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

April, 2012:

Monti Nuba – Nuba Mountains

The last clandestine visit I made to the Nuba Mountains was in January 2002. Then the cease-fire and the following peace agreement allowed me to go there openly. The war that resumed in June 2011 forced me to go there again as a clandestine, on 14 April. Here is a brief report.

Travelling southward towards the border with South Sudan in one of the few vehicles active in the area, in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan, from time to time you see a group of two or three dozen children and a few women. They walk under an implacable sun, with day temperatures constantly over forty degrees, and sometime in the middle of the day they stop and gather in the shade of rare tree. They are all poorly dressed, covered in dust, the women carrying a basket with little food and few cooking utensils, a plastic jerrycan with some water. You feel pity and would want to stop. The driver says there is no more room, he is not allowed, in any case it would not solve the problem: there are dozens more behind and dozens more ahead.

It is April and there are an average of 400 such children and women arriving every day at Yida, the camp for the Nuba refugees about 20 km inside South Sudan. Most of them suffer from severe malnutrition and dehydration. The registration process is done in a shack and the camp holds more than twenty thousand of them. And they have been bombed, as if Yida were a military threat to the Khartoum regime.

What are they running from? From war and starvation. There is a war looming between Sudan and South Sudan, fed by daily belligerent declaration from both sides, but the Nuba are in another more localized war. Since June last year the president of Sudan, Omar el-Bashir, has been fighting an undeclared war against the Nuba and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northern Sector (SPLM-N), guilty of not accepting his centralizing and islamizing policy that have made of the Nuba the most marginalized people of the Sudan. Estimates of the Nuba population resident in the Southern Kordofan state, also called Nuba Mountains and part of the Sudan, varies from 800 thousand to one million people. In these ten months of war thriving centers and small villages have been bombed indiscriminately. Buram, last year a flourishing centre to the south a Kadugli, the capital of Southern Kordofan, is now a ghost town, half of it razed to the ground by constant shelling, the new school has been deserted since bombs missed it by a whisker. We meet one of it’s former pupils, Daniel, 15, who is still in Gidel hospital. He recount how he was scared when he heard the bombs hit, and he embraced a tree, in a desperate attempt to seek protection. A bomb shred hit the tree, and his arms have been cut just below the elbow. The school is closed, like most of the schools in the area. Only a few courageous teacher’s still operate in improvised structures and without books, stationery and blackboards. The seven secondary schools that existed in the area are all closed down, most of them have been the target of bombing. The two teachers training institute, one of them founded by Koinonia community, are also closed down.

War generates starvation. The present conflict started just when last year rainy season was about to begin. People fled to look for security up to the rocky mountain, some went back living in the caves, the fertile land of the plains were abandoned. Last December there was no harvest to be gathered. There are reports that in some areas people have started dying of starvation. Yida is the last hope for survival.

A strongly worded Presidential Statement from the UN Security Council dated 14 February 2012 emphasized that “The members of the Security Council expressed their deep and growing alarm with the rising levels of malnutrition and food insecurity in some areas of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States in Sudan, which could reach emergency levels if not immediately addressed, and with the lack of access for international humanitarian personnel to conduct an assessment of the situation and deliver urgently needed assistance” and therefore they “called upon the Government of Sudan to allow immediate access to United Nations personnel” and asked “the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Northern Sector (SPLM N) to cooperate fully with the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies” to allow the delivery of assistance in line with international humanitarian principles and standards. In spite of this statement and of a tripartite proposal (UN, African Union and League of Arab States) for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to all conflict-affected population, the Khartoum Government has consistently denied access to the area controlled by SPLM-N, about 90 percent of the Southern Kordofan.

A high level European Union official in Juba who asks for anonymity explains: “Our hands are tied. International law does not allow us to intervene even simply with food if the government in power does not agree” “Even if the government in question does everything possible to exterminate with bombing and famine its own people?” “Yes, even in this case we cannot interfere”. Nevertheless, a large scale internationally-led relief operation accepted by both side is the only possibility to meet the need of the estimated 420,000 Nuba that are internally and externally displaced by the war. Now, a few weeks from the onset of the rainy season which will make access extremely difficult, a rapid breakthrough on negotiated access is unlikely.

How can then change come to Sudan? The rigid positions that Omar el-Bashir has kept since he took power in 1989 make people think a change through peaceful political means is not possible. That why the people of the areas that are most strongly contesting Bashir policy – Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile – have formed an alliance, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) and have wowed to push Bashir out of power. “Bashir has superiority only in the sky. On the ground we are much stronger and we are ready to march on to Khartoum to make sure this regime will finish” states Adbel Aziz al Hilu, the military leader of the Nuba and also the head of the military head of the SRF.

More war, more suffering are in store for the Nuba. But this time they are determined to tell their own story. Ryan Boyette is a 31 year old American who came as a humanitarian worker to the Nuba 9 years ago. He has married a Nuba girl, and the Nuba cause. With simple means he has helped to set up a team of locally trained journalists. Armed with notebooks, cameras and video-cameras they go out and report on human rights violation incidents and the tragic consequence of bombing and shelling. They also, understandably, speak only on condition of anonymity, since every time they go around their life is in danger. Says one of them: “The Khartoum government has the habit of denying even the most evident facts. They deny the bombing, the human rights abuses, the devastation caused by their policies. Now this will no longer be possible. We are going to build up unassailable evidence of what is happening. The world, at least those who are interested, will hear and see the trials of the Nuba. Maybe by their own logic the Khartoum Government is right in trying to destroy us, but the more they try, the more make us determined to resist and to document our plight”.

The same is expressed by a church leader in Yida, after Sunday Mass. Looking around at the hundreds of children he says: “Violence generate violence. Whatever we will try to teach to these children they will grow up determined to drive the foreigners out of their land. The bombing of Yida has only strengthen their resolution”.

The morning of April 23 I am back with my team in Bentiu, the South Sudanese town where our trip started. Suddenly a MIG aircraft appears in the sky and drops bombs aiming at the bridge over the Bahr el Ghazal river, an essential connection between the town and the most important oil fields. We realized we are back into another war. We are not any longer in the war of Sudan against its own citizens, the Nuba. We are now in the war for the oil fields that opposes Sudan to South Sudan. Another story.

Buram. Vita nelle grotte. Life in the caves.

Yida. Il "punto di accoglienza" per i rifugiati Nuba. The "reception" for the Nuba refugees.

Diventare Umani – Becoming Human

In issue 390 of Il Foglio, “a monthly of some Christians in Turin,” a publication of modest format yet full of stimulating and intelligent ideas, I find the following quote. If I had seen before, I would have inserted in the previous post.

Anniek Cojean says that the principal of an American high school, at the beginning of each school year, used to write a letter to his teachers: “Dear teacher, I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no human being should ever see: gas chambers built by learned engineers; children killed with poison by well trained doctors; infants killed by experienced nurses; women and children killed and burned by high schools and university graduates. Therefore I distrust education. My request is: help your students to become human beings. Your efforts must never produce educated monsters, skilled psychopaths, qualified Eichmanns. Reading, writing, mathematics are not important if they do not make our children more human. “Les memoires de la Shoah, in Le Monde, April 29, 1995.

Educare alla Vita – Education for Life

Ian Stanley is just over 17 years old. At the first contact is shy, taciturn, reserved, to the point of appearing surly. Yet when you see him among his friends and classmates at Kivuli  you  immediately realize that he is a born leader. He does not show off, he does not impose himself on the others, but in a group of peers he soon becomes the focus. Since arriving in Kivuli and starting school, he has forged ahead recovering almost all the lost years and completed class eighth last November, and in the school he attended he has always been  elected as class representative. In last two years he has been the overall students leader. Last November his exams results at the end of class eight were the best ever by a Koinonia student, and he was awarded a scholarship by the social responsibility program of Equity Bank in one of the most renowned schools in Kenya. The first day of the academic year, in January, Ian has been appointed students representative for his class.

Catherine Odongo, 21 years of age, is also coming from street life, literally from a life of moving around the streets of half of Kenya with the impoverished mother, in a dehumanising misery that could have made of her a permanent victim. Instead she a young lady of Anita’s Home strongly determined to shape her life according to her dreams. She is already attend the university, pursuing a degree in Tourism, and it is enough to speak with her for a few minutes to understand that she has the inner strength to overcome every obstacle.

Moses Chimwanga with his 23 years of age is the oldest and he is very different from Catherine and Ian. He has a solar character, and it is difficult to see him without an open smile on his face. His history was published last November in the British daily The Guardian under the title “From street child to college boy” with a picture with his usual bright smile in the yard of Mthunzi, our project in Lusaka, Zambia. Due to his lively personality, his school career has not been as easy as that of Catherine and Ian, yet he made it. The memories of his street life, doing anything in order to get some alcohol to drink or some jenkem (solvente per vernici) to sniff, are still vivid and have become a motivation to engage in social work.

Three nice stories, three extraordinary positive persons that are for us at Koinonia the proof that the support we have offered and continue to offer with passion and love to many former street children at Kivuli, Anita’s Home, Mthunzi and other projects is amply re-paid.

But we can not avoid some reflections. First of all, to measure the success of an education for life, like that which we intend to offer, with the sole yardstick of student academic achievements would be wrong. There are many boys and girls who have passed through our homes and have not had great academic successes – because of their history and their personal limits – and have left school at the end of compulsory schooling. They are mechanics, tailors, secretaries, carpenters, waiters and cooks who earn their living honestly and decently.

We do not like the mentality prevailing in Kenya, where newspapers publish with great emphasis the exams results of class eighth and twelfth – respectively, last grade of primary school and last class of the secondary. When such results are published, for several days in the front page of the national papers there are the photos of the best students and the  best schools. For the schools is a source of pride – and above all of profit, since the first ranking schools are always private ones. In the following days there are also, reported in details, cases of students who commit suicide because they have not passed or did not have the results they expected. Education is conceived and practised as purely functional to a type of society that enhances competition and success. The examinations are done through written tests, the same for all students nationally, with the result that education is often confused with memorization. If teachers, schools and parents are interested only that students pass the exams with high marks, there is no real education for life, for the whole human person.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) is a long list of unfulfilled hopes. But it is a good starting point to see what should be the goals of a state education system. The first lines of Article 11 state that “Every child shall have the right to an education. The education of the child shall be directed to: the promotion and development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential; fostering respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Certainly in Kenya, Zambia, Sudan, where Koinonia is present, the educational system is far from reaching all children, and when it reaches them, it does not promote real education. Children are not taught to think for themselves and to develop a critical spirit, even less to choose the values that will shape their lives. Usually it just indoctrinates them or teaches them notions by heart.

The excluded, the marginalized, do not need an education system that will confirm their feeling of inferiority and convince them of their inadequacies. They need a helping hand that offers them the opportunity to educate – e-ducere or to take out as in the original Latin  meaning of the word – from themselves the full potential of their person. We will never find out the good that can be done and the Gospel that can be announced by a helping hand extended to a child in need.

Catherine Odongo.

Moses Chimwanga.


Ritorna la guerra sui Monti Nuba
Inevitabilmente i problemi non risolti si ripresentano. Spesso, dopo un soluzione affrettata e imposta con la forza, diventano più complicati e intrattabili. Cosi è per la questione dei Nuba in relazione al Sudan e al Sud Sudan – che si interseca con la questione della mancata definizione del confine e del controllo dei campi petroliferi – non risolta dal CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) del 2005 e neanche negli anni successivi. Mi è capitato di scriverlo più volte, anche in questo blog, attirandomi rimproveri di essere pessimista. Adesso, in una Guest House di Juba, capitale del nuovo Sud Sudan, dove sono arrivato ieri sera e starò per pochi giorni, rappresentanti delle organizzazioni che mi dicevano pessimista, sono i primi ad affermare che il pomposo aggettivo “Comprehensive” era un inganno, che nascondeva i problemi, rimandandone la soluzione all’esercizio di uno spirito di collaborazione che tutti sapevano non ci sarebbe mai stato. Una vecchia conoscenza, un olandese che aveva cominciato a frequentare i Monti Nuba alla fine degli anni novanta, e che sarebbe già in pensione se non fosse stato ingaggiato da un’agenzia umanitaria come consulente, mi fa notare “Tutto il personale ONU, UNICEF, UNDP, UNHCR e simili cambia totalmente nel giro di pochissimo tempo. Ormai non c’è più nessuno che era qui alla firma del CPA, ed io, in Sudan dal ’97, sono un sopravvissuto. Non c’è memoria istituzionale. Non solo nessuno sembra interessato e leggere i rapporti che i loro predecessori facevano pochi anni fa, ma nessuno riesce a capire la profondità del risentimento dei Sud Sudanesi contro il governo di Khartoum. Tutti credono o fingono di credere che la storia del Sud Sudan sia cominciata con l’indipendenza proclamata il 9 luglio dello scorso anno”.

Dal 26 al 31 marzo alla Shalom House si è riunita la comunità Nuba di Nairobi, sostenuta dalla Diaspora Nuba di tutto il mondo, e con qualche rappresentante dei campi di rifugiati del Kenya, per ricordare che la guerra sui Monti Nuba c’è ancora, se possibile ancora peggiore di quella degli anni 90. I Nuba hanno organizzato un mostra di recenti fotografie per denunciare gli orrore dei recenti attacchi contro la popolazione civile. C’è stata una buona coperture della stampa, radio e televisioni keniane. I ragazzi delle nostre case hanno animato le giornate, e in maggioranza hanno partecipato al digiuno di venerdì 30. Il problema è sempre “come possiamo aiutare per ristabilire umanità, ragione e pace?”. Le nostre sono piccole forze di fronte alle grandi forze di male che sono scatenate su questa terra da decine di anni. Facciamo un appello? Un altro dopo quello che la stessa diaspora Nuba ha lanciato attraverso Nigrizia? E poi lo stesso “genere letterario” dell’appello è abbastanza abusato e squalificato. Mi dice un rifugiato Nuba: “comincio a capire gli attivisti di altre parti del mondo che si immolano dandosi fuoco per attirare l’attenzione su un problema.”

Il ritorno di Franklin Odhiambo
Dal 2000 al 2004 il bambino icona di Kivuli era Franklin (o Francis) Odhiambo, insieme al suo inseparabile amico Mark Pesa. Franklin era una specie di Gian Burrasca, e, come succede spesso in questi casi, la sue avventure venivano anche esagerate e diventavano in poche ore parte della leggenda. Poi uno zio venne a prenderlo e lo portò al villaggio di origine, garantendo, di fronte ad un magistrato, che se ne sarebbe preso cura. Ne perdemmo le tracce. Le cose non andarono bene, lo zio scomparve e Franklin fu preso in una casa per bambini della sua zona. Pochi mesi fa, dopo aver terminato gli esami della scuola superiore con ottimi risultati, entrando nell’ufficio del direttore, vide sul tavolo una foto che il direttore aveva fatto con me lo scorso anno, e si fece dare i contatti di Kivuli. Cosi, quando son rientrato a Nairobi a fine marzo me lo son ritrovato a Kivuli. Mi ha implorato di portarlo ad incontrare Mark, che sta facendo l’ultima classe di scuola superiore a Domus Mariae.

Mark (a sinistra) e Franklin.

John Epucha torna alla vita
Nei pochissimi giorni trascorsi a Nairobi, fra Lusaka e Juba, ho incontrato i “nuovi” bambini riscatti dalla strada del nostro team di Kibera. Ci sono le storie più incredibili, dal Kevin (un altro!) tredicenne pacioccone arrivato pochi giorni fa da Mombasa nascosto sotto il vagone di un treno e subito preso dalla polizia e portato a Ndugu Mdogo, a John Epucha, un ragazzino Turkana – il popolo seminomade che vive vicino al confine con l’Uganda. John racconta in modo vivace che due anni fa ha deciso di sfuggire ad una vita di analfabetismo e povertà assoluta come quella che ha visto fare da suo padre, pastore di una stentata mandria di cammelli e capre, sempre al limite della sopravvivenza e della fame. Si è nascosto in un camion, fra un carico di capre destinate al macello di Nairobi, e per due giorni ha vissuto nascosto fra le loro gambe, riuscendo solo a bere un po dell’acqua che veniva data per mantener gli animali in vita. Quando sono arrivati a Nairobi era probabilmente svenuto dalla stanchezza e dalla fame, e il camionista deve averlo trovato, coperto di escrementi, nel cassone del camion quando hanno scaricato le capre. Lo ha messo al margine della strada, vicino al macello, forse credendolo morto. Il fresco della notte gli ha fatto riprendere le forze, e prima che la giornata finisse si era già fatto degli amici di strada, che lo ammiravano per l’incredibile avventura e per l’insostenibile puzza che emanava. Da allora ha imparato le strategie per sopravvivere in strada. Poi la scorsa settimana un ragazzo che è stato a Mdugu Mdogo lo ha convinto che può iniziare una vita nuova. Eccolo, nella foto qui sotto, nella veranda di Ndugu Mdogo, pronto a ricominciare. Ma, dice “fare i tre chilometri da Kawangware a Ndugu Mdogo è stato più lungo che da Lodwar a Nairobi. Avevo paura di essere rimproverato e punito. Non credevo che mi accettassero cosi come sono”.

Una Storia di Pasqua – An Easter Story

Easter, the beginning of a new world, but the old one does not want to go. The rich man remains stubbornly stuck to his wealth, and Lazarus has to settle for crumbs. The old man does not give space to the new man. The promises we made, or that our parents did for us at the time of baptism, are too difficult to maintain. Only the Risen Christ can help us to continue the arduous journey, returning each time to follow Him, head down in shame, in need of His forgiveness and of the power of His Spirit.

Nuba Mountains, March 2012. Zeinab walks briskly, although the strength is diminishing, with a few months old baby in her arm and two children in tow. The earth is scorched by a pitiless sun, no rain for five months and to arrive to the next rainy season it will take at least two more months. In addition to the child Zeinab carries balanced on the head a large basket containing a blanket, a few tools, nuts, dried vegetables and durra enough to eat for a couple of weeks, maybe three, and a plastic container with a few cups of water left in it. The boy and the girl – five and three year old – who follow her, are slowing down, and Zeinab has to stop frequently to allow them to keep pace.
They are tired and want to stop, but they cannot, Zeinab knows that there are around government patrols who shoot on sight. For three days they were hidden in a cave, but then she decided to head over to the border, still a dozen miles down south, to find safety and something to eat, and especially to drink.
Suddenly three military vehicles appear. The trees are too sparse, Zeinab and the children cannot hide. The soldiers shoot like in a game, laughing, having fun, and Zeinab and the children are paralyzed by fear. The two children, despite being more distant, are almost immediately shot dead. Zeinab keeps the baby strongly in her arms, she knows she can not do anything except to die embracing him. The commander – pity or hurry to go somewhere else – cries “Stop, it’s enough, we have no time to lose.”
Zeinab puts the the baby down and composes the bodies of the two dead children under a tree, as if to protect them from the sun, and cover them with stones, in a last gesture of affection. It is a long and tiring work, but can not allow the bodies of her children to become food for the wild animals.
The following evening she arrives at the refugee camp of Yida. Exhausted, she eats and drinks in small sips, while feeding the child in the same way. She knows that after suffering hunger and thirst they must take every food and drink slowly. Apparently she does not feel anything, the words him of consolation from the camp staff and from the other refugees do not touch her, she is in another world, all the attention lovingly focused on her son. When the baby seems satisfied, always keeping him in her arms, she speaks to him, saying: “Kallo, we forgive. Your brothers are with God, and do not want more hatred and more deaths. ” Then she gives allows herself to cry, quietly and without tears.

An Easter story? Yes, because it is a story that shows that hatred and death cannot overcome the force of love and forgiveness. Only love and forgiveness can generate new life. I heard it from a Kenyan health worker who has returned to Nairobi from Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, on the border with Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, under the control of Khartoum government. He told me that in recent weeks has seen much suffering caused by war, but nothing has touched him as the words he heard murmured by Zeinab to baby Kallo.

Marzo 2012. I Nuba tornano nelle grotte per sfuggire ai bombardamenti. The Nuba take refuge in the caves to escape air bombings.

La forza della fedeltà – The force of faithfulness

The spiritual strength of a community is not measured by the number of Christians or the high-ranking positions held in the Church’s hierarchy. The African Church has an important place in the universal Church – not by force of the numbers, but by force of its faithfulness to Christ.

The numerical growth of the Church in Africa is a reality of great importance not only for the changes it could mean for the countries in which the growth is taking place, but also for the life of the Church as a whole. Yet, when speaking of a spiritual reality like the “people of God,” the significance of high numbers must be put in proper perspective.
A first major danger is to think that numbers can give a simple automatic answer to the shape that the future will hold.
A study on the growth of Christianity in the world – The Next Christendom. The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins, published in 2002 – proves, using statistics available at that time, that membership of the Christian Churches experiences a fast growth in Africa and Asia, and that most of new believers tend toward a pentecostal, charismatic and, ultimately, fundamentalist Christianity. Using statistical projections, Jenkins foresees, for the year 2050, a worldwide strong fundamentalist Christianity more ready to enter in confrontation rather that into dialogue with other faiths. The growth, in fact, will happen not so much in the great traditional Churches, like the Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican, but in the constellation of new, free, fast-changing, Christ-centered and socially ultra-conservative and non-socially oriented Churches.
It is true that the statistical analysis of social phenomena is important to understand where we are and where we go in the immediate future. Yet, it is highly questionable that, in social and cultural developments, we can project the present trends over such a long period, like Jenkins does. There are changes in society that defy any statistics. For instance, the Arab Spring, with all its ambiguities, was not foreseen by anybody. The transformations it will bring about are not yet clear or may become clear in a generation time, but anybody who had built up a picture of how the Arab world will be in 2050, supposing that the socio-political trends of 2010 would continue for a long time, has done a useless exercise. Similarly, what do we know of the cultural and political movements that will grow in Africa in the near future? Nothing. Will a new perception of human rights change the self-understanding of the African world? Or will the growing influence of the Western materialistic culture cause the collapse of the traditional worldview where God and religion hold an important place? Which trends will become stronger in the future? The elements in the playing field are too many and too unpredictable; nobody in her/his right mind should dare to give an answer as to how Africa will be thirty or more years from now. To read the signs of the time is not an easy exercise.

Numbers don’t mean maturity.

If numbers cannot be the only factor in a foolproof prediction, they are also not very useful in measuring the spiritual strength of a community. When Europe plunged into the horror of the Nazi era and of World War II, it was statistically composed of a Christian majority. But how many Christians stood up against it? A certain number of people belonging to different Churches did; but, we have to admit, they were very few. In the same way, when Rwanda, a country with a Catholic majority, was swept by the genocidal fury of 1994, how many Catholics stood against it in the name of their faith? Some did, sometime in a heroic way, but it was a small percentage. They were able to save other people’s lives, and many sacrificed their own, but they were not enough to be a significant obstacle to the wave of the genocide.
Some people justify the Rwanda case saying that Christianity had not yet put deep roots. But how about what happened in Europe, where Christianity had been present for close to two thousand years? Was it a sign of the decline of the European Christianity? The least we can say is that, in both cases, numbers were not a good indicator of the maturity and strength of that particular Church to resist evil.
Again, just speaking of “age” or “maturity” of a Church because it has big numbers is controversial. How do you assess maturity? Often, a “young” Church produces people who are ready to die to show their faithfulness to Christ. We have the example of the Uganda Martyrs. Rightly enough, some Africans get upset when their Churches are referred to as “young” because it can give the idea of immaturity and dependency. Or, even when taken in the positive sense of vitality and strength, it can become an empty platitude, just referring to dancing and ululation during liturgical ceremonies.
Recently, I heard a missionary carefully comparing African Church leaders with someone who is learning to drive a car. When on the road, he concentrates more on handling the commands – how to change gear, how to turn the wheel, how much force to use in pressing the brakes – than looking at the road ahead. With the comparison, the old missionary wanted to justify, in a kind way, the lack of vision and pastoral planning by his local African bishop. But some African friends were quite annoyed by the comparison.
Heated debates also come up when evaluating if the numerical importance of the African Church is properly taken into account at the high level of the Catholic hierarchy. Before the last Consistory, held on February 18, 2012, an African website posted a very bitter comment on the fact that no new African cardinals were appointed. Surely, in the opinion of the writer, there is no lack of Africans deserving the red hat. The writer expressed also his disappointment that, in the last conclave, the African Cardinal Francis Arinze, allegedly missed the papacy… The assumption of the writer was: “We deserve important positions in Rome, because we are many! It is now our turn!” Are these cases of unrealistic expectations? Were there no African cardinals because the available positions were very limited or because the African episcopacy is not able to show forth leaders of a higher caliber? All these questions are pointless. If we think that to have an African pope is a right, or we look with pride at the number of African cardinals working at the Vatican and we think their number should increase, we enter in a logic of power which does not befit the Church.

Building an African identity

In The Coming of the Third Church, published in 1976, Walter Bühlmann, an unassuming Swiss Capuchin who taught in Rome in the effervescent years after the Vatican Council II, put together his reflections on the growing importance of what then was still mostly referred to as “mission Church”, For the first time, an eminent Western scholar put in a theological framework the scattered aspiration and demands that had already started to emerge from the “Third World” Church and pointedly used the term “Third Church.” “Third World” was already in common use and did not have the negative connotation that took later on, and certainly Bühlmann used “Third Church” in a positive way. His was a text full of hope, welcoming the Third Church, and opened to the changes that the emerging Christian communities were expected to bring to the universal Church.
Bühlmann was right; his approach is still valid. Number should not be seen as power, but the African Church must see them as a sign – that it has a responsibility to discover and to fulfill its call inside the universal Church (to become what Saint Daniel Comboni called “the Black Pearl”?) and to strengthen its determination to follow the Gospel of Jesus. For the whole Catholic Church, the growing numbers of the African Church is a source of joy and an incentive to make room for it, in a spirit of brotherhood and in recognition of the diversity in which Christians can express their common faith. The African Church has its right place in the universal Church not by force of the numbers, but by force of its faithfulness to Christ. We believe that the Spirit of God is always inspiring and creating new things in our midst and we must always be open to the new and unforeseen ways He shows us.
The African Church must take stock of her achievements – most of them done in the post-independence era under the guidance of African pastors, thank God for them – and move on, building her own identity. Inculturation, social justice, participation of the laity in the life of the Church are just some of the lines of identity that have emerged during the two African Synods, in 1994 and 2009. These are some of the special gifts the African Church can contribute to the Catholic community worldwide.
Numbers are not a big issue. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom.” (Lk 12:32). In the church the only title of merit is the faithfulness to the Gospel.

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