If it were not for Sister Maria Jose

With rebels closing in on this provincial hub three years ago, the twentysomething relief workers all fled just as peasants from the countryside poured into town by the hundreds, chased from their homes by nightly shelling.

The missionaries did not budge.

Sister Maria Jose has lived with this civil war since it began 26 years ago, and she has learned not to mistake silence for peace. And so while the relief agencies used the weeks before the rebel offensive to distribute food, she secretly hoarded bags of corn, beans and rice in a church warehouse. When the fighting resumed, she and the nuns had just enough food and adrenalin to keep this town alive.

“I know this war,” Sister Maria Jose said.

She arrived here from Portugal when Angola was still a Portuguese colony and the Manganese Mining Co. needed her to teach its workers how to clean, cook and sew. She left the company but never Malanje, becoming a Roman Catholic missionary in 1969. Though not a full-fledged nun, she now heads the Malanje archdiocese’s philanthropic arm, Caritas, and there is hardly a soul here who doesn’t know Sister Maria Jose.

“She is the mayor of Malanje,” said Conceicao Lourenco, a frail, stooped woman who said she believes she is about 70 and lives in one of the church’s refugee shelters. “The government is only interested in war. It is simple: If it were not for Sister Maria Jose and the church, we would cease to exist here.”


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