Alumni rally together to support Zimbabwean convent battling Covid

Image shows Sister Bernadette Chabongora

The challenges of the past year have not been evenly distributed. For one Homerton alumna in particular, they have fallen particularly hard. Sister Bernadette Chabongora (BEd 1981-85), has found herself managing the health needs of her own convent, the orphanages and care homes it runs, and her wider community in Gweru, Zimbabwe, without masks, medicine, protective equipment or hope of a vaccine.

Since gaining her initial teaching qualifications at Homerton in the early 1980s and returning to the Sisters of the Child Jesus Convent, where she took her final religious vows, Sister Bernadette has played a significant role in the educational life of her country.

After working as a teacher she trained as an examiner, eventually becoming national chief examiner for Zimbabwe. She acquired both an MPhil and her doctorate, taught maths at Seke and Mkoba Teachers Colleges, and spent several years as Education Secretary for the Diocese of Gweru.

Alongside this high-flying career in education, Sister Bernadette is a key member of her convent, which runs four separate charitable projects supporting vulnerable children and children with developmental delay, providing maternity care and caring for the retired sisters.

These competing demands prove challenging at the best of times, but the combined forces of chronic inflation and Covid-19 have made providing care safely an almost impossible task. The nuns are looking after members of the community affected by the pandemic, as well as the children in their permanent care, without PPE or medication or with the cost of regular supplies rising daily. By Christmas, five of the nuns were suffering from Covid themselves, and the rest were relying on steam baths and lemon and ginger tea to ward off infection.  Meanwhile their income has remained static, while their daily costs have skyrocketed.

At this point, a casual Christmas catch-up with one of her Homerton contemporaries set the wheels in motion for an extraordinary display of alumni in action. Kathy Howat, Sally Hyde Lomax, Jenny Sandelson, Sara Wolfson and Pippa Hogg-Andrews have stayed in close contact since their student days and were immediately eager to see how they could help. Within a week they were in touch with 45 of their year group – nearly half the original cohort – and had raised £2000.

An initial parcel of masks successfully reached the convent, but thanks to variable customs fees Sister Bernadette was charged a significant amount to release it.

“This was not sustainable,” says Sally Hyde Lomax. “We intended to continue raising money, but we needed an affordable way to transport goods. So we asked around. We talked to our friends, to Homerton and to people who knew about the Zimbabwean community, and we found a courier who specialises in deliveries to Zimbabwe, via a neighbour of one of the fundraising team. This company pays the duty in advance and uses personal couriers to deliver to the location.”

A second delivery of £1000 worth of medical grade PPE arrived safely after a week, and a reliable delivery route has now been established. Via a crowdfunding page, the alumni aim to contine to support the convent. 

“It’s really amazing, that after 40 years so many people want to help,” says Sister Bernadette. “It’s been very scary and difficult – in the past two weeks we have lost five sisters and the rest of us have been left very shaken. But the situation now seems to be coming under better control, and it’s been such a surprise to have this support from nowhere from my Homerton friends. I was really overwhelmed.”