A Market in Lagos, Nigeria. Wikimedia Commons

Oasis of Hope

Four days in Lagos. The Memores Domini house, the presentation of "The Risk of Education," a visit to St Kizito’s Clinic, meeting with the CLU youth. In the dramatic reality of Nigeria, where Christ can be encountered every day.
Paola Ronconi

On Thursday, February 13th, I left for Lagos with Giancarlo Cesana, who had been invited to present The Risk of Education on the inauguration day of The Seed School. This presentation was not, however, the only great event of the trip. So I shall tell things in chronological order, because these were four very intense days.

“I insist: do not leave the airport alone. We’ll be there to get you.” This was how Annamaria’s e-mail message ended a day before our departure. Once we were in the car and on the way to the Memores Domini house, we began to understand why she had been so careful. The roads were crammed with people, the traffic was crazy (on an average, out of seven work hours, it is possible to spend even five hours on the road), and there were many, many beggars, for the most part young people and, what is more, mutilated, because in keeping with Islamic law, hands or entire limbs are cut off. Even the road leading to our hotel was guarded by armed men. We had been on Nigerian soil only a few hours, and the dusk hid many details, but the blow of such a dramatic reality was immediately strong. The house of the Memores Domini is guarded, ever since, one morning, Gabriella had a rifle pointed at her head. This house is the soul of the Movement in Nigeria. It is like a flower in the desert, the headquarters for some forty people. Living there are Annamaria and Chiara, who settled in 14 years ago; Gabriella, there for four years; and Tea, who came eight months ago. They are “generals” in terms of toughness, but in terms of sensitibility they are sweet, maternal women, who seem not only capable and courageous but also happy, because what they are doing, they do for themselves. That is, in what they do, they fulfill themselves.

The Clinic
Friday morning, we went to St Kizito’s Clinic. It is open from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and offers health care particularly to pregnant women and to children. Chiara–who founded the clinic in 1989 and since then has been running it–has created a place where the patients are cared for not only from a therapeutic point of view (for example, anti-malaria medicines are available, which is not at all common in the country’s public health structures), but also a cultural one, in terms of health education. What are for us basic rules of hygiene are real discoveries there for the people. Often there is no water in the houses, and many people go to the clinic to wash, as though it were an oasis. In the room where Cesana met the 15 health workers, this saying was hanging on the wall: “Educating means communicating what is the prerogative of the human being: his heart.” Seeing the care with which Chiara, Louisina (Chiara’s “right hand”), and all the others treat the patients, I think this describes them perfectly. They are people with heart, who take things to heart; they are human people. One of the questions Cesana was asked was about the possibility of cultivating friendships, since, for instance, a frequent objection to meeting together is that it costs too much. “Gratuitousness is necessary,” Cesana replied. “There has to be something that is free, above all among yourselves.” “That’s true, but sometimes it seems like putting a pinch of salt in a big jug of water–we have to hold fast,” one of them concluded.

A Mountain Song
On Friday afternoon, we met the CLU students. The meeting was at the university, in a classroom that the kids worked for a whole week to clean and make presentable. When we saw the dirt and disorder in the other rooms, it was not hard for us to believe it took that long. The cared-for classroom, the songs (they even sang an Alpine song, and hearing Nigerians in their native land, in 100°F heat, singing about Italian troops in the Alps was unquestionably a strange sensation), the fresh flowers on the teacher’s desk–all these contributed to the feeling of being isolated from everything else. Aside from the heat, once again we felt like we were in a sort of oasis. We spoke about friendship as an experience that is never enough, and about responsibility as a task. Tony concluded, “I feel a very strong and real friendship with you in Italy, because the mere fact of understanding each other, even with such a great difference in our lives, is the demonstration that we are united, that the purpose of life is the same. We are friends, and what a comfort this is to us.” They sang at the end, “I want to love you, as God loves you, with the same tenderness, with the same strength, with the same faithfulness that I don’t have…”. In a land where death comes too easily, where violence is practically no longer newsworthy, hearing these words was a miracle, something impossible and unimaginable–and yet, possible; it happened.

Viktor, a medical student, took us to visit the pediatrics ward at the university hospital. We were shocked at what we saw: two big filthy rooms, rusty beds without sheets, drip stands made out of whatever was handy, doctors without white coats or gloves, and skeletal children with distended bellies from malnutrition. They told us that this was the best public hospital in Lagos, because in the others, the norm is that the patients lie on the ground, and the dead cannot be distinguished from the living. What a difference from Chiara’s clinic! How lucky that Chiara’s clinic is there!

Saturday came, the day of the inauguration of The Seed Educational Center. Building began a little less than a year ago, to replace the little school that was next to the clinic. Things are much bigger now: there are 19 teachers, 350 kindergarten and elementary school students, and 250 middle and high school students. Francis and his wife Jovita with Willy, James, and Gabriella are the main points of reference.

Educating, not instructing
The pivotal point of the ceremony was the presentation of The Risk of Education by Archbishop Okogie of Lagos, and by our Cesana. The Archbishop’s opening statement was a strong one: education is not instruction; its purpose is not to achieve the memorization of a certain number of facts. Education is the communication of everything that is thought to contain a value, thus its purpose is to turn a boy into a man, settled and certain in life. In education, what counts most is freedom, the Archbishop said, because the proposal made by a teacher can be right, but in order to become true it has to be accepted by the one to whom it is offered. “It is impossible to educate without giving life,” Cesana insisted. Education is introduction to all of reality, that is to say, every detail of reality has a meaning, a purpose, and is connected with all the other details because of this. Where do we start in order to find this meaning? We start with what we already have, our own tradition. How can we be sure if the meaning proposed to us is the true one? We can be sure when it directs us toward the Infinite and not toward the person talking about it.

Many authorities were present: the counselor of the Italian Ambassador, the European Union Ambassador and the Nigerian Union Representative, the representative of the “royal” family who sold the land on which the school now stands, various representatives of the local government and of Lagos State, and Ezio Castelli of AVSI.

Point of Reference
Still dazed by this great day, we came to the event of the last day: the assembly of Responsibles. The questions were asked, “What is a Responsible? What does it mean to live, not just explain, School of Community?” Both Cesana and Pier Alberto Bertazzi answered that being a Responsible means communicating what School of Community suggests to me; being concerned not only about explaining the content, but also about showing how this text informs all of my life. “Each person writes the text,” Bertazzi said. “The core of the Movement is sharing life, accompanying each other toward destiny,” Cesana added. Willy concluded, “More than Responsibles, we are co-Responsibles. That is to say, we are responsible for our friendship, for what has happened to us and keeps us united.”

Back in Italy, we heard that a boy in the school, 16 years old, had been hit by a bus. While he was still breathing, some of his schoolmates carried him on foot to the nearest hospital–unfortunately in vain–because no cars would stop, and it took them too long. The first people they phoned were Francis and Willy. Thus, the school provided their first point of reference, their first thought, their first hope of help. Nigeria needs to be saved. Hope, here as everywhere, is Christ, and in Nigeria it bears the name of the people I have described.