By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Gweru, Zimbabwe is a long way from Kansas City, in miles, economics and development. Maryknoll Sister Mary Frances Kobets has labored as a missioner in Africa for the past 40 years, teaching people to farm and take care of themselves. She made the choice to live a life of service to others while still a teenager.
She returned to Kansas City in September to receive the Kansas State University Agricultural Economics Distinguished Alumnus award on Oct. 7, and to visit family.
Fran, as she was called, was born in Kansas City, Kan., but the family moved to the Missouri side when her father, Godfrey Kobets, was hired as teacher and coach at Rockhurst High School. In the 1940s, the high school was still part of the college’s campus, across Troost Avenue from St. Francis Xavier Church. Fran and her younger brother Tom attended St. Francis Xavier School.
She later attended Loretto Academy at 39th Street and Roanoke. In 1954, Maryknoll Sisters from New York accepted an invitation from Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara to turn the old St. Vincent’s Hospital and maternity home into an integrated hospital to be named Queen of the World. After taking charge, the Maryknolls, under the direction Sister Mary Mercy, missioner and physician, sent out a call for volunteers to work at the hospital.
Fran and a classmate were two that answered that call.
“The Maryknoll sisters impressed me because of their commitment. When they took over the hospital, they lived in the old boiler house. We took the streetcar and a bus on Saturdays to Queen of the World to be ‘candy stripers,’” Sister Fran recalled more than 50 years later. (Candy stripers were hospital volunteers, usually young teenaged girls, who dressed in red and white striped uniforms.)
While serving as a candy striper, the teenager began “leaning” toward the religious life. She knew a number of religious sisters — Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St. Francis Xavier and Sisters of Loretto at the Academy. “I had a lot of role models,” she said. But Maryknoll Sister Mary Mercy, administrator at Queen of the World, invited Fran to help her clean the operating room and several other areas of the hospital, and while they cleaned they talked. “For a long time I had been leaning toward a life of service,” she said, but her work with the Maryknoll sisters helped crystallize it.
Before she graduated from Loretto, she visited the Maryknoll novitiate in Valley Park, Mo., but when she wrote the Maryknoll motherhouse requesting admission, it was suggested she “work for a while and see what that was like.”
Fran graduated from Loretto in May, 1959, and quickly found a job as a nurse’s aide at the old Menorah Hospital, which then was located just south of Brush Creek at 50th and Troost. A few short months later, she received an invitation to join the next novitiate class at Valley Park on Dec. 30. The young woman was part of a class of more than 100 novices.
Following her first profession as a Maryknoll, Sister Fran and 23 other new nuns traveled to a new home at the Motherhouse in Maryknoll, New York. She spent three years working in the purchasing dept., stocking the community with the things they needed for themselves and for their ministries. Then she was assigned to study.
After learning that Kansas State University would welcome Maryknoll Sisters as students, Sister Fran enrolled there to study agricultural economics, because “it had the most electives to choose from” and she could take more “practical” courses. She attended classes, lived in a residence hall with other young women and cheered on the K-State Wildcats football team. Her summers were spent working on a family farm. The Kramer farm in Seneca, Kan., was selected by her congregational leadership team as they considered Seneca to be one of the most “Catholic” areas of the state, Sister Fran recalled with a smile.
She became one of the first two women to graduate from the university’s “ag-econ” school, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1969.
Sister Fran’s next assignment was in Tanzania, working at the Nyegezi Agriculture Training Institute in agricultural education and animal production. She worked there from 1969-78, teaching people about seed crops and livestock, training them to grow crops and feed and manage the animals.
In 1978, she went back to Kansas State University to pursue a master’s degree in applied animal science and industry, graduating in 1980. Three decades later she returned to the university to receive the Distinguished Alumnus award and then she and her family attended a football game. Sister Fran said the game was as exciting as when she was first a student at K-State, and “it was great to see the Wildcats win!”
After her return to Africa, Sister Fran was assigned to Zimbabwe in 1982.
The United Kingdom had annexed southern Rhodesia from the British South Africa Company in 1923. A constitution was framed in 1961 that favored whites in power, creating apartheid. In 1965 the Rhodesian government unilaterally declared its independence, but Great Britain refused to recognize them and demanded more complete voting rights for the black African majority in Rhodesia. Sanctions imposed by the United Nations and a guerrilla uprising finally led to free elections in 1979. The country was declared independent in 1980, and renamed Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s first prime minister, has been president since 1987 and dominated the country’s political system since 1980.
When Sister Fran arrived in Zimbabwe, the new African nation was only two years old. She began teaching post-secondary students at a teacher-training college. “One of the first things that had to be done was to bring the agriculture department up to snuff,” she said. “Then we put together a syllabus. After some discussion, we called the program the ‘Pedagogies of Agriculture,’ in other words, the art and science of teaching agriculture. We used the Schumacher model, ‘economics as if people mattered.’” Ernst F. Schumacher (1911-1977) was an internationally influential economist who proposed human scale development. In his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, The Study of Economics as if People Mattered, Schumacher argued that the problem of technological production cannot be considered solved if it requires reckless erosion of finite natural capital and deprives future generations of its benefits.
Zimbabwe was still picking up the pieces from the guerrilla warfare of the early 1970s, and much of the turmoil surrounded ownership of farmland.
Despite the turmoil, Sister Fran started a farm to teach sustainable agriculture. Each student had their own farming project: whether their project was crops, livestock or dairy, the students had to work their projects to remain in the program. Through coursework and their farming projects, they learned to practice what they preached, she said.
She rode a motorbike to oversee the projects and track down students who, for whatever reason, did not appear for class. Sister Fran recalled several former students whom she verbally disciplined or dismissed for laziness or infractions, who later returned or wrote to thank her for the lecture or threatened dismissal, because it changed their lives.
Mugabe was elected president in 1987, and three years later gave unofficial permission for native residents to take farmland owned by white descendents of the British colonists. The methods used to take the land during the compulsory redistribution were traumatic for those forced off their land. Hard on the heels of the mandatory farmland distribution came a severe currency shortage, which led to hyperinflation in Zimbabwe.
“Our money was worth absolutely nothing,” Sister Fran said. “There was a 235 million percent inflation increase. A $50 billion Zimbabwean bill would buy three loaves of bread that here would cost a dollar apiece. That was the worst time for me.” In 2009, Zimbabwe discontinued its currency, and now uses the U.S. dollar.
With the financial and landownership challenges, it took years to get the program at the teacher training college going, Sister Fran recalled. “But we did it. Our students learned that the practical was as important as the theoretical. It was great!”
In 2000, Sister Fran began serving as the director of Orphans’ Education and Agricultural Support Services in Lower Gweru, teaching children orphaned by AIDS and HIV in Zimbabwe’s Midlands to grow their own crops and vegetables. Many of the orphans live with grandparents or aunts in poverty. Sister Fran and her staff also work with “grannies and aunties” and other concerned adults to teach the skills needed to improve the children’s health, hygiene and nutrition.
OEAS provides four areas of support for the children, who range from primary through post-secondary school age groups: education and tutoring, agriculture, health and nutrition, and hygiene.
“Orphans are a big priority,” she said, “but people were slow to realize it. When I was asked to take the OEAS directorship, I said ‘OK, if agriculture could be a component of their training. We provide enough seed to get them started, usually maize (corn). When the maize or other crop is harvested, the family takes what it needs, and gives the rest back to us. Say an orphan’s farming plot yields 10 bushels of corn. The family takes eight and gives two bushels back to us. We grind it into meal and it helps feed those who are desperately poor.”
It’s been hard work, Sister Fran said, but it has paid off. In spite of the many social, human rights, political and economic challenges Zimbabweans daily face, when young adults leave the orphan program they are finding jobs as teachers, farmers and agriculturalists, veterinary assistants, mechanics and as clerks or assistants to church leaders. Many of them Catholic.
Sister Fran celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Maryknoll Missionary Sister in 2009. She has spent more than 40 years in Africa, teaching, traveling to nearby countries seeking program funding, laboring side-by-side with her students and loving them. She does a lot of thinking when she travels and later incorporates ideas into her program. “I think the Holy Spirit captures you when you’re on a plane, ‘cause you can’t go anywhere else, and that’s when He plants good ideas in your head and heart.”
Looking back on the past 40 years, Sister Fran said she feels very positive about what she is doing and what she and her students have accomplished. “Agriculture is the link that holds it all together for them. They will be able to take care of themselves in the new Zimbabwe. Problems of human rights, repression, economics and health, especially AIDS and HIV, present terrific challenges for the future. But that’s in God’s hands.”
The Orphan Educations and Agricultural Support program depends on donations. If you would like to help, there are four areas that need assistance.
• The Education program needs assistance with fees and levies, stationary supplies (desks, paper and writing implements, school uniforms and most of all, textbooks. In the best cases, there is one textbook for every four to six students; in the more extreme cases, only the teacher may have a textbook. There is a very small library containing a few books for reference and tutoring in Mathematics and English.
• The Agriculture program provides seed, fertilizer and the how-to’s to encourage hand cultivated gardens where vegetables and crops are grown. When harvested, they provide food and a small amount of money to help with the stationary supplies in the school and the farming promotes self-reliance.
• The Health and hygiene programs are increasingly important, especially with the ravages of HIV and AIDS. The orphans live with guardians in poverty, or in a “child-headed family,” a group of siblings where the oldest child is in charge. Personal sanitary supplies, underwear, soap and Vaseline for skin health are needed.
• Nutrition is provided as food aid, and includes maize flour, peanut butter and porridge.
Donations may be sent to Maryknoll Sisters, Mission Projects Funding, Box 311, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0311. Please note project work group # 4438, to ensure your donation goes to the right place.