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

October, 2013:

Segni di un Mondo Nuovo – Signs of a New World

Sometime visions come true in unexpected and undeserved moments. You can see them, you can touch them and, in that moment, you realize that they are more real than reality.

It has happened to me one evening at Mthunzi, the home for former street children in the outskirt of Lusaka. I had put a chair and sat in the big courtyard. All around there were the dormitories, the dining room, the kitchen, the carpentry workshop and the grinding mill room. There was a great peace, the last car had passed along the dusty road at the foot of the hill more than an hour before.

The sun was setting in the west while the full moon was raising to the east. Some children were coming back from a soccer match sweaty and tired . Some other were under the shower, while some others, already bathed and dressed in clean clothes, were preparing a table in the middle of the vast courtyard, to be used as altar for Mass. Not far, under a shed in the same courtyard, mama Edina was cooking a huge nshima (traditional staple food made with maize flour), while the stew was already prepared in a large pot just aside. The children, busy with their different duties, were passing by and were looking, nodding, smiling to me, each one in a different way, each one sharing the joy of being together in a quiet and safe place, where people love each other.

There it is. Suddenly a new world is here. The misery and cruelty that caused so much pain to these children fade away. The evil is defeated, is not there any longe. The only reality are the children, with their eyes, offering and looking for love; their generous smiles; their hands, ready to shake your hand, to offer an embrace. Andrew Awuor, the Kenyan young man who challenged me in 1992 “to do something together for these children” comes to my mind. Then, during Mass I speak of him to the children and youngsters that are participating, and they listen ecstatic, as if I was speaking of an elder brother. A new world is here, in the communion among the living, and of the living with the dead.

The aspiration to love and freedom and communion that are inside these children, as inside all of us, becomes palpable, takes flesh. We open ourselves to the world when we nourish these forces, they are alive inside us, and we are able to see them first of all in the small world around us, and then in the wider world. The rebel or revolutionary who only knows the clenched fists, the cry of rage, the words and the acts of violence without recognizing the thirst for love and freedom that are in the hearts of everybody, condemn himself to failure.

We change the world both with small and big actions: by refusing to buy a product made under exploitation; by contributing to build a school; by extending a help to an immigrant; by cultivating a field; by fixing a computer; by stopping on the highway to help a person involved in an car accident; by committing ourselves to denounce injustices and to practice solidarity. Our actions, our work, our projects are worth more than their simple concreteness. When they are done consciously, they built our identity, our inner world and they change the meaning of our personal life and of the surrounding world. They become signs of love, of the ability to see beyond the material reality. As in the christian vision water, fire, bread, vine, oil and brotherly embrace talk about God’s presence.

Mthunzi is my small world where, sometimes, poetry and vision become visible, freedom and love take the power, and communion is born.

Justice or License to Kill? -Giustizia o Licenza di Uccidere?

Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya.

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) an organization set up in 2007 by Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim to promote good governance in Africa awards each year the world’s most valuable individual prize – five million dollars plus two hundred thousand dollars a year for life – to an elected African leader who governed well, raised living standards and then left office.
Yesterday it was announced that th committee in charge of the selection for this year has not found any worthy candidate. Not many European and international leaders could stand up to the standards required, either. Actually in the seven years since its institution the prize was awarded only thrice: to Cape Verde’s Pedro Verona Pires; to Festus Mogae from Botswana and to Joaquim Chissano from Mozambique. With the announcement came also the annual report on national security. It groups Kenya with “failed nations” like Somalia and others facing unmanageable security situations at the bottom of the list ranking 52 African nations.
IIAG judgment on Kenya might be too harsh. Yet it represent fairly well the international public opinion, after the botched action of the Kenya security forces during the recent Westgate terrorist attack.
Another fact undermining confidence in the Kenya government ability to deal with security crises and connected human rights abuses is the activity of the Kenya diplomacy seeking a deferral of the International Criminal Court (ICC) case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. He and his deputy, William Ruto, face charges of organising violence after the 2007 election. The Kenyan Parliament has already initiated the process of withdrawing the country from ICC.
The African Union (AU) representatives sat in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) last Saturday in an extraordinary session prompted by Kenya and devoted to Africa’s relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In the final statement they emphasised that in order to safeguard the constitutional order, stability and integrity of member states, “no serving AU head of state or government or anybody acting or entitled to act in such a capacity, shall be required to appear before any international court or tribunal during their term of office.” And “While recognising the critical role Kenya is playing in the fight against terrorism, the Assembly noted that the proceedings against the President and his Deputy will distract and prevent them from fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities, including national and regional security affairs.”
Hailemarian Desalegn, Ethiopia Prime Minister, told the summit: “Our goal is not and should not be a crusade against the ICC, but a solemn call for the organisation to take Africa’s concerns seriously.”
Yet the AU initiative has been understood by many as a real confrontation with ICC. Some newspaper titles were of the kind “ICC on trial in front of the African Union”. Looming in the background there is the menace of mass withdrawal from it, since many African governments see it as heavily biased against the continent. The ICC statute were ratified by 122 countries, including 34 in Africa. Apart from Kenya there are at the moment 7 investigations going on, in Uganda, DR Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, Mali and Ivory Coast.
One of the reasons given by the opposition is “how can ICC put on trial a president that has been democratically elected by more than half of the voters?” In Italy supporters of Berlusconi use a similar argument: how can a politician be banned from public offices when he is supported by one third of the national electorate?
A few senior international figures have criticised the AU. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that withdrawing from the court would be a “badge of shame“.
Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most loved and respected African leaders, after his countryman Nelson Mandela has also expressed a very strong criticism of the Kenya government action. He has the right credentials to speak for justice, not only because he suffered and struggled against the apartheid, and for that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. He has been a fierce critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as well as China’s treatment of Tibetans. In August last year he pulled out of a leadership summit in Johannesburg because he refused to share a platform with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and he said that Mr Blair and former US President George W Bush should be tried at the ICC for lying about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in order to justify invading the country.
Last week in an online appeal he wrote: “While some African leaders play both the race and colonial cards, the facts are clear. Far from being a so-called white man’s witch hunt, the ICC could not be more African if it tried. More than 20 African countries helped to found the ICC. Of the 108 nations that initially joined the ICC, 30 are in Africa. Five of the court’s 18 judges are African, as is its vice president, Sanji Mmasenono Monageng of Botswana. The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who has huge power over which cases are brought forward, is from Gambia. The ICC is very clearly an African court. Those leaders seeking to skirt the court are effectively looking for a license to kill, maim and oppress their own people without consequence. They simply vilify the institution as racist and unjust, as Hermann Goering and his fellow Nazi defendants vilified the Nuremberg tribunals following World War II.”

Hatred and Forgiveness

Forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, hope—words that have a Gospel flavour; words that more than others have become the theme of the reflections on the readings of the Mass that Pope Francis celebrates daily with the people in the small Santa Marta chapel in the Vatican. It could not be otherwise, since in the Gospel the proclamation of the mercy of God, of His infinite love for his children is the dominant theme.

God condemns the evil, yet He does not want the condemnation and the death of the sinner. In front of God, every human being is always lovable even when his life, sometimes even his physical appearance, is disfigured by sins. We all know people who look evil. We stay far from them. We are afraid that the aura of evil that we perceive in them can somehow attach to us. As a child, I remember the physical repulsion I felt of a man living in my neighbourhood who was known for the beatings he was inflicting on his wife and children. I had only heard the adults talk about his behaviour, but his face, always contorted in a sour grin, kept me at a safe distance. Instead, God looks with love also at those people whom others judge to be lost. In them, He can still perceive the flickering flame of the love he has put in them, He wants to see that flame grow. He never gives up hope.

Jesus, in front of the woman caught in the act of adultery, does not condemn her. The woman does not ask for forgiveness. When the accusers go away in shame for their self-righteousness after being challenged to throw the first stone, He just asks her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” and at her negative reply He tells her: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” It is forgiveness without condition, not even the pre-condition of repentance. We may be surprised because to forgive is so difficult for us, and because for many centuries the Church in the West has listed sins in accordance to their gravity, and the penance was meted out in proportion. Priests had become accountants of sins, rather than administrators of the forgiveness of the Father. Now, we are surprised because Pope Francis is simply reminding us of the importance of forgiveness in Christian life, in a teaching that can be summarized in two lines: God is universal and infinite love. One cannot deserve His love; it is He who reaches out to all people, to all sinners, to all those who need to heal their lives.

Forgiveness is freedom

It is difficult for us to forgive. Yet, forgiveness opens up new horizons and new life. As a priest, I have learned to see the presence of God in the lives of people when I see forgiveness. I saw it when I met Wanjiku, a young woman from central Kenya. She lost her parents when very young and was brought up in the homestead of a relatively wealthy uncle. Treated like a slave by the stepmother, she had to work in the kitchen and to attend to the domestic animals for more than fourteen hours per day, while her cousins went to school. Out of sheer determination, she studied in the evening using the books she found scattered around the house, she went to church and catechism classes on Sundays and then found the courage to run away and fend for herself in Nairobi.

Now Wanjiku works as a flight attendant in an international airline company, a job incredibly prestigious back in the village. Just imagine flying every day all over the world! It would have been easy for her to go back and make fun of or despise those who had mistreated her. Instead, she told me: “when I went back to the village for a visit, for a long time I did not tell my relatives about my job. I did not want to humiliate them. I wanted to win them over first. I just brought small gifts. I do not have any grudges against them. I know they struggled for life, I understand their worries, their fear for the future, for the difficult condition of their lives. I have forgiven them, and I would like to see them spend their last years in serenity. I am sure that when they were exploiting me, they were deeply unhappy for some reasons that I did not know, and I do not want to judge them.” Wanjiku is a free person. The past is gone, she looks ahead to a life of commitment and work, to form her family, to pour out to others the love she had not experienced as a child. Freeing herself, Wanjiku frees her uncle and aunt from the chains of their past.

Pope Francis, while visiting a community of contemplative Sisters and talking about Mary as the mother of all Christians, told this delightful story to illustrate how Mary is a merciful mother. “Mary is at the door to Paradise. Saint Peter does not always open when great sinners knock at the door. Mary sees the desperation on the faces of those rejected, she suffers with them, she would like to console them, but she does not want to argue with St Peter. So she stays put. At night, when St Peter closes the door and goes for some well-deserved rest, when nobody sees and nobody hears, Mary opens the door and lets everyone enter.”

Respect and love sinners

The pastors, the priests have a difficult task: they have to teach what is good, to point to their fellow Christians the way towards Jesus, to condemn what is evil, but at the same time they have to teach respect and love for sinners. They have to be like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost sheep; to be like the forgiving father who opens his arms to receive the lost son; to be like Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who are crucifying and despising him. The self-righteous may protest.

What is then really putting our Christian life in danger? It is to hate the sinner. Pope John XXIII fifty years ago made it clear: “we do not have to confuse the sin with the sinner”, because “the sinner is first and foremost a human being and retains the dignity of a human person” and therefore must be treated with mercy and compassion.

Hatred is the opposite of love, mercy and compassion. Speaking to the youth at the end of the World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis gave them advice valid for Christians of all ages. “Do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. Read the Beatitudes: that will do you good. If you want to know what you actually have to do, read Matthew Chapter 25, which is the standard by which we will be judged. With these two things you have the action plan: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. You do not need to read anything else.”

Tiyende Pamodzi – Let’s Walk Together – Camminiamo Insieme

To listen, to talk, to meet “the others”, these are basica actions that help us to grow in mutual respect and solidarity. Koinonia, which started in Lusaka (Zambia) in 1982 , knows this well. Since then every year organized groups of young people – from Italy but also from other countries – have taken part in experiences that have given them direct knowledge of the human and social situation in Africa, living and sharing with the local community. Even if we had to face difficulties and did several mistakes we discovered that to build solidarity is an integral part of our journey as a community. Now Amani, the Italian NGO that for years organized trips to Zambia, has decided to offer to a group of young Zambians the possibility to experience the perspective of the traveler, inviting them to an educational trip that will begin in Turin on November 23 and, with several stops, will go to the South, to Matera, ending in Rome on December 15.

Other young men from Koinonia Kenya have visited Italy several times and the experience has been positive for all of them, as well as for the Italian families who hosted them. Of course they should prepare themselves well before leaving, as all real travelers do. It is significant that none of them, even among the older boys of the football team, has chosen to stay in Italy.

The trip will be an opportunity for the Italian friends to know the boys and live together an educational experience of cultural exchange, through shared family life, visits to museums and churches, meetings with schools and parishes and christian communities. When possible the Koinonia boys will present a Zambian traditional dance and drumming show. The Zambians boys will have the opportunity to meet with peers and to share their experience.

Why do Koinonia and Amani take such an important organizational commitment? Would not it be better to use the time and money to do other things?

“Other things” we have done and continue to do. Mthunzi, from where come the 16 young people who participate in the trip, it is a socio-educational project done in a Koinonia residential center created to accommodate street children. It is located about 15 km from the Zambian capital, in a rural area. For children is not only a place of welcome but represents a real opportunity to build up their own future. At Mthunzi children receive adequate education and support to their human and spiritual growth. This allows them to regain confidence in themselves and in the adult world, a world that has denied them the chance to live a happy childhood . A Mthunzi there are also agricultural activities, a computer school and tailoring project. There is also a medical dispensary, that over the years become an important reference point for the surrounding villages.

But this is not enough. The boys must be the protagonists of their human and religious formation, according to their needs, choices and commitments. They learn to open up to the world and to be responsible citizens. For this they have decided to travel to Italy with a message, condensed in the title of the show: Tiyende Pamodzi , or Let’s Walk Together.

The tragedy of Lampedusa, and some of the comments that followed, have strengthened in me in the belief that we must build solidarity. Even more fundamentally, we need to rebuild a sense of belonging to the same human family. I hope that the authors of some of the comments reported by the mass media have made them because they never really had the opportunity to meet “the others”. For a variety of circumstances they have lived in cages from where they have ever attempted to get out, because they feel safe in the cage. Without realizing that they are also prisoners.

For Christians, as are many of the boys of Koinonia and many of my friends, being christian is measured by the ability to create community, fellowship, communion. To transform the ideal of “love the others” into action, into commitment and service.

Don Milani, an Italian priest wrote extensely on social issues, said “If you claim the right to divide the world into Italian and foreigners, then I say to you that in your understanding I have no country.” Those who will have the opportunity to meet the Koinonia boys will also understand, if they are not already convinced, that we are all part of a larger homeland.

Un’altra “primavera araba”? – Another “Arab Spring”?

In Khartoum (Sudan) there is an ongoing vicious repression against the street demonstrations triggered after the government has nearly doubled the price of fuel. The international media broke the news quoting a press release from Amnesty International, which has called on the government of Sudan to “immediately stop arbitrary and unlawful use of force against demonstrators who protested for days against the cut of subsidies on petrol . Between 24 and 25 September security forces have killed , hitting them in the head and chest, at least 50 protesters. According to sources and local activists , the dead would be over 100. Only in Omdurman , 36 dead bodies were sent to the morgue and 38 surgeries were performed. Most of the protesters killed were aged between 19 and 26 years.

The terrorist attacks in Kenya , Pakistan , Nigeria and the tensions in other parts of the world , Syria and Central African Republic, conspired to hide the Sudanese events. Yet some commentators have wondered if the regime of President Omar El -Bashir , in power since 1989, has reached the end of the road. For years , since the International Criminal Court ( ICC) has issued an arrest warrant against him, there have been protests against his regime , but so far all have been successfully repressed. Is this the beginning of the end for El- Bashir?

Thousands of people took to the streets across the country , first in Wad Madani and then in the capital Khartoum, and in all the major cities. On September 25, the Internet was suspended and the media were put under strict control by the security forces . Despite this , social networks around the world have been able to circulate photos and home videos where you see dozens of victims. Reliable sources confirmed that the dead, only to Khartoum, by Sunday 29 Septemebr were more than two hundred and ten. Dr. Ahmed al -Sheikh , head of an association of physicians , testified that the dead had been shot in the head and chest , and that the security forces summoned the relatives and wanted them to agree that on the medical certificate the doctor would write “death by natural causes”, and threatening to arrest them and the doctors who were not willing to cooperate.

Other sources confirm that persons detained by the NISS ( Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services , the Secret Service ) are several hundreds. It is easy to imagine that they are mistreated and tortured, because it is the routine, as was pointed out by the New York based African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies.
Friday, September 27, in Khartoum security forces have closed the offices of Al- Arabiya , an United Arab Emirates television channel, on charges of spreading false news. Al- Sudani and Al- Meghar Al-Siyasi, two newspapers, were also suspended, while other publications have self – suspended in protest.

The impression that the regime of El -Bashir is now at the end of the road is reinforced by the fact that on Sunday 29 the president has canceled a public speech because the large crowd that usually attends such events , was not there. It has never happened before.

Mohamed Yassin , a researcher at the University of Udine in Italy and spokesperson of the SPLM -N , said that “the international community becomes blind and deaf when there are victims in Sudan, while the news about the closure of Sudanese pipelines are always published and commented in detail. We know what is happening in Sudan only from the local activists , who risk their lives to circulate photos and videos. The international community at the most makes very general and routine statements and condemnations that are totally ineffective in stopping the river of blood that is engulfing the Sudan.”

Unfortunately El- Bashir, with the support of fanatic Islamists, was in the past able to overcame extremely difficult situations, and stay put in power. I remember a meeting I attended in 1989, a few weeks after El- Bashir took power in a coup, in Nairobi (Kenya ) in the home of a prominent south-Sudanese politician in exile, Clement Mboro. There were all the most important Sudanese opposition politicians of the moment, among others Bona Malwal , an intellectual who was in the U.K. at the time of the coup and had decided not to go back to Khartoum. Malwal had a long and very accurate political analysis of what had happened in Khartoum, concluding with a categorical: “All this makes me sure that El -Bashir will be ousted before Christmas”. It’s been twenty-four years: Mboro , consistent until the end , died in poverty in Nairobi , El-Bashir is still in power and Bona Malwal lives in a luxurious villa in Khartoum paid by El-Bashir as his main political adviser on South Sudanese matters.

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