Ugandan Students. Traces

Whether I Laugh or Cry, I Want to be Here

This article describes a bit of the three days spent visiting the CL community of Kampala, a small group of people who are like water boiling in a pot where, if it is not one person it is another who awakens and reawakens the person close by.
Alessandra Stoppa

One of the countries Pope Francis will visit on his upcoming journey is Uganda, which along with Niger can claim the title for the youngest population in the world: 78% of Ugandans are under the age of 30, and the average age is 15.5 years (in Italy it is 44.5 years). On average, each woman gives birth to six children. But being born is not enough for living, says Michelle, more with her eyes than with her words. She lives near the slum of mud walls and sheet metalroofs of Kireka, an area of the capital city. Twenty-two years old, with delicate features, she is seated proudly at her desk on the ground floor of the Luigi Giussani Primary School, where she works as the secretary. “This is where I want to be, whether I laugh or cry, I want to be here.” “Here” is the journey of the Movement. This article describes a bit of the three days spent visiting the CL community of Kampala, a small group of people who are like water boiling in a pot where, if it is not one person it is another who awakens and reawakens the person close by.

One morning Michelle was sitting where she is now, demoralized and bored, thinking she was incapable of truly living. A teacher entered the building and Michelle automatically pulled out the classroom key and held it out for her, as was the routine every day. “No, I don’t want the keys.” “Ah, what do you want?” “I want to be like you. Bring me with you.” The teacher was asking about “that meeting” Michelle attended every week, the School of Community. At that moment, Michelle understood: “Jesus was choosing me, and He found no obstacle in my boredom and my wretchedness.” This was like her own first encounter with CL: “It was the biggest surprise of my life: there was someone who was describing my heart, so that I could be happy. Since then, I have been truly living: another life entered into mine.”

Mother Because Daughter
Rose is right. Listening to the words of Michelle and the other kids who have begun the experience of the Movement, one wonders who whispers certain things in their ears. “I listen to them and I know that Christ is there.” Rose Busingye is the mother of everyone here, young and old, because she lives as a daughter: “I follow the Mystery of God who happens.” In 1992, this 47- year-old member of the Memores Domini and nurse started the International Meeting Point, dedicated to women suffering from AIDS, the poor, and orphaned children and youth.

It all started with a seed planted in the early ‘70s in Kitgum, in northern Uganda, when some doctors in CL met the Colombian Fr. Pietro Tiboni. When Rose met Fr. Tiboni she asked him, “If God became flesh, does that also have to do with my flesh?” It seemed to her like the most revolutionary thing in the world. Today, many yearslater,she stillfeelsthe same wonder. “I want to participate in the reawakening of the women of the Meeting Point and of these kids: they have discovered that they have something of value, that this value has a name, Jesus, and that He always looks upon them. I also want to live under this gaze.”

There is no set framework in this community, not because of disorder or nonconformity, but because it is a life and it is unity: from the gratitude of the women, who dance on their past of pain, to the freshness of their children, for whom the Luigi Giussani Primary School and High School were created. Here it is evident that the Movement is one thing only: Christ who embraces you. And the embrace is a circle: from the children it spreads to the mothers who take care of these kids, kids who fall in love with life and Jesus, who study, who are passionate, who read Traces to them (many of the women are illiterate),who participate in theMovement, and transmit everything they learn.

Françoise, Michelle’s mother, was a member of a cult. She watched what was happening with her daughter and today she is “the newest born of the International Meeting Point.” She had grave health problems and never left the house, but now, elegant and shy, she lets herself be drawn by the rhythm of the drums and ankle bells. “I even began playing soccer,” she laughs,“because I’ve met the goodness and beauty of God.”

The Fire Extinguisher
There are no labels here. Nobody has said, “Now we’ll go do charitable work.” The women already do it. They welcome into their homes (and their homes are shacks) the children sent by the police when there is no room at Rose’s Welcoming House, a home for abandoned and HIV-positive children.They already have many children and many problems, but “if there is room for 5, there is room for 6,” they say. They laugh, and when they laugh they end up singing, and singing and dancing are one and the same. One day a woman arrived whose chin was burned from huffing gasoline.“I was worried,” says Rose, but they had already prepared a place for her and were taking turns caring for her.” This is charitable work in its origin, gratitude that becomes gratuitousness.

“Every day I am outdone by everyone.” Alberto Repossi has been in Kampala for a year, working for AVSI at the Meeting Point. Before coming here he had somewhat underestimated “Rose’s women,” thinking,“They’re sick but happy, they live the charism, how good they are.” Period. “But Carrón kept pointing to them; maybe there was something to be learned from them. Now I see: they are so moved that they carry me along with them.” Rose holds in her hand a sheet of paper with the names of the women, a sum in shillings written next to each name, and in the heading the words “Contribution for prastanity.” “Prastanity?” she had asked Ketty as she handed her the list. But they understood each other right away: it was the common fund for the Fraternity. The women heard the announcement at the Spiritual Exercises about donating to the Common Fund, and right away gathered the money. That day Rose stood watching them as they set off for home. None of them took a boda boda, the motorcycle-taxi which four can squeeze into; none took a matatu, the small busses where passengers are packed in like sardines: they headed home on foot, because they’d given their shillings to the Common Fund.

“You don’t give what you don’t have,” is a common expression here. “If you are not moved, you cannot communicate anything,”notes Matteo Severgnini, known to everyone as Seve, didactics coordinator for the two schools, who has been here in mission for three years. “In the beginning I passed from illusion to anger,” from his initial enthusiasm to solve the problems, to his disappointment when nothing changed. “One day Rose told me, ‘There’s no need for someone to manage the school; what’s needed is someone who lives their vocation.’ For three months I didn’t say another word.” Instead of talking about things, he looked at them. “If you stay in silence and listen, you understand much more.” Like “that time”: one night when someone marked up the school with the fire extinguisher. Usually an assembly is held to accuse the guilty party, but instead Seve asked the boy why he did it, proposed that they pay for the damage together, and gave the boy the responsibility for the fire extinguishers. “It turned everything upside down, first for me. My colleagues asked me why I had done this, and I asked myself as well. From then on, we began to truly work together, with a real question, not an idea to impose.”

Michael's Chalk
When the new high school was inaugurated, Arnold, 17, speaking in front of the students, parents, representatives of the local authorities, and diplomats, said, “I am Fr. Giussani.” People were stunned. Hewent on firmly, “Giussani finished his road and tells me, ‘Arnold, if you want to be happy, you have to walk where I walked.’ It’s my turn.” In the CL meeting at school,Arnold and his inseparable buddy Marvine began to be interested in things, to play and sing (the community has a marvelous choir), to write songs (almost all of them love songs), in a place where young people only hear about sex; where true affection is a taboo subject. Today the style is the ‘talking compound,’so the school walls are plastered with warning posters: “Behave yourself,” “If you get pregnant, you’ll be suspended,” “AIDS kills.”

“The Movement gave me eyes,” continues Arnold: “I looked at things but I didn’t see them, like the beauty of this school, different from all the others. I used to say, yes, it’s beautiful. So? I didn’t think it was for me.” This modern, orange building on the hill along Kireka Road hosts 560 students, many of whom walk as long as two hours to get there, and remain until the evening to take advantage of the light, because at home there is no electricity. The first thing that all of them tell you is, “The teachers don’t beat us.”

In the wild and dusty traffic of the capital, there are many signs for schools, written in paint, most of them rusted. International policies push for education, and the government highly favors the private sector. There is a saying: spare the rod and spoil the child, but the watchword is “inculcate.” “At the job interview, when they told me there was no beating, I laughed,” recounts Michael Kawuki, who now is the Principal. “For me, the rod was the only way to teach. Here, I am the one who is learning everything from my colleagues and the students.” This is unimaginable in a country where education is anonymous, the distance between students and teacher is an abyss, and not just because of the numbers(there are classes of 150 students),but because the student is considered inferior and asking questions is considered insubordination. Michael looks at the young people on the big lawn in front of the school, enthusiastically participating in a lesson of cultural dance: “I didn’t know that everything has value, even the smallest thing. A piece of chalk fell on the floor and I walked on it.” When he saw Seve pick it up, a world opened up in front of him. He said very seriously, “I didn’t know I had value.”

Arnold, Marvine, and the other students, meet every Monday for School of Community. There is 20-year-old Grace, who says, “My life has had meaning since 2013.” It is moving to see her sing songs of the Movement that she learned right away, and to see how certain, how transparent she is. “I didn’t care about anything. Then one day someone told me, ‘You have something great in your heart.’” A short time ago her father died. “When it happened, I understood that Christ wanted me to depend on Him. Every morning I wake up to see His gaze.” Manuel is a young man, perfect in his school uniform. He is HIV-positive. During a doctor’s visit at the hospital he stared at the doctor examining him and thought,“You can know everything about me, but you can never see what it means to be loved.”

The world of international cooperation would have us believe that people essentially need family and empowerment. “Instead, what they need is to be loved. You discover it in your own life, because you want to change the world, and instead, you change,” says Marco Trevisan, who coordinates distance adoptions for AVSI (supporting 4,180 children).A graduate of a technical-industrial high school, he has worked in Africa for 28 years. “It seems like yesterday! Here life is fast, because it always demands your presence. In these years I have discovered that if you say yes, you see things about yourself that you would never have imagined.”

On the Nile
It is almost evening. Outside the houses there are torn up leather couches, with people sitting on them, who instead of watching TV watch the clogged traffic of cars, animals, and carts. On the corner, in the dark, without streetlamps, a preacher with a Bible in his hand is shouting himself hoarse. Behind their mosquito screen windows, Francesco and Sara are setting the table. They have been in Uganda for 8 years, and have 2 children. Francesco Frigerio is an engineer and is building a shrine in Paimol, in honor of two martyrs from this small northern town. It was 1918 and Daudi and Gildo were 16 and 14 years old, like the kids in the High School. They had been sent to open a catechism center, and for this they were murdered. “For a builder, doing a shrine is the best,” he recounts, “but even just fixing a bathroom is taking on the same value for me. I don’t take it for granted. I had fallen into the trap of thinking of myself in terms of what I do, but in the companionship of the Movement, I have rediscovered that my value is being the Francesco the Lord wants me to be.” His wife speaks about a journey full of falling and getting up again. “You live in a endless tunnel of days, then something happens that wakes you up.” Like an encounter at school, things you’ve heard over and over again, suddenly “gave me back myself. But you don’t decide it sitting at your desk, you have to get involved in a life.”

Manolita is also at dinner, she, with her husband Stefano Antonetti and their 5 children has lived in Uganda for 15 years. “Before, the community and the initiatives and all the rest were beautiful things, yes, but they didn’t have anything to do with me.” She had always been in the Movement, yet felt as if there was no longer anything new. Then, with the challenge of the work at the Meeting Point and the friendship that was renewed with some people, “It was an encounter within the encounter. The experience of the Lord’s presence and care for me.”

This is the same reason “Rose’s women” deeply enjoy themselves, even when something adverse happens, as it did on the last day of an excursion, when a violent rainstorm kept them cooped up for two hours in a broken down minibus in the middle of the savannah. The endless roads of red earth, the waterfalls of the Nile, and the emerald green hills that make up Uganda, the Pearl of Africa; and they, as beautiful and powerful as this nature. “We already have everything,” says Agnes. “We only need an education.”

From the Hill
Here where educating is not even considered a job, the method born of the charism is reaching more and more people. In front of the prisons of the capital is the Luigi Giussani Permanent Center for Education, which the government has officially recognized as a higher education institute. With training founded on The Risk of Education, in ten years they have served over 20,000 people, Catholics and Muslims, people from Africa to Myanmar.... “We also form young farmers, parents, social workers, and NGO employees,” recounts the director, Mauro Giacomazzi, here since 2007. “People first of all need to rediscover themselves.”

It is early morning. Rose’s jeep slowly makes its way down the hill where she lives with Lina Bonetti, who works for AVSI. We can see far off in front of us Lake Victoria, which is as big as the Lombardy Region, and the immense city, with shacks as far as the eye can see: all that need. “Seeing this, Giussani told me, ‘Rose, saving the world means crying out Christ to everyone. It means living your yes, so their destiny will be accomplished as God wants, just as yours is being accomplished.’”