Sister Sheila Devane was born in a small town in the west of Ireland in 1945. She was the second child of parents who were among the first generation of civil servants in the newly formed Irish Free State Government; she thus grew up or some distance from the ancestral homes of both sets of grandparents. Sheila has been a newcomer, an outsider, a student, a resident, a missionary and a person with no ancestral roots in the many places she has lived across 3 continents and 7 countries: Ireland, France, England, Tanzania, Kenya, USA and Ethiopia.
She is a world citizen and has been able to be at home and to make friends wherever she has lived. She admits though that she has often felt like an mgeni (“visitor” in Swahili) which she believes can be a typical missionary experience. Far from seeing this as negative she talks of it making her more open to the learning that each place has offered. One of the hardest questions for her to answer now is “where is home?” She believes that it is not any one place and that it is possibly people, relationships and a sense of relative belonging that most create home for her. It is in her heart.
Living in Arusha has been a marvellous ‘moment’ in Sr Sheila’s life as she has had amazing friends, great faith opportunities and the possibility of offering a much needed service. She has also felt part of the life of the community, been well known and had lessons to learn every day! She loves towns and enjoys the buzz, the events, the whirl, the traffic, the new and old buildings, markets, shops, street traders and seeing people making all sorts of things by the side of the road.
Asked about the gifts in her life she unhesitatingly answered: my family, faith and friends. She also talked of the excellent educational chances she has had and somewhat reluctantly admitted to having been a top student in every school, college or university she has attended. Sr Sheila is an alumnus of many, gaining a full nursing and midwifery training, diplomas in Theology and Socio-Economic Studies and degrees in Psychology as well as a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology.
She joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) when she was already a young, qualified professional woman; she was attracted to this order by its broad minded, hard-working sisters who were not afraid to do new things in the world of medicine, in difficult environments, in foreign cultures and all done with a lot of compassion and infectious humour.
She has worked in the areas of health care service delivery, including its development and training aspects all her life. Her work has included: reproductive health; midwife training; community outreach; formal and informal teaching; university lecturing; famine relief; administration; mental health consultancy; fund raising; and the development of protocols for vaccination programmes in a desert area with nomadic people! So a great variety and always with enthusiasm and energy!
Sr Sheila’s great passion has been mental health and she has worked hard to get the necessary training and to increase awareness of mental health problems. As a newly qualified clinical psychologist this feisty woman came back to Tanzania with a scholarship from Manchester University to do a needs’ assessment of mental health issues in Tanzania with a view to seeing what services were needed. And the rest is history……………..
Arusha Mental Health Trust was born on the streets of Arusha, and lived on the street for a long time; then it squatted in a car donated by the Queen of Denmark through Danida, later it “sheltered” in the library at Mt Meru Government Hospital, still later it housed itself in one small room in the Roman Catholic Chancery and in October 2000 it put down roots when it took over the present building in the grounds of Mt. Meru Regional Government Hospital.
When asked what made this work possible at the very beginning and for the past 15 years, Sheila was clear that the words of the foundress of her order, Mother Mary Martin, rang in her ears: : … “If God wants the work He will show the way”. This work was very much needed and wanted and it has been in God’s hands every day; one of the biggest ‘Godsends’ she ever received was the partnership she formed with Mr. Emmanuel Bujulu whom she met in her early months in Arusha and who now takes over as director. She remembers several other people who were immensely helpful but at the risk of leaving someone out she does not mention their names but she profoundly respects their great contribution.
Sr Sheila went on to speak of the many challenges she faced, such as the stigma and taboo attached to mental illness and thus to mental health services; she also talked of the negative impact of what can be called “competing services” such as witchcraft, local medicines and some fundamentalist healing services. She spoke emotionally of the biggest problem in mental health work in Arusha being poverty in all its many facets.
How does this dynamic founder now feel handing over her work as director of AMHT? She admits to having many thoughts and to feeling a wide variety of emotions: great relief, true rejoicing, a sense of fulfilment, knowledge of the right time to go and a deep belief that she leaves behind a capable, committed and compassionate team. She is also lonely and worried; her concerns are mainly in the area of continued finances for a donor funded programme. She feels blessed that during her time she/they have always secured helpful donors. She does not fully understand quite how that has happened other than to say God has really been in charge of that department! She says that being a sister from such a reputable congregation as MMM has helped; being Irish has been another positive stroke and with reluctance she admits that being Sheila has also added a little to this mix of good fortune and serious financial management!
Her hopes for the future of AMHT are clear: she prays that it will remain totally client centered with an emphasis always on direct client service; with the primary target group being the most seriously ill and most vulnerable. She so wants to see the program maintain its high standard of quality client service; its availability to people; its flexibility; transparency and willingness to be held responsible and accountable. She sees networking, offering training programs, partnering local organizations, staff capacity building and “reading the signs of the times” for new ways to offer mental health care as essential ways of preventing problems and of treating and rehabilitating clients. Asked if she feels confident of the skills of the team taking over she replied “I need to move away to allow these great people do the things they need to do in the best way ….which from now on is their way. Yes I am very confident in them and in God’s continuing care as they move to a new era in the life of AMHT. ”
Sheila herself looks forward to new things, new places and another challenge in her life of service and dedication as a Medical Missionary of Mary.