You Will Have the Poor with You Always

Federica Maifredi, serving as a lay missionary in Togo is my guest writer today. I remember Fede from her budding missionary days when she was in Rome preparing for her first mission in Sudan, where she served for two years. Here, she shares what a day visiting the sick is like in her current mission in Togo.
The title of her story, ‘You will have the poor with you always,’ echoes the words of Jesus’ when the disciples rejected the woman’s use of ‘costly perfumed oil’, seeing it as a waste (Matthew 26:6-11). When I first read this story, I felt overwhelmed at how much suffering she encounters on a daily basis, and how little at times she could do to alleviate that suffering…her time seeming wasted.  And yet, there is joy that emanates from the words.  Enjoy!

Today, the ninth of March 2011, just like every Wednesday, I visited the so-called ‘Cabanò’: a section of prisoners in the city hospital of Tokoin. The conditions of the sick prisoners are worse than other prisoners, inhuman for anyone. Not only, but those who do not receive visits do not have sufficient food to stave off hunger … (in prison one gets maize porridge; here one gets a handful of rice morning and evening, according to whether the guards outside are more or less hungry!) Two rooms without windows are the living space for about thirty people, who can only console themselves thinking that at least the lodging is free!

Naturally, there are those who have a family, those who are well off and can afford to smoke and there are the poorest of the poor. Those with family are all together in the bigger room; their beds are covered with pieces of faded cloth (pagne), reasonably clean. They have packets of powdered milk, tins of sardines; some have bread, others a bowl of soup with fish and rice. There are people who take care of them. The poorest of the poor are reduced to skin and bone, piled up on filthy mattresses, without a pillow. And yes, I almost forgot: no visits!

During last weekend, people said that Monsieur Koffi “had left”. Here they use this term. No one uses the word ‘death’, it causes fear! It seemed that he did not even have a rag in which to be wrappped. His companions told me this today when I brought them some of our old sheets to cover their mattresses. I thought I would not find Monsieur Koffi, but instead … instead, this morning, he was lying on his mattress with two pieces of cardboard under his pelvis, in a coma, before “leaving” … He was reduced to this state for having tried to steal a sheep where he lived. Someone reported him and later he finished up here. Today, as I was going out to get a cool fruit drink (the wish of a boy affected by AIDS who gets thinner every day) …, finally he decided to leave too. Now this boy, on a stretcher, will probably end up in the mass grave with his friend Koffi if no one claims them.

I continued on my way and accompanied a young mother of seventeen who had brought her tiny baby, only fifteen days old, for a neurological examination. I thought “I am the one accompanying others, but it seems to me that it is the Lord who is accompanying me on this first day of Lent.”

Lazare was born with a malformation of the brain, hydrocephalus. He never cries, not even if he is hungry; he eats little and does not move. And yet he is so beautiful. The doctor who examined him said he must return next Friday and, perhaps, it would be possible to operate the following Monday, that is, if there was enough money to buy all the operating material and pay the doctors! The result was not guaranteed.

Then I had to show the same neurosurgeon the clinical situation of a young man of twenty-three who had fallen from the first floor while working as a builder and who was now completely paralyzed. His sister, Abla, had been with me from 7.30 this morning. Now it was two in the afternoon, but the hope of hearing someone say something positive was so high that she had resisted until then, without showing any signs of hunger or tiredness. Dr. Beketi looked through the medical notes and remembered the case quite well. The boy had been in hospital for about a month and the family had been told quite clearly that this had been a very serious accident. Koami would never be able to walk again. Abla explained, with tear-filled eyes, that now her brother was not able to remain lying down. Certainly, the family had been warned that this could happen. We returned home, Abla and I, in the car.

She still had not exhausted the source of her hope and she begged me, with a disarming smile, to come in. I could not have imagined a scene more “charming” than what appeared before my eyes: in the courtyard of red earth, under an arbor of dired branches, surrounded by squawking chickens and two cats that were licking each other, I found this boy with such a beautiful face, lying on a bed made of two planks of wood and a layer of thick sponge. I felt I was in a parable. Yes, the parable of the paralytic. And where was Jesus? “Jesus, where are you?! Please come, we need a miracle!” What must I do now! I did not have the courage to tell him the truth and what the doctor had said. Koami, who spoke French much better than his elder sister, told me that he felt great pain in his head, that he had finished the Paracetamol tablets, and even the gauzes for medication were finished. He asked what could be done for his swollen feet and so I pulled him up without thinking twice; Abla helped me while the mother watched at a distance, curiously. His smile of approval, the sensation of feeling better and that the pain was relieved a little, shone from his eyes and they seemed to shout to me “this is a miracle!” I regained my hope and trust; we live near him so I can bring him medicines and visit him, without difficulty, more than once a week.

He can read, so I can bring him some books we have at home; thus he can fly away from this courtyard, at least for a moment, and dream of beautiful things. We will find him a wheelchair and, when he feels better, perhaps we can get him into the car and take him to see the ocean.

But how many miracles can I work???

At this point, I remembered the other people I had met during the day (which never seemed to end) and I thanked the Lord for having let me hear His voice. “GO AND, YOU TOO, DO THE SAME” (Luke 10:37).

In reading this, may you be inspired in your reflection and prayer, to also take action so that, when you meet suffering, you may take it on yourself by sharing the burden of the others, minimizing the pain, thanks to the small miracles which each one of you is able to work. And if some of you do not feel prepared, the Master is ready to give us a hand.


Federica (Fede) Maifredi, Italian, is a Catholic lay missionary serving in Togo. She discerned her missionary vocation with the Canossian Sisters and their missionary voluntary service, VOICA. After two years as a volunteer missionary in Sudan with the Canossian Sisters and Voica, she made a life-long decision to be a lay missionary.


Related lay missionary stories:

Katie writes of The Beauty of Aru

Karen writes of her mission in Congo

Lydia continues to write at Life is Beautiful, Admire It about Congo since finishing her mission.

A retired Catholic couple write about their experience in East Timor.


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