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

On the (yellow) train of modernity – Sul treno (giallo) della modernità


The first section (Mombasa-Nairobi) of the new railway line that will cross Kenya and in the near future will continue towards the Kampala, Uganda, is going to be completed on time. It is meant to define the future of this country.
Work on the stretch of 472 km began in 2013 and are expected to be completed in June 2017, in time for the presidential elections scheduled for next August 8th. The journey from Mombasa and Nairobi will be reduced from twelve hours to four for passengers, and eight hours for freight trains, with the prediction that in a year it will move 22 million tons of goods. Built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and funded 90% by the Export-Import Bank of China, the cost is calculated at around 3 billion Euros, to which must be added about 200 million euro for the stations, which in Mombasa and Nairobi will include large shopping mall and hotels financed by local and international companies, and that will later be connected with the respective airports with fast metro lines.
It is already planned that the railway from the western Kenya border will continue to Kampala, Uganda, and from there it will branch to Juba, South Sudan and Kigali, Rwanda. On the way from Mombasa to Nairobi there will be five major and thirty minor stations. China will provide fifty-six diesel locomotives (electrification is expected only after a few years), one thousand six hundred twenty freight cars and forty passenger coaches. The new line runs mostly parallel to the old railway and the road, deviating only when necessary to avoid too steep stretches. The segment that crosses the Tsavo natural park runs above ground, to ensure the possibility for animals to move according to their traditional migration trails. In addition to reducing the traffic on the road, it should promote tourism, by offering a spectacular view of the parks and the Rift Valley.
It is by far the most ambitious and expensive project that Kenya has undertaken since independence to date, and those who are against accuse the current government to create a debt and a dependence on Chinese technology for decades to come.
The second phase of the project, from Nairobi to the border with Uganda, has already been inaugurated by President Kenyatta last October 19, but it is marred by controversies. The most important relates to the path to be followed in exiting Nairobi. According to the government plan it should cross the Nairobi National Park, the only park in the world located within the borders of a large metropolis. Ecologists and conservationists oppose it strenuously, arguing that this would mark the end of the park, already heavily penalized by the ring road built two years ago and earlier abusive urban developments, built about twenty years ago during President Moi’s time, and with his connivance.
Those of the Lunatic Express
Disputes were also quite a few more than a century ago, when the old line was built, starting in 1895 from Mombasa, reaching Nairobi in 1900 and Kisumu in 1902. It is still the backbone of the country and around ir grew the major cities, including Nairobi, then described as an “unhealthy wetland “. At that time the workforce was mainly made up of Indians, specially recruited for the job, who then settled in Kenya, giving birth to a large and now thriving community. In 1898, when building the bridge over the Tsavo River, at least 35 (but some say more than 100), Indian workers were devoured by lions. On this episode John H. Patterson, the construction manager, wrote a book, and since 1950 half a dozen films have been made. In London opponents of the project ironically nicknamed the train “Lunatic Express” because wanted by lunatics.
But the “Iron Snake”, as was instead called by the locals, became the engine of Kenyan growth. It is now obsolete (is still ironically called Lunatic Express to indicate its unreliability) and is far from adequate to handle the container traffic from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi and to the landlocked Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The new railway line is the icon of the new Kenya. In Nairobi in recent years huge concrete and glass buildings destined for luxury offices have sprung up, and large shopping centers are mushrooming. In the Karen suburb – named after the Danish author Karen Blixen who owned the whole area – until twenty years ago a simple road junction with a few shops and three restaurants, now there are three major shopping centers and more luxurious office building. They have not yet finished to advertise “the largest shopping center in Kenya”, with restaurants overlooking an artificial lake, that begins the construction of another, “the largest in Africa”, including further amazing features.
It is enough to be away for a few months to be disoriented. Catherine Njuguna, who emigrated to New York ten years ago just after graduation to look for better opportunities and returned to Nairobi with very little in her purse apart from the American passport, does not believe her eyes: “While I was in America, America has come here!”
Some experts in the building sector predict that the urban bubble will burst soon. Already there are the symptoms: hundreds of empty offices and luxury homes, exceeding the demand. But Nairobi is still under a kind of collective drunkenness, a craving for luxury and “modernity” that continues unabated.
Yet this is one side of the story. There are still many, literally millions, of people living in poverty in the slums of the Kenyan capital, but they do not count. In Kenya there are two economies, one that travels at high speed and the other with the Lunatic Express. Two economies that live side by side and never meet. The upper middle class, politicians, employees of international companies, the officials of numerous UN agencies, embassies and major NGOs who when they have a toothache go to seek treatment in London, and the poor who eat a once a day.
A French friend who works in one of the hundred offices of the United Nations, set aside in Gigiri, a separate area in the North-East of Nairobi, told me “For most my colleagues life unfolds in Gigiri, in shopping malls, international schools if they have children, in luxury hotels participating to international conferences, in restaurants, and who move with a chauffeur driven car. If they are in the mood for great adventures, Hemingway-like, they go for an organized visit to a park, staying in “tents” with all services, outdoor buffets, three days all inclusive for an amount equivalent to the combined salaries of their cook, driver, gardener and housekeeper. They have never walked in a slum. This is a city that symbolizes the social injustice of the world”.
Common interests
The new railway is also a crown to the growing prestige of President Uhuru Kenyatta, that some polls predict will win the 2017 election with over 60% of the votes. Undoubtedly he is a skillful politician, who managed to reconcile factions and ethnic tensions within his party that only a few years ago seemed irrevocably adverse. He managed to attract investments and to maintain balance between international allies, although the growing importance of China Kenyan economy raises many bad feelings in London and Washington. When he entered the political arena in 2002, Uhuru was important only for the name (his father Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of Kenya) and the consolidated family wealth, but over the years it has proven very skilled and capable to overcome obstacles and attract investments where its predecessor Mwai Kibaki had failed. Kibaki has left Kenyatta the heavy legacy of the military intervention in Somalia, which continues to cause reprisals and atrocious terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab.
The new railway will be also the visible sign of the growing economic power of China in the whole of Africa. A whole generation of Kenyan engineers will go to China to study in order to guarantee the flawless operation of the whole railway, and it is easy to think that contracts for Chinese companies will continue to increase. The Head of the Public Service of Kenya, Nzioka Waita, has recently stated that during the construction of the railroad over 30 thousand Kenyans have been hired full time and it is an ongoing process of capacity building and transfer of responsibilities.
For its part, Macharia Munane, professor of international relations, argued on the Chinese news agency Xinhua, that the modernization of the rail and road networks in Africa operated by the Chinese government in recent years is something that no colonial power ever did and that cooperation between Africa and China is based on the realistic perception of common interests and is likely to continue.
But the great railway project is also a node which highlights the clash between man and nature. In Kenya, as in few other parts of the world come to the eye that population growth and modernity are in competition with the natural environment, and the environment, the animals in particular, are always the losers.

To make peace on the road to Assisi – Fare pace in cammino verso Assisi


“How many wars are going on in Africa?” On 9 October, I was marching from Perugia to Assisi, in central Italy, with about 100 000 people to show that we stand for Peace and Brotherhood. That’s when a little girl, maybe 10 years old, caught up with me and fired her question. I could not answer immediately; I stopped on the steep final approach to the town of Saint Francis and pretended to think. In fact, I was simply recovering my breath. “Well, let me try to count”, I said, taking my time and counting with my fingers, “South Sudan, Sudan, DR Congo, Somalia… and then, you know, wars are done for different reasons…” but she would not let me go: “My father says you come from Africa and you surely know the answer out of the top of your head. How many in all?”
Africa is perceived in Europe as a continent at war. In any European newspaper, Africa is mentioned when there are wars, atrocities and violence. They create a wrong perception that is difficult to counteract.
In fact, we can observe that most of Africa south of the equator has not known any war since the beginning of this century; some internal strife and conflicts, in some case, but nothing that could be called civil war or inter-state war. North of the equator wars have developed in a big cluster including Libya, Sudan, Chad, South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Plus two countries not geographically connected with this cluster, Mali and Somalia. All these wars defy simplistic explanations. To understand first, and then to explain the links, the similarities and the differences between these wars could be the subject of a big book. Impossible to explain them to a little girl who most probably would not even be able to name five African countries! So as I continued to walk for the remaining 3 kilometers (the total of the march was 24), I kept thinking of African wars.
At the root of every conflict I have known there is a strong national or ethnic interest. Often the national interest is represented by a person, a leader, who becomes the icon of such an interest, for good or for bad. In some cases the interest is strong enough, or blind enough to the rights and the need of the others, that results in complete disregard for the consequences. The aim becomes an idol to be reached at any cost. And the leader pursues his own selfish interest hiding behind the national interests. The worst case I know is South Sudan where two leaders have hijacked an entire country for their own personal interests and made the life of its citizens a nightmare. No matter how committed and skilled are the negotiators, if the parties are not willing to reach peace, the talks will fail.
When I happened to be involved in a couple of occasions in “peace talks”, I have learned that when a leader has only his own personal interest and power at heart, it is absolutely futile to held such talks. The leaders would simple disregard the consequences for their followers. They are ready to sacrifice without the blink of an eye the lives of thousands if that brings more power to them. Or more money, because for them money and power are the same in their view. Now, after many years, I remember the comment of an old aid worker who told me, “So Father, you are involved in peace talks between so and so? Good luck! Me, I believe it is as useful as shovelling s*** uphill.” A bit vulgar, but wise. Yet, in the light of Christian hope it is not futile to keep working for peace even in the most desperate situations. It is important to keep opened every avenue.
Powerful international interests also play an important part in local African conflicts. The economic interests of the international powers and companies – often oil and mining companies – play an important role in exasperating and exploiting the local tensions, giving weapons and so creating situations always more complicated. These international actors are the greatest obstacle to reach a stable peace.
On the other side, I have seen that to impose peace by physical force, or moral or international coercion can give only short term results. The unsolved issues will resurface, sometimes stronger. Peace after war and violence implies a genuine change of heart, a recognition of the mistakes, a sense of repentance. Otherwise violence and war come back. To think that it is possible to impose peace by force is a counter-sense.
Peace will not last either if all the grieved parties do not take part in the peace process. All grievances by all parties must come out in the open, otherwise they will resurface later. When the so-called comprehensive peace agreement was signed to end the civil war in the then united Sudan in 2005, the signatories had been hand-picked by the team of negotiators. All the minor actors were left out. They could have been a stabilizing factor, instead now they are contributing to the South Sudan mess.
Violence begets other violence. It is old wisdom, but valid. Dom Hélder Câmara, the Brazilian bishop advocate of justice and peace in his county during the second half of last century, spoke of a “spiral of violence”. Only nonviolence can break the spiral of violence. “Nonviolence” is different from “non violence”. The latter means simply absence of violence, while nonviolence wants to be a new concept, stressing an active process of peace building that includes peace education.
When personal and national interests prevail the looser is the common interest, or we would say with Pope Francis, the “common good”, the good of all and everyone. In these days of globalization, the common good means the good of all humanity, the good of the whole world.
Peace-building, I have also learned, is a permanent process. It is not enough a change of heart of all parties, or of a whole nation. The human heart is such that if a small grain of hatred is left hidden at its bottom, sooner or later will grow again as a poisons tree. Stable peace requires constant efforts, education in human rights, respect for the others, dedication to common good. Peace, as every living thing, needs constant care.
We Christians are called by Jesus to be peacemakers, therefore have a special responsibility to work for peace, and as Church have an extraordinary potential in reaching out to the hearts of people at the grassroots level.
The marchers have almost arrived at the Rocca, the hill behind Assisi where a last appeal for peace will be done before they will disperse, and the little girl is still besides me, looking at me with inquisitive eyes. What can I tell her? “Don’t worry, if you and I continue on the path of peace, one day wars will end.”

Perché partecipare alla Marcia Perugia – Assisi

Mi hanno chiesto perché il 9 ottobre parteciperò alla Marcia della Pace e della Fraternità da Perugia ad Assisi.
E’ molto semplice.
Perché ho visto la guerra. Sui Monti Nuba in Sudan ho visto la popolazione civile rifugiarsi nelle grotte e viverci per settimane per sfuggire ai bombardamenti del governo di Khartoum. Gli occhi terrorizzati dei bambini. La paura che ti rode le viscere quando senti i fischi e poi le esplosioni delle bombe che ti cadono tutto intorno. Le grida di chi fugge e dei morenti. L’odore di morte quando tutto è finito.
Perché ho visto le conseguenze della guerra. Ho visto il campi dei darfuriani rifugiatisi sui Monti Nuba. Dei nubani rifugiatisi in Sud Sudan. Dei sudanesi, somali, ruandesi, burundesi rifugiati in Kenya e in Zambia. Conosco il degrado e la miseria dei rifugiati che vivono nella periferia di Nairobi. Il dolore del vivere lontano dalla famiglia. La disperazione che spinge a tentare di andare ancora più lontano, a rischiare la vita, attraversare il mare andando incontro ad un mondo ignoto.
Perché ho conosciuto i mutilati, gli ex-bambini soldato, gli occhi spenti di chi ti racconta la morte orribile dei propri cari
Sarò alla Marcia da Perugia ad Assisi perché sono consapevole che nel mondo è in atto in grande conflitto alimentato dai mercanti di armi, dai drogati del potere, dai prigionieri dell’odio e dell’egoismo, ai danni dei poveri e dei senza potere. Partecipando alla marcia vorrei diventasse chiaro che nonostante le mie incoerenze mi voglio schierare dalla parte delle vittime dell’ingiustizia e della sopraffazione, contro la cultura della morte e dello scarto. Vorrei che questa marcia rappresentasse la volontà di tanti di fermare nuove guerre, nuove violenze.
Perché non voglio essere corresponsabile delle sofferenze di tante vittime innocenti: i bambini, gli anziani, i perseguitati, le persone abusate, private di libertà e di dignità, gli esuli, i profughi. Tutti coloro ai quali è stato rubato il gusto della vita. Perché non vorrei partecipare mai più a giornate di ricordo per i disperati che sono morti in mare sfuggendo alla guerra, ma a giornate di gioia per celebrare la fraternità ritrovata.
Perché credo in una chiesa che preferisce accogliere piuttosto che giudicare, stare dalla parte dei poveri, dei perseguitarti, delle vittime delle guerre piuttosto che dei vincenti. Perché credo che potremmo essere vincenti tutti insieme solo costruendo fraternità e pace.

Non è il nostro gioco

L’utopia di Assisi e la realtà dell’Africa in un dialogo con alcuni giovani keniani.

A Nairobi le parole di papa Francesco arrivano affievolite dalla distanza, dal filtro dei mass media, dalla lingua. Ho invitato un gruppo di giovani a leggere insieme il discorso del papa ad Assisi, in inglese. Tre sono i passaggi che più hanno attirato la loro attenzione. Quello che richiama alla responsabilità per tutti i cristiani di partecipare, immergersi, nei drammi del nostro tempo.
“La nostra strada è quella di immergerci nelle situazioni e dare il primo posto a chi soffre; di assumere i conflitti e sanarli dal di dentro; di percorrere con coerenza vie di bene, respingendo le scorciatoie del male; di intraprendere pazientemente, con l’aiuto di Dio e con la buona volontà, processi di pace”.
Poi la richiesta creare una cultura dell’incontro.
“Pace significa Educazione: una chiamata ad imparare ogni giorno la difficile arte della comunione, ad acquisire la cultura dell’incontro, purificando la coscienza da ogni tentazione di violenza e di irrigidimento, contrarie al nome di Dio e alla dignità dell’uomo”.
E infine la constatazione che è necessario vivere insieme.
“l nostro futuro è vivere insieme. Per questo siamo chiamati a liberarci dai pesanti fardelli della diffidenza, dei fondamentalismi e dell’odio. I credenti siano artigiani di pace nell’invocazione a Dio e nell’azione per l’uomo!”
Non tutte le razioni sono positive. “Impossibile, sono utopie” dice Kioko, vent’anni, studente d’informatica. Invece Karen, studentessa in procinto di terminare un diploma in sviluppo comunitario, ha una domanda: “Ma la chiesa ha sempre insegnato queste cose? Io frequento la mia parrocchia e non me ne ero mai accorta!”. Mi sento parte in causa, anche se non sono il suo parroco, e dico che forse ne hanno parlato in modo generico, e il discorso per l’impegno per la pace era implicito. Ma devo ammettere che la sua osservazione non mi meraviglia, la dottrina sociale della chiesa non è un argomento frequente dai pulpiti di Nairobi.
Superate le obiezioni ci siamo guardati intorno per capire come vivere le parole del papa, e quale potrebbe essere una nuova dimensione dell’impegno cristiano in Africa. A parte le conclusioni riguardanti l’impegno personale e di gruppo, sono emerse delle osservazioni che fanno capire come i giovani di Nairobi siano attenti a quanto sta succedendo in Africa.
Quasi tutti convengono che in Kenya sta prendendo forza l’idea di superare il tribalismo, o l’”etnicitismo negativo” come si deve dire per essere “politically correct”, e di parlare in termini di unità nazionale. Ma questo viene anche usato per demonizzare gli avversari, come abbiamo visto con Jubilee, il partito dell’attuale presidente Uhuru Kenyatta, che si sta consolidando al di fuori delle zone tradizionali di influenza. C’è però il timore per una politica che al di là della grandi parole sbandierate, sta diventando sempre più uno spettacolo. La recente assemblea fondativa si è svolta sul modello delle convention del partiti americani, con scenografie accuratamente preparate e dirette televisive non-stop. E’ un modo di far politica che non aiuta la partecipazione vera e il dibattito sulle idee e i programmi. Nasconde una voglia, di egemonia, di totalitarismo, come quella che si è manifestata, in modi diversi durante e dopo le recente elezioni in Gabon e in Zambia. Chi è il potere non accetta di perdere, ed è pronto senza esitazione e ricorrere alla violenza delle armi, come in Gabon, o al controllo dei mass media, come è successo in Zambia. Anche in Zambia il partito al potere ha vinto perché è riuscito a dipingere l’opposizione come tribalista e potenzialmente pericolosa per l’unità dal paese. La Somalia è un disastro incomprensibile. Peggio ancora il Sud Sudan, dove i due principali leader, Salva Kiir e Riek Machar per fidelizzare i propri sostenitori hanno fomentato il peggior tribalismo immaginabile, più o meno apertamente approvando i massacri fatti nel loro nome, creando di conseguenza una situazione dove oggi sembra impossibile una riconciliazione interna, se non fra qualche generazione. Forse solo la Tanzania sembra quietamente e sicuramente muoversi in una direzione diversa, con una crescita di un sentimento di unità che non appiattisce le differenze e le particolarità delle diverse componenti etniche. E la corruzione? Endemica ovunque, in Kenya in particolare ha raggiunto proporzioni che nessuno sembra in grado di controllare. Le chiese, incapaci di comunicare con i giovani urbanizzati, che fanno tanta fatica a dialogare fra di loro e con l’Islam. Il quadro che i giovani vedono intorno a loro non è incoraggiante. Kevin, venticinquenne giocatore di calcio quasi professionista (un paio di centinaia di euro al mese fra contanti e pasti) e anche grande lettore delle pagine di analisti politica dei quotidiani nazionali, conclude la carrellata che è durata oltre mezzora, con “Non abbiamo ancora imparato a giocare il gioco della democrazia con le regole che sono state inventate dagli altri. Non è il nostro gioco, e anche gli allenatori e gli arbitri non sono dei nostri. Rimettiamo noi giovani la palla al centro e riproviamo”.
In questo contesto è possibile parlare di impegno cristiano, di cultura dell’incontro, di vivere insieme di essere artigiani di pace? Non solo è possibile, è doveroso, acconsentono tutti. Ma non è facile.
Cito Bernhard Haring teologo morale che già nel 1995 diceva che da oltre vent’anni (quaranta da oggi!) ci sono voci che auspicano l’avvento di un’autentica comunità mondiale nella quale siano riconosciuti la dignità di ciascuno e nella quale ogni nazione capisca di non poter pensare al proprio bene senza interessarsi al benessere di tutti. Pur con l’avvertimento che non appena pensiamo a strutture mondiali efficaci indietreggiamo per paura “della bestia che sale dall’Abisso” (Apocalisse 11,7) temendo l’instaurazione di una tirannia universale. Haring sosteneva che il rimedio non sta nel rifugiarsi negli individualismi e nazionalismi ma nell’attuare progressivamente strutture che favoriscano partecipazione e responsabilità. Poi cito un messaggio di Paolo VI, il quale nel 1971 diceva “Tutti gli uomini nascono liberi a uguali nella dignità e nei diritti, essi sono dotati di ragione e di conoscenza e devono comportarsi gli uni verso gli altri come fratelli, Non torniamo indietro, diamo applicazione logica e coraggiosa a questa formula: ogni uomo è mio fratello”.
Solidarietà, pace, fratellanza universale. Stava sognando Paolo Vi quando pronunciava questo messaggio? O è questo l’orizzonte della storia nonostante tutte le presenti difficoltà?
Karen è persa nei suoi pensieri. Poi sbotta con una frase che diventa la conclusione dell’incontro: “Vorrei essere capace di contribuire a realizzare l’utopia di Paolo VI e di papa Francesco. Il nostro futuro non deve essere lasciato in mani a uomini – e sottolinea con forza uomini – come Salva Kiir e Riek Machar”.

The old/new mission – La “missione liquida”

The “liquid mission” is the same mission of old: do not make your plans, trust Jesus and follow Him. Walk with the excluded, the poor, and you shall discover, step after step, where He wants you to go. He is ahead, He waits for us in ‘Galilee’

The old missionaries that I knew when I was young, many years ago, used to say that departures to the mission—and the last embraces with relatives and friends—became more difficult as they grew older. Every time could be the last time. Their departures were few, the first time in general when they were in their early twenties, followed by a long stay in Africa, then maybe a second departure, and when there was a third was almost certainly the last. The travel from Europe to Sudan or Uganda lasted weeks and weeks, was dangerous and expensive.

As a novice, I was asked to accompany home a Comboni Sister who had left Italy in 1938. It was 1964, and I saw the then elderly nun burst into tears because she was not any longer able to locate neither the street and the house where she had grown up nor the stream where she used to play as a child. The stream had been covered by a large paved road. At the end, I had to call her relatives to come and collect her at the railway station. I realized that the returns could be even more painful than the departures.

If you asked these missionaries why they had left their home and went far away to announce the Gospel, you were given motivations that today make us smile, and seem simplistic and childish: saving souls; baptise, and send to heaven even a single dying person; bring the light of the Gospel; heal the sick children. If you deepened the exchange, you understood that the basic motivation was authentically evangelical: love for God and love of neighbour. If you had the patience to continue to listen to their endless stories, you could understand that they were deeply rooted in a spirit of service and sacrifice. They were ready for anything, up to the giving up of their lives, for the persons to whom they were sent and with whom they had entered into communion of life.

Today, the departures have multiplied and the reasons have become more sophisticated. Missionaries go and come back at least every three years, sometimes even more often. Three months of vacation, and then off, almost incognito. You are lucky if the parishes and the dioceses of origin show some sign of interest. A Dutch missionary told me: “I come from a large family, with eight children, now my seven brothers and sisters have a total of five children. The grandchildren are just three. No one is a practising Catholic. Worse, there is not even the sense of being a family. When I go on vacation I feel an alien in my country of origin.”

Secularization and globalization have cancelled the geographical dimension of the mission. The motivations are increasingly sophisticated—elaborated in seminars, meetings and workshops with avant-garde theologians. Still, the number of European missionaries is fast collapsing, and some missionary congregations, like the Bethlehem Missionaries based in Switzerland, are about to be extinct. The commitment of the very few new missionaries is not enough to revive the institutions. Of course, even today there are those who are willing to give their lives to the end for the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, as we are reminded every year by the list of women and men killed as serving as missionaries.

The “new mission” is a new challenge, not necessarily a physical border, and begins in the very heart of the same missionary, extending to the whole world. It is based on the awareness of the need of your own conversion before that of others.

The liquid mission. Some speak of “liquid mission” in analogy to the concept of “liquid society” by Zygmunt Bauman. According to Baumann, we live in a situation of crisis of traditional communities; community values plummeted, and, lacking a point of reference, everything dissolves into a kind of liquidity. Individual salvation is found in “appearing” and “consuming”. You must be seen, and you must consume, in order to be recognized as a person. An unbridled individualism becomes the core value of the society. There are no longer travelling companions, but rivals to be opposed and defeated. If you do not appear, you do not exist. If you do not consume, you do not have any value. What could be more distant from the Gospel values?

To be a missionary in this “liquid society” is a new, difficult, sometime scary situation. Instead of taking advantage of the new opportunities we can get afraid about the possible risks and we could close up in our mental castles, be on the defensive. The motivations become deeper, often take a personal colouring. To the extent of becoming un-graspable, evanescent, sometimes the person himself cannot explain them… The centrality of Jesus the Lord is encrusted by different elements. Liquidity by its nature tends to make everything level, flattens everything on the lowest common denominator. No surprise if the mission of the Church becomes more and more similar to the worthy activity of a humanitarian NGO, as has repeatedly noted Pope Francis.

Yet, now is the time when Pope Francis calls the Church to “go out”, to be a missionary Church. To put at the centre of her proclamation the Gospel of mercy, a God who is a merciful Father, as proclaimed by Jesus. It is a call certainly understood and shared by the missionaries. The institutions, however, have more trouble than individuals to understand and practice the direction given by the pope. Institutions, even if religious institutions with eminently missionary vocation, by their very nature tend to stability, preservation. They tend to follow the logic of hierarchy, control, power. They have difficulty to live by the values of openness, freedom, enthusiasm, risk. An individual can decide on his own to go on a risky mission, and institution, especially an institution that feels threatened by the world, would establish a commission to study all the possible options, and subscribe to an insurance… We have seen this in Europe where missionary institutes are struggling to implement Pope Francis exhortations, and rather prefer to live in a status of peaceful continuity, of security, rather than making available their potential and their home to answer Pope Francis call to mobilize at the service of the migrants.

Audacious as a child. It is hard nowadays to be adventurous and audacious as the missionaries of old. I heard as a child the story of father Giovanni Mazzucconi, a young missionary from my home-town, who was killed in Papua New Guinea, almost exactly the other side of the world, in 1855. It was a story full of adventures, exotic places, people with strange traditions, a story of sacrifices, love and dedication to God. All ingredients able to fire up the imagination of a child. Today, there are no new continents to be explored, peoples not reached by the message of the Gospel live in countries and places where my home-town friends go for business and holidays. The discriminations, injustices, wars they suffer are everyday brought to us by the news and they have become so commonplace that we do not care. We still can go in a war zone—too many of them in Africa—we can go and bring comfort to a Christian community far away and isolated, we can face hunger, disease, danger of all sorts. But all the romantic appeal of the old missionaries’ stories is gone. The heroic missionary opening up an entire land to the Gospel is no more, and we haven’t found any substitute. The new frontiers are dry and septic, and they frighten us more than the deserts, the jungles and the oceans.

Last year, we saw the Italian missionary institutes close down MISNA, the only European news missionary agency who provided world news in four languages. It had a missionary perspective: the Gospel seen in action in the justice, peace, reconciliation, ecological activities going on around the world. A solid presentation and interpretation of the facts. Its closure—taken at the highest levels of the Italian missionary institutes—baffled many missionaries as well as journalists. Closing a highly respected news agency just months after the publication of Laudato Si’, is the most absurd thing that can be done by people who are called to be announcers of the Good News. Improve it, transform it according to the needs and new technologies, yes, but close without proposing alternatives? The high seas of communication are scary.

The communication challenge. It is true that the frontier missionaries do not feel at ease in the mass media world. Those who lives by the Gospel and communicate their faith through the gestures of everyday life, nurturing deep human relations with their communities, feel out of place in preparing press statements and appearing in television programs. They have a deep distrust of a world where the most important thing is “to appear”, they do not feel much empathy with the “TV missionaries” who are rarely seen in the field. They share the spiritual attitude of John the Baptist, wishing to disappear so that Jesus can grow, and to appear in a TV program seem to them a useless vanity. Often when these missionaries are made known by the media they feel inadequate, even soiled by contact with that world.

Yet the missionaries should not stop in the face of risks. “I dream of a missionary option that transforms all things” (Evangelii Gaudium, 27) wrote Pope Francis. This idea constantly returns in all his speeches, it is the soil in which his words and all his actions are rooted. For Francis “going out”—of which the missionary was until recently the clearest icon—is not one of the many activities, but the very breath of life of the Church.

Of this missionary option capable of transforming all things there are few signs in the official documents of the missionary institutes. Their recent General Chapters held after Pope Francis had already made very clear his vision for a Church open to the world and at the service of the poor, have interpreted his words as pious exhortations rather than as indication of concrete changes that must take place. Yes, they keep talking as they had done in the last four of five decades of peace, justice, ecology, refugees, immigrants. In everyday life, the most important concerns remain the relations with the bishops, the decline in donations, and, at least in Europe, the property management…

The “new” aged badly. An old missionary, one of those who have spent all of their life in Africa told me: “From the days of my ordination, I hear speaking about a ‘new mission’. Yet, when I arrived in the middle of nowhere in Africa in 1969, I found a superior who was the embodiment of the old mission. But he loved the people and he loved me, in spite of what he considered my mistakes. And that is the whole Gospel, isn’t it? I’ve always respected him, and tried to learn from him the many positive lessons he had to give. Then I read books, articles, papers to keep updated. The ‘new mission’ remained a mystery. So many words and little or no new substance. In the Evangelii Nuntiandi, in 1975, Pope Paul VI said everything there was to say, and even today it is the reference on how to put the Second Vatican Council into practice. Nothing changed. In Rome, the Vatican II was quickly forgotten. When I proposed new initiatives the provincial superiors blocked me. ‘New mission’ became an old joke! Then here he comes, Pope Francis. Everything he says and does is at the same time very old and very new. It has the perfume of the Gospel. I confess that I find it hard to follow him, even if I am a few years younger than him. He is the pope I was dreaming for when I left for Africa. Now, I have less strength, maybe even less enthusiasm. Many fellow missionaries of my age are not able to keep up his pace and grumble. To regain the enthusiasm, I reread the lives of the first Comboni Missionaries, not because I regret the disappearance of that world. I would simply like to recharge my spirit with the faith with which they faced difficulties that seemed insurmountable. Instead, I lose my heart when I hear young confrères worrying about the future. Missionaries who program the time of retirement? We really deserve to disappear; we are no longer salt of the earth!”

When I point out that it was not all so beautiful, that in the past there were inabilities or unwillingness to understand the modern world, rigid attitudes and complete closures, just think of the clash with the Muslim world experienced as hostile, and the difficult relationship with local cultures often deemed inadequate or unable to receive the Gospel, he goes on saying: “But they went, they took risks! Now that Pope Francis invites us to go out, because it is better to go out rather than suffocating in our safe homes, we seem paralysed, unable to think big… We are frightened of the audacity of the pope, we prefer to walk in safe grounds… or maybe we are also waiting for the ‘cyclone Francis’ to pass and return to our quiet routine?”

These memories of meetings, fragments of life, contradictory reflections come to my mind while I’m yet again on the move. Another departure, moving to a new context. Shall I program new initiatives? It will take efforts, sweat and tears before they become concrete initiatives. Or failures.

Again on the move. Why, what for? What was initiated needs time to germinate, the seedling need more time to grow. There are first of all the people with whom I’ve walked together, and while now my pace slows down they are ready to encourage me. The street children and boys and girls in Nairobi and Lusaka, the Nuba entangled in a never ending struggle, the refugees, the peacemakers… Will I have enough time to do anything at all?

I could think of “going out” to new suburbs, but where? Maybe, I could organize a group of youngster and go around with them proclaiming joy and peace… Crazy! Maybe better not to try, simply better to remain vigilant and recognize the new when it comes to visit.

Actions instead of words. At the Nairobi airport lounge where I am waiting for the connection to Zambia an elderly woman approaches me. Simple dress, gentle smile: “Father Kizito, can I steal a few minutes?” she asks me and then introduces herself. She is from Peru, a nun in a local religious congregation, her name is Rosa, as the most popular saint of her country. She works with street children in Lima and is on her way back from the second visit to her younger sister, also a nun, who works in another African country, a nurse at a clinic in the bush. Both have studied in Rome, and since that time have been avid readers of all missionary publications, including Nigrizia. She wants to talk about Africa, and I cannot stop her. She tells me of her first visit to her sister, four years ago. “I went to see her because she was in crisis. I wanted to find out why. The first impact was extraordinary. I was impressed by the dedication of many people, hospital staff and pastoral agents of all levels. I saw an extraordinary spiritual beauty in the people, the simple villagers. But I got the impression that the structures of the Church are still an external body. People do not own the Church. The Church is perceived as a structure living to another level, with another way of reasoning, too linked to power and wealth. My sister even though working in daily physical contact with the poor had been in crisis because she felt she was considered like the officer of an institution. We talked together, how to change? Now I’m coming back from the second trip. I thought Pope Francis had caused a change, yet I noticed even more fatigue, resistance to change, grumbling, isolation.” Sister Rose’s Latin American soul comes out: “Of course people work with a lot of faith. But there is no admission of mistakes, of the weakness of the Church, no real community work, no human growth to match the Christian instruction, no political awareness. I love this Church, it is my Church, we have to answer the call of Francis to renew her with love and commitment. With my sister, I realized that we need to strengthen our spirituality, not the one made of memorized prayers from old devotional books, one that is born of shared life. The action, even the wrong action, if done in good faith is more important than the words. Social changes are coming fast, the kind world of the village tradition can disappear faster than expected, Nairobi is already a very bad imitation of the worse capitalistic world. I see Africa moving fast towards economic wealth and losing her soul. We must be ready to change, be opened to the action of the Spirit, or we fail our mission of announcing the Jesus, the Lord of History!”

Trusting and following Jesus. Sister Rosa has realized that her fervent homily has attracted the attention of some other passengers in the lounge, and lowers her voice “As I grow older, I have learned to trust more Jesus and His Spirit and less myself. When I am rooted in Jesus, I can withstand all the disappointments, all the misunderstandings, all the betrayals. The only certainty comes from following Him.”

The PA system of the airport calls her flight. Without knowing she has answered the questions I had in my heart; Sister Rosa greets and leaves. The “liquid mission” is the same mission of old: do not make your plans, trust Jesus and follow Him. Walk with the excluded, the poor, and you shall discover, step after step, where He wants you to go. He is ahead, He waits for us in ‘Galilee’.

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.


Quanto costa un bambino? – How much for a child?

Last week, on December 16, in Nairobi, a well-dressed man in his forties arrived in Ndugu Mdogo, the Koinonia home for street children located in Kibera slum, and asked to speak to the manager. When Jack received him in the only room that could be described as “living room”, the visitor told him that he was sent by a woman who runs a large clothing store in Nairobi, and this lady has a friend who is the wife of a Minister in the South Sudan government. The talk took some time and in the meanwhile some of the children who were learning English in the same room had come closer, intrigued. The man came to the conclusion pointing to a well built teenager, saying, “The minister wife would like to adopt a child, for example someone like him” and after a brief pause to let the request sink in, he added “how much?” Jack asked him to repeat the whole story, not believing that he had got it right, but after several clarifications the conclusion was even more explicit; “Tell me the cost, I come back this afternoon with the cash and take him. I’ll take care of the trip”. Jack was now sure that the long story was not true. He asked him to wait a few minutes to have time to ask his superior, instead moving away from the room he went to close the gate and to call the police.

As they carried away the man who kept cursing Jack and proclaiming himself innocent mediator of international adoption, the police said they only in Kibera receive each month several complaints from the relatives of children and boys between 15 and 20 who disappear without a trace. They expressed the opinion that the boys are taken to Somalia to be trained by Al Shabaab, the terrorist group that organized the attacks on the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi in September 2013 and at the University of Garissa on Holy Thursday this year.

We do not know what the Kenyan police managed to find out from the man, but in this case the assumption that he was a recruiter for al Shabaab does not seem to be the most convincing. Why pay for a teenager when in Kibera there are dozens, hundreds of young people without a future, desperate, willing to do anything to be assured of a meal a day? The fact that the man had seem to prefer teenager would rather suggest something more sinister, like an international organization for organ harvesting.

There are researches affirming that about 20,000 people every year in this part of Africa are trafficked and many end up as sex slaves in Europe, others, especially the young and healthy, are subsequently killed to harvest organ (heart, liver, eyes, skin, all), and others are used for human sacrifices. Only last year in Uganda a businessman was sentenced to life imprisonment because at regular intervals he sacrificed adolescent boys to ensure success for his business.

This is an unusual Christmas tale. Yet this is the world in which Jesus became man, putting Himself as an helpless baby in our hands. Hands that can caress and bless, hands that can kill. The other Koinonia social workers have heard this story from Jack and concluded that by “becoming flesh” Jesus makes us look with always greater respect to the children who through different ways have been entrusted to our care. Truly, they are the flesh of God.

Cosa dirà Francesco alla Chiesa Africana?

Tutto in Africa incomincia con una storia. Per esempio la storia di Big Waiguru, un donnone che ha solo trent’anni ma ne dimostra quaranta. Venuta dal villaggio natio a Nairobi in cerca di fortuna oltre dieci anni fa, ha trovato solo un marito da mantenere e tre figli.

Ogni giorno è in piedi prima dell’alba per vendere frutta di stagione su un carretto strategicamente piazzato su kabiria Road. La sera è distrutta dalla fatica, e incomnicia cucinare per gli uomini della famiglia che rientrano a casa, dalla ricerca inutile di un lavoro che non ci sara mai o da una scuola di infimo livello che non li preparerà alla vita.

La distrazione è il venerdì sera, alle prove del coro parrocchiale, con le amiche, e la domenica mattina a Messa. Big Waiguru non si lamenta, non ne ha tempo, sempre pronta a rimboccarsi le maniche e fare qualcosa per gli altri. “Papa Francesco lo vedo ogni tanto alla televisione del chiosco di fianco a alla baracca in cui viviamo. E’ un uomo buono, che parla di misericordia e perdono. Ne abbiamo tutti bisogno”. Si ferma per un attimo, sorride. “Sopratutto mio marito” aggiunge.

Big Waiguru rappresenta le persone che sono le colonne della chiesa keniana. Le donne, i poveri, la gente delle baraccopoli, confusa e sperduta in una città dove si incontrano e talvolta si scontrano mondi diversi, dove ricchi e poveri vivono fianco a fianco, dove differenze e ingiustizie sono tanto eclatanti quanto scioccanti. Dove l’ingiustizia e la miseria fanno si che spesso le vittime diventino i carnefici, in una spirale di violenza senza fine. Dove la speranza è viva nonostante tutto, dove la vita vince sempre. Persone che sono capaci di vedere la bellezza della vita nelle situazioni più disperate.

L’importanza dell’incontro con i giovani

In Africa non succede niente fino a che le persone non si incontrano faccia a faccia. La relazione umana e’ centrale alla cultura africana, e non è difficile immaginare che con Francesco, la sua parola e gestualità semplice e immediata, sarà amore a prima vista.

Le preoccupazioni per la sicurezza sono grandi, in Kenya, specialmente nel prosieguo del viaggio, in Repubblica Centro Africana, ma evidentemente non sono un deterrente per Francesco. Chi porta una parola di pace e giustizia conosce i pericoli che potrebbe incontrare. Non puo deludere le aspettative della gente.

I giovani, in particolare, si aspettano da Francesco che la sua presenza e il suo esempio siano una scossa forte perché la Chiesa sappia intraprendere nuove strade. Mi dice John, responsabile a livello parrocchiale di un’associazione cattolica: “Meno formalismi, meno struttura, più coinvolgimento nella vita quotidiana. Abbiamo tanti preti che sono vicini alla gente, eppure la chiesa ha ancora il volto di una burocrazia lontana e non recettiva delle nostre aspirazioni”. I giovani hanno bisogno di essere ascoltati, e, a differenza di molti giovani occidentali, accettano il dialogo, rispettano le saggezza che percepiscono in un anziano, accettano perfino di essere consigliati. Il Kenya, come tutti i Paesi africani, è una nazione giovane, il 50 per cento della popolazione ha meno di 25 anni. I giovani, le giovani donne in particolare, devono affrontare grandi sfide: il lavoro, la casa, la creazione di una famiglia, costruirsi una vita minimamente dignitosa. Ma i giovani non hanno più il sostegno solido che la cultura tradizionale dava loro per inserirsi nella vita.

Quando escono dalle scuole hanno ricevuto solo un’infarinatura di nozioni imparate a memoria per superare gli esami, nessuna idea su come affrontare il loro futuro, e, senza più la solidità dell’educazione tradizionale, non trovano nella Chiesa una cura pastorale che possa farli sentire accompagnati. Se la Chiesa non si fa carico e non si sente coinvolta nel futuro dei giovani, anche la Chiesa perderà il futuro.

Una chiesa in cammino

Capire l’Africa, anche se ci limitiamo all’Africa sub-sahariana, è difficile. Ogni volta che pensi di averla capita succede qualcosa che ti costringe a rivedere i tuoi schemi.

C’è l’Africa di fame e malattie e guerre civili croniche, della violenza politica e soppressione dei diritti civili, della corruzione e del traffico di persone, delle pesanti interferenze esterne e del land-grabbing, del terrorismo islamico e dei conflitti etnici. Insieme c’è l’Africa che cresce. Nei primi dieci anni di questo secolo nove delle venti economie mondiali che sono cresciute di più sono africane e la percentuale della popolazione giovanile che accede alla scuola superiore è aumentata del 50%. Nel solo Kenya ogni anno le università sfornano cinquantamila laureati, senza contare le migliaia di giovani che ottengono diplomi e certificazioni nel campo informatico. E’ troppo presto per dire, come qualcuno fa, che questo sarà il secolo dell’Africa. Escluderlo sarebbe da imprevidenti.

ll tutto sullo sfondo di una chiesa che ha bisogno di rinnovamento. La chiesa cattolica in molti paesi dell’Africa nera è l’istituzione più importante dopo il governo, quella che raggiunge tutti, nei villaggi più remoti. La rete di servizi sanitari e scolastici è ineguagliata. Le chiese sono piene di giovani, le celebrazioni piene di vita, i seminari traboccano.

Ci sono anche verità scomode. Non dobbiamo illuderci con l’immagine di una chiesa giovane ed entusiasta. La chiesa “famiglia di Dio” secondo il motto del primo sinodo africano del 1994? I laici, in particolare donne, sono tenute in una condizione di infantilismo, La chiesa povera? Gli scandali per la mala gestione economici di alcune diocesi sono tenuti a fatica sotto sotto controllo, come nel 2009 quando Roma chiese a quasi la metà dei vescovi della Repubblica Centro Africana, ultima tappa del viaggio di Francesco, di dimettersi per condotte economicamente, e non solo, scandalose. La chiesa giovane? Si frequentata dai giovani, ma che fa grande fatica ad accettare i cambiamenti? Una chiesa che opera per la giustizia e la pace? Si, in alcune situazioni, ma ci sono anche situazioni di collusione col potere. Come sempre la chiesa ha necessita di mettersiin stato di conversione.

L’incontro con Francesco, un papa che contrariamente ai suoi predecessori non e’ neanche mai stato in questo continente, offre una grande opportunità. Sarà uno sguardo nuovo, da entrambe le parti, una nuova possibilità di comprendersi fra Chiesa e Africa. Finora Francesco ha mostrato di voler decentralizzare il governo della chiesa, dando più responsabilità ai vescovi locali, come ha fatto con il recente “motu proprio” riguardante le procedure per l’annullamento di matrimoni. Una sfida per i pastori africani che già sommano in se responsabilità di vario genere, sopratutto di ordine pratico.

Quella africana non è una chiesa che ha abbondanza di intellettuali o tanto personale da poter mettere negli uffici delle curie diocesane, o teologi morali o esperti di diritto canonico. La pressante priorità è la guida pastorale delle comunità cristiane gia esistenti, che crescono sia per la demografia interna sia per l’attrazione che esercita dal cristianesimo anche senza esplicita attività missionaria. Nel suo viaggio in America Latina Papa Francesco ha mostrato quanto apprezzi una chiesa che si fa popolo, che assume i valori locali.

Dalla sopravvivenza alla missione

L’incontro con Francesco potrebbe essere l’occasione per la chiesa africana di ripartire dalla parole dette da Paolo VI, in Uganda nel 1969, durante il primo viaggio in Africa di un papa dei tempi moderni: “Voi potete, e dovete, avere una cristianesimo africano” Compito immane. L’Europa ci ha messo secoli, e ogni giorno deve ricominciare daccapo.

Un cammino ancora lungo in Africa. Diceva recentemente una teologa africana, la nigeriana Teresa Okure ”il cristianesimo portato in Africa era una versione completamente europeizzata”. Con i primi pastori e teologi africani una cammino per dare al Vangelo un volto africano era stato avviato, ma poi col primo sinodo Africano si è interrotto.

E’ un cammino che richiede capacita pastorali e preparazione dottrinale, senza paura degli errori. Anche in questo campo si potrebbe applicare il principio che meglio è meglio essere chiesa che cammina per le strade dell’Africa e ogni tanto sbaglia, piuttosto che una chiesa chiusa nelle sacrestie. “Missione” nei discorsi di Francesco è divenuta il paradigma dell’attività della chiesa. Con l’“opzione missionaria” che propone nella Evangelii Gaudium l’attività della chiesa non è più gestire la sopravvivenza, diventa opera audace e creativa per la trasformazione del mondo.

La chiesa che è in Africa, il popolo che cammina sulle piste del deserto o della savana, nei viottoli sconnessi delle baraccopoli, è la carne ferita di Cristo che ha bisogno di essere toccata per guarire e per diventare capace di proclamare la Risurrezione. Big Waiguru, milioni di donne e uomini d’Africa in fondo si aspettano solo questo da Papa Francesco: di essere toccati. Rinnovare, ascoltandolo e partecipando ai suoi gesti, la certezza che Dio cammina con loro.

Il Dottore dei Nuba – The Nuba’s Healing Hand

Tom Catena

Medical doctor Tom Catena has been considered by Time magazine of last 16 April among today’s 100 most influential people, see http://time.com/3823233/tom-catena-2015-time-100/
Andrew Berends presents Dr. Catena like this:
Meeting Tom Catena is the closest I have come to meeting a saint. He runs the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan with an unparalleled level of devotion to his Catholic faith and the Nuban people who seek his care. Much of the region falls under rebel control. Civilians struggle to survive amid ground fighting, aerial bombardment and starvation warfare at the hands of their government. Humanitarian organizations are prohibited from delivering aid. Catena defies the ban and is the only surgeon serving a population of 750,000 people. He works tirelessly, day and night, treating all ailments, war injuries and starvation. He tells me his greatest reward is the sense of peace that comes from serving people in need, rebels and civilians alike. In spite of the hardship, he is exactly where he wants to be.

The South African Comboni magazine Worldwide has interviewed him.

How long have you been working in the Nuba Mountains? How did it come about?
– I’ve been working in the Nuba Mountains for close to seven and a half years. I first heard about the Nuba Mountains from a friend of mine named Sr Dede Byrne, who is a friend of (Comboni) Bishop Macram Max Gassis. I met Sr Dede in Kenya in 2002 and she told me that Bishop Macram was planning to build a hospital in Sudan and thought I might be interested in working there. I contacted the bishop’s office in Nairobi and began discussing with them some of the details involved in opening the hospital. Finally, in early 2008, we were ready to open. A Comboni Sister, Sr Angelina has been the hospital matron since the opening of the hospital and we have since had two other Comboni Sisters (Sr Rocio and Sr Vincienne) working with us here.

You have worked in other parts of Africa but once you said that the Nuba are special. What makes them special? What kind of link do you feel with those people?
– One thing that struck me early about the Nuba is that they are a proud and independent people and because of this, they have always treated me as an equal—not as someone above them or below them. I like the fact that an elderly woman here will call me by my first name (and not address me as ‘doctor’) and not put me at arm’s length even though I’m a foreigner.

I feel a rather strong connection to the people here and think that is borne of sharing common fears and sufferings. I think after spending some time here, one feels a bit cut off from the rest of the world and tends to feel close to those who have remained behind in this forgotten part of the world.

What are your daily endeavours? What kind of operations and how many do you perform usually? Do you get medicines easily?
– The day starts with the daily Mass at 6:30 a.m. We are fortunate to have two Apostles of Jesus priests with us who are very faithful in saying the daily Mass. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, I do a full hospital round on all of the patients from around 07:30 to 13:00 and then go to the outpatient clinic to see patients referred from the clinical officers. Clinic usually goes on until 17:00 or 18:30, depending on the time of the year. Night time is for emails, administrative work and emergencies.

We do anywhere from 150 to 200 operations per month and they run the full gamut of surgery. We do everything from abscess drainage and tooth extraction to ventriculo-peritoneal shunts on small babies with hydrocephalus. Our anaesthetist has been trained on the job and does outstanding work.

Getting medicines out here is a real challenge. We place the order from here to our office in Nairobi which then has to get the medicines from Nairobi to us here in the Nuba Mountains. This takes a tremendous effort from the office staff in Nairobi given the inevitable logistical nightmares and great expense to move things here.

How do you see yourself among the Nuba people? Do you feel their affection?
– I feel very comfortable around the Nuba and feel this is home now. They are very appreciative of all the efforts the diocese makes on their behalf. Last year, we received a donation of shoes from the US and we sent them with one of the Comboni Sisters to a very remote village. Two weeks later, 40 people from that village walked for three hours in the pouring rain to bring us gifts and sing and dance for us as a way of saying thank you. The close feelings with the Nuba took some time as they don’t readily trust anyone who shows up. This is likely due to the centuries of oppression they’ve suffered at the hands of outsiders. One certainly has to first earn their trust but once that is done, they will stick by you through thick and thin.

What are the people’s greatest needs in that remote place? What do you miss most?
– There has been virtually no development in this part of the world. There are very limited health care facilities of any type. There are some schools, several of which are run by the diocese and some others which have to rely on untrained local teachers. All of the schools were closed during the first three years of the civil war but several have now re-opened. There are no paved or maram roads anywhere—most of the roads are dirt tracks carved out through the bush. There is no running water, electricity or sanitation.

You have often been in danger. How many times have you been bombarded and had to run for your life?
– The hospital has been directly targeted twice—once by a Sukhoi-24 bomber and then by an Antonov. Eleven bombs were dropped on the hospital and its periphery but there was no major damage or casualties. Our village has been bombed on two other occasions. The Sudan Air Force bombers have been flying overhead on a frequent basis (sometimes daily, sometimes weekly) since the start of the conflict over four years ago. The sound of the Antonov or Sukhoi will send us running to the foxholes for protection as one never knows if this is one’s day.

What gives you strength to follow such a (lonely and painful) path?
– My only explanation is that the prayers and support of many people has sustained me during these past several years. I’m always amazed to hear from total strangers that they’re praying for us here and am a firm believer in the power of that prayer.

When the suffering that surrounds you is too much, don’t you feel the temptation to run away? On those occasions, what ties you to your post? What is your ‘secret’?
– Yes, of course there has been the feeling that I just need to get out of here and away from all of the suffering and problems. Nearly every day and certainly every week, there are situations that are truly disturbing—a baby or child dies, a post-operative patient dies or has complications, someone is very sick and I just can’t figure out their problem. These are all highly stressful situations that have to be confronted and dealt with. My only consolation is to know that I am certainly not perfect and that I am not the one in charge of life and death. Only God has the ultimate say on who lives and who dies. My role is to do my best and be faithful to my calling. After a patient dies, I go through a grieving process which includes trying to learn something from the situation. I then really struggle to try to stay focused and get back to the task at hand. If I become incapacitated by grief (which is easy to do) then I will be unable to help the next patient who needs our assistance.

In a way, your task is so out of proportion to the common strength of a human being that it reminds us of Mother Teresa, working herself to the bone, struggling in an ocean of death and suffering. Have you by chance thought about her? She even lost, for many years, the ‘connection’ with God. Lots of people think that this diminishes her, while we dare to think the opposite. What do YOU think?
– Yes, I understand her feelings very well. I wouldn’t say I have had any great crisis of faith here in Nuba but certainly feel a disconnection from other people and from Western society. Perhaps it would be more of a depersonalisation whereby I don’t quite feel whole and don’t think others can relate to what I’m experiencing.

We think that life is prayer and work. That has to do with the old tradition of ora et labora, but goes even further. What is your experience?
– Yes, I would agree with that especially since there is not much else to do here in our isolated location. I would certainly like to have more ora and less labora but that is not possible now. Medical people are not known for leading balanced lives!

When do you feel really at peace with yourself?
– The best time of the day is the 20 or 30 minutes I have alone in the chapel before the morning Mass begins. That’s my time just to pray and reflect without any distractions.

Another obvious question: what was your happiest moment in life and the most difficult?
– My happiest moment was my graduation from medical school as I felt that I was finally on my way to accomplish some of my goals in life. The most difficult times have been those when I’ve had interpersonal conflicts with others—these are much worse than any danger or fear from attack. These conflicts are inevitable in a high stress environment such as ours but our faith teaches us that we must embark on the slow and difficult path to reconciliation.

You are in daily contact with the suffering of people victimised in a war that is again almost forgotten by the international community. How do you feel in that corner of the world? Do you have questions you would like to ask the world leaders?
– Yes, we do often feel forgotten by the rest of the world as this is a relatively small conflict in a very remote part of the world. The tragedy is that the people here have been suffering for the better part of 30 years with no clear end in sight.

I think much of the suffering here could be alleviated if there was pressure put on the Sudan government to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Nuba Mountains. The international organisations that normally provide food relief, vaccines and drugs are afraid to come to Nuba as this would be a ‘cross border’ operation and they feel it would violate the sovereignty of the Sudan government. World leaders could use their influence to push the Sudan government into opening a humanitarian corridor into Nuba but it seems the political will to do that is not there. The conflict here seems to be just below everyone’s radar.

We would like to end with an infinite and heartfelt thank you, for your selfless dedication to people in need and for inspiring and challenging us to a greater commitment to humanity.

Il papa-pastore e la nuova Europa

All’Angelus di ieri papa Francesco ha chiesto tutte le parrocchie, comunità religiose, monasteri, santuari di accogliere una famiglia di profughi. Il grido di Giovanni Paolo II, “aprite le porte a Cristo” diventa concreto in perfetto stile evangelico. Il Cristo da accogliere è una famiglia di profughi.
Con questo intervento e con altri che ha compiuto nel suo pontificato, Francesco ci sta re-insegnando il Vangelo e ci sta indicano la via per la ri-costruzione dell’Europa.

È un passaggio che la politica fa fatica a capire. Lo interpreta come ingerenza, ma tale non è. È semplicemente Vangelo vissuto che fa esplodere la politica dall’interno, e costringe le leggi, i regolamenti, i confini, soprattutto i confini mentali, ad adeguarsi alla vita.

Gli ungheresi, gli austriaci, i tedeschi che a centinaia, a migliaia si sono rifiutati di obbedire alle leggi e hanno soccorso, rifocillato, trasportato, ospitato, sorriso e applaudito i migranti ci hanno dimostrato che un altro grido che stava diventando un trito luogo comune può essere davvero vissuto: “un altro mondo è possibile”. Davvero siamo prima di tutto esseri umani, fratelli e sorelle, e poi siamo anche siriani, sudanesi, eritrei, musulmani e cristiani. Prima di tutto umani.

Ricordiamoci che qualche giorno fa il segretario generale della Cei, Galantino aveva fatto un intervento “politico”, attaccando quei partiti che cercano voti sulla pelle dei migranti. Ci sono state reazioni durissime, ma ovvie: sei i vescovi scendono nell’arena politica, troveranno risposte politiche. Ma questo è perché alcuni che fanno politica, e magari sono cristiani battezzati, non capiscono che il Vangelo è ben più lungimirante ed esplosivo delle ideologie politiche.

Gli istituti religiosi, comboniani in primis, sono chiamati a calare nel quotidiano la proposta del papa, e a dare una risposta pubblica, veloce e concreta. Chi nelle parrocchie e nelle case religiose cerca giustificazioni al non fare – evocando tutte le difficoltà possibili ed immaginabili, anche a livello di leggi e di regolamenti locali, di incompetenza nel gestire i rapporti con questure e prefetture, di difficoltà nel reperire il personale che si occupi adeguatamente di questo fatto – non ha capito la profezia di questo gesto.

Piccolo mondo egoista

Il nostro mondo europeo è ormai piccolo non solo geograficamente, e ha dato segni di diventare progressivamente sempre più meschino, gretto, chiuso nel proprio egoismo. Di fronte ai drammi del disastro ecologico e delle guerre – per i quali abbiamo responsabilità gravissime – siamo presi dal panico e rispondiamo alla crescente richiesta di solidarietà con l’indifferenza dei padroni e dei ricchi. E finiamo per diventare un piccolo mondo che si pensa al centro dell’universo e non capisce che al di là dei nostri confini c’è un nuovo grande mondo ribollente di vita, di progetti, di voglia di dignità.

Cosi crediamo a chi vuol farci percepire lo straniero come una minaccia, come colui che vuole derubarci della “nostra roba” e della “nostra identità”, invece che come “colui senza il quale vivere non è più vivere”.
Sbaglia chi crede di poter fermare con le leggi questa ondata di vita che viene ad abbracciarci. Fortunatamente per tutti noi, sono degli illusi. La legge non cambia la storia; anzi, quasi sempre la legge è costretta a seguirla, soprattutto quando si tratta di eventi epocali come le migrazioni oggi in atto. Chi invece cerca di capire la storia incomincia a vedere che la solidarietà o diventa globale o non ha più senso.

Gli egoismi di classe e di nazione sono il linguaggio del passato. Fra pochi anni i politici che hanno inventato i muri che dividono le nazioni come fra Messico e Stati Uniti, fra Israele e Palestina, fra Ungheria e Serbia, chi ha attuato i respingimenti, e chi ha fomentato intolleranza e razzismo, saranno consegnati alla storia come sopravvissuti di un’era in cui nessuno più si riconoscerà.

Nostri fratelli

Che bello questo papa-pastore che ci invita ad accogliere i rifugiati non per fare un’opera sociale, non per calcoli diplomatici o per cambiare equilibri geopolitici, ma “solo” perché queste persone «sono la carne di Cristo». E come meravigliarsi che chi ragiona solo in termini di economia e diplomazia non lo capisca e lo critichi?

Il corpicino di Alan, i corpi dei mille e mille morti affogati nel Mediterraneo vengono da questo gesto trasfigurati in un grande segno di speranza per i vivi. Stiamo imparando a riconoscerli come persone che venivano a noi con la speranza di essere considerati dei fratelli. Essi, che sono già con Colui che è davvero e definitivamente l’Altro, avevano capito ciò che noi fatichiamo a intravedere. Forse essi stessi pensavano di essere dei disperati che venivano a chiedere il nostro aiuto, in verità erano profeti capaci di vedere il futuro che è già qui nel presente. Già aspiravano ad una nuova Europa. Come qualcuno ha già fatto notare, sono loro a creare la nuova identità europea.

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