In the arid plains & vast deserts of Africa, she found her true Love
To follow the dictates of her heart, Isabel Villacarlos gave up her purple Cadillac in Manila for beat-up jeeps in Africa, air-conditioned rooms and soft beds for desert tents and woven mats. She gave up lechon and lapu-lapu for a daily diet of okra cooked in a variety of ways (and she still imagined it was lechon, and succeeded), turned down admirers and suitors for the Love of her life. She’s slept with a cobra by her mat and lived to tell the tale, driven her jeep through sandstorms and stared death in the eye many times as part of a day’s work. And to this day, this nun from the Religious of the Assumption is blissful and content, and would go through her African experience all over again if she were reborn. It was the safari of her life — an incredible journey for the stouthearted, the softhearted and the bravehearts.
Sister Isabel shares her story in the book Life on a mission, as told to Mara Eala. Edited by my colleague Büm D. Tenorio Jr., Life on a mission is hard to put down, not only because of the many exciting episodes in Sister Isabel’s life but also because of the insights these episodes provoke from the reader. The book is non-fiction, but it has all the elements of a novel — conflict, danger, suspense, even romance.
For many years, Sister Isabel shared her stories from almost 25 years in North West Africa during seminars and retreats. She was a missionary who shared the love of God not just by preaching, but also by acts of kindness and mercy. She learned to assist in the delivery of babies and teach children how to read and write.
After her return to the Philippines in 1998, she touched many lives with her wealth of insights and the strength of her faith. Among those whose lives she touched were those of the Dayrit sisters Michelle Soliven and Yvonne Romualdez, who encouraged her to immortalize her experiences in a book. After all, who among us are willing and able to give 25 years of our lives to a difficult life in a foreign land, where good food and potable water are scarce, where the heat is often so unbearable missionaries would sleep under a blanket of stars to make it through the night.
According to the book’s blurb, “This book carries with it Sister Isabel’s prayer that lay and religious persons alike may come to see God the way she does — as an oasis in the barren desert, bringing nourishment and comfort to those who thirst for Him.”
Last Christmas, Carissa Cruz Evangelista gave me a copy of the book, with Sister’s dedication, “The Lord has done marvelous things. Let it be known to the whole world.” And indeed, the book does that.
I like the chapter “Tighten your pagne.” A pagne is like a malong that is a staple in the wardrobe of women in Burkina Faso. Before she entered the convent, Sister Isabel came from a well-off family and was in fact educated at the Assumption Convent. She never wanted for anything — certainly not for food.
But in Africa, she knew what debilitating hunger was like.
“When I look back on my early years as a missionary, I sometimes think that my stomach had just as hard a time adjusting to African culture as my mind did. I had uprooted my entire life and found myself trying to replant and bloom in foreign, seemingly unhealthy soil. As I went to bed each night, I could not shake the feeling that I was but a solitary tree in a dry desert, battling the harsh winds of fear that had all but knocked me over. This fear was compounded by my unappeasable hunger, which made sleep impossible.”
Then a friend advised her that to quiet her hunger pangs, she should just, “tighten your pagne.”
And she did. “So each night, I heeded my friend’s advice. I would tighten my pagne before going to bed and then sleep on my stomach. Lo and behold…I no longer felt the pangs of hunger.”
I remembered the time I lost one source of income, and though it worried me, I, too, heeded a friend’s advice. In my case, my friend likened income and material wealth to a mat. When it shrinks, you just have to curl up to fit on it.
There are really things we can give up in life. Mine was just extra income, but others have to give up essentials. But as Sister Isabel showed by example, we can all tighten our pagne and adjust — whether it is for a lack of food or a diminution of power and income.
As a teacher once told me, “Happiness sometimes means giving up something for something you want more.” Sister Isabel was ready to give up food in exchange for her soul’s nourishment.
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Another favorite chapter is “Nomads,” where she described the life of the Assumption sisters in Africa.
“Amidst arid weather conditions, in the heart of a sea of sand dunes we learned to thrive. We could pitch our tents and set up our lives almost anywhere. There was only one rule that we abided by — we always pitched our tents by a water source, a deep well.”
“In Africa, we were constantly moving. As soon as one water source would dry up, we would roll up our mats, fold our tents and mount our camels in search of the next well.”
Sister Isabel even learned to ride a camel — a far cry from her purple Cadillac during her Manila days — and she had a favorite camel. This camel had the gift for sniffing out the spot in the desert underneath which a spring would flow.
“I imagined us as travelers in a state of constant change, always moving forward always searching for the next water source. It was much later that I realized that the only true water source is the living Spring Himself. It is only in Him that our deepest thirst can be quenched.”
And so in life we search for our springs far and wide, sometimes they quench our thirst — for fame and glory, fortune, friendships, love. When lost, we rely on our own “camels” to guide us to the springs that bubble with our hearts’ desires. And we discover what or Who really quenches our thirst.
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It has almost been two decades since Sister Isabel has left Africa. On the day she bid her African post adieu, her vision was blurred by tears. She found her true Love in Africa, and it was for keeps.
“The photos have faded, memorabilia lost and communication has dwindled. But the love I experienced all those years ago has been instrumental in the way I live today, the stories I share, and the encounters I have with people. This is what I know for sure : love remains.”
By Joanne Rae M. Ramirez
The Philippine Star
(The book is available at the Assumption College bookstore in San Lorenzo, Makati City for P250 each. For book orders, call 817-0757 local 1061.)