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Mae Kierans doesn't have much to work with in her African mission, but she manages to make a difference

After 20 years of running alcohol and drug rehabilitation centres in the United States, Sister Mae Kierans was feeling a little fried herself. So what did the St. John's native, educator and psychotherapist do for a break?

She headed to Africa for a visit and became half of a two-woman mission helping AIDS-stricken women and children survive the crushing poverty, crime and corruption of Kenya. That was in December 2004. She's been there ever since, except for visits to see her relatives and friends, such as the one last week that took her home to St. John's to see her dad, engineer Tom Kierans. "I had worn myself out and thought, what will I do next?" Kierans says, trying to explain how she made the transition from running a rehab centre to ministering to AIDS victims and orphans. "I went to Kenya to see if I could be of some use, and people were literally hanging on to me saying, 'Please come back, please come back.' Especially the moms with AIDS."

Kierans couldn't say no. But she was apprehensive. Just days before her arrival, a priest had been hacked to death. His murder followed the killings of a couple of other priests and a bishop."I was at his funeral," Kierans says. "If you work on behalf of the poor, you put your life at risk. So I was a little nervous. "But it was these women, who knew I couldn't speak their language, we spoke through interpreters, who said, 'Promise you'll come back.' So that was the turning point for me."

Since that first visit, Kierans and another nun have since set up a mission of sorts, tending to whatever problems the people bring to them. In one case, Kierans bought some charcoal for an AIDS-infected woman so she could start her own charcoal business. She also sponsored the woman's two children in school. Some of the women she helps are grandmothers raising their grandchildren because the mothers have died of AIDS. The village she works in has about 5,000 people and lies just west of Nairobi. Most people live in dirt floor shacks with no running water or electricity. Water is sold in jerry cans. Cooking is done on small barbecues. "They have what we call flying toilets," says Kierans. "There's no water. To be crass, plastic bags are used as toilets and then flung out of the slum and they land God knows where."

Kierans also works in Kibera, a city of 800,000 people, regarded as the largest urban slum in East Africa. She spends one day a week counselling AIDS orphans at a school. She also teaches one day a week at a college in Nairobi. Kierans uses donations from family and friends to do her work. "It's hard to know where to start," Kierans says. "I have to say, I've been there about a year and a quarter and I liken myself to the women at a long check out line in the supermarket. They don't look up at the line, it's too discouraging. I just try to look at the women in front of me and what they need that day and get it for them."

Kierans says the first woman who welcomed her in Kenya was a 35-year old mother who was dying of AIDS. She had three children, the oldest about 15. "These kids are looking after their mothers. The roles are reversed. Everybody is in a one-room shack. There is a piece of sponge on the floor for a bed. The mother is vomiting and has diarrhoea, which happens at the end of AIDS, just before you die. These little kids are cleaning up their mother, and she's embarrassed and they're embarrassed."

In this case, the mother was eventually taken to the hospital in Nairobi, where she died. "The body is not released until the health bills are paid, and of course these little kids don't have any money," Kierans says. "The mother had said to Teracia (the oldest daughter), 'Don't have a funeral for me, just let me go to the pauper's grave.' Which means the body just gets put in a plastic bag and dumped in the common pauper's grave." But the daughter went to Kierans and said she wanted to give her mother a proper funeral. So Kierans had a small coffin built, went into Nairobi, paid the medical bills, put the woman's body in the coffin and had it hauled back to the village in the back of a pick-up truck.

"The whole thing only cost me about $150," Kierans sys. "But it's money they don't have." With help from her father Tom and her brother Tom, Kierans put up a small tin roofed school with a kitchen. It costs about $500 a month to operate. Kierans and the other nun nursed some of the AIDS-stricken mothers back to enough health so that they could take anti-AIDS drugs and work in the kitchen. The ironic thing about AIDS treatment is that you have to be healthy enough to take the medication.

Often the women are not that strong. Because their immune systems are weakened by AIDS, they're more susceptible to other diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria. The United Nations supplies some of the anti-AIDS drugs for free, but not drugs to treat the other diseases. "I just try to respond to the next thing that's in front of me," Kierans says, "whether it's a kid that needs to go to school, or a mom who doesn't have an income."

At the Jesuit-run orphans' school in Kibera where Kierans counsels once a week, many of the young teenagers raise themselves. There, Kierans sits on a chair in a small dirt floor room and takes visitors."I say 'What is your name and how can I help you?'" Kierans says. "About every third kid says there's no food at home. The school has a feeding program that operates Monday to Friday. They give them porridge for breakfast and corn and beans in the afternoon. So they get two small meals a day. "But the kids complain there is no food at home. And I thought, these kids can't start feeling sorry for themselves, or it's game over. So I say to them You need to be grateful that you're getting fed Monday to Friday in this school. Do you realize how lucky you are?' "Then I think to myself, I hope nobody ever hears me talking like this. Can you imagine? It's awful, but you can't let the kids feel sorry for themselves."

Kierans and the other nun try to help other women become self-employed too, so that they don't have to sell their bodies and contribute to the AIDS epidemic. Kierans thinks people in the west would respond if they knew what was happening in Africa. But the media, she says, don't report it. "I started sending a little (e-mail) newsletter back to my family," says Kierans. "The people who get these newsletters - and it was not my intention - they send me $25, $10, $20, amounts of money which I use to bring help to these people."

One friend sent $200 and asked Kierans to buy sewing machines for the women she is helping."I know that if (others) knew about it they would be generous and respond," she says. "And so part of what I'm doing there - I'm not young and energetic anymore - I'm just trying to raise awareness in my own little circle of a continent that is going down the tubes so fast. "I'm still trying to make sense of it myself. And it bothers me that it doesn't make the headlines that it should make in the western world."

Anyone interested in helping Kierans can send donations to the Sr. Mae Kierans African Fund, c/o Sr. Shirley Anderson at St. Joseph Mother House, 2025 Main Street West, North Bay, Ontario, P1B 2X6. Income tax receipts are issued for the donations.