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

September, 2013:

Westgate: I bestemmiatori e gli altri – The blasphemers and the others.

I do not think that the action of the terrorist commando at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi reveals “the true face of Islam,” as I’ve read . I continue to believe, simplifying a bit, that the majority of Muslims are good people who want to live their lives in harmony with others but they are held hostage by a criminal minority who uses religion for political and economic control. A minority of violent blasphemers who have proclaimed themselves authentic interpreters of the Koran.

Muslims are in a phase of their history similar to that in which we Christians found ourselves in a not too distant time when we believed our leaders telling us that the American Indians and the African blacks were not human, and we could kill then with impunity. Or when, in times closer to us, the Italian soldiers obeyed without batting an eye to the order of killing in cold blood, in a few days, thousands and thousands of innocent Ethiopians, and no one, not even among the pastors of the Christian community, dared to question the military leaders or to raise a voice in protest. The Muslims who now live in societies dominated by political or religious leaders who advocate inhuman discriminatory ideologies are victims as we were victims. And if we do not understand their situation, we risk falling into the same trap of asserting that others, in bulk, “are all like that”, which is the first step when we want to justify the evil that we are planning in our hearts .

I prefer to think that their professing to be Muslims, their killing all those who did not know the name of the mother of the prophet, is absolutely irrelevant. So it is immaterial that the affiliates to Cosa Nostra profess to be Catholics and devout sons of Our Lady. They are simply criminals, whatever they believe and profess, and use their faith as a tool for their crimes and their hatred against their neighbor, and hatred has very different roots from faith in God. Samuel, a twenty-year old boy who grew up in Kivuli has understood this very well. One of his relatives, a distant uncle , was killed by terrorists in the first clashes in Westgate, as he was doing his job of helping the supermarket customers to put their items in the plastic bag, a job most probably paid something around 80 euro per month. Samuel texted me: Pray for my uncle, he was a good person. God can not be with those who killed him. They use His name in vain. We must build peace. .

Reading and watching what happened to Westgate Mall, I prefer to look at the dozens of people who instantly reacted by protecting their children, but also those of others, without distinction of color, or at those who have rescued other people, who have donated blood, who spontaneously brought sandwiches and drinks to the teams of the ambulances and to the soldiers. Certainly among those volunteers there were also some of my confreres, shepherds who have no fears of being contaminated with the smell, even when the sheep smell of fear and death. The victims and the rescuers – the testimonies are unanimous – have acted regardless of race or religion. These are the people that make us feel human .

Among them is Edwin, a member of Nafsi Africa, the acrobatic group based in Kivuli. That day I was in Verona, and I was about leaving home to attend a meeting, when a confrere alerted me that in Nairobi there was a dramatic terrorist attack. I opened face-book and saw that the drama had started one hour before, and there was already a message from Edwin : “Quick, let’s go to Westgate to donate blood.”


Kenyatta is about ten years old. No one knows how his mother had called him, he has chosen for himself this name so solemn and presidential, at least in Kenya. Jack found him in the street last November, and through discovered a group of fifteen children living on the streets of Ngong town . Kenyatta was the leader, stocky and stubborn. After a journey of discovery and growth together for a few months, in April this year Jack had thought that the group was ready to enter Ndugo Mdogo, a stage of transition to a more stable arrangement. But at the last moment Kenyatta had pulled back . “Because – he said to Jack – I can handle myself.” And he was gone, back to the streets. It would have been counterproductive to seek the help of the government agency that should take care of street children, so Jack decided to wait, though verifying from time to time that Kenyatta was always operating on that stretch of road near the large outdoor market of Ngong, his personal kingdom.

In early August , Kenyatta showed up in Ndugu Mdogo, greeted his friends and remained. Without an explanation. Jack has once again chosen not to react, he simply kept observing his behavior. A week later, at the great feast of the Koinonia Children’s Day, during Mass, I introduced Kenyatta to the whole community as the latest addition to our big family. When I called him next to me he stood straight, looking at everybody without embarrassment, smiling happily.

After a couple of weeks I was in Ndugu Ndogo while George was giving a singing lesson. During a break he came to sit next to me, and while I did not speak, he began to talk, as if resuming a speech he had interrupted a few minutes before. “I had not eaten for two days and I went back home. I found my dad drunk, and my mom was gone. There was another woman. She chased me like I’m a beast. He looked at me without saying anything. Perhaps it did not recognize me. Then she yelled at me as I was leaving that my mom had died of the disease that is killing so many, and that my dad will die soon, and then she too will die. That I should not show up ever again”. Then he stopped, adding after a brief pause: “Now I’m here, and from here nobody will chase me.” He did not speak defiantly, as I would have expected from him, but simply as a definitive fact, that is not to be argued. Jack was not far away, and had heard everything, and before I could speak he asked “Is there anybody who wants to chase you from here?” Kenyatta looked around slowly, then slowly shook his head. Then, finally, the cheeks were covered with silent tears .

I Martiri della Fratellanza – The Martyrs of Brotherhood

The testimony of the forty innocent Burundian seminarians killed just because they refused to hate one another should be better known and become a model and example of the aspirations of the African youth. Looking at their white tombs, we must not be overcome by desperation. We should rather say, as Pope Francis said of Don Pino, the Italian priest who was killed for opposing the Mafia: “They have won, with the risen Christ”

Forty pictures, the faces of forty young boys looking straight, but shyly, into the camera. Pictures to be pasted on their school report, boys like a million others in Africa. But these forty boys are somehow different because of the way they died. The pictures were taken at the beginning of the 1997 school year in Burundi, while the country was suffering because of some of Africa’s bitterest ethnic violence, a spillover from the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. A few weeks after, at about 5:30 in the morning of the 30 April 1997, some members of the Hutu rebel group, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD), attacked the seminary of Buta, killing the forty young seminarians aged between fifteen and twenty years.

Since the beginning of the country’s civil war in October 1993, the Buta Seminary had been a tranquil refuge for members of the two warring ethnic groups, the pastoral Hutu and the more nomadic Tutsi that have been locked in deadly genocidal war since 1972. The seminary too had been marred by ethnic division, but in the most recent years under the guidance of their rector, the boys had taken as their special commitment, to live as brothers, witnessing that Jesus calls everybody and is against ethnic division and hatred.

They had just concluded their Easter retreat when the attackers surprised them at night, in the dormitory, and ordered them to separate into two groups, the Hutus on one side, the Tutsi on the other. They wanted to kill some of them, but the seminarians refused, preferring to die together. Their evil scheme having failed, the killers rushed at the boys and slaughtered them with bullets and grenades. The first victims fell as they embraced as brothers. At that point some of the seminarians were heard singing psalms of praise and others were saying “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do”. Others, instead of fighting or trying to run away, preferred to help their distressed brothers, knowing exactly what was going to happen to them. A few of them, and some teachers who were not in that building, survived to tell the story. Now those forty pictures are on the forty white tombs in the yard outside their dormitory.

The forty boys have been called the Martyrs of Brotherhood and their beatification cause—to proclaim them as examples of Christian living—started a short time after their death. It has been moving on slowly, very slowly, as it is usual in these cases. But the most recent beatification of Don Pino could give it a boost.

In defence of virtue and truth
Father Giuseppe Puglisi, known by his parishioners as Don Pino, was killed by hit men on 15 September 1993, in Palermo, Italy, and was proclaimed blessed and “martyr of the Mafia” on 25 May 2013. Don Pino was killed because he spoke, acted and taught his parishioners, in particular the youth, to react against the criminal organisation of the Mafia, which was deeply ingrained in the local society. He knew that the Mafia bosses had ordered his killing, but was not deterred. His aim was to make of his parish youth, honest citizens and leaders in the fields of justice and peace. It is the first time that a victim of the Mafia becomes a martyr of the Catholic Church.

The path that led to the beatification of Don Pino was rough, and once was stopped because he was not assassinated in odium fidei (hatred for the faith) which used to be the essential criterion for the Church to proclaim somebody a Christian martyr. The process for the beatification of a martyr is usually much faster than other similar processes. The reasoning behind this is that a martyr has in a clear way died for his faithfulness to Jesus, while for people who died in other circumstances their holiness of life and the soundness of their teaching and preaching must be proved beyond any doubt, and this requires a long process of examining the life and the writings of the person in question. But the killers of Don Pino were Catholics—often, Mafia bosses like to sit in the front pew during important celebrations, to enhance their social status, and they proclaim themselves to be staunch Catholics—so their motivation for ordering the killing of Don Pino was not the hatred of the faith, but the hatred of Don Pino’s actions and teaching. Some thought that without hatred of the faith in the mind of the killers, there could be no martyrdom.

The new understanding of martyrdom that emerged during the beatification process of Don Pino is reflected in the words of Pope Francis who said: “Yesterday, in Palermo, Father Giuseppe Puglisi, a priest and martyr, was beatified, killed by the Mafia in 1993. Don Puglisi was an exemplary priest, devoted especially to the youth ministry. He was teaching the gospel to the children, and taking them out of the control of the criminal groups, and so they had tried to defeat him and killed him. The reality, though, is that he has won, with the Risen Christ! Let us pray to the Lord to convert the hearts of these people. They cannot do this! They cannot turn us, brothers, into slaves!”

So, the killers of Don Pino did not act in odium fidei, but in odium virtutis et veritatis, meaning in hatred of virtue and truth. They did not act because they wanted to destroy Christianity—possibly they considered themselves to be good Catholics! Don Pino stood against the evil ways they and their criminal organisation were using: it is what prompted them to kill him.

Don Pino’s beatification, many commentators pointed out, could become the first in a line of beatifications done because the martyr stood up against evil and was killed in hatred of virtue and truth. The most obvious and well-known example in this possible line-up is Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, killed on 24 March 1980, while celebrating Mass, because he stood as a defender of the poor in his divided country.

Meekness and peace

Recently, Pope Francis addressed members of lay organisations gathered in St Peter’s Square, and spoke of Christians who are still victims of persecution: “There are more martyrs today than in past centuries. The martyrdom is never a defeat, it is the highest grade of testimony. A Christian must always have an attitude of unity and meekness, relying on Jesus. We must be close to those persecuted; they do experience the boundary between life and death.”

The Buta seminarians were also killed because of their stand for justice and Christian brotherhood. They too had decided to make of their community an example of fraternal living and of peace, in spite of the divided society around them. They too were killed most probably by other Catholics—Burundi is mostly a Catholic country—not so much for hatred of the faith, but for hatred of peace and justice, driven by the most brutal tribalism.

The forty innocent Burundian boys and their testimony should be better known and become a model and example of the aspirations of the African youth. Looking at their white tombs, we must not be overcome by desperation. We should rather say, as Pope Francis said of Don Pino: “They have won, with the risen Christ”.

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