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

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.


  1. … che emozione grande deve essere stata… l’Africa è grande… in molti sensi… io per 34 anni ho pensato di odiarla… poi l’ho vista (o almeno, ne ho visto un pezzo: la Namibia) e me ne sono innamorato… spero di tornare presto…

  2. Antonio Portioli says:

    Si è veramente difficile immaginare il Paradiso. Ma sembra di intravederlo negli occhi di questo ragazzo ed è consolante pensare che possa essere, come tu dici, la koinonia con le persone che ci hanno voluto bene, senza limiti di spazio e di tempo. ciao, Toni

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