Residents of Kitgum, Uganda. Photo by Senior Master Sergeant John Jones via Wikimedia Commons

Under the Doctor’s Light: A Place to Learn

In Kitgum, in northern Uganda, a library dedicated to Fr. Giussani for the children fleeing from the war who take refuge in the hospital.
Valentina Frigerio

In Kitgum, when evening falls, it takes away the light of day. In Kitgum, when evening falls, it brings home the workers, carrying their hoes on their shoulders, and their wives, carrying their sleeping babies on their backs, back from the market. Instead of going home, though, some are forced to leave home, so as to sleep in a safer place. These are the “night commuters,” children from five to twelve years old who, because of the war that has been raging in northern Uganda for almost twenty years, leave their homes every evening to sleep under the verandas of the town shops or the hospital, for fear of being abducted by the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who would make child soldiers of them. They arrive in groups of four or five, with neighbors or schoolmates, each carrying a blanket, a gunny sack for a mattress, and whatever else they need for the night in the open. Early the next morning, it is time to go home again, put on their uniforms and head for school.

The doctor’s veranda
Giorgio knows them well. Every evening, on his way home from a day in the operating theatre, putting leg plasters on the kids who have fallen from the trees collecting mangos, or operating on others shot in ambushes or tortured by the rebels, he sees them taking their places on the veranda of the Medical Ward, under a security light so that they can study their torn exercise books. Some of them, the older ones, children of the watchman at the doctors’ houses, make use of the light Giorgio has recently installed under the veranda of his house. “At first, there were one or two of them; now there are sixteen.” Giorgio tells us. “I used to hear them talking about chemistry or anatomy, and, as a doctor, I couldn’t resist helping them to understand a chemical reaction or the bone structure of the hand. One evening, the question of commerce came up. When they asked me how much they would have to pay for my offer of light, I responded to the fear on their faces with an offer: the price is friendship, which they immediately accepted willingly. From that time, every evening of study concludes with a prayer to Our Lady to bring peace to the country.” The younger ones, though, find it difficult to keep their eyes open on their history or geography notes. Pupa, Giorgio’s wife, tells us: “In the night commuters of the hospital I could see the faces of my own children when they would ask me to read them a story before going to sleep. So it was that we began to go to the hospital every evening to collect the little children in a small chapel and read them the traditional Acholi tales, just as their grandparents had done with their parents before the war began.”

Children, students
and patients

Now, after two years, the number of books collected–thanks to their Italian friends and the support from AVSI, the NGO that has been operating in Kitgum for over twenty years–has increased in proportion with the readers, who are now not only the night commuters, but students and patients in the hospital, too. The little room behind the Surgery Ward where they were stacked has been replaced by a real library, built with funds from OXFAM, the other NGO working in Kitgum.
Today, April 1, 2006, is the day of the official inauguration. Present at the function are Archbishop Odama, of Gulu, Msgr. Matthew Ojara, the director of St Joseph’s Hospital, the leader of Communion and Liberation in Uganda, Fr. Peter Tiboni and the AVSI representative in Uganda, Philip Ciantia. The plaque with the name of the library is covered by a white cloth, but the name of Fr. Luigi Giussani can be spotted behind the veil. Fr. Tiboni explains, “The decision to dedicate the library to Fr. Giussani was not a random one, because education was Fr. Giussani’s primary concern–education not understood as instruction, but as the formation of the personality. As in the university, some study astronomy and spend hours looking at the sky in search of the most beautiful stars, so too Fr. Giussani spent his life looking for the brightest ones, that could enlighten the journey of his students and friends, and would tell them that the most important thing in the world is to know that God loves us and so we are not alone in the world. All development projects must have this aim–to educate people to be aware of this truth. This is why the library was born, and this is why it goes on with its work, along with the schools and the other realities caring for people that, along with AVSI, are being supported in Kitgum.”
This evening, too, night has fallen in Kitgum, and the children are entering the hospital gate. Some of them stop again to look at the new plaque outside the library, with the face of that white priest welcoming those who enter.