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

Frammenti di vita nuba (1)

Sono rientrato a Nairobi settimana scorsa da un viaggio di una decina di giorni sui Monti Nuba, in Sudan. Ho tentato di scrivere alcune note ogni giorno, con scarso successo. Registro qui alcune sensazioni e ricordi.

Nella prima fase della resistenza nuba, iniziata nel 1988, si poteva accedere questo territorio solo arrivandoci clandestinamente da Loki, nel nord del Kenya. Da li si sorvolava per circa 1,200 km il Sudan del sud, dove ribelli e governo controllavano il territorio a chiazza d leopardo, atterrando in una delle piste in terra battuta preparate dai ribelli. Dopo l’accordo di pace del 2005 fino al 2011 è stato possibile arrivare ai Monti Nuba anche dal nord, passando da Khartoum e viaggiando via terra, cosa che ho fatto un paio di volte. L’indipendenza del Sud Sudan – che ha visto i Nuba forzatamente collocati in Sudan -e il riesplodere della guerra fra Nuba e il governo di Khartoul a metà del 2011, ha di nuovo negato la possibilità di entrarci legalmente. Il governo di Khartoum ha tentato di sigillare l’area e ancor oggi vieta l’accesso anche gli aiuti umanitari. Così due settimane fa ci sono arrivato prendendo un regolare volo di linea da Nairobi a Juba, dal 2011 capitale dello stato indipendente del Sud Sudan (trascinato in una una insensata guerra incivile da un gruppo di criminali), poi da Juba sono andato con un volo umanitario delle Nazione Unite (pagandolo) fino a Yida, nell’estremo nord del Sud Sudan, a pochi km dal confine con il Sudan, e sede di un campo profughi di circa 50,000 persone. Il confine fra Sud Sudan e Sudan per diverse decine di km è controllato dai Nuba e si può entrare nella loro regione, grande come la valle del Po, via terra. Da Yida a Kauda, che funge da capitale dell’area liberata sono circa 180 km di pista.

Fra Yida e Kauda si passa non lontano dal quartier generale dei ribelli. Basta lasciare la pista principale e in pochi chilometri si arriva in una località protetta da colline rocciose. Qui ho incontrato Abdel Aziz Adam Al Hilu, il loro capo. Mi spiega come si sia evoluta la crisi politica interna dello scorso anno e come lui sia stato rieletto. Racconta come i colloqui di pace col governo di Khartoum siano in fase di stallo. “Siamo in una situazione di no peace, no war”. Non c’è pace e non c’è guerra, ciascuno sulle sue posizioni, senza scontri. Da oltre due anni l’esercito governativo non tenta di penetrare nel territorio nuba controllato da ribelli, quasi la totalità, ed non effettua più bombardamenti che fino a fine 2015 devastavano sopratutto le aree più fertili, creando uno stato di carestia perché i contadini non potevano lavorare i campi. Come mai? “Hanno troppi fronti aperti – commenta – oltre a Darfur e Ingessena Hills c’è la Libia, e il loro impegno maggiore che è in Yemen, a sostegno dell’Arabia Saudita, dove combattono molti militari sudanesi, evitando ai sauditi di correre rischi. In cambio ricevono aiuti economici e militari e consolidano la loro alleanza servile con Riad”. Il colloquio è lungo, anche perché mi accorgo solo in ritardo che pure lui sta diventando un po sordo, e dobbiamo ripeterci.

Riprendendo il viaggio verso Kauda dobbiamo fare un lungo giro per evitare 20 km di strada che la prime piogge della stagione, a metà giugno, hanno reso impraticabile. La pista si snoda ai piedi delle colline, solo ogni tanto si arrampica un po sulla costa per evitare fango e acque ristagnanti. Passiamo Lado, che prima dell’accordo di pace del 2005 era sempre stato in mano governativa, un villaggio trasformato in guarigione militare. Poi dopo neanche cinque minuti di strada mi ritrovo in un posto che avevo visitato oltre vent’anni fa, indimenticabile. Un villaggio a mezza costa sulla collina. di forse 100 capanne coniche, tetto spiovente, vicinissime una all’altra, come per proteggersi. Appena più a valle c’è un bosco di 30 o 40 enormi piante di mango. Sembra un’illustrazione per un libro di favole nuba. Qui avevo passato una notte, credo nel 1999, con due amici italiani. Siamo arrivati stremati dalla stanchezza, (allora ci si muoveva solo a piedi), salutato stringendo mille mani (ma quanta gente vive in queste poche case?), mangiato alla luce di un fuocherello ciò che la gente ci aveva portato e il mattino successivo nel bosco di manghi avevo celebrato Messa e battezzato alcun bambini i cui genitori erano stati preparati da un catechista locale. Una gioia incontenibile. Una mamma che mi porge un bebè da battezzare mormorando qualcosa fra le le lacrime che il catechista mi traduce “lo chiamo John Fenzi, come il comboniano che ci visitava quando io ero piccola”. Adesso il villaggio è vuoto, tutti sono a lavorare i campi nella speranza che le piogge continuino e portino un abbondante raccolto.

Yunan, l’accompagnatore nuba di vent’anni fa, ci aveva raccomandato di non fare un fuoco troppo grande la notte e di non lasciare che la gente facesse canti a voce troppo alta durante i battesimi, perché i governativi non erano lontani e avrebbero potuto vederci o sentirci. Erano ormai quattro anni che ogni due o tre mesi andavo a fare passeggiate sui monti Nuba ed avevo penato che Yunan stesse esagerando perché i due giornalisti italiani potessero aggiungere pathos al loro reportage
Adesso, mentre la vetusta 4 ruote riparte, mi rendo conto che davvero avevamo corso un gran rischio. Lado in linea d’aria è e meno di due chilometri. Se solo un informatore avesse riportato la nostra presenza saremmo stati fatti prigionieri con un’azione di pochi minuti.
(Continua)

Kenya’s “Street Children”, between extreme poverty and desire for a new life

Vatican Insider, La Stampa
Luca Attanasio, Nairobi


In Nairobi, there are 150,000. 300,000 in the whole Country: a disturbing phenomenon. A conversation with the Combonian Father, Kizito, founder of the “Koinonia” Community, and some former street children

You can see them moving in very tight groups around the central areas of the capital begging for some spare change and then hide right around a corner to sniff glue or fuel for planes. Barely dressed, they meet late in the evening in the slums of Nairobi. They pay a scant ticket to enter improvised shacks adapted to cinemas and watch action films or something worse: not so much to exalt and emulate the acrobatic abilities of the actors, rather to secure at least a couple of hours indoors. These are the Street Children of Kenya, children who, forced by extreme poverty, domestic violence or simply hunger, throw themselves onto the streets and risk remaining there until adulthood. T he older ones are teenagers, the younger ones you can count their age on the fingers of one hand.

According to UNICEF there are 300,000, half of whom live in Nairobi. Kenya is making progress and can be considered one of the best African countries in terms of development. Its social phenomena, however, are still massive. In the capital stands Kebira, Africa’s largest slum: a million people, mostly children, stacked in tens of thousands of shacks of a few square meters. Without a sewage system worthy of the name, the population literally lives on stratified piles of rubbish that will never be removed. The streets in the rain turn into marshes while the fumes, sometimes nauseating, mix with smells of fried or boiled food, a commodity sold in mini-shops on the sides of alleys that intersect making an inextricable maze.

In Nairobi, there is Dandora, the largest landfill in East Africa. It is an incredibly large area, which has grown over the decades on top of piles of rubbish of all kinds and receives about 900 tons of solid waste per day. Over 4 thousand people “work” there: watched over by huge marabou that stand on the hills of rubbish, they separate and collect the garbage, and deliver it to the guardian. They get 15 schillings ($0.15) per kg. In the meantime, they inhale or come into contact with hazardous materials such as lead, mercury or cadmium.

“In Kenya – Father Kizito – (born Renato Sesana, in Africa since the 70’s he has chosen the name of one of the martyrs of Uganda), Combonian, journalist and founder of the Koinonia Community explains – there is a huge issue on childhood. From the beginning, our community has chosen to take care of children and young people and, among these, it has privileged the poorest among the poor. Street Children have their own code, they are very united with each other and, especially if they have been living on the street for years, they form a sort of identity of their own.

Koinonia took its first steps in Kenya in 1989. Since then, it has had two primary care centers, three residential centers, a medical dispensary and a physiotherapy service which, at the moment, cares for over two hundred street children, and runs a number of schools. To reach and secure street children, Koinonia operators -many of whom are former Street Children – adopt a direct approach by establishing a relationship with the children where they live, sometimes spending the night with them and, following a path made of daily life and closeness, they convince, without ever forcing them, the little ones to join the project. They then work to reconstruct contact with the families and local communities, and prepare for their return to school.

“Father Kizito continues: “We have established a real ceremony for the day on which the child, after having regularly met and prepared for at least four months with the workers who go out onto the street, enters the reception center. The child takes a nice shower, receives new clothes and burns the old ones, almost as if to mean with a gesture the end of his old life and the beginning of a new one. Throughout the 1990s we had a hard time finding an approach that really worked: the children were driven here by primary needs, they stayed a bit and left. Since we changed method and realized that we only had to show them understanding and closeness – so then it was they who chose to end forever that “lifestyle” – the percentage of those dropping the program has fallen drastically, almost close to zero.

After the “rehabilitation” phase, which can last for years, the child is helped to return to the family or, if this is not possible, to rebuild ties with relatives, friends and the community of origin, cut over the years, that can support them in their growth.

“At home, there was not enough food for everyone – Evans, a 20-year-old former Street Child who has now become a prominent rapper (art name: Humble Prince) says – Dad died when I was very young and mom worked until late. Nobody really cared about me and then, I ended up on the street, I was 5 years old. At night, the police came to beat us up and treat us like animals, during the day we wandered to gather some small coins. Then Jack arrived…”. Jack is a former street child who was hosted about fifteen years ago by Father Kizito, now in charge of the reception centers. He is very popular among children who welcome him climbing on his statuary body.

“The first few times they thought I was a policeman. Then I started to spend time with them every morning, I brought them food, sometimes I organized football matches, some evenings I stopped over at night. When the group to which Evans belonged understood that I was one of them, that I was interested in their lives, they spontaneously decided to come to the rescue center”.

“At the beginning, it seems like an adventure – Friederick, 24, also a rapper (Bigfred cheche) explains – you feel strong, sniffing drug continuously and spending the whole day from one place to another, waiting for someone to give you some leftovers, gathering wood for cooking and going to the slums to watch movies. Then you start to ask yourself: “What did I do wrong to end up like this? Everyone avoids you and mistreats you. With us were also mothers and even street grandmothers, people who have never lived in a house”.

It is Sunday at the Domus Mariae centre where Koinonia runs a reception centre and a secondary school. All come to the mass, celebrated by Father Kizito, even the little ones of Islamic faith: left unguarded, they choose to participate to dance and sing with others. In the Mater Nigritia chapel, crowded with about a hundred children, there is calm and joy. The image of a society reconciled starting right from the little ones.

Gli “Street Children” del Kenya, tra povertà estrema e desiderio di rinascita

Vatican Insider, La Stampa, Pubblicato il 25/06/2018
Luca Attanasio – Nairobi

Li vedi a gruppetti molto compatti muoversi nelle zone centrali della capitale per elemosinare qualche spicciolo e poi buttarsi in un angolo a stordirsi di colla o carburante per aerei. Vestiti di niente, si incontrano la sera tardi negli slum di Nairobi. Pagano un misero biglietto ed entrano in baracche improvvisate adattate a cinema a vedere film d’azione o qualcosa di peggio: non tanto per esaltarsi ed emulare le capacità acrobatiche degli attori, piuttosto per assicurarsi almeno un paio d’ore al chiuso. Sono gli Street Children del Kenya, bambini che, forzati da povertà estrema, violenza domestica o semplicemente fame, si gettano per strada e rischiano di rimanerci fino all’età adulta. I più grandi sono adolescenti, i più piccoli hanno età comprese nelle dita di una mano.

Secondo l’Unicef sono 300 mila, la metà dei quali, vive a Nairobi. Il Kenya sta facendo progressi e può essere considerato uno dei migliori Paesi africani in quanto a sviluppo. I suoi fenomeni sociali, però, assumono ancora dimensioni enormi. Nella capitale sorge Kebira, lo slum più esteso d’Africa: un milione di persone, in maggioranza bambini, accatastate in decine di migliaia di baracche di qualche metro quadro. Senza un sistema fognario degno di questo nome, la popolazione vive letteralmente su cumuli stratificati di immondizia che non verranno mai rimossi. Le strade sotto la pioggia si trasformano in pantani mentre le esalazioni, a tratti nauseabonde, si mischiano a odori di cibo fritto o bollito, merce venduta nei mini-shop ai lati delle viuzze che si intersecano formando un dedalo inestricabile.

Ancora a Nairobi, si trova Dandora, la discarica più grande dell’Africa orientale. È un’area incredibilmente estesa, cresciuta nei decenni sopra a mucchi di immondizia di ogni tipo che riceve circa 900 tonnellate di rifiuti solidi al giorno. Ci “lavorano” oltre 4 mila persone: vigilate da enormi marabù che stazionano sopra le collinette di robaccia e che di tanto in tanto spiccano il volo per cibarsi di resti alimentari o non biodegradabili, separano l’immondizia, la raccolgono per genere, e la consegnano al guardiano. Ne ricavano 15 scellini (0,15 dollari) al kg. Nel frattempo inalano o entrano in contatto con materiali pericolosi come piombo, mercurio o cadmio.

«In Kenya – spiega padre Kizito (al secolo Renato Sesana, in Africa dagli anni ’70 ha scelto il nome di uno dei martiri dell’Uganda), comboniano, giornalista e fondatore della Comunità Koinonia – c’è un enorme questione infanzia. La nostra comunità ha scelto fin dagli inizi di occuparsi dei bambini e dei giovani e, tra questi, ha privilegiato i più poveri tra i poveri. Gli Street Children hanno un loro codice, sono tra loro molto uniti e, specie se vivono per strada da anni, si formano una sorta di propria identità».

Koinonia ha mosso i primi passi in Kenya nel 1989. Da allora ha attivi due centri di prima accoglienza, tre centri residenziali, un dispensario medico e un servizio di fisioterapia che, al momento, si occupano di oltre duecento bambini di strada, e gestisce alcune scuole. Per raggiungere e mettere al sicuro i bambini di strada, adotta un approccio diretto: gli operatori – molti dei quali sono ex Street Children – vanno a istaurare un rapporto con i bambini lì dove vivono, a volte dormono con loro e, attraverso un percorso fatto di quotidianità e vicinanza, convincono, senza mai forzarli, i piccoli a entrare nel progetto. Poi lavorano per ricostruire il contatto con le famiglie e le comunità locali, e predispongono il rientro a scuola.

«Abbiamo stabilito una vera e propria cerimonia – riprende padre Kizito – per il giorno in cui il bambino, dopo essere stato incontrato regolarmente e preparato per almeno quattro mesi dagli operatori che vanno in strada, entra nel centro di prima accoglienza. Il piccolo fa una bella doccia, riceve nuovi vestiti e brucia quelli vecchi, quasi a significare con un gesto la fine della vecchia vita e l’inizio di un’altra. Per tutti gli anni ’90 abbiamo fatto molto fatica a trovare una strada efficace: i bambini venivano da noi spinti da esigenze primarie, restavano un po’ e se ne andavano. Da quando abbiamo cambiato metodo e capito che dovevamo solo mostrargli comprensione e vicinanza perché poi fossero loro a scegliere di chiudere per sempre con la strada, la percentuale di quelli che si perdono è scesa drasticamente, quasi vicina allo zero».

Dopo la fase della “riabilitazione”, che può durare anni, il bambino viene aiutato al rientro in famiglia o, se non è possibile, alla ricostruzione di legami con parenti, amici e la comunità di origine, recisi negli anni, che possano sostenerlo nella crescita.

«A casa non c’era cibo per tutti – racconta Evans, un ventenne ex Street Child ora divenuto un affermato rapper (nome d’arte Humble Prince) – Papà è morto che ero molto piccolo e mamma lavorava fino a tardi. Nessuno si curava realmente di me e allora, a soli 5 anni, sono finito per strada. Di notte la polizia veniva a picchiarci e a trattarci come fossimo animali, di giorno vagavamo per raggranellare qualche spicciolo. Poi è arrivato Jack…”. Jack è un ex bambino di strada ospitato una quindicina di anni fa da padre Kizito, ora divenuto responsabile dei centri di accoglienza. È molto popolare tra i bambini che lo accolgono arrampicandosi su ogni parte del suo fisico imponente.

«Le prime volte pensavano che fossi un poliziotto. Poi ho cominciato a passare ogni mattina, gli portavo qualcosa da mangiare, a volte organizzavo partite di calcio, qualche sera mi fermavo a dormire con loro. Quando il gruppo di cui faceva parte Evans ha capito che ero uno di loro, che mi interessava la loro vita, hanno deciso spontaneamente di venire tutti al rescue center».

«All’inizio sembra un’avventura – spiega Friederick, 24 anni, anche lui rapper (Bigfred cheche) – ti senti forte, sniffi droga di continuo e passi l’intera giornata da un posto all’altro per farti dare gli avanzi, radunare legna per cucinare e infilarti negli slum a vedere film. Poi cominci a chiederti: “Cosa ho fatto di male per finire così?”, tutti ti scansano, ti trattano male. Con noi c’erano anche mamme e addirittura nonne di strada, gente che non ha mai vissuto in una casa».

È domenica al centro Domus Mariae dove Koinonia gestisce un centro di accoglienza e una scuola secondaria. Alla messa, celebrata da padre Kizito, vengono tutti, anche i piccoli di fede islamica: lasciati liberi, scelgono di partecipare per ballare e cantare con gli altri. Nella cappella Mater Nigritia, gremita di un centinaio di ragazzi, c’è compostezza e allegria. L’immagine di una società riconciliata a partire dai piccoli.

Una piccola storia di grande stupidità – A little story of great stupidity

Friday evening we accompanied to Nairobi airport two girls and three boys, all of them minors fully rehabilitated after years of living on the streets. Freshia, a thirty years old Koinonia’s social worker, travels with them, and they are headed to Wroclaw, Poland, where they were invited to the Brave Kids festival, a three-week meeting that is repeated annually with the participation of artistic groups of children from every European country. Ours is the only African group, due to the cost of the tickets. We were lucky that an association of Leszno saw our group last and decided to support us this year. It is the first time that our acrobatic team travels without me, and it is also the first time that we send two girls abroad. But we feel confident, because I saw in person last year how the Polish friends work, with enormous effort, to break down prejudices and cultural barriers and foster integration. Naturally the Polish embassy beore granting the visas required in impressive documentation – including the consent of the closest living family member and that of the school principal of each child, all certified by the Kenyan foreign ministry – of which Freshia has a copy in her handbag.

They leave at 4 am on the 16th, they arrive in Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, but when it comes to embarking for Berlin Tegel airport they get stuck, because, say the Turkish officilas, their visa is for Poland, not for Germany. Freshia explains that they have a Schengen visa issued after the Polish Embassy in Nairobi has seen their documentation and that Germany and Poland are in the Schengen area, and that last year another group of us had arrived in Berlin Tegel, where they had been received by Polish friends who had taken them to Wroclaw by car because Berlin is closer to Wroclaw than to Warsaw. No way. The officials of the immigration and the airline are adamant. “We have a treaty with the Germans that African refugees can not transit from Turkey“. “But we are not refugees, we have a visa”. “Yes, but there are new provisions”. Fortunately there is Whatsapp, Freshia calls Polish friends, they call me in a few minutes they se up Whatsapp group. We try to understand what are the imaginary new provisions.. We ask Freshia to let us talk with the officials. They refuse. The Polish friends contact the Berlin Tegel immigration and within half an hour receive an official response in an email, with the name and identification number of the official who signed, confirming that being both countries in the Schengen area our children can proceed immediately and will have no problems at arrival in Tegel.

Turkish officials also refuse to read the email. They refuse to talk to Tegel. They mention the new provisions that the Germans say do no exists, and the Turkish say the only solution is for the children to embark on a direct flight to Warsaw, but they have to purchase a new Istanbul-Warsaw ticket. The price is slightly lower than the return Nairobi Berlin. Freshia is tense, she tells me that she feels considered inferior, incapable to understand, less then a minor. She adds that the children are quite and have laid down to sleep among lines of departing passengers, wrapped in blankets made available by some airpot staff with a kind heart. Meanwhile, all negotiations are rejected. The Polish friends eventually decide to pay the cost of the new ticket, reserving the right to ask for a refund.

As I write, on the afternoon of Sunday 17, our dangerous Masai warriors – you see them in the impromptu show for the girls of Anita’s Home two hours before departure – should be flying to Warsaw. We had chosen together that they would start the show with a traditional Masai dance before an half an hour of acrobatics. In the right hand they should have the traditional Masai spear, but we decided they would buy some broomsticks in Wroclaw. But maybe someone has read their bad intentions in their eyes …

A tragedy? No, for heaven’s sake. Just an example of how arrogant little officials can display all their stupidity and ignorance. A symptom of how the racist messages continuously launched by Europe are received. This morning I was commenting with a Kenyan journalist Aquarius saga, and he told me “The message is always the same, and getting worse, and I feel it on me every time I have to go to Europe for work: Africans are not welcome, they are dangerous savages, probably sub-human “.

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

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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

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“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.

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