Africa has always been the most alluring place in the world to Martha E. Leiker, a place she dreamed about constantly. In her memoir, From Silence to Secrecy, she discloses her journey, continuously circling back to Africa first as a nun with Notre Dame d'Afrique (Our Lady of Africa), and ultimately as a secret agent with the CIA. Now retired, Leiker is a resident of Denver.
She got her first taste of Africa in Kabunda, Zambia with the French missionary in 1966--just two years after the country gained its independence from the UK. There, she helped teach local children and learned Cibemba, the language spoken by most of the surrounding villagers.
"There is no question in my mind that my religious life as a nun was my vehicle to to attain my goal, Leiker told the Huffington Post. "At the time, it seemed that the only way to reach Africa was to join a religious order--probably because I have a family history of working for the church--so I researched many orders and found one that sent their sisters only to Africa, because I only wanted to go to Africa."
After living for six months in Kabunda, Leiker was moved to a mission in northern Zambia called Ipusukilo where she would cruise overland by motorbike.
"Years later when I would come back to the States on a leave of absence from the CIA because my father had passed away, I would marvel at the incredible fast pace of life at home. In Africa, there was no reason to rush and I think people may have appreciated their time more because it was slower," Leiker said.
In Ipusukilo, Leiker was diagnosed with hepatitis, but still managed to make the thousand-mile trip to Bembeke, Malawi where she took her final holy vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
In addition to learning to speak French and the native Cibemba, Leiker learned to boil all her water before drinking, to soak vegetables she would buy from the market in clorox and to freeze any meat for at least a week to kill all the bacteria. Without knowing it, she was preparing herself for her life as an agent.
Having completed her vows, she was quickly promoted to a bursar of the ten house of sisters in Lusaka, the capitol of Zambia. She would have to purchase cars, trucks and other supplies that sometimes required her to cross through the Congo to collect.
But when Leiker was told by the Regional Mother Superior that she would be transferred from her bursar's post in Zambia, she decided to to take a year's absence back to Denver to reevaluate her life's direction. By the end of her year in 1976 she decided to leave the convent and joined the CIA.
"At the time I had no idea who or what the CIA was or what they did, if you can believe it. I was very ignorant about the CIA when I joined it you see, because I had spent most of my 20's in Africa as a nun where news about the U.S. was very scarce and I had never been very politically inclined," Leiker explains.
"I saw a poster in Denver showing Uncle Sam pointing at me and saying, 'I need YOU,' and that the CIA was looking for people to work in the foreign service. When I saw Africa on the list, I knew I was going back."
Leiker as a nun with women at the home craft center in Ipusukilo, Zambia, 1967.
After receiving her letter of acceptance, she moved to Washington D.C. in 1978 and commuted to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There, Leiker underwent a year of extensive training, including defensive driving. At the end of her training, she was sent back to Africa for 2 more years.
"This time it was a completely different experience," Leiker says. "As a nun, I lived with the other sisters and the convent took care of us. This time I knew no one, and I lived by myself and cared for myself, but I think they took me because I'd been to Africa before. I could speak French, Cibemba, and wouldn't experience a big culture shock when I went. I knew what life was like."
Back in Africa as a secret agent, Leiker delivered messages to the Consulate across the border where she was stationed. While Leiker says she cannot disclose her whereabouts as an agent, she did say she spent a lot of time on the Niger River in Timbuktu, Mali from 1981-1983.
At the time, Moussa Traore was the president of Mali after overthrowing his predecessor with a coup in 1968. The country had just enforced a new constitution in 1979.
In her memoir, Leiker describes Timbuktu as "a great city that flourished on a bend in the Niger River for more than four hundred years."
From 1986-1998, Leiker worked in Virginia back at CIA headquarters, completing 20 years with the agency--that's three more years than she served as a nun.
"It wasn't difficult for me to leave, Leiker says of her decision to quit the convent. "But when I came back I had to relearn how to drive on the right side of the road. I also had no credit when I came back because I didn't exist. My mother died before she ever knew I was an agent, but I think my sister knew even though we didn't have much time together. If anybody could keep a secret, she could."
Since being back in the United States, Leiker has served as the regional vice president for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE), working to help preserve the benefits of retired federal employees and their families.
"Ever since I was very young I had a dream to go to Africa. I did it twice, and you can't have any more satisfaction in life than to fulfill your dreams."
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more