Kampala, Uganda. Wikimedia Commons

The Cobra We didn’t See

Three Milanese university students in Uganda. On vacation with African students: in front of the same beauty, we discover that we are friends.
Tommaso Mauri, Matteo Severgnini, Maddalena Ciantia

December 13, 2001
Malpensa Airport, 5:40 am, departure for our African adventure. We didn’t know what to expect; all we had was a promise Fr Pino had made to us: “Everything is risky, but I am sure that you will live the same experience you are living here.” Pippo Ciantia and his wife, who have been in Uganda for twenty years, were waiting for us and took us to Kampala. Before going to bed, we ate a salami sandwich with Luca and Tecla. They told us that the university students’ vacation had been organized around the theme: “What freedom really is.”

December 14th
We set out in a bus for Hoima. During the trip, we immediately were made aware of the students’ vitality: despite the heat and the unpaved road, they sang uninterruptedly and played bongo drums. We looked out the window trying to sight lions, elephants, or other animals, like on a safari, but all that passed was a cobra while we were asleep!

Once we got to the hostel where we would stay for the three days, we ate together. After dinner, the program called for the introduction on the theme of the vacation, already prepared by Michael, a mathematics professor at the University of Kampala. After the session was over, we found ourselves in the company of Francis, Judah, and Rose of the Memores house, and the other adults. We immediately related what we had learned from Fr Pino and Fr Fabio in these years: the only possibility for really being together is that of being in front of the same beauty. No word of Fr Giussani can be irrelevant to our life, and we grow up by following what is proposed now. For us, at that moment, it was the words Fr Giussani said at our Beginning Day: “From my life to yours” (see Traces, Vol 3, No 10, 2001).

December 15th
All morning, we played together under the African sun (extremely hot, even in the shade!), dividing into teams: lions vs leopards. In the afternoon, we went on a “backwards field trip”: first we went down and then up. In front of us was the spectacular landscape of Lake Albert. On the way back, halfway up the slope, Mass was celebrated by Fr Tiboni, who has been in Africa for 40 years; a real lion (he climbed faster than we did), he is completely in love with the people with whom he shares his life. As we walked, we talked with some of the kids, who told us their stories.

Agnes was kidnapped by guerrillas when she was 16, and was held prisoner for three months until, with another girl, she escaped, walking a good 120 miles until she reached home. Today, Agnes is studying law so that she can defend the rights of young people who, like her, have been kidnapped.

Fred was amazed that we were studying medicine. This has always been his dream, but the university is very expensive in Uganda, and so the government offers prospective students a contract that gives them a scholarship, but they cannot choose their major. Thus Fred had been assigned to Veterinary School. “But I want to work with people, not animals!” he told us, challenging his friends to see if the experience of the Movement can answer even this apparent contradiction.

The kids from Rwanda encountered the Movement through missionaries, and their desire is to be able to live it every day where they are; to this end, they invited us to come to their universities next time.

Matthew, who is interested in scholastic philosophy, belongs to a tribe that believes it owns all the cows in the world. Indeed, when we came across one, he turned and asked, “Did you see how it looked at me?!”

That evening, back in our hostel, they asked us to tell about our experience at the university. More than being satisfied with ourselves, we were struck by Rose’s testimony: at the age of 16, she read an interview with Fr Giussani that described the experience of the Memores Domini, and she realized that this corresponded precisely with what she wanted. She then went to Fr Tiboni, but he told her to forget about it, because this was “something for grownups.” But she did not give up, and for four years went about proposing the Memores life to her friends, until Fr Tiboni decided to send her to Fr Giussani. When she arrived in Italy, 20 years old, she met Fr Giussani and he, the day after their first encounter, had her make her “profession” immediately.

What continues to strike her ever since, and still today, is the faithfulness of Fr Giussani who, the last time he saw her, said to her, “Now you must become a mother, first of the Memores, and then of the world,” because, as Fr Pino tells us, “There is no preference without a task.

December 16th
The vacation ended with traditional songs and dances. After the skits and the exchange of e-mail addresses, we left, with the evidence that we had friends 6,000 miles away and the certainty that this friendship will be preserved by Him who began it, and that He asks from us only to risk everything in following Him. Francis, saying goodbye to us, told us that he had experienced, in these three days, a preference for his life (the same is true especially for us), which has made him understand that, in this history, the secret of the world is safeguarded, which has to be communicated to everybody in the place where we are. For us, it was possible to look at each other this way because every day there is someone who looks at us in this way, telling us that our desire is important and that, if it is placed in Christ, it becomes a good for everybody because there is an answer, in Uganda as in Milan.