sunflowers (c) Kristin Espinasse

Sunflowers for Soeur Emmanuelle

Please excuse today's non-conformist (... that is: not conforming to the usual blog) format but this is a special edition, devoted to a special, non-conformist French nun. To hear today's word, check out the first and last video (a music video with Calogero Maurici) at the end of this post.

::::::::::::::::::::::::: Y A L L A ! :::::::::::::::::::::::::

True, today's word is Arabic. I hope you'll allow that, just this once. After all, it was her favorite word. She who loved all people, especially the poor, to whom she devoted her life.

"Soeur Emmanuelle" was a French nun, well known as one of France's favorite personnages.* Born "Madeleine Cinquin" in Belgium, at the age of 22 she left her dancing shoes behind--along with that devilish grin (ah, men!)--took her vows, changed her name and became a professeur.*

Diplômée* in Philosophy at the Sorbonne, she went on to teach in Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. Though she taught Literature and Philosophy, such intellectual heights never interfered with her street smarts which kept her--and her giant heart--close to the pavement: the pavement that is pauvreté:* cold, walked upon, fragile and cracked... and littered with trash. Trodden and overlooked, this "pavement" was something she would never let herself forget.

Poverty... ignited a revolt within her, leading to her outspokenness, to her famous "franc-parler,"* which often ruffled the feathers of her frères* and led to her being labelled an "enquiquineuse": a veritable pain in the neck, a pro-action pest!
Her appearance did not betray her values. From those two large bobby pins haphazardly stuck to each side of her veiled head... to the track shoes on her feet (over the thick socks and nylons), one could surmise that she was in a hurry to catch up with one ever-menacing foe: Destitution.

Which brings us smack back to the pavement and to those poubelles.* You might say (in a chuckling way) that trash defined her. She might have been "Soeur Chiffonnière,"* for she "housed" herself next door to the trash gatherers, or "zabbaleen" (many of whom are children), in one of Cairo's worst slums, where she settled after her "retirement". Troisieme âge,* for her, would be spent in combat, always a "combat du coeur": from the heart, for the helpless.

There in a lice- and rat-ridden bidonville,* home for her was a 4-meter square room--without water, without electricity. According to* Dr. Mounir Neamatalla, a leading Egyptian expert in environmental science and poverty reduction:

"She was living right among them, the garbage collectors, the pigs, the whole mess. I had never seen anything like this in my life... You could see one of the worst qualities of life on the planet, but in this inferno was an enterprising population that worked like ants."

Working side-by-side with "les misérables"* Sister Emmanuelle advanced toward her goal, raising money to build schools and hospitals. She also created vegetable gardens for the poor to nourish themselves. Her roommate, Sister Sara (see second video, below), spoke of her character, saying that when a problem arose, Soeur Emmanuelle exclaimed: "On va foncer!"* to which Sara softly suggested that they might first pray for guidance and direction. For Sister Emmanuelle, "direction" seemed to be something you sought after first jumping to your feet!

So is it any wonder that, asked about her favorite word, Sister Emmanuelle shouted with glee: "Yalla!" Asked to translate the word, she responded, "En avant!"

Amen, Sister! "Forward march" all the way. Your lumière* may have gone out on Sunday, just three weeks shy of your centième* birthday, but your legacy lights our consciences today...and tomorrow--and for as far into the future as the pest that is poverty stretches its condemning claws. Thank you for showing us that a selfless heart, coupled with awareness, is just not enough. It also takes yalla (yalla-yalla-yalla!) to relieve misery. First we must jump to our feet... then inquire about those directions.
PS: Soeur Emmanuelle, I have a confession. As a child, I looked up to movie stars (Shirley Temple, The Bionic Woman), as a teen, I admired glamorous runway models (Paulina Porizkova, Estelle Lefébure) as a young woman I pined over literary figures (it didn't really matter who they were, if they were writers I pined). I just want you to know, Chère Soeur, that while you didn't have the strength of Lindsay Wagner or Paulina's perfect posture -- I'm finally beginning to realize that, more than celebrity or vanity fair, it's really all about what's "in there"... and it is going to take a lot of big hearts to fill those little track shoes of yours, and to keep moving "en avant!" 

For more information on Soeur Emmanuelle's charity: visit

Comments, corrections, conseils... welcome here.

le personnage (m) = character, individual; le professeur (m) = teacher; diplômé(e) (from "diplômer" = to award a diploma); la pauvreté (f) = poverty; le franc-parler (m) = outspokenness; le frère (m) = brother (religious); la poubelle (f) = trash or garbage can; chiffonnier (chiffonnière) = rag picker; le troisième âge (m) = retirement; le bidonville (m) = shanty town; according to = excerpt from a report by Perrine Latrasse, Associated Press; les misérables (mf) = the destitute; on va foncer! = Charge! (Let's get to it!); la lumière (f) = light; centième = one hundredth
Soeur Emmanuelle: "Il ne faut jamais s'arrêter dans la vie, il faut toujours courir, s'acharner."

A Message from KristiFor twenty years now, support from readers like you has been an encouragement and a means to carve out a career in writing. If my work has touched you in any way, please consider a donation. Your gift keeps me going! Thank you very much.

Ways to contribute:
1. Send a check (to this new address)
2. Paypal or credit card
3. A bank transfer via Zelle, a great way to send your donation as there are no transaction fees.

Or purchase my book for a friend, and so help spread the French word.
For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety