YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Sister Mary Rita Abang has unwavering commitment to caring for children in need.

Her journey began during the HIV epidemic when she witnessed young ones becoming parents due to the illnesses and deaths by their own parents.

Abang founded Divine Providence Home in 2007, providing a safe haven for orphaned and abandoned children in Ogoja, Nigeria. The home’s name reflects the belief that Providence leads these vulnerable children to its doors.

The religious sister’s tireless dedication, supported by the Okaja Foundation, ensures that this refuge will continue to thrive, even beyond her lifetime.

In 2017, the home was on the verge of being shut down as government funding ran thin. Abang gave her niece, Muji Kaiser, a call and they spoke about the situation.

Kaiser, who was based in the United States, decided to form the Okaja Foundation with the goal “to raise the funds needed to keep the doors of Divine Providence Home open.”

Crux spoke to Sister Mary Rita Abang and her niece, Muji Kaiser, to know the driving force behind their efforts for children.

Crux: What was your motivation when you decided to set up Divine Providence Home?

Abang: We founded Divine Providence Home in 2007, during a period of the HIV epidemic. There were many children who had basically become mothers to their younger siblings because their parents were very sick and had died. I saw these children and was moved. I said, now that I have almost “retired” from active service, why don’t I turn my attention now to look after these young children?

I approached my superiors with the idea of opening an orphanage and they were very happy because caring for children in need was also dear to the heart of our order’s foundress, Mother Mary Charles Magdalene of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus.

Many people in the Ogoja diocese and beyond know about Divine Providence Home. When they come across children who are vulnerable, orphaned, or have been abandoned by their parents, they immediately think of Divine Providence Home. We are known in the area as a trusted refuge for children without a home. They bring the children here, and there’s no way we can say no – we can’t do that.

Sister Mary Rita Abang with a babu at Divine Providence Home in Ogoja, Nigeria. (Credit: Private photo given to Crux.)
Sister Mary Rita Abang with a baby at Divine Providence Home in Ogoja, Nigeria. (Credit: Private photo given to Crux.)

Perhaps the home’s name also is helping. Providence is seeking for those children and sending them here. We don’t say no because we know that the Lord will provide and always provides through the Okaja Foundation, which was founded by my niece, Muji Kaiser. Their donations helped us keep our doors open when we stopped receiving government aid.

I think it was in God’s mind all along that this home will come to be because of their support. So we’re grateful to God, and we’ll continue to help these children, and I know it will continue even after I’m gone. Whenever people come here to visit us, they say, “Sister, the Lord is keeping you because there is something that you have not accomplished.” And as long as the Lord has not finished with me, I will continue to look after the children. They are my joy.

What was your motivation when you decided to set up the Okaja Foundation?

Kaiser: In 2017 my aunt, Sister Mary Rita, called to tell me that the Nigerian government had ceased the funding that they had been giving Divine Providence Home. At that point, they already had many children in their care and were in danger of having to close their doors due to lack of funds.

Not long after we spoke, I pulled upon my professional experience in nonprofit development and submitted the legal filings to establish the Okaja Foundation, a not-for-profit organization based in Southern California. Our initial goal was to raise the funds needed to keep the doors of Divine Providence Home open, which we have done for the past seven years.

Since then, in addition to covering all of the home’s expenses, we have funded major projects to assist them in their care of the children, such as installing a borehole, granting them access to clean, running water, solar panels to remedy the constant power outages and most-recently the construction of a new 3,000 square feet housing unit – all in an effort to help the sisters provide a safe and loving home for the children.

Recently, our ministry has extended to outside the walls of the orphanage to feed the hungry children in areas surrounding the home, with the hope of alleviating the area’s hunger crisis, which has caused the loss or separation of many children from their parents. Like in many third world nations, the people of Ogoja are experiencing extreme poverty. Extreme inflation in the country means that the poor are even poorer.

Because Divine Providence Home has built such a strong reputation, many of the area’s impoverished go there seeking assistance. Although our organization’s mission is to provide support to orphaned children and children experiencing poverty, our hope and prayer is that, with additional resources, we can extend our aid to the mothers, as well, so that they can be nourished enough to nurse their babies and so they can give their children the care that they desperately need.

What is the profile of those who are admitted into the home? What are the typical reasons why children are admitted to the orphanage?

Abang: The children are brought to the home for various reasons. Many are orphaned, some have parents who are mentally ill or disabled and unable to care for them and others have been abandoned or rescued by good Samaritans.

When a child is brought to us, we first try to find out whether there is a relative who might be able to care for them. The children should be with their family, if at all possible. If no family is found, we take them in and give them a home. Some children are adopted, but most of them will spend the rest of their childhood in our home.

What do you enjoy most about being with the children?

Abang: I’ve been a sister for 61 years, and I feel as if I have just started. It’s a life that I love. The children don’t even remember that I’m a reverend sister anymore, they call me Grandma. Everybody calls me Grandma. Sometimes I call them over and say, “do you know my name?” “Your name is Grandma.” I laugh and say, no, my name is Sister Mary Rita. But they feel happier calling me grandma. And I play the grandmother for them because I know how good my grandmother was to me. I enjoy their innocence. The little ones are so content with what they have here and I love being able to give them a home. By the grace of God, they don’t seem to realize that anything is missing. To them, this is their home and it brings me great joy.

Can you describe the typical day for a child at the orphanage?

Abang: The children wake for the day, have breakfast and gather at our home’s chapel for morning mass. After mass, they go to school. They then return home, have snacks, study, then play. In the evening, we gather for dinner then meet back at the chapel for the rosary and evening prayers.

What is your ultimate goal?

Abang: Our goal is to help them grow up to be healthy, happy, God-fearing adults and to give them the tools needed to attain self-sufficiency. Part of this is providing them with mental health counseling to help them process the pain of being in separation from their parents. Above all, we foster their faith and love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ through prayer and regular access to the sacraments.

What challenges do you face?

Abang: One of the biggest challenges that we face is the drastic rise in cost of food and other basic necessities in Nigeria. Inflation has made it extremely difficult for those who are already impoverished to feed themselves and their children. Some of the babies brought into our care were a result of such poverty. Because a mother is unable to afford food for herself, she is unable to produce milk. Many cannot afford formula, so they are faced with the realization that if her child remains in her care, he or she could perish from hunger, a tragedy that many other mothers in the area have experienced. These mothers are faced with having to make a life or death decision and opted for life for her child by handing them over to our care. The Okaja Foundation is working to keep mother and child together by providing these poverty-stricken mothers with free formula and food donations.