Students at the University Lagos. Traces

The Newness of Lagos

The Nigerian metropolis is the second stop on our journey in Africa, with its threats from Boko Haram and the slums. This is where a group of bored young Christians rediscovered faith.
Luca Fiore

“Did you find anything beautiful in Lagos?” It’s a trick question. -You can see it in the defiant smile. Outside the window is a shapeless mass made up of 18 million inhabitants. It’s as if the ocean never existed. The well-off neighborhoods built on the oil industry are looking run-down, though the garages still hold Porsches and Bentleys. That’s not to mention the slums which, as you pass on the “super-highway,” exude sinister fumes of smoke outlining the bright sky. The beaches of Ikorodu are covered with a blanket of plastic bags and bottles. Boko Haram, who in the Muslim-majority north have been killing Christians (and Muslims), has started to make its presence felt here as well. The city is filling up with refugees, and the police have already had to intervene in several attacks. How can I respond honestly without being rude? Just tell the truth and answer: “the people.”

The CLU students from UNILAG, the University of Lagos, are sitting in the shack that serves as the community headquarters. Abraham, who is 21, tells the story of how he met the Movement through Tete: he’s one of the people who one day thought, “I want to be happy like him.” Anthony met the community singing in the choir at his parish, and Collins, through dancing. They, like Florence, were bored young Christians who one day encountered a new way of living their faith. With them is Leda, who didn’t come from a Christian family and even said, “We always thought that the Church was just a place where they ask you for money. Then, one day,I heard them speaking and I thought, ‘They’re talking about my life.’” Dolapo arrives late and sits down silently. He has the statue-like physique of an Olympic runner.From the look on his face you can tell something happened. We find out he’s failed an important exam for the fifth time. After a few songs, someone finally manages to make him laugh with a joke. This little group seems like a drop in the bucket that is this expanse of Nigeria, with its 170 million inhabitants. This is a breeding ground for international Islamic terrorism in the heart of Africa, with President Muhammadu Buhari, elected last May, who even received votes from Christians who previously insisted upon respecting a rule of alternating Muslim and non-Muslim leaders. In the oil-rich South, where local news papers report little of Boko Haram’s massacres, they are plagued by the mostly “underground” tensions among the various ethnic groups inherited from the Nigerian-Biafran War.

The Epicenter
In the fall, the CLU students organized a viewing of “The Beautiful Road,”CL’s 60th anniversary video. It was the first public event organized by the community’s college students, who have been together for a number of years. Thirty people came. Abraham hadn’t understood that he would be the one introducing the evening. He improvised, and it worked out. “In this companionship, I am happy. I would like the same for all of you.”

Barbara is often with them. The Memore Domini from Rimini, president of the NGO Loving Gaze, has been in Lagos since 2005. She’s been the responsible of the Nigerian CL community for a few years now.The kids affectionately call her Babi. She lives with Alda, who is also from Rimini, Alba from Reggio Emilia, Fiorenza from Milan, and Lucia from Verona. Their house is the epicenter of the life of the community, including for Guido, the general manager of a multi-national company that builds infrastructure related to the oil industry.He is responsible for 4 million employees, keeps late nights at work, has many fires to put out, an armored SUV, and security detail to get him around the city. His family stayed in Ancona, and he invited himself to dinner at the Memores house as soon as he arrived. “When I call him, he’s always incredibly busy, but he’s always joyful,” Barbara tells us. “One time I asked him,‘Guido, how do you manage to be so happy?’ And he says, ‘Well, I’m happy because you called me!’” At the last Assembly, he said this to everyone: “In my work, I can make mistakes that have dire consequences, but when it happens I’m not wounded by pride; I’m pained because of the thousands of families involved. To bear through it you have to live all circumstances in front of Christ, in the relationship with Him. Otherwise, they crush you.”

Charles, an engineer, is also responsible for many workers. Sometimes at the end of School of Community, he takes out his smartphone and shows video clips of his employees laughing, joking or singing. “My bosses tell me I’m stupid to treat them well. They’re convinced that if I do, they’ll take advantage of me. But how can I treat them like animals? I am loved and wanted. I know, they could not get it and cheat me. But I want to risk on their freedom.”

The other axis around which the community turns is St. Kizito Clinic in Jakande, a slum where a million people live. Everything began there in 1989, when Chiara Mezzalira started treating women and children amidst the shacks. Her arrival led to the founding of the Memores house and marked the beginning of AVSI’s work, which later led to Loving Gaze. That’s when engineer Stephen Okagbue met CL. The elderly tribal chief, his eyes bright, regaled us with tales of his encounters with Fr. Giussani in La Thuile.

Through the Burqa
Today, the clinic is operated by Loving Gaze, which also manages another small health center in the Muslim neighborhood of Idi Araba, as well as collaborates with two schools: St. Peter and Paul in Lekki and St. John, for the children of the fishermen in Ikorodu. Alda is the health director of the clinic. She was recently invited to a conference in Idi Araba, the only foreign and non-Muslim attending. They don’t see many people like her in the neighborhood, and in fact, as the meeting came to a close a few mothers came up to ask to take a picture. It was just a few days after the attacks in Paris. Alda expressed her awareness of this: “At that moment, what I desired was that they could realize the value of their lives. I hoped that, through the opening in their burqa, they could see something.I felt the need to really look at them for what they are, to be able to communicate to them what a good they are.”

Roland is a tall young man, with a beard and an intense gaze. He met the Movement when he was in college. Today he runs a small business and works in real estate. He also knows how to sing. Not speaking a word of Italian, he recently learned to sing Mina’s “La Mente Torna.” He sang it at the beginning of a School of Community Assembly. “This song tells us that when the person you love comes, you find yourself again. This is exactly the experience I have with Christ. When I recognize him, I return.”

In the North, after Sr.Caterina Dolci’s return to Italy for safety reasons, the only leader left in the CL community is Fr. Peter Kamai, the rector of the seminary in Jos. It’s almost impossible to get together. Both because of security concerns and the difficult transportation situation.The same is true in Port Harcout, an industrial center in the southwestern part of the country, where Tere, Rose, and Emeka live.

Risks and a Must
In September, Rose Busingye, the community’s visitor, came to Lagos. After that, Barbara recounted that it was like the work of the School of Community blossomed again for many. Up to the beginning of the summer, there were only a few groups and they struggled to meet regularly. Then came the Ebola scare, and after that, fear regarding what might happen during the presidential election, with a civil war lurking around the bend. And finally the outbreak in one of the great contradictions in the largest oil producing country in Africa: a fuel shortage. In the city, weeks went by without gasoline. A mile-long line outside the gas station for a fill-up, which may even be impossible.

Now, for some, getting together to work on Fr. Giussani’s books has become a must. Thus, smaller groups have been born in various parts of the city, making it easier to meet. There’s one in Lekki, one in Ikoyi, one at St. Kizito, one made for Guido and one or two others who meet after 8:30 p.m.(it’s usually dangerous to go out at night, but they find ways to avoid the risks), and there are others. Godfrey talks about his challenges at work and with his girlfriend. “At first, you think you’re capable, then everything falls apart. Only inside the relationship with Christ can you face all the things that happen. Only looking at Him frees me.” So much so that one time he said to Steve,“If I don’t do School of Community, I’ll die.” Steve responded, “Me too.”

Bitrus was born in Jalingo, in the mostly Muslim northern part of the country.He met the Movement years ago thanks to Sr. Caterina. Running from Boko Haram, he arrived in Lagos where he now works as a custodian at St. John school in Ikorodu. “CL has really changed the way I live. I learned to see that Christ is present, even now. He is here, even when bad things happen. He is the center. When I think I’m at the center, things get complicated.”

Jakande slum started 25 years ago, settled by the hundreds of thousands of people who were kicked out of the Marocco neighborhood, evicted by the government’s rezoning of the area for new development. Today a white person passing through the makeshift houses is looked at with suspicion; they could be government agents gathering information for a new real estate development. This is the depressed context in which the doctors and staff of St. Kizito work.The ideal behind the clinic, which offers basic medical care, is health education. The education, however, is also for the staff themselves. It’s not just a question of best practices (though the clinic is an excellent example), but of discovering a new way to look at others and oneself.

The Value of Elvis
To demonstrate, two stories are worth telling: one about Joy, and one about Elvis. Joy came to St. Kizito as part of the cleaning crew. She was very young and had escaped from a backcountry village where her family had promised her in marriage to an older man. Through her coworkers, she met the CL community and started to spend time with them. “The Movement became my life. It made me become what I am. It taught me to see things in a deeper way. ”Today she is 33 and is a single mother with a young daughter. “Without these friends, it would have been even harder. African women are expected to get married young and not to have children outside marriage. But there was no one among my friends in the Movement who judged me. I felt loved. Today I can love my daughter thanks to the love that I received. I am a happy mother. I am happy.”

Up until a few months ago, Elvis did clean-up at a construction site. He was referred to Loving Gaze for a job as a social worker for St. Kizito. He lives in the slum Jakande. His wife sells goods at a little stand made of wood, built not too far from one of the foul-smelling pools of runoff. He is Christian and attends an Apostolic Church. Now, he walks amidst the shacks in his neighborhood to check in on the children who’ve attended nutrition classes at the clinic.“Working for Loving Gaze, I learned that in order to do what I do, I have to think about the value of the people that I meet. To do this, I had to learn that I too have a value. I was born into a difficult family. They hit me. What I did was never right. I grew up thinking I wasn’t worth anything, and I hated myself. Instead, here they helped me discover who I am and what I am called to do in life. I have a value! This really transformed my life.”