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January, 2016:

L’anno nuovo e i serpenti. The new year and the snakes.

Sharing life with others is the root of Christian joy.

I could not have a better start for the new year. On January 1, 2016. I woke up at dawn, and, as always when I’m here in Mthunzi, the home for former street children in Lusaka (Zambia), I came out of my room, passed in front of the small apartment where our educator Chakwe lives lives with his family, and stood in the middle of the vast courtyard, to breathe in the air of the home I started in 1982. All around there are the dorms, the dining hall, the old storehouse adapted to be a multi-purpose hall, all very poorly furnished and run-down constructions. The large backyard – with the majestic jacaranda that when it blooms in September dwarfs the beauty of the sky, and the generous avocado plants that these days feed us – has hosted since we came to live here a variety of Christmas and Easter celebrations, funerals and weddings, baptisms and traditional dances. For me it is an album of memories. Every tree, every wall speaks to me, it reminds me of the people who were with me on that day when we planted them, or when we turned the grinding mill shelter into a library, fixed that door, built that wall. Then the boys wake up. Because of the hot weather some had put the mattress outdoors, on the ground. As they see me they come to greet me, forcing me to return to the present. Walking, running, hopping like the little ones love to do, some still sleepy. All, nearly fifty, want to hug me and wish me a happy new year.

We had said goodnight just four hours before, when we were already in the new year. We had celebrated a thanksgiving Mass, shared a simple supper with a lot of nshima (the polenta-like local staple food), a lot of beans and a sausage each. Then they sang, beat drums and danced until nearly midnight, when we celebrated with biscuits and fruit juice.

Then Mama Edina, the cook, appears, and they run towards her, and immediately Edina assigns tasks for the morning: some have to prepare the festive breakfast of boiled rice and sugar, some have to do the dishes left from last night, some must clean the dormitories and then all must get dressed with the cleaner and most beautiful shirts to go for the Mass to the Parish church. Chakwe is now at my side and says “I have never felt the boys so happy as yesterday evening, during Mass, dinner, drumming. It was a unique moment of uninterrupted joy. It ‘s really a good community of kids”. Then he adds, “After dinner I asked Matthew what made him so visibly happy, and he replied: because here we love each other. I wish the people who spent the night getting drunk in a pub, among them my cousins, could have been here. They could have understood that there are better things in life. Sometimes if I try to explain the joy of Christmas and New Year as we live them in Mhunzi, their sceptical looks make my words die in my throat. How difficult it is to communicate the good things, and the well-being of the heart.

It’s always difficult to tell what is true and simple: too easy to fall into sweet non-sense, provoking smiles of compassion. But we must not tire of doing so, even though we are not the communicators and the poets we want to be and that it would be necessary to be in order to communicate the joy of sharing. But we should not give up.

It’s much easier to communicate evil, to urge people towards evil. It’s like this everywhere, in every community. Even here, in the idyllic climate of Kivuli, children show arrogance, will to dominate the others, cunning strategies to divide and rule. In Italian we say that people who know how to awaken the worst ancestral selfish feelings in their audience “talk to the belly of the people”. The belly is a noble part of the body that does not deserve to be associated with the worst selfishness. The belly makes us feel the hunger that drives us to search for food, but for human beings food is for sharing, and Jesus uses hunger to describe the desire for justice. Even in the Christian tradition we speak of “bowels of mercies”. I do not think there’s any part of the human body that you can use as a metaphor for communicating evil.

I call Matthew (a teenager who had begun the year 2015 in the street, where he had been forced to beg by his alcoholic father) and ask him how he would call persons who sow hatred and those who listen to them. Only a fraction of a second, then he responds without hesitation “Snakes who are talking to the snakes that are within us”. Ancient wisdom.


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