Una vita in Africa – A life in Africa Rotating Header Image

February, 2012:

Un messaggio inaspettato – An Unexpected Message

I opened my profile in Facebook out of necessity, because someone had opened two of them, both parodies of my identity, and a friend had suggested to me that the best strategy to combat them was to open a genuine one. It worked, in the sense that the two fake ones were closed, but I still do not master facebook, and I always feel insecure when I try to put some links.
Today, for the first time, facebook has really surprised and excited me. In recent months, I received some nice message from old friends, like Ambrogio Piazza from Brazil or others, but somehow expected. But what I got today was really incredible, almost from another life. Signed Joseph, there was a message in French with the photo attached here below, simply saying “Hello, this is a picture that you made during one of your trips to Chad. The child in the picture is me. How many memories! ”
I answered a few lines in my poor French, to the man now in his fifties whose profile has just been opened. It says he is interested in human rights and ecology. I await the response. But, indeed, how many memories.
My first trip to Africa was in the summer of 1971. I flew with Air Afrique, bankrupt long ago, from Paris to Brazzaville, with a stop-over at Fort Lamy – the colonial name of the capital of Chad, which a few years later changed the name in N’Djamena. I went for a couple of weeks in Congo Brazza, then in Gabon, where he also visited Lambaréné where Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, had founded his famous hospital, where he had died a few years earlier, in 1965 . Two weeks in Cameroon then back to Fort Lamy, where I stayed a couple of weeks before returning to Italy. It was the first trip to Africa as a Nigrizia journalist to collect photos, information, links. I was 28 years old.
The Bishop of Fort Lamy was Paul Dalmais, a French Jesuit, who a few years later was forced to resign because he had the audacity to ask Rome for permission to consecrate as priests some married men, in order to ensure the Eucharist to the persecuted Christian communities. Evangelization in Chad had begun a few decades after the Second World War, and was still at the beginning, with few pastoral agents over a vast area and fast increasing flock. The Christians in N’Djamena were still very few, generally immigrants from the south, and there was still no local priest.
When I asked the bishop to stay a few days in a mission, experiencing the life of the people, he drove me to Chagoua, a suburb on the banks of the Chari River. The city, still a large village, with perhaps a hundred concrete buildings, government offices in general, and houses of mud bricks dried in the sun, was perpetually parched and covered by a fine sand coming from the Sahara. AT Chagoua, which was near the river, there were trees and a bit of green. There was also father Forobert, another French Jesuit, already an old man, or so it seemed to me at the time, who lived on a daily diet of yogurt and fresh fruits, and was surrounded the whole day by people who venerated him. The mission was a house of four spartan small rooms built in a row, with the door opening on the street, the kitchen at one end to the toilets at the other. The church was an old shed with no walls. The only luxury in the rooms was a tap, positioned high on the wall, acting as a shower because the heat was such that during the night to be able to sleep it was necessary, three or four times, to refresh oneself under the water, and then go back to the bed still wet.
Every day people crowded around the house. I remember the Mass and catechism classes with simultaneous translation in five or six languages, because the catechumens were almost all immigrants from the south, where they speak a myriad of different languages, as is happening in Sudan.
Some of the younger and more enterprising catechumens, almost all boys, since they were on holiday, took it upon themselves to initiate me to the Chadian life, and every morning when I opened the door of the room, they were already there, competing to take me to see the wonders of their neighborhood, to eat some special local food prepared by their mother, to explore the river bank, to take me to the bridge, beyond which there is Cameroon. From them I learned that the best food is what your mother gives you and tells you that is good. One morning I was offered live caterpillars, as big as a thumb, which they had collected at dawn, when the first rays of the sun had reached the stunted trees around the mission. When I refused, because I just could not put them in the mouth still alive, we were very disappointed. But they were really shocked when I saw that close to the river, in pools of stagnant water, there were lots of frogs, and I suggested that maybe they were good to eat, because in my country there are people who eat them. They could not believe it, thought I was crazy. Eating frogs?! But who ever heard such a thing.
I promised them that the last day of my stay I would take their pictures and the following year I was going to bring a copy for each of them. The place and people were so good that I had already decided that I would do everything possible to come back. I had always seen them wearing only a tattered pair of shorts, but that day for taking their pictures, they came dressed up at heir best, even with the shirts. And so I photographed Joseph and all the others.
Two years passed before I could return. The pictures aroused great joy, then father Forobert entrusted me to a layman who was going to the South, nearly five hundred kilometers, on a track of sand, with a Citroen 2 horses that often got stuck in the sand but had the advantage that the two of us could lift it, and off we were again. I also went to visit one of the children who had since entered the seminary, in Sarh. I can not remember the name of that kid, but I remember that the South seemed to me very beautiful, covered with lush vegetation, huge mango trees. Instead the boy rather regretted the arid, sandy north, because it was where he grew up. I kept some correspondence with father Forobert until the early 80’s, when I was in Lusaka, but then we inevitably lost touch. After the killing of the dictatorial president, Francois Tombalbaye, Chad was swept by a civil war and a fierce anti-Christian repression, as Mgr. Dalmais had predicted, and many catechists and Christians were killed. Chad, who had been evangelized for a short time, went through long years of passion. Meanwhile, something I never thought during my visits, in 1977 we Comboni Missionaries opened up a mission in Chad and our presence developed fast. A short time after I left for Zambia, father Celestino Celi, unforgettable friend and colleague who had worked with me in Nigrizia, went to Chad and there he died in an accident , the 26th of March 1988, at just 39 years of age.
It is hard to assess how people have touched and changed our life. I feel very much of having been changed by the people I met. I never forgot father Forobert and that bunch of endearing Chagoua urchins. They too have shaped the way I see the world, how I approach the others, how I try to understand people and accept them as they are. I was taught by them to ask questions in a respectful manner, to allow time for mutual understanding to grow and friendship to mature. You cannot always have everything and immediately. What you have and what you are, are always enough to be happy, because happiness is not outside but inside.
The smile with which these kids opened my day, their companionship during the prayers a Mass and then in the streets of Chagoua, taught me a missionary method.
Really, how many memories brings about that picture where the colors have faded, but have failed fade the simple happiness that you can see in the eyes of Joseph. Thinking that he has kept that photo for forty years, through persecution, war, famine and the struggle for daily survival, has moved me and given light to my day.
It ‘s difficult, very difficult, imagine how paradise will be. Perhaps you can imagine it will be the presence, the communion, the koinonia with the people who have loved us, without the boundaries of time and space.

Contro il Traffico di Persone Umane – Against Human Trafficking

There are a number of initiatives born out of Koinonia or with the support of Koinonia that are little known to our friends. Koinonia Advisory Research and Development Services (KARDS) is the best known but there are also Consolation East Africa (born out of KARDS with a specific attention to human trafficking), Rafiki Mwafrika, REG, NAREC, SYDI, and many others. These groups are operational with no or very little support from abroad and are networking with a myriad of other similar organizations in Nairobi, in Kenya and beyond.
A small success story is that of play ‘A Blue Heart: Joy’s Story’ that aims to create awareness on human trafficking and that will be staged at the Kenya National Theatre on 24th March 2012.
As I understand the success is due to the stubborn determination of our Koinonia member Richard Muko and some of his friends, notably Bernard Muhia from Fern Poetry, but there are many others.

You get to know them if you follow this fascinating little “internet history”.

You can start from the end, visiting the website of UN-GIFT at http://www.ungift.org/knowledgehub/stories/february2012/blue-heart-campaign-inspiring-artists-in-kenya.html

The whole idea of using both performing and visual arts to pass a message against human trafficking started sometimes in 2009. KARDS did a very serious research on the topic, the first of its kind in Kenya and started getting in touch with other groups. In Mombasa they found a group known as Arise and Shine Self Help Group made up of young people.. In Nairobi there were several others, among them a group of visual artists. See:

Another group, known as HAART, started by the Medical Missionaries of Mary developed a drama CD to educate people about human trafficking.

Fern Poetry was visiting schools to spread messages against human trafficking.. On this site a video done while visiting St. Hannah Secondary school.

The students after listening to these poems also did write their own which were posted here

The idea of the performance that will go on stage next week began with a symposium organized by KARDS that last year brought together various initiatives working against human trafficking in Shalom House. The symposium mixed visual arts, performing arts, experiences from the fields and academic presentations. During the symposium Bernard Muhia shared on the role of performing arts in countering human trafficking.

Some of the groups wanted to give continuity to the symposium, hence they came together and formed an initiative called the Blue Hearts. The story is here

The artist members of the group then sat together and decided to develop a counter trafficking play blending in their special talents in drama, poetry, dancing:

Later they started visiting schools

Finally their play i going to be taken to the Kenya National Theatre, Braeburn Theatre, Safaricom Theatre and Alliance Francaise

KARDS and Consolation East Africa, in collaboration with others, in the coming months have a line up of more symposiums giving information and formation against human trafficking, in March in Tanzania, in June in Mombasa and in November in Nairobi. The work is going on. Thanks to Richard, Bernard and all the friends who are putting their hearts in it.

In Cammino in Terra Santa – Journeying in the Holy Land

It ‘s been a week since I arrived in Bethlehem. I have the great privilege of not being haunted by time. The Salesians friends have opened for me their home and their community without conditions, and I think to remain here until after mid-March. Very few people have such a chance in life.

As I have always done when the availability of time allowed me, when coming into a country or a place that are new for me, I did not started running around, trying to see everything. I walk, sit on a bench, watch people go by, listen to the sounds, breath and savour the air. I let the atmosphere or spirit of the place overcome me. In these days I went only once to visit the Nativity cave, that is a short walk from the house of the Salesians, but I spent many hours in the square outside the basilica.

Today I went with a bus in Jerusalem – it takes less than half an hour, as from Riruta to the centre of Nairobi – and toured the narrow streets of old Jerusalem, I had lunch with an freshly mad and amazing pomegranate juice, then I entered the church of the Holy Sepulchre. I did not lined up to enter the empty tomb, because I was bothered by the unfriendly and rude monks . I sat on the wooden bench a few meters away of the entrance of the tomb, and for two hours I watched people from all over the world who came on pilgrimage to the empty tomb.

It is really a privilege not to be in a hurry. The privilege of those who feel they have arrived even if they still have to cover a few meters, because they can come back at leisure, because after all, the important thing is not to be in that exact place or to touch that exact stone, as in a magic ritual, but to be enveloped by the mystery of which the place is memory. Many of the visitors appeared to be tourists more then pilgrims, entering the empty tomb after ten or twenty minutes in line, busy checking that the battery and flash of the phone or camera were charged, not to lose the propitious moment for a photo in the few seconds they were allowed to stay in the tomb. Too many seem to be worried to take home a souvenir, rather than to be present, to live that moment and perhaps allow the presence of the real Life to overcome them. Difficult to think that they were living a profound spiritual experience. But you never know, God has His ways.

The empty tomb. Since the first women disciples, and then Peter and John, went in and they came out scared, shocked, with a first glimmer of understanding and faith, that empty tomb is a sign challenging our scepticism as well as our hope. It gives meaning to the whole life of Jesus, from the birth in Bethlehem to the crucifixion. Because that emptiness recalls the fullness of life that Jesus lived and donated to us. You see him again on the hill explaining where to find happiness, you hear again his demanding voice speaking of justice and fraternity, you listen again to his words freeing you from the anxiety of power and wealth, you imagine to see his smile showing tenderness towards all. That strange sign, the empty tomb, gives meaning to my life. It is a spur to go back out there and look for Him, because he is not here in this empty tomb, but it is not even only in temples and churches, because the day has come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, because the time has come when the sacrifices pleasing to the Lord are as the one of the Samaritan, pouring oil and wine on the wounds of those lost by the wayside.

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