes, religious studies. It’s what I focus on, more ethics issues.
I focus also on family planning. I have a certificate for family planning to help the family to plan how many children they need by natural ways. That is what I do, in the clinics. And I visit the family. They know me. They even come to my community and they talk with me. They ask how to do it and does it really work. I help them. And then also, I help when there is a conflict in the family.
Like your sister, you said. So you have many different parts of your ministry.
Yes. I’m 54 years old, not old to be a nun. So I am still serving. I have experience, and I am still serving. Even when I am studying, I am still serving. When I’m on my holidays in my community, I’m still talking with people, serving, advising them.
Are the communities you serve mostly Catholic? Or do you work with and serve people from many different traditions?
In the community where I serve now, more are Muslim. So Muslim and Catholic and other religions, but most are Muslim and Catholic. The culture of that place is more Muslim than Catholic. The education levels are low because of Islam and the state of living.
Why is that? Because they’re poor or because of the culture?
I think the culture. Because of their culture, the women are living at home looking after their children. They are not working outside the home. They depend on their husbands; [they are] just cooking and cleaning. They are watching videos. They do not think that there is more that they can do. So that is their culture. But now, they are starting to change. I go, I talk with them: “How do you feel? You wake up, you prepare the tea, you prepare the kids to go the school, and you sit. There is nowhere you can go. How do you feel?”
So I talk with them, and they ask me, “What do you think about us?” I tell them, “We need you to change. Maybe your husband could pass away,” and I ask, “What would you do? What are you doing and learning in this family?” They start to listen to me. I think they can change from their culture with communication and changing relationships with them when they are girls. Their parents are not easy to change, but if you start with the roots, these kids, the girls, they can change.
So the opportunity is to focus on the young girls. But you’re saying a lot of them drop out of school.
The girls drop out of school. They don’t care about education. But they’re unhappy. They haven’t a good idea of what they can do. Some, they have decided to do sex to get money. But what I think, and my mother general thinks also, is to focus on giving skills.
What kinds of skills are the most meaningful in your area?
Decoration, then sewing. Sewing and cookery. They can bake something: cakes and vegetables. I speak to them about it. I do surveys and research about what jobs you can take. With the computer, they can form their stationary. They can do something to liberate their life.
So making the education practical so that they have a skill and can earn money.
They can. Before, according to my training about transformation, this was seen as good, but we can transform lives with more awareness about safety, self-confidence: “Who am I? I try, but not enough.” They can be aware, so after awareness, what [they’re] going to do. So I think more about skills. Training in self-awareness, in self-confidence for transformation and skills...they can do well because they’re aware of what they are, after awareness. So with skills—sewing, stationary, typing, decoration, cooking—they can liberate their life to go in a better way.
On the family planning, so you go to visit people and you have a clinic: are they receptive to that? Is that something that they’re open to?
They are open, but they fear: “Sister, is it true that I can succeed by using this way?” I say, “I’m not sure for 100%, but you can try.” Some have little hope, but they come and listen to me. I need the men, the husbands. Some disappear and do not come again, but some stay.
So the Catholic approach is a little special.
Yes. It is special. We don’t support using modern contraceptives.
So you’re working a lot with girls to stop them from leaving school. What would you say is the most important thing for you to make a difference, to make people’s lives better?
People suffer, a lot. And they suffer because of lack of education. Education is the key. Yes, I agree 100% on that. Even, I say about my young sister, she’s suffering from her family because of lack of education. I have talked with her for long time: “Why are you suffering like that?” Her husband, he beats her every month, but she’s still there because of the kids. So education. But to be educated before marriage is good. That makes a difference.
Evidence shows that girls need to be in secondary school to have a real benefit. Going to primary school is good, but secondary may be more important.
It’s more important because in the primary school they’re still young. They can’t think much. But in the secondary school, they are open. They can see things. It touches me. I know some girls who do well after finishing primary school. But now, in my country, primary schools provide a good basic education. They try hard. Even in the government schools, they try hard to be successful to pass exams in primary school. But after passing, some students do not continue. They go to work on the family farm. When I talk with their parents, they say they can have six kids, five. They say, “I can’t buy anything, even uniforms for these kids. They are still here to help me in farming.”
Or they send them to a rich family for work. That is so sad. They start to work in the family at 15 years old. What can these girls learn there? But the parents say, “We can’t do anything, sister. What are you going to do?” It touches me. I see them, I know them, but I haven’t any way to help them. It’s hard when they’ve stopped school and they’re so young, then you see their whole life in front of them and what can they do? It’s touching.
In the area where you are, are there many people moving? Are there refugees? Is there conflict?
No. We have no problems with refugees and conflict now.
That’s in other parts of the country. I’m interested in what life is like now. So, do you see it getting better, or are things still very poor where you grew up?
The change is there because Ujamaa brought change. We still practice Ujamaa. But everyone has to struggle alone to live. We have famine today, as we depend on rain. And now the rain has disappeared. We haven’t enough rain. So poverty is getting worse because of resources; we haven’t enough water. We use our hands to dig. We can dig, hoping the rain is coming, but after planting the rains disappear. Everything ends there. So our life has become bad.
And so people are hungry.
People are hungry, yes. Some areas can get food, but we share across all the county by selling. So the cost of buying food is high.
So you teach religious studies. Do you like teaching? What is your favorite topic?
I like teaching because of the results of teaching. Now, I see some girls, some boys, who live more ethically, and they say, “This is because of you, sister. I’m what I am. You formed me.” So the result of my teaching pushes me, motivates me. You can see the results. But now I want to pursue these things beyond what we have already done. There are some who still need my work, who still need my service—like these girls—to skill them, to help them, to move, to develop.
You tell a very important story of the need for practical skills for these girls, but do they have that in the schools? Can they learn to sew and to bake and to make dresses?
Yes, some. Not in primary or even in secondary, no. It’s private, like what I plan to do. In the primary, secondary schools, they do not learn practically.
Where do they learn this? Do you have special schools?
The government is starting to develop centers for training. They’re starting them, to give them the skills. But it’s not enough.
And what about for the boys? What do they learn?
My experience is that the boys can do things without skills. They use their energy, their muscles, for construction. They see what others are doing and they copy, they start doing it, so then they move. But the girl, they need skills. They are too often stuck.
What is the language that you use in your ministry? Is it Swahili, Kiswahili, or local languages?
In our country, Swahili is the most used language. Local languages we don’t use much, even in my congregation. We come from different regions, so the only language is Kiswahili. English we try, but it is hard.
Was the COVID-19 period difficult?
It was a shock for us. Our president who passed away tried to encourage us. We got strong support from him. Yes, it was a hard time, but our leader was strong; he helped the people. The students stopped going to school. It caused problems when the students were at home. Many girls got pregnant because they hadn’t anything to do. But we have moved beyond.