Thu, 18 Sep 2003

Sister Borowka, carer for lepers

P.J.Leo, The Jakarta Post, Alor, East Nusa Tenggara

The people of these remote islands affectionately call her Mama Putih (White mama). Mama, because she treats the people like a caring mother, and white because Sister Gisela Borowka hails from Germany and has lighter skin than the local people.

Sister Borowka has become part of the local community since she set foot in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) in 1963 and started dedicating her life to the lepers and the orphans on Lewoleba, Lembata and Kalabahi districts.

Born in Neisse, in the eastern part of Germany, in August 1934, Borowka has been greatly inspired by the humanitarian work of Damian Yosef de Veuster, a Belgian priest who worked with the lepers in the Society Islands, now Hawaii. Damian died among the people he served on April 25, 1889.

"When I was at the primary school, I loved to read books on Damian Yosef de Damian Damian de Melaatse (Damian, the Leper's Hero). Many children of my age spent a lot of their time reading the book in the library," Borowka told The Jakarta Post.

"The book was really touching. It made me wonder if leprosy still existed. Were lepers still isolated by their communities as Damian said in the book. Had medicines been discovered?

"Then I wanted to follow in Damian's footsteps. I would wake up and wonder if I could do what Damian did while my mind was stuck on the lepers' island of Molokai where Damian spent most of his life."

Borowka worked at a kindergarten as a teaching assistant after high school. In 1952 she continued her studies in Catholicism and went on to do a church internship.

She prayed for a place to serve the poor and her prayers were eventually answered. While she was working in the church library, she stumbled upon an old calendar with pictures of nurses taking care of children in Africa and India.

Then she learned of Missionsaerztliche Klinik, a hospital in the then West German town of Wuezburg which ran a nursing school and sent its alumni to Asia and Africa.

"But the problem was that I lived in East Germany and could not go to West Germany," she said.

Again, God answered her prayers. In 1954, she became a member of a delegation to participate in a congress in Fulda, West Germany, and used the opportunity to visit Missionsaerztliche Klinik. She was delighted that she was admitted to study there.

To get clearance, she told the police and the church that she would go on a holiday "for a few weeks" in West Germany. She also had to keep the truth from her parents or the strict East German authorities could foil her plans.

It was in Missionsaerztliche Klinik that she met an Indonesian nun, Sister Isabella Diaz Gonzales, who had been there for six months to study the German language and medicine.

"Isabella told me a lot about Indonesia and about the many lepers excommunicated from their communities, the same as the lepers in Molokai experienced 100 years before," Borowka said.

Isabella's stories opened up her mind and they were a dream come true: A leper caregiver telling her own experience.

"Then Isabella and I vowed to work together in serving the lepers in Indonesia some day," Borowka said.

After finishing her studies, she worked for a private hospital just outside Wuezberg, while Isabella continued her studies.

One day, Isabella sent her a letter telling her of an organization called Deutsches Aussaetzigen-Hgilfswerk (German Leprosy Relief Association), which had just been formed in Wuezburg. Its mission was to help lepers in Ethiopia.

Borowka joined the organization and left for Africa in 1958. Her assignment was to take care of 500 lepers and their families who had been moved to the jungle by their communities in Bisidimo district.

After three years in Ethiopia, she returned to West Germany to honor her promise of working in Indonesia with Sister Isabella.

Borowka left for Indonesia on June 1, 1963 on a Dutch freight ship Leverkusen from Amsterdam to Surabaya before she continued her journey to East Nusa Tenggara.

She arrived at Lewoleba port, East Nusa Tenggara, on Aug. 28, 1963 and was reunited with Isabella.

"What we vowed a long time previously had finally become a reality. Then we went to a house. Isabella woke everyone up. In the dark, I shook hands with them.

"I realized that the hosts were the lepers: The hands that I grabbed had no fingers or the remaining fingers were crooked. Their hands were cold."

The lepers called Isabella "Mama hitam" (black mama) and Borowka "Mama putih" (white mama.)

The humanitarian work of Borowka, now living on Alor island, and Isabella, now living in Lewoleba, has been a success story.

Now that leprosy is no longer prevalent in East Nusa Tenggara, Borowka, who became an Indonesian citizen in 1996, has shifted her focus to orphans. She has established Damian Orphanage in Kalabahi, Alor Island, named after the pastor of her inspiration.