A sports mad Goan nun who lives for her little “angels”
Sister Trifa De Souza (aka the “wild one”) a few years ago marked 50 years as a Catholic nun in the service of children, especially very young and abandoned girls, in Kenya. A champion athlete and a star hockey player once, today she loves Gor Mahia, Manchester United and is an ardent fan of the Kenya Sevens rugby team. She may scowl or even look a little cross, but there is always a large smile on face and her arms reach out in warm embrace of all the children who need her and the many people she meets every day. She is currently at Edelvale women’s complex in Nairobi.
By CYPRIAN FERNANDES
THE saintly Mother Teresa is said to have first received her calling to religious service at the age 12 and later again at the age of 18. It was then that she was convinced where her future lay. As a child, she was exceptionally devout. The same could never be said about Kenyan Sr. Trifa De Souza. As a child she was never devout. In fact, she was quite the opposite.
Virtually every Roman Catholic Goan household gathered each evening to say the rosary. Some ultra-devout worshippers used to kneel on cement floors for more than an hour. The centre piece in every home, be it a single room or a several roomed house, was an altar with clay figurines of the family’s favourite saints especially St Francis Xavier and Christ on the Cross as well as several pictures of Mary with Jesus, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and several saints.
As a child, Trifa was not a fan. She “fought” with her dad about saying the rosary, attending Mass daily and other religious functions. As she grew, up sport was her main focus. Very quickly she was a champion sprinter at the Dr Ribeiro Goan School and later a star hockey player. She had a special partner in her sports adventures, her twin sister Nifa. In fact, the bond between was strong in almost every aspect of life. When they in races as children, if one was lagging behind the other would stop and come back and stretch a helping hand. Naturally, they didn’t win and it drove their father to distraction. So a religious life was the furthest thought from her mind. When a priest pressed her to consider a life of the nun’s habit, she was quick to tell him: “Not on your life.”
Yet, for two years, that snap outburst tormented her and she was filled with a little remorse and a lot of regret. Eventually, in the hope her action would an exercise in futility and fail miserably, she wrote to a convent applying for admission. The moment she placed the letter in a post box, she prayed that they would turn her down. After all, life was pretty good. She was the sports girl of the moment, loved travelling around the world. She visited Uganda, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa to play hockey. She was such a good sprinter and the only reason she did not represent Kenya at the Commonwealth Games was because she had a Portuguese passport. There were lots of boys who were trying desperately to win her heart. Being a reasonably sensible girl, she really could not see any reason to give it all up. Imagine her shock when she received a letter from the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity accepting her.
“God has strange ways and what he wants He gets and on 25 January 1967 on the Feast of Conversion of St Paul I started my Postulancy in Redcote Convent, Bitterne, Southampton. At that time the Church was going through transition so life in the Convent to a certain extent was monastic. It was tough, the food , the weather, the rules all were difficult. We couldn't talk in corridors and there was I breaking all the rules and getting into trouble but enjoyed life without complaining,” she explains
“It was difficult leaving my family, my boyfriends, the wild way of life doing
what I wanted to do climbing trees, watching football matches, other sports and
taking part in athletics and hockey. It was most difficult leaving my twin
sister Nifa. It took me years but I fought it and kept going.
“I entered the convent on January 25, 1966, was a Postulant for one year, then two years as a novitiate and four years later took my final vows in England.
“It was a tough, semi monastic life, strict rules, don’t do this, don’t do that but I was myself and with His help came through.
“I came to Kenya after that in 1979 saw so many changes, but it was good to be home.”
Thus began her life with the Sisters of our Lady of Charity and with her fellow nuns began a devotion that was dedicated to helping very young children, girls who had run away from home or children brought to Edelvale by the social services. The nuns’ chief aim is instill a sense dignity, provide a sanctuary and provide them with an education and prepare them the wider world.
While Sister Trifa did most of her work in the office, the children were never out of her mind, her thoughts or constant prayers. She also wore the mantle of a feisty fundraiser and made regularly safaris to the UK to twist a few ex-Dr Ribeiro students’ arms at various fund raisers. And she is very good at it. She has convinced the Nairobi Indian community to provide items of food including flour, sugar, rice etc, once every two months or so.
“Education, especially, secondary schools are very expensive and we need all the help we can get,” she told me on the phone. She is off to England on another pesa (money) for Mama (beggar) maskini safari in a week or two. After finishing secondary school, the students also get to do courses in dress making, IT, hair dressing, and the other career choices.
She cannot speak highly enough of her sisters and brothers and their extended families who have assisted her over the years. Also, many Dr Ribeiro ex-students, especially in the UK (and other parts of the world including Canada) have held mini harambee parties to raise money for Trifa’s wasichana wadogo.
Her heart has remained broken from the day Nifa died in 1994. Many years before Nifa had been seriously injured in a car accident in Park Road, Nairobi, not far from where the twins had said goodbye to each other and headed for work, Trifa at the GPO in the city and Nifa in the industrial area. Minutes later, the whole of Nifa’s face was shattered. Just when she arrived at work, Trifa was given the horrific news. From that day, Trifa’s was heavy. “I knew something was wrong. My head was aching and I had that feeling something was wrong,” Trifa recalls. “The same thing happened the day she passed away, my body told me that she was dead.”
For a long, long time after that Trifa went through her own personal hell, grieving her sister. In the end, she slowly plucked up the courage to carry on caring for her children.
However, don’t let her fool you. There was always a little bit of God in her. She told me that before her races and hockey matches she used to have regular conversations with Him. What is also true, she told me, she used to regularly “fight” with Him, when something pretty awful happened to someone she knew. These days, she has even longer talks with him. She said the other day, “So you thought I needed a short holiday and you dislocated my shoulder. That’s OK; I could do with a break.”
She says: “God created me to enjoy life, so I am enjoying life.”
The single most unforgettable thing about Sister Trifa is that she is almost cheeky, yet sometimes naughty, but there is always an innocent twinkle in her eyes. As a child she got up to all sorts of mischief. Once when I wrote that she looked “serene” in a photograph, she was quick to chide me with “I am anything but serene”. Her school chums would say that she was something of a tomboy.
She loved school as she grew older. She began in Standard 1 and finished in Form 4. “In the higher classes we were full of life, teachers both male and female having a difficult time one or two girls in class were quiet the rest of us quite noisy, and our Headmaster Mr. Alexander Carvalho, and a few teachers like Dolly Carvalho, Irene Coelho, Mr. Joseph Martins, Mr. Sandy Tavares, Mrs. Lily Jaquez had endless patience with us but with their care and love for us as students got us through. We didn't speak English very well.”
While at school she fell in love with athletics: “At the age of 13, I ran 100 and 200 yards sprints and the long Jump and won. The winners usually received clothing items like socks, scarves etc. This gave me the urge to do well not for the prizes but to get to the top.
“When I finished school, a group of us (formed the famous Spartans athletics club) who were interested in running got together decided to run the relays. We travelled to Mombasa every Easter to run at the annual races there and enjoyed our success. In Nairobi, we took part in the annual Goan Institute Sports Day that took place every December 26 and it meant that we could not eat the wonderful Goan Christmas sweets and chocolates until after the races.
“On one of my first trips to Mombasa, I won the Godgodo Challenge Cup (for a winning a sprint race three years in a row). That gave me the urge to continue in athletics and the winning streak went on for years. I didn't give up until I joined religious Life. Over the years I received many cups and big trophies and over 500 small trophies, all solid silver.”
One year, a few former Goan School students formed what was to be the most successful women’s hockey club: The unbeatable Collegians. Trifa was a little scared of being injured but eventually took to the sport after her sister Nifa pestered her to join the team. “The Collegians did very well with the support of many people of many shades. We played against the National Team consisting of all Europeans at the time and defeated them on a few occasions. As we came closer to Independence, Bertha Fernandes and I were selected to play for Kenya. During my time as a member of Collegians Hockey Club, I was chosen as Captain of the Collegians and I decided, with the help of other senior players, to take the team to Uganda where we did not lose a single game. A few years later, we took a junior and a senior team to Tanganyika and Zanzibar where again we drew one game and won the rest.”
That wonderful Goan and one of the finest international hockey umpires, Peter (Babs) Barbosa, was a family friend. They were three musketeers, Babs, Nifa and Trifa. One would always seem them together. They were a familiar sight walking to church from home in Eastleigh, at the hockey matches and other sports functions. The big question was: who was Peter going to marry? It had to be Trifa, after all, he bought her first car a Ford Prefect. However, once when a friend had the gumption to jokingly ask him the question, he replied: “I will marry all four of the De Souza girls.”
Trifa loves all sports “but my favourite was Athletics and Hockey second. I am still interested in all sports. My favourite international team is Manchester United (from that fateful day in February 1958 when 43 people including players, officials and journalists lost their lives in plane crash returning home from a match in Germany), my local Team is Gor Mahia (“because they are special”). “At the moment my favourite sport is Rugby and my Team Kenya Sevens is doing fairly well.” Her only regret is that these days, she rarely gets to see live sport unless someone takes her there.
Uhuru came on December 12, 1963, followed by Madaraka the following year.” The celebrations were full of life with all people living in Kenya celebrating their freedom. The way I looked at freedom was that I was no longer a second class citizen because of my colour.
“There were other difficulties after independence when all jobs were Africanized and so those in Government jobs were forced to retire. I was given the opportunity by my friends the Kenyans who were in charge to remain but chose to retire from the Post Office with a pension of 10 Kenya shillings a month. I worked in various clerical positions.
“The Post Office at the time was Semi-Government. The salary I received when I started in 1950 was 100 shillings a month with an increment of Shs.20 each year while my sister was earning shs.6000/- Due to my boyish behaviour my dad would not allow me to look for another job. I was happy there working with all the men. The reason why dad did not allow me to move was because he asked Mr. D'Costa to keep an eye on me. The poor man had a dog’s life because of me. His folks are still my good friends remind me of the hard time I gave him. I loved the old man very much.
“The old man had a job to keep me in line and in the end he was the one who had it rough. I loved the old man and all the men Africans, Indians, Muslims and Goans that I worked with in the office including my big bosses who were Europeans, they looked after me in spite of the hard time I gave them with my wild behaviour.
“I used to play tricks on them. There used to be complaints that I was seen outside for the best part of the day. They did not know it was my identical twin Nifa and it was hard to tell us apart because we also dressed identically.”
Seriously, though. Trifa’s life is really only about the children and about prayer. She wakes each morning at 4 o’clock and begins and ends the day in constant prayer. “That is what keeps me going. If He should call me, I am ready,” she says with that cheeky smile of hers.
As she says her prayers, her face is lit by the memory of the thousands of girls the Sisters of our Lady of Charity have been able help and prepare them for a future in Kenya.
These days she looks forward to a day out with the Goan senior citizens in Nairobi. When she goes to the UK, she loves to cook at her sister’s home. Her favourite is fish reschado or a pork curry. She is crazy about deserts, especially a devilish thing called “tipsy cake” with lots of sherry and liqueurs.
Another Kenyan Goan currently based in the UK, Father Tony Fernandes, says: “We are extremely grateful to the many who played an important role in our lives as students. Some of us developed friendships with quite a few we found to be role models and dedicated to the community. One such person is Sr Trifa.
“I was formally introduced to her by the late Fr Tony Pinto who took me to visit her. Her example of fervent and humble service to the children she was working with was very inspirational and moving. I am indebted to have had such an example and model to focus my own work among young people today. God Bless her.”
One of her hockey colleagues was Alvira (D’Sa) Almeida who recalls “She bonded us together as a team. Trifa had a way of getting the best out of each member of her team. She was easily the best player in the side who also ran faster than most other players. She never criticised, just encouraged us and told us to move on.
Sr Trifa is the kind of person whose company we treasure. By the way, we have all got used to her bluntness.