Ties between Switzerland and Tanzaniadate back to 1921, when the Franciscan Capuchin Friars and the Sisters of Baldegg established a mission in Kilombero province, 400 kilometers from Dar es Salaam in the south-west of the country.
The missionaries founded several hospitals and schools, including St Francis Hospital in Ifakara, which now serves a catchment area of one million inhabitants.
Switzerland has continued to make a positive difference in the region ever since. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), part of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), supports several projects in Tanzania and is celebrating its 40th anniversary in the country this year.
The Baldegg Sisters founded a congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of Charity of Mahenge, who are carrying on the work Swiss missionaries which began in the country a hundred years ago. Three of them share their story with us.
“The Baldegg Sisters are like our own mothers,” says Sr Joyce Seki, breaking out into a big smile. In the meeting room of Laverna Convent in Mbingu, several hours’ drive from Ifakara, we strain to hear Sr Joyce’s story over the drumming of torrential rain on a corrugated iron roof.
In a faltering voice, she confides that she does not know her real age. “I’ve been told three different years when I was born and have picked the one that suits me best, 1943.
”Give or take a year, Sr Joyce is the same age as the Diocesan Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of Charity, founded by the Baldegg Sisters in 1944.
The imprint made by the Swiss is hard to miss: the walls are adorned with a dozen portraits of the superior general who headed the congregation over the decades.
Sr Joyce, who was herself superior general for 15 years, proudly shows us the portrait of her first teacher, Sr M. Christophora Kunzli, superior general from 1953 to 1970. “When I was in secondary school, she was our teacher during the school holidays. She never missed a class, regardless of whether there were two or ten of us.
She would always start lessons with the same formula, ‘Life only has meaning if you take care of others.’ I’ve never forgotten this principle and have always lived by it.”
The Baldegg Sisters have earned a reputation in the region as women of action. “We learned not by instructions but by action,” explains Sr Senorina Lukwachala, who has been the assistant to the superior general for the last nine years.
One of the most successful legacies, St Francis Hospital in Ifakara, founded by the Capuchin Friars in 1927 and run by the Baldegg Sisters until 1976, today serves a catchment population of one million residents in the Morogoro region.
Sr Senorina was brought into this world some 50 years ago by a Swiss nurse in this very hospital. “When I was a child in Ifakara, everyone knew these Swiss nuns. Wherever you went, you would come across their schools and clinics.”
”The memory of Sr Maria-Paula is still cherished at Nazareti Leprosy Centre in Ifakara, which is popularly known as ‘Paula Centre.’ Another example is Sr Prudencia, nicknamed ‘Dada Kasumuni’ because she would charge patients ‘thumuni’, a paltry treatment fee of 50 cents of a Tanzanian shilling at the front desk of St Francis Hospital.
These role models were the reason Sr Eutropia Nduye, superior general since 2012, joined the religious order. “I found my vocation when I saw the extraordinary work the Baldegg Sisters were doing across the region.”
She insists that today they are simply following in their ‘mothers’ footsteps’.
“They taught us, their African sisters, everything. They taught us what they knew, encouraged us to go to school, to get an education, to become professionals, and when they saw we were ready, they left.”
Although several Swiss missionaries found their final resting place in Tanzania, the Swiss nuns who had settled in Ifakara left the country three years ago to spend their last days in the canton of Lucerne. “They passed on all their knowledge to us and today we can say that we’re carrying on the work they started,” revealed Sr Eutropia.
The Congregation of the Francis-can Sisters of Charity has been an independent charitable organization since 1971.It numbers some 300 nuns who are carrying on the charitable work initiated by their Swiss sisters.
Based in Mbingu village since the 1990s, the Tanzanian nuns own a 3,000-hectare parcel of land on which, with financial assistance from the Baldegg Sisters, they have little by little built a dispensary, an orphanage, a training centre and a secondary school for girls that can accommodate 300 pupils.
Over 20,000 people in the region are now benefiting from their services. And they do not intend to stop there. A school for boys is already being planned. “Nothing can stop the work that the Baldegg Sisters started, unless the country goes under,” declares Sr Senorina Lukwachala.
Yet the challenges are consider-able. Mbingu is still not connected to the electricity grid. To give the community access to electricity, in 2008 the Baldegg Sisters purchased a small hydroelectric power station, capable of generating 850 kW, which is located 14 kilometers from Laver-na Convent.
However, because the region is prone to flooding during the rainy season, thepower station requires considerable maintenance and is suffering from the effects of wear and tear, the convent has been without power for over three years.
“We had a generator to provide essential services, but it was so expensive that we had to discontinue some of our activities. Our sisters in Switzerland were no longer able to help us financially, so we had to look elsewhere for funding.
Based on its experience in the Kilombero region and in order to facilitate access to health services for all, Switzerland, through the Embassy of Switzerland in Tanzania, decided to contribute CHF 112,000 towards the renovation of the hydroelectric power station. Implemented and coordinated by the Swiss NGO Solidarmed, the project was completed in January 2021.
“We are very grateful for this support. The orphanage children have electric lights in the evenings again, we’ve been able to resume operations in the dispensary and are therefore continuing to provide the services to the community that the Baldegg Sisters started almost a century ago,” explains Sir Joyce Seki, visibly touched.
She adds that, “If there is one thing we ought to know about the Swiss, it’s that when they start something, they see it through to the end.”