Kampala, Uganda. Wikimedia Commons

Life with a Family of Eight

The story of the Pizzi family, who have been living in Africa for more than twenty years–at first in Uganda, then in Kenya, and now in Ethiopia–always certain of the loving face that allows one to always feel accompanied.
Paola Ronconi

Varese, 1984. “Elena, I got a proposal to go on mission to Africa. I’m leaving.” These are the words she heard from her fiancée, Stefano, an Agricultural Science graduate. Mission had been a long-standing passion for him, only postponed by his engagement to her. So he spent a couple of years in Kitgum, Uganda, while she finished her education degree in Milan. In 1986, they reunited, got married, and decided to go back to Uganda, this time together. The newly born Pizzi family was not alone. In making all these decisions, they were accompanied by other families from Varese who were no longer “pioneers” in Uganda: the Guffantis in Italy, and those waiting for them in Africa: the Rizzos, the Tagliettis, the Maininis, the Gargionis, the Buzzis, and others. “A month after the wedding,” says Elena, “we were on a flight for Uganda... the three of us! I came out of trust in my husband but, once in Kitgum, I said to myself, ‘This is for me.’” In a new environment, so unfamiliar, where one is temped to solve everybody’s countless daily dramas, “the first thing I needed, even more than the air I breathed, was my friends,” says Elena.

The Pizzis understood, more every day, that their vocation was to live for Jesus, not for Africa.

“Therefore, it wouldn’t have made a difference if I had stayed in Italy–the Lord is present wherever one lives His presence.” In Kitgum, in the midst of guerilla warfare and kidnappings, Stefano worked for AVSI at the district agrarian institute and at the refugee camp of Acholpii. Elena assisted at the new elementary school, called Uganda Martyrs, implemented work courses for women, and helped with the Meeting Point outreach center with AIDS patients. After Pietro, born in 1987, the family welcomed Giacomo (1989), Caterina (1991), Cecilia (1993), and Luca (1995). In the meantime, the bonds with the Italian families and with the new African and other foreign friends had become stronger, supporting their hard life in Africa.

Kampala, Nairobi,
Addis Ababa

In 1996, because of increasingly violent guerilla warfare, the Pizzis relocated to Kampala for the next four years. Stefano recalls, “In 2000, Bishop Mazzolari of Rumbek called me to work for three years in his huge diocese in the south of Sudan,” so the family (with the newly born Luigi) moved again... to Nairobi, Kenya, where some friends were already waiting for them. At last, the final stop of the journey in 2003: three months in Ethiopia with UNICEF. But, three months at a time, their stay was extended and Stefano started thinking about moving his family again, and talked about it with the friends in his Fraternity. Once again, Elena gave her “okay.” But this time proved to be more difficult than ever before. When they got to Addis Ababa, the Pizzis did not know anybody. There were no families from the Movement and no Memores Domini or Father Poppi or Father Valerio... and they felt the repercussions. Some of the kids started wondering, "What are we doing here all by ourselves?!" Elena says, “I prayed that what had been gratuitously given to us everywhere else, the loving face of Jesus, would happen again in Ethiopia”–that it would be possible to meet new friends with whom to walk this part of the path. “The Fraternity of Uganda never abandoned us. Many of them came to spend short periods of time with us, and that was a great consolation for us.”

Then, day after day, life unfolded, and all they had to do was to follow the signs to meet again the loving Face that never abandoned them.

The impact with Ethiopia
Where can we start? From the Juventus Club, a gathering point for the Italian population. The Pizzi’s fame precedesd them–a family with six kids is very uncommon, even in Ethiopia! “I remember,” says Elena, “that when I left home that night to go to the club with Stefano and Luigi, with all my soul I asked Jesus to show Himself.” At the club, they met their first new friend: “Renata, president of the club, entrepreneur and known to everybody (Ethiopians and Italians alike)...Then the usual questions: What’s the name of this beautiful kid? Where do you come from? Why did you end up here in Addis Ababa? And so on...We got to know something about each other, and everything started there.” Then Renata showed up at a “strange” meeting, where a dozen high school kids talked about their gathering after school at the parish of San Salvatore with Sister Gabriella, their Religion teacher. The group, called “Post-Confirmation,” was born when Pietro and Giacomo Pizzi asked Sister Gabriella to meet them every Friday afternoon to spend time together and talk about issues they cared about. Elena continues, “Renata was confused. Her daughters were part of the group as well, and they contributed to the meeting. At the end of the witnesses, she said, ‘Someone please tell me what’s going on! For years I had to drag my daughters to Catechism, and now they remind me about it two days in advance. I have spent all of my life delving into many things, but I forgot the most important thing: Jesus. Tell me what to do.’” One week later, Renata met Elena for coffee. Thus, the first School of Community of Addis Ababa was born: Elena, Stefano, and Renata. Monica, a teacher at the Italian School, whom they met almost by chance, soon joined them. “We would meet at our house,” says Elena. But after a short while, Renata insisted on meeting at the club “to be public and visible.”

Elena recounts, “One morning, I was at Renata’s office, where six secretaries work as well, and I told Renata, ‘It would be beautiful if they could get to know that which makes us such good friends.’ She answered, ‘Okay, what day of the week should we do it?’ So, on Thursday at 11:30 am, we started the School of Community in Amarico, the local language. I spoke English, and Renata translated. We could now invite really everybody: Daniela, Moira, Marilena, Bellech–the mother of Tiziana, a girl who studied with Cecilia–or the mother of a friend of Caterina, who was worried about her daughter associating with bad companions...”

A mother and six children
In Addis Ababa, Elena decided to stay home, instead of working as she had in all the other cities, and to follow the kids’ integration into the new school. The Italian School is made up of 80% Ethiopians and 20% Italians and other foreigners. The teachers come from Italy, carrying with them the problems of the Italian school system, on top of the local ones. “I became the class representative, and at the first assembly I was astonished at the discovery that more than half the class was at risk of failing. The problem seemed to be that the kids would not do their homework. So, I volunteered to study with them one afternoon a week.” After three months, the report said that “even though the kids did not become much more diligent in doing their homework and in studying, it’s evident that there has been a change in the class atmosphere.” At the end of the year, only two students of that long initial list failed. The initiative continued in subsequent years, with the schoolmates of Caterina, Cecilia, and Luca. The older siblings lended a hand. One day, Pietro said, “Davide asked to come and study here at our house. I told him to come on Wednesdays, since that’s the day I’m home.” Even among the kids, then, there was a great fervor, an overflowing desire for stable, true friendships, like the ones they left behind in Kenya. Their enthusiasm spread to their classmates as well. Pietro recounts, “One day, Enrico Guffanti, who had come to stay with us for a few days, told me, ‘You are GS; otherwise, it doesn’t exist. If GS is the way you live, as a consequence, those who observe you will see the difference.’” The Lord works in His own time, and after two years of attempts a small GS group was born. In addition to the Pizzi kids, it included Carlo, Iafet, Amanuel, Pinael, Franco, Mike, Claudia, Lorena, Henos, and Hamayes. They met not only on Saturdays, but every Tuesday at lunch time for the “Raggio”–a youth group meeting meant to explore the meaning of anything that the students are interested in–in the garden of the Italian School. And a new face showed up at every meeting. The Pizzi kids soon met Gigi and Chiara, two volunteers at the non-profit organization “Amici del Sidamo,” and Father Dino, a Salesian priest, who run a help center for street kids. So, Pietro and Giacomo, along with other friends, started teaching English to some of the street kids (who only speak Amarico). This gave birth to an experience of charitable work, and soon, says Pietro, accompanying the kids on their path to recovery somehow “made it possible for me to be recovered as well... by the charity of Jesus, who once more put somebody by my side to be with me on the journey.”

Following His signs
After two years in Ethiopia, yet another twist: Stefano accepted a job offer from UNICEF in the south of Sudan, while the family remained in Addis Ababa, where they re-unite once every three weeks. Stefano recounts, “All the decisions, even the hard ones that Elena and I made during these years for our family were led by this ‘entrusting ourselves to reality,’ however it appeared in front of us, always being curious to see what’s behind it. Since we, as parents, have always been certain of a hidden Good in all our difficult relocations, our children followed us, sharing our own struggle as well as our certainty, each time learning how to ‘entrust’ themselves a little more.” Elena continues, “I never doubted that what we were doing was good for our children too. I don’t think that a certain kind of growth can be guaranteed by a place or by pre-ordained circumstances. The central issue is that Stefano and I love each other, and this is neither a feeling nor an abstract reciprocal faithfulness, but it is a faithfulness to Christ. When Stefano left that day in 1984, we affirmed that our relationship was not ours to own. This is something we can share with our children, and when this becomes their own personal ‘yes,’ we are able to ask everything of each other”–so much so that Caterina tells us, “When we moved to Addis Ababa, starting from scratch was very difficult. The relationships we were able to establish remained on a superficial level. I missed that unity with my friends that I had experienced up to that point.” Cecilia, who turned 13 this year, continues, “When I first got to Ethiopia, I was a little bit disappointed; the kind of companionship that had always surrounded me did not exist there. But I actually had it: it was my own family! We were that presence that I had experienced and lived in my ten years of life; it was time for me to live and to re-build for myself everything that up to that moment was given to me, almost without me asking for it.”

Something that endures over time
We could fill many more pages with the story of the Pizzis… We could write about the year that Pietro spent in the USA, or about Giacomo, who wanted to go back to Italy to attend the classical studies high school (that does not exist in Ethiopia), or about Cecilia’s and Caterina’s enthusiasm. We could write of Elena, who won Daniela over with the help of a bunch of flowers, or of the singing and playing at the airport, or of the 40 people gathered at the Pizzi house to watch the live broadcast from St. Peter’s Square on March 24th, or of the Way of the Cross, attended by 34 people... but we’ll stop here.
In times when, everywhere you turn, you hear that believing in the family and its capacity to endure over time is a utopian ideal, the “bizarre” story of the Pizzis simply shows that, for those who grab hold of what can give consistence to everything, it is possible to live like this.