The Kampala Skyline. Wikimedia Commons

Our Joy in a Situation of Despair

From Uganda to Nigeria, a journey amongst communities of the Movement that includes university students, AVSI volunteers, and Memores Domini: A people at work, building, never giving up hope for salvation.
Pier Alberto Bertazzi

January 2004. Hoima, Uganda
Baby Filippo is sleeping peacefully, as we fly on our way toward Uganda with Giorgia and Andrea. Their destination is Hoima–north west of the capital, Kampala, near Lake Albert and the border with Congo–where they will work in an AVSI project, she in public health in the surrounding area, he as a surgeon in a hospital. This is that Africa where malaria takes at least a million lives every year, most of them young children. It is sub-Saharan Africa, where 11 million have lost at least one parent to the AIDS epidemic; where half the new infections are amongst young people between the ages of 14 and 25. It is the region of the Great Lakes that wash the shores of Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, where there is not a single family who has not lost someone in the shocking series of conflicts and massacres (largely ignored by our mass media) that have scarred their recent history. What will happen to these countries? Who will bring up these children and who will transmit meaning and hope to their lives? Who will take care of them and heal them? Who will be their teachers and friends? Every time I visit Africa, since that first time in 1986, my first and unexpected trip there, I find my heart and mind weighed down with these questions.

We land at Entebbe, almost skipping over the wave tops of the huge lake Victoria. There were a lot of people to welcome us, black and white. The history of the Movement here is a long one. It began in Gulu–now famous for the Ebola virus and child soldiers–in 1969, with the Guffanti and Vimercati families.

With Fr Tiboni, the most extraordinary encounter the Movement ever had in Africa, we check the details of our timetable. Today, the meeting with the executive and with the university community; tomorrow, Sunday, national responsibles and introduction to the Community School; Monday, to Hoima, where Giorgia and Andrea Rizzi will set up their home.

From Kampala to Stockholm
In the executive, organization is not on the agenda. Each one tries to understand for himself Fr Giussani’s recent talks and what is meant by personal responsibility and how it works. Then there is the university community. We have people in 4 different universities: Makerere (Kampala), where there are some of our people teaching, Nkozi, Mukono and Gulu. The students feel an acute need for a reference point capable of supporting their desire and their freedom. Patricia, the overall responsible, says clearly how helpful the Community School has been in this; she is the best student in the Faculty of Medicine and has just won a scholarship of 4 months at Karoliska Hospital in Stockholm, but there is no comparison between her smile when she speaks of her experience, now that she has met the Movement, and when she talks of this important accolade. Her first concern is to find someone from the Movement in Sweden. Sasà–Samuele Rizzo–is there in Africa with them, thanks to an AVSI educational program. He leads them along with his witness of the life of CLU he has just left behind in Italy. We understand together that their friendship in the context of common gestures is their first responsibility, as an answer to the encounter they have had. This is what their friends in the university can see: their friendship, a new relationship born amongst them. From this they will be able to recognize an Other who has gathered them together. We understood each other because they maintain a lively, direct relationship with the CLU in Italy.

Why the Church?
With the national responsibles, it’s always a miracle, since most of them come from zones that are literally at war (Kitgum and Gulu) and we don’t know if they’ll be able to come this time. When they do arrive, there is an intense and true embrace between people who really do belong to each other, though it’s a long time since they’ve met, and some have never even met each other before. So why is there this belonging, why this unity; in other words, “Why the Church?” While tackling together the Community School, it becomes clear that the answer is that it is for me. Nothing more than this experience in action can make the questions appear essential and the answers reasonable for anyone. It is witnessed by simple, common people who have become protagonists of exceptional and incredible stories, as those we have read in Traces in recent months, stories of hope and reconstruction, where apparently only despair and desolation are possible.

Sister Boniconsilii (known as “Boni”) has been put in charge by her Congregation of a school for hundreds of children in Jinja, a city on the shores of Lake Victoria, near the source of the White Nile. Before I left Kampala, she asked to speak to me, only to ask me to tell Fr Giussani of “our joy in a hopeless situation” and to tell him they are praying for him every day as a thanksgiving to God for the charism that He has given him and that allows them to live in this way.

Fr Giussani’s words
Now I am in Hoima, with the Rizzi family. First, a long, pitted, tarmac road, then a long stretch of gravel road, where even the dust seems exhausted. It’s an uneventful trip, though and Pippo is driving. For 15 years, he has been a watchful builder of hope amongst these people. There is a lot of green around us and, on a distant hill, a Marian shrine, built by Polish prisoners during the Second World War. In a large clearing, shaded by tall trees, we find the Rizzi home, beside that of Manolita and Stefano, with their three children, and that of Gaetano (yes, he’s the one who was in Gulu at the time of the Ebola outbreak). We enjoyed delicious chicken and chips on the long wooden table in the open. The children are already friends.

At first you are a little afraid, because the needs around you are immense, and you feel a bit homesick, so far away, but, above all, what Fr Giussani said in their brief meeting with him before leaving becomes clear: “Love for Christ achieves good, all the good that you will be able to do to any man, anywhere.”

July 2004. Lagos, Nigeria
Everyone knows Lagos, because there is no newspaper in the world that has not run a report on the world’s most violent and unlivable cities; Lagos is always there at the top of the list. When you are there you can feel it, too. But for us, Lagos is the city where there is a house of the Memores, a school, and a clinic, born thanks to AVSI projects, kids we have met and who now have families, and newcomers that we have met, especially at the university. As always, there are two cars to meet us at the airport; one is a spare. Evening has fallen, and if we were to break down on one of the long bridges of the lagoon, it would be hard to get news of us.

As soon as we arrive, the first telephone call is to Stephen, the first great friend we met in Lagos, over ten years ago. We shall meet him tomorrow; it’s already late. We’ll fix a time for a medical check-up on little Joseph, found abandoned amongst the rubbish and taken by Joseph and Florence into their family, simply out of love for who he is.

The school and the clinic
The school, started at the beginning of 2003, now has more than 400 pupils. It is run by Francis, William, and Jovita, big boys now, who are professionals and have a clear awareness of life and of work, matured in the experience of the Movement, quite able to run the enterprise that, begun as a small charity activity in a village, has become exemplary for the religious and civil authorities of the area, and for all the international organizations that come across it. Tonya, Louisina, and Margaret, in their turn, are the pillars of the clinic, which not only receives hundreds of people every day, but hosts programs for vaccination and for fighting malnutrition, pre-natal clinics, and courses for education against HIV infection. They have numerous links with LUTH (Lagos University Teaching Hospital), which sends many students from the faculty of medicine there for periods of experience, and where the clinic organizes seminars and short courses in Primary Health Care for the students. These enterprises offer opportunities to meet adults, professional people, organizations, and people who are fascinated by them; they become curious about the experience that generated them and are keen to help it. It’s striking how often representatives of many important organizations (like the UN and Italian organizations), and experts in voluntary work all over the world, when they meet these enterprises of ours and those working in them, say, “Here, at last, is someone really worth investing with.”

Friendship as the protagonist
The beating heart of the Movement is the group that is constantly growing in the university. Our presence can now be seen in Medicine, Engineering, Economics, and many other faculties. Our first meeting is with the diaconia and then with the other students–those who manage to get here. I mean to say that, apart from the problem of the distances, there is often a choice to be made: “Do I eat, or use the money for bus fare?” Naturally, they organize as best they can so that both are possible. As it happens, there are a lot of them present, and their faces, even before their words, express what Sr Boni said in Kampala: “Joy in a hopeless situation.” They sing for a long time, particularly loudly in the Inno alle scolte di Assisi (Hymn of the Assisi Sentries), in perfect Italian, with the slight accent of African warriors, which is fine. It is examination time for many of them, but their first concern is to read over together the work of the School of Community and the exhibition they are preparing for the presentation of Why the Church? next autumn, in which Cardinal Okogie, Archbishop of Lagos, will take part. School of Community, an exhibition, many initiatives… but they are talking about themselves, about their lives, of the need to be themselves and to know that a good destiny exists. There is a powerful friendship among them that makes them protagonists, positive and keen to build in a society that seems to give you only one chance, and that is to get away. They are well there; you can see that they have things to do; they have a motive and an aim. God help us to be true friends to them in this.

Countering despair
The following day, the whole community meets together, in a room of the clinic that is big enough to hold all of us. There are some doctors, too, who have begun to work with the clinic. We take up the School of Community. How can you know which Church is the true one? (There are thousands and thousands of sects here, continually being born and expanding). You see, there is a thread that you can follow through history, the first group of friends He chose, then their friends, and so on… And, all of a sudden, it seems to be clear to everyone that we are part of that very same event. The Mass follows; and that is the Body of Christ. Then we go happily for the break: one or two “puff-puffs,” a kind of fried biscuit, and a drink of water. Then, all together, we take a look through the panels of the exhibition, followed by more questions and suggestions. We decide on some changes and explain how to work. It will be a long job, but the enthusiasm is great. We get the news that the Meeting will include the exhibition on The Risk of Education, already hosted with great success at the University of Lagos and in several schools, and also the music video the students made on their experience, entitled, “Crying Out the Positivity of Life.”Positivity of life, here?!

And then, as a shock, comes the news that the village where the school started will be razed to the ground within two weeks to make room for a new road. Ten thousand people will lose everything; where will the school children go? And what will happen to the school if it loses all those children? There is a quick decision: Let’s contact the local government, you get in touch with the Cardinal, tomorrow we’ll organize a meeting with the village chiefs, you look for… We’ll handle it, once again. Now, who was speaking of despair?