Sister Bernadette Chabongora 1957-2022
We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of our alumna, Sister Bernadette Chabongora. Sister Bernadette made an extraordinary contribution to education in Zimbabwe, as well as to her local community. During the pandemic, 40 years after leaving Homerton, her contemporaries united in support of her convent, raising much needed funds for masks and medical supplies. This interview first appeared in the Homertonian in August 2021.
Sister Bernadette Chabongora’s early education was disrupted by two things – her decision, in her late teens, to join the Sisters of the Child Jesus convent, and guerrilla warfare.
Having attended her local village school and a boarding school, both in rural Zimbabwe, Sister Bernadette continued to study for her A levels after taking her vows and becoming a nun. But the unrest due to the protracted guerrilla war caused her school to be closed, barely a month after starting A Level studies, so she and a fellow junior nun were sent to London to complete the course.
“I’d never left Zimbabwe before,” Sister Bernadette recalls now. “We stayed in a hostel run by nuns, in Swiss Cottage.”
After finishing her A levels Sister Bernadette decided to stay on in the UK to train as a teacher, arriving at Homerton in the autumn of 1981.
“It helped that I had been to boarding school,” she says of the transition to College life. “It prepared me to live with people from different backgrounds. I was so excited to be going to university.”
Older than her classmates, a member of a religious order, and one of very few Black students in Cambridge at the time, it can’t have been easy to have had so many points of difference between herself and her contemporaries, while so far away from home. But Sister Bernadette thoroughly enjoyed the training, and still remembers those who helped her to feel welcomed.
“There were some other Catholic girls in College, so we used to go to church together. And I used to visit the convent up the road. Also the caretaker’s wife used to invite me over and make me feel at home. We were placed on the corridor according to our surnames, so I was next to a girl called Anna Chapple. One year, when I wasn’t able to stay in the hostel over Christmas, her mother phoned me up and told me to come and stay with them in London – we’re still in touch! I can’t remember any distressing incidents, everyone was very friendly.”
Returning to Zimbabwe after her degree, Sister Bernadette worked as a teacher and in teacher training, later completing her MPhil. Rising through the ranks of the country’s education system, she spent time as the National Chief Examiner, as well as working as Education Secretary for the Diocese of Gweru, where her convent is based.
In the early 2000s she completed her PhD in South Africa, returning to Cambridge to write up her dissertation.
“There was so much pressure, and my supervisor arranged for a small scholarship for me to complete my write up and asked where I’d like to go. I came back to Cambridge so that I could make use of the University Library, which also mean that I was able to attend my year group’s 30th anniversary reunion at Homerton, which was wonderful!”
In 2013 Sister Bernadette became part of the order’s leadership team, a full-time role which meant that for six years her commitments in education had to take a back seat to overseeing the order’s community projects. These include a children’s home which cares for around 70 orphans and vulnerable children; a home for around 150 children with intellectual disabilities; a health centre looking after patients with HIV as well as providing general health care; and a school supporting young mothers to continue their secondary education.
This crucial role of community support which the nuns provide meant that they were in the frontline when the pandemic hit Zimbabwe in 2020. With no medication or protective equipment, Covid-19 hit Gweru hard, with the convent providing the bulk of the care for those affected. Hyper-inflation meant that the nuns were already struggling to meet their ongoing costs, and were unable to cover the additional expenses of masks and PPE.
When Sister Bernadette’s Homerton contemporaries heard of the difficulties the convent was facing, they rallied round. Four friends worked to spread the word, managing to reach out to 80% of their original year group via a WhatsApp group. Through a Crowdfunder, and a story shared on Homerton’s social media platforms, they raised over £5,000 to support the community through the Covid crisis.
“It’s really amazing, that after 40 years so many people want to help,” says Sister Bernadette. “It’s been very scary and difficult – we lost five sisters and the rest of us have been left very shaken. But it’s been such a surprise to have this support from nowhere from my Homerton friends. I was really overwhelmed.”