Ria Étienne, a Belgian who has been involved in Togo since 1999, testified to her journey as a missionary during the 6th International Congress of Fondacio, organized in early May 2023, in the center of Sichem, near Lomé. From her difficult childhood as a nurse in a Belgian hospital, then to her commitment as a “permanente” within Fondacio in Africa, this discreet and resilient septuagenarian gives us a humble and powerful testimony.
Ria Étienne grew up in Belgium, in a Christian family. She is the third in a family of eight children. “My childhood was not always rosy,” she shared with participants of the 6th International Congress in Fondacio, Togo, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. “I was placed in boarding school at the age of two and a half, until I was 6 years old, with one of my brothers. When I returned to my family, I took care of the others a lot because I was afraid to go back to boarding school.”
After studying nursing, she shared the daily life of various services at the hospital for twenty-seven years, including that of the emergency room , “which I liked very much”. She joined the palliative care service while she was particularly caring for her father, who was suffering from cancer. “It was a great loss when he passed away. I had a special bond with him. At that time, I was no longer going to church.
“Look, I’m here”
Ria decided to go to Tunisia for three months to help in a hospital. It is there that she met a shepherd with his flock. he gave her”a tender look. I collapsed, it was like seeing the face of Jesus saying to me: “Look, I am here”. And through him, it was my father’s gaze… I felt the Lord by my side.” On her return to Europe in 1981, the young woman deepened this bond through retreats and training. ” It helped me get through life’s difficulties.”
A few years later, in 1988, she returned to the spiritual dimension by discovering Fondacio. “Fondacio taught me to follow Jesus every day. In 1990, I participated in the association’s forum in Togo, to celebrate its ten years of presence in the country. I visited Burkina Faso and Benin. I returned to Belgium enthusiastic and happy to resume my work in palliative care.” A few months later, the former president of Fondacio, Gérard Testard, called her to the permanence in Togo.
“The call of the Lord was stronger”
“On October 7, 1998, I received a ‘yes’ deep inside of me” , recalls Ria. “I left for a month, in January 1999, to verify this yes. It has been a very difficult month, but also rich in experiences. My inner yes remained. After another month to verify this call, in August 1999, Ria settled permanently on November 1 , 1999 in Togo. “I let go of everything: comfort, family, work, salary, friends… it wasn’t easy. The first year was very difficult, it was a constant struggle.”
Then, just two months after her arrival, on January 7, 2000, her house was broken into. Despite the shock, Ria made the choice to stay”because the Lord’s call was stronger than what I had just experienced. The number of people who went with me to Togo, not physically but mentally, surprised me. I can always count on them: I had around 40 people helping me financially.” During the first years, Ria also worked for Benin and Burkina Faso.
Today, at the age of 72, she no longer counts the number of projects supported, or young people helped. “I am always the guarantor of donations that come from Belgium, everything must be transparent.” Just over ten years ago, Ria hosted “a big surprise: the arrival of Christian, a child of 2 and a half years abandoned and placed with me, whom I adopted. Today, he is 16 years old.” It hasn’t always been easy. The greatest difficulty to overcome remains for her the difference of culture : ” We are often confronted with the suffering that white people have done, or continue to do.”
Also, the language; the notion of time, of being on time; being a single woman to make important decisions; to live at a distance, to miss the big family meetings… “I try to adapt. From the beginning, the Lord took care of me, guided me, encouraged me, supported me. He put people on my path to help me live in this country so different from Belgium. I am satisfied with the success of the projects, to see people happy. I really feel like a link between blacks and whites, between rich and poor. I am happy in my mission.”
Ria concludes:Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everyone who helped me. I thank Fondacio who allowed me to live this experience. I want to tell you: dare to leave, dare to listen and follow the way of the Lord, it is your happiness.”