By Caterina Degan
I’m Catherine, a girl from Padua (Italy). Last summer, from July 31st to August 20th, I had the fantastic opportunity to come to Uganda, accompanied by Father Maurizio Balducci, a Comboni missionary, and Maria Pia Dal Zovo, a secular Comboni missionary. Also Amir, Anita, Marta, Francesca, Jessica, Marco, Beatrice, Chiara and Giacomo, aged 22 to 35 years, were part of the group I came with to Uganda.
But what prompted us to make this trip? We all used to attend a group for young people aged between 18 and 35 years called “GIM- Giovani Impegno Missionario” (Committed Missionary Youth) conceived and proposed by the Comboni missionary family to talk about mission to young Italians, in order to open them to the world and to help them understand their vocation in life. So, even if from different cities, we were united by the desire to live and not just to hear about mission.
When Father Maurizio offered a vocation trip in the footsteps of the Comboni missionaries in Uganda we enthusiastically accepted, even if we had to face employers who were reluctant to grant us leave, families who were not always supportive or to neglect our university studies… What guided us to this trip were: what does “doing mission” mean? What is my vocation in life? And even, who are these Ugandans we have heard missionaries speaking so well about? Before leaving Italy, everyone asked us: “What are you going to do there?” The answer was: “We’ll go there just to meet people.” It seemed rather vague even to ourselves at first, but Father Maurizio kept on telling us that it would be a rich and tiring journey. Yet for the “western” way of living, so prepared to “do something”, the idea of “meeting” people without a concrete plan left us rather perplexed. But we trusted Father Morris and we accepted the invitation-challenge to this trip. From February onwards, we spent about six months seriously preparing ourselves for this trip, including ticket and insurance purchase, vaccinations, and also facing some “psychological terrorism” carried out by relatives and acquaintances about diseases, insects and other animals.
Fortunately, in the meantime, we had three “training sessions” meant to prepare us for this trip in which we talked about Uganda’s history, local traditions and the history of the Ugandan church. We even tried to learn a bit of Lango, one of Luo’s languages, the language of the people with whom we would stay longer. These meetings were for us as a compass for departure, as these indicated us where to focus before leaving, giving us also the opportunity to get to know each other. What was still missing was just a final greeting to our families and then…go: the last step on the doorstep is already the first step of the journey.
The steps of our journey were relatively few: from July 31 to August 3 in Kampala; from August 3-14 in Ngetta (Lira); from August 14 to 17 in Gulu; from August 17 to 20th back to Kampala. During all this time we managed to meet many people and organizations, most of them linked to the Comboni Family and to the work of missionaries. In Kampala, we met people at Mbuya parish, at Reach-Out Centre, at the editorial office of Leadership, and even the Eritrean community, through the efforts of Father Sebhat. Finally we even visited a slum area, Kamwokya. In Ngetta, we met all the organizations founded by the Comboni mission as schools, an orphanage, a dispensary, Radio Wa, the CPC (Catechetical Pastoral Centre), the COSBEL center, the hospital of Aber, the girls’ school of Aboke, the Virgin Mary’s shrine of Iceme. Finally in Gulu, we visited the spiritual center of the Comboni Missionaries, the Comboni Good Samaritan centre, St. Jude’s orphanage and St. Mary’s Hospital in Lacor.
This is but a fast and rough list of the realities we visited. Each one of them would deserve a separate essay to tell of their history, the courage to keep going even in difficult years, the opportunity for redemption offered to the least, the voiceless, the forgotten people… But the history of places is strictly linked to the history of the people who lead them. And so, my mind goes to Sister Maria Marrone who dedicates herself to children affected by HIV. I think about Christine the midwife of Ngetta dispensary who greeted us like real relatives and took care of one of us when sick. I also think about Sr. Rosemary and Fr. Sam, Aber hospital manager, who, after training in the US, decided to come back to his people to contribute in creating a new way of doing health in Northern Uganda. Sister Giovanna of the Good Samaritan cooperative, and Elizabeth, Gabriel, Grace and Okidi who warmly welcomed us opening to us their home doors. I recall all the spiritual opportunities that we shared with the local communities: the catechists we met at Ngetta catechists’ training Centre, who are the future and the real driving force of Christianity in Uganda; the Christian community of Gomi who welcomed us for a lively Sunday Mass; the ordinations for Lira Diocese where we shared in the joy of a whole diocesan community in receiving new ministers.
I cannot forget Brother Elio Croce, the “man of action” whom, I believe, has built half of the buildings relevant in Gulu municipality. Gloria, a woman aged 24, who lives in Kamwokya slum, who learnt how to become “a neighbour” to the last ones, who led us through the intricate streets of this citadel in the city, and whom, despite the precariousness of life there, did not give up looking for easier ways of living, but knows how to dream and convey to many the desire of a new way of life, inspired by Jesus’ Love and Mercy.
We did not do anything tangible, surely. We just went to meet people… We accepted the invitations of those who met us on the street. We welcomed the embrace of children in orphanages, “donating” them some caresses and hugs. We even left them speechless and astonished performing some “magic”. In a word, we went to “be one with people”. If in the “western” way of thinking this may not appear very productive, I found that to the human heart (Ugandan and Italian alike) is yet the most rewarding experience you can have. How much you receive in welcoming, both in giving it to others and in accepting it from them..!
What did I bring home
I’m so glad that I eventually decided to go to Africa to learn about people and plunge myself in people’s culture rather than just work in a hospital or being a tourist. In this way I brought with me the richness of life, experienced in true everyday life. I filled my eyes with the green trees; green made even sharper by red African soil. I brought home with me the mighty waters of the Nile and a thousand teachers of life. I brought home black eyes that know how to observe, smooth skin that does not easily reveal the age and profound wisdom always paired with child’s spirit; what it means truly welcoming people, the value of visiting again a friend who was far away for a long time: in Uganda I finally experienced what true welcoming is!
Finally, I have a different way of living the Christian faith. Perhaps in the slum, in Gloria’s eyes and way of life, in her reflections on the Gospel, I understood how Christianity can indeed change life and how much does for the best. I see that doing mission is not to uproot people from their culture. That would just be pure nonsense! God wished us to be so different and various; why then should we level all in his name?
Yet for everyone the same message of Love, Mercy and Hope is very important. This is the meaning of sharing the Gospel with others and living it: i.e. Living together a New Life, which, against any human selfish logic, makes you discover your deepest humanity and need for mutual love.
I can really say that I brought home with me the feeling to have rediscovered that humanity that unites all peoples. And all this is the gift of Uganda to me, so I say: thank you Uganda for all you have planted in my heart. I only promise that I’ll let it grow.
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