Freetown, Sierra Leone. Wikimedia Commons

Ten Days in Freetown

From Rimini to Sierra Leone, passing through Calcinate. This is the course taken by a friendship with Fr Berton. First a co-worker came to Italy, then a couple went to the African capital, where amid poverty and brokeness, it is possible to find hope.

Franco Nembrini

A year and a half ago, at the Meeting in Rimini, I met Fr Bepi Berton, a Xaverian Father who has created a center for recovering child-soldiers in Sierra Leone. He asked me to offer hospitality to one of his young co-workers for a year. Thus, on January 3, 2002, Ernest Sesay arrived in Italy, and since in Africa planning ahead is not a widespread virtue, he landed in Malpensa without our knowing about it, wearing shorts and a T-shirt in freezing weather and without being able to speak a word of Italian. We caught up with him somehow, fed and dressed him, and set him up living with a family of farmers in Calcinate, near Bergamo. Ernest (28 years old, with a university degree in nobody knows what, and a newlywed with a baby on the way–who was born a month after his arrival in Italy) turned out to be a fabulous young man. After three months, he spoke perfect Italian, and fit right into school life very cordially and naturally. He would go into the elementary school classes, where the children adored him, and teach them English. But what struck me most about him was the wonder and openness with which, from the very beginning, he viewed the experience of the Movement, which he was encountering. When he left on December 23rd to return to Sierra Leone, he insisted I go visit him, so my wife and I decided to join him during Christmas vacation (persuaded also by the fact that Ernest had sworn to me that he would have us stay in a four-star hotel!).

A Discouraging Impact
We left Malpensa at 7:00 in the morning of December 26th and landed in Freetown at 7:00 in the evening. The impact with Africa was rather discouraging (at least for someone like me, who has never seen anything): we were met by total darkness and had to wait for a shuttle bus to take us into the city, not knowing if and when it would arrive. There was a shocking mass of children, even very small ones, begging or trying to sell a bit of fruit or water or various trinkets. And there was a harsh, bitter odor of poverty and burnt tires, that would accompany us during our entire stay in Africa. There, they burn everything constantly, and everything all together, so that a cloud of gray, smelly smoke seems to be the sign indicating human presence, in the city as well as in the forest in the interior.

We finally arrived at St Michael’s Center, on the edge of Freetown, and discovered that this was the famous four-star hotel where we would be staying. It was, in fact, a decent hotel before the war that has kept the country in turmoil for the past fifteen years. Fr Berton took it over right after the war ended, with AVSI’s help, and turned it into the headquarters of his movement, the Family Homes Movement, which is something very similar to CL’s Host Families Association. This place also serves as a center for the recovery of child-soldiers. We would have a happy stay there, because of the warm-hearted hospitality of Berton, Ernest, and all their friends, but the impact was rough. The sanitary conditions were somewhat precarious, and there was electricity only from 7 to 10 pm. This is because in Sierra Leone there is no electric grid; people have electricity only where someone has found the money to buy a diesel generator in Europe. After two days, the central waterworks broke down, which meant no showers and no water for washing hands. We later discovered a way to wash, by going down to the beach where some tourist facilities (what is left of them) enabled us to take an outdoor shower. In compensation, the food was excellent. The Center’s cook, who learned his trade by cooking for the Italians who built the dam, made fresh bread every day. Normally, the menu was spaghetti and fish. There was wine, parmesan cheese, and even grappa, quite properly from Veneto. Indeed, it is possible to find French and Italian foods (from pasta to Nutella), albeit at the outrageous prices imposed by the strict monopoly of Lebanese merchants.

Immense Slum
In any case, those were ten wonderful days, spent passing from marvel to marvel at what God brings about even in conditions that are so difficult in human terms. The city is an immense slum, where half the population of Sierra Leone, almost two and a half million people, have fled to escape the war. The impression one gets traveling through the country is that everything is progressively falling apart, as though Africa were sinking, collapsing on top of itself. The “signs” of a decorum that must have once been there are striking (stretches of asphalt along the roads, houses that must have been dignified, public transport that must have functioned), but all is as though progressively devoured by poverty and dirt. This poverty is becoming a culture: I was deeply struck by the fact that, on the average, Africans sit and wait to be helped–in fact, they demand it. It is as though they said: it is your fault we are poor; you are rich through our merits and, therefore, you have to help us. This stops or inhibits any sort of responsibility and initiative.

In this situation, truly a light in the darkness is Fr Berton’s attempt, which I synthesize using his own words, “The Family Homes Movement is a movement of lay people who, in as much as they are baptized, are entitled to assume full responsibility for their work. I try to teach them to testify to the love of Christ. I am convinced of the truth of their conversion when two conditions are met: when they are no longer afraid of their superstitions and when they experience and testify to God as Mercy. It has to be a movement capable of welcoming everybody, those who give 100 just like those who give 10, otherwise, the mission is reduced to a sort of selection of the best in view of organizational efficiency.”

We were given an impressive chance to observe that Berton has an educative charisma in Bumbuna, a village almost 100 miles into the interior, where he worked for the first twenty years of his presence in Africa. We were met by the entire group of family heads. Mami Kumba (who has 25 children, 6 of her own and 19 adopted), the first mother to have followed him, welcomed us with these words, “Fr Berton has represented the chance for hope for me and my country. Without him, no one here would have been able to hope.” This comes about through an incredible mass of works: schools in all the surrounding villages, dispensaries, family centers, and even plantations. Everywhere you ask who did these things, you hear the answer: “Fr Bepi.”

The Happiness of Life
But the thing that most struck and impressed me was living with Ernest. At the end of those ten days, on the last evening, I asked him, “Since you were offered a house and a job for you and your family in Bergamo, why did you want to come back to this outlandish situation?” He answered, “When I arrived in Italy I was a child; when I returned to Sierra Leone I was a man. I had always told Fr Berton that our movement had to take a step forward, but I did not understand what it was. In Italy, encountering CL, I saw what we were missing: the awareness that Jesus is the happiness of life, that the Movement is the road to this familiarity with Jesus. After making this discovery, I could not fail to come back. I am the only one who has seen, and only through me will our friends be able to encounter what I have encountered. I only need to understand better what God expects from me, since He decided to have me meet first Fr Berton and then CL. I do know, however, where to start: my faithfulness to my wife Margaret and my son will be the first great testimony of my faithfulness to each of you. Otherwise, the Movement risks becoming only an opportunity to ‘seek one’s fortune,’ and this would divide us over time. Also, I want to start doing School of Community with some kids from the high school that we intend to build here in the ghetto of Freetown with AVSI’s help.”

We shall go back to Sierra Leone next winter, and we’ll take our four children too, so that they may enjoy this extraordinary Event with us. They have a right to it.