Sister Nkhensani Shibambu is a religious sister living and working in South Africa. In addition to her parish work, she is also a radio presenter on Catholic community radio station Radio Veritas.

Having lost her own father to COVID-19, she's a fierce advocate for vaccination, particuarly among religious community members, and writes here about how she uses her role as a religious leader to help combat widespread vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.

You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.

My name is Sister Nkhensani Shibambu. I am 48 years old, and the second of six children. I was born in the vibrant and populous township of Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, in South Africa.

Alexandra township is close to the centre of Johannesburg and is next to one of the wealthiest suburbs of South Africa — Sandton. So I grew up being surrounded by poverty and squalor.

Girls my age at that time had nowhere to go but to have babies. I knew that this wasn't the life I wanted to lead. I knew I had a purpose. I performed very well at school and would come out first or second in class. My dream was to become a lawyer, because I felt drawn to making a difference in my community. This is where my journey to becoming a religious sister started. After passing matric, I wanted to start my training as a religious sister but my parents wanted none of that, as they expected me to help them with the upbringing of my siblings. It was only after four years that I was able to pursue my dream of becoming a religious sister.

Education has always been an important aspect of my life. I believe that it is through education that we can emancipate ourselves from the vicious cycle of poverty. Human rights also matter to me, especially women and children’s rights, as these are the most vulnerable in our society and thus it is important to protect them.

Seeing my parish priest doing the work he was doing in the community of visiting the sick, reaching out to the needy and the brokenhearted touched me. I felt inspired to follow in his footsteps and do the same for my community. I had the option of joining a missionary congregation when I wanted to become a sister. However I felt drawn to remain locally as I saw the suffering of my fellow people at home. I wanted to make a difference in their lives instead of going to other countries. In the time that I have been a religious sister, I have been able to make a difference to the many young people and their families whom I have ministered to, some of whom are now adults and have their own families.

The past year has been very difficult for me as I lost my father to COVID-19. This disrupted the running of things at home and I had to spend time at home to help my mother settle into life without my father. I had to be the source of strength and courage for my mother and siblings. This was also a difficult time within our religious circles as we lost a number of religious sisters to the pandemic. As a religious leader, I had to find ways of supporting the different religious groups morally, emotionally, and in other instances find ways to give financial support where it was needed.   

Vaccines have been used for many years to protect human beings against diseases, and the COVID-19 vaccine is no different. It is meant to protect us against the COVID-19 virus. I believe that vaccines save lives and that it is important for us to be vaccinated so as to reach population immunity. The more people get vaccinated, the more it will become difficult for the virus to spread. A COVID-19 vaccine is our only chance of eradicating the virus.

There are a lot of myths out there which are causing confusion and as a result, we have vaccine hesitancy. If these myths are not adequately addressed, we will never reach herd immunity and all the vaccines will go to waste.  

Thanks to a radio programme that I present on Radio Veritas about COVID-19, some of the following myths were addressed: that vaccines are made from aborted foetuses; that they alter your DNA; that they are meant to wipe out the human race, and that people will die between two days and two weeks after vaccination; that vaccinations causes disability; that 5G networks transmit COVID-19; and that vaccines have microchips or tracking devices.

When registrations opened for the 35- to 49-year-olds, I made sure that I registered that very night via the Whatsapp line and it proved to be very easy and user-friendly. It took me less than 5 minutes, all in all, and I got my acknowledgement SMS almost immediately after registration.

I got vaccinated on July 19 at Grace Bible Church in Soweto and got the Johnson & Johnson single shot. This was an amazing experience for me, the site is a drive-through so everything was done in the car from paper work to the 15-minute observation after getting the jab. The efficiency of the staff at the site was incredible.

While waiting to be jabbed I found myself with ample time to reflect. I had to confront my feelings around vaccines. I must admit, I felt a bit anxious. I found myself thinking about all the conspiracies out there and wondering what if they were true. My anxiety was exacerbated by the question of how my body would react to the vaccine. I resolved that if so many other people had received their jabs, I am choosing to pull up my sleeve and be counted amongst them too.

I chose to keep myself safe; I chose to save my country so that we can reach herd immunity and be able to return to some level of normalcy. I am grateful I did not have any major side effects from the vaccine other than a dramatic itch which lasted for three days! I feel well and healthy. I am glad I chose to be vaccinated.

Even as things improve with regards to vaccination uptake in South Africa, I still hope that countries that have the capacity to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, like South Africa, will be allowed to do so to address the issue of delays with supply. There must be equal access to vaccines so that no country and no one is left behind.

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In My Own Words

Defeat Poverty

I Lost My Father to COVID-19. As a Religious Leader, I Urge Everyone to Get Vaccinated.

By Sister Nkhensani Shibambu