Uganda: When time is a friend

A journey begins again after nineteen years in Africa. Provoked by the Exercises, Stefano and Manolita reconsider their story. (From the June issue of "Traces")
Paolo Perego

“Looking back at my own history and discovering that I am ‘preferred.’ That’s the first truth I carried home with me after the Exercises. After 49 years….” After 19 years living in Uganda with his wife Manolita and their five children, businessman Stefano Antonetti tells his story: “We left Varese right after we got married in 2000.” Not because of a “missionary impulse,” he underlines. “My wife had been in Africa with her family and felt a desire to relive the beautiful experience she had there, and working for AVSI in Africa was an opportunity that was in front of us.” They never thought it would be for the rest of their lives. “When we received that question from Carrón before the Exercises, ‘What can withstand the test of time?’ we asked how it would be possible not to look at what has happened to us since then,” Manolita said, with all she had heard in the video from Rimini still very much in her heart. “Carrón sent us back to work to rediscover that newness that caught hold of us: Christ happening again right now.”

“It was 2013. The weariness that had started to spread into every aspect of life as time passed had become unsupportable.” Over the years, their friendships within the Movement in Uganda had become arid, and the children started to have more needs as they grew up. “Maybe as time went by a certain kind of presumptuousness emerged, almost as if that choice to live in Uganda was itself the finish line,” Stefano said, “as if leaving Italy was our own initiative, and not an adherence to a road Jesus had chosen for us. When you think that way, if reality is hard, you tell yourself ‘it is given,’ but as a slogan you tack on. You try to incorporate the slogan into life, but you feel constricted.”

After 13 years, “we started making preparations to move back to Italy,” Manolita explained. They bought a house in Varese and enrolled their kids in the local public school. “But we weren’t able to find jobs.” Something was not adding up. They discussed it with many friends. “One asked us what it is we truly desire.” Deep down, this is the same problem of recognition that was discussed in Rimini, and looking back today, after the Exercises, they understand even better. “It was not a problem of putting everything in place, but of deepening our relationship with the Mystery that was knocking at our door once again.” After that, a road reopened: “A few months later, I received a job offer from Uganda,” Stefano said. “We were surprised to find ourselves grateful to be able to look with new eyes at the thing we had wanted to leave.

Nothing had changed at an external level in Kampala: “There were the same people and the same difficulties as before. But we had changed: the crucial point was the real need we had within us.” Relationships that had grown arid blossomed again, and new ones were formed. Manolita went back to working for AVSI in their Distance Support Program, but with new responsibilities. “I felt inadequate. Because of my personality, I stress out about not being good enough. But what defined me? My job was to communicate the beauty of AVSI’s work with children in the slums. I realized I had that beauty before my eyes–I had experienced it firsthand; I did not have to make it up. It was for me.”

Their new perspective, involving a continuous comparison with their need, still required them to confront issues concerning the education of their growing children and things happening at work, like dealing with a person you helped and taught how to work, and then who then steals your clients. “But you face these things in a different way; you get creative and change things. You get angry, but you love the other. You start to see a good for yourself in everything,” even in the death of one of Stefano’s dear friends last year. “The thing is to understand what it is you are asking,” Stefano continued. “One evening, after the hundredth difficult day, before walking into my house I thought, ‘At least for tonight, let’s pretend to laugh, that everything is great.’ But was it pretending or was there really a point from which we could begin again? The faces in my life were not fake. Reality is your enemy when it is just your idea, like the time I was angry with the Movement years ago… You say to yourself, ‘I am following, but why do I bother? Why put forth the effort?’ If reality is not for you, time eats away at you.”

Looking again at life in this way is to regain it, “To feel how you are preferred, loved by a Presence that happens again and regenerates your ‘I,’” Manolita added. “It is a work you begin anew each day, one that makes you a protagonist.”