Italian Women and Men Missionaries in East Africa

We met in Nairobi on 15-19 May 2017. There were about seventy of us. The meeting was open to Italian women and men missionaries who work in East Africa but apart from the Kenyans only a few people came from Tanzania and Zambia. The representative of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Don Michele Autuoro, and the representative of the Unitary Centre for Missionary Cooperation, Don Felice Tenero, both of whom organised the meeting, observed that the Italian missionaries who work in East Africa were many more in number than those who had come to the meeting but unfortunately the list/address book that was available to them was incomplete and needed to be updated.

A brief glance with a bird’s eye view at the assembly that met at the House of the Daughters of Immaculate Mary in Karen (Nairobi) produced very many heads with grizzled hair and very many (the majority) veils of women religious. However, there was no absence of young people and they were represented above all else by the Fidei donum missionaries, that is to say priests and lay people who had been sent to Africa directly by Italian dioceses. It was specifically these people, the Fidei donum, who characterised this meeting.

The riches of voluntary work

There were priests who came from areas of the centre of Tanzania and young Italian priests – to give one example – from the diocese of Padua and the diocese of Milan who work in Kenya far from the capital. There were also various women volunteers who engage in missionary service in one of the three countries mentioned above. I was struck by the experience of Patrizia Manzone (of the diocese of Alba) who took part in the meeting with the whole of her family: her African husband and their two children who are still very young. Patrizia has worked for nine years in the Kenyan diocese of Marsabit as a teacher of religion and as the head of pastoral care for young people.

What did we say to each other and what did we listen to during the five days that we spent as guests of the Daughters of Immaculate Mary (who originate from Padua) in Nairobi? First of all, I would say that it was a great opportunity for exchange at a human level. One does not often meet so many ‘colleagues’ on a single occasion, colleagues who indeed engage in the same work but who do so in rather different contexts and settings. I, for example, have the ‘good luck’ to work in an urban context (on the outskirts of Nairobi) but certain Tanzanian missionaries spoke to me about the difficulties that they have – during the rainy season – in reaching their city of reference.

Three challenges

Theologians and journalists presented three principal topics. These topics were then the subject of discussions in work groups: the challenge of inculturation, the challenge of globalisation, and lastly the challenge of pastoral and missionary conversion.

The subject of inculturation was presented by the Tanzanian theologian Dr. Laurenti Magesa who observed that it is not only Italian missionaries who should constantly address this subject – this should also be done by local priests who encounter difficulties in finding pathways of encounter between traditional African cultures and the requests of the modern world given the radical character of the gospel message. At times one can encounter an African priest who in his liturgical celebrations is more ‘Roman’ than Italian missionaries. African Christians now have the task, together with their clergy, of looking for forms that are more appropriate to outlining and expressing the gospel message – a message that in previous centuries was proclaimed by Westerners.

Don Giuliano Albanese, when speaking from an economic-financial point of view, explained the negative consequences of globalisation for Africa: the sale at low prices of lands and mineral resource, the arms trade, the excessive power of banks, and the destruction of the environment. What should be done in this aggressive world? In what way can missionaries help ordinary people who are so lost and powerless in the face of these destructive processes which are increasingly impoverishing people who are already poor? A suggestion: they should educate people to use money well, with a correct management of the family budget; the creation of micro-credit cooperatives; and pathways of training based upon a spirit of gospel solidarity.

Monsignor Giuseppe Satriano, the Bishop of Rossano-Cariati, who himself was formerly a Fidei donum missionary in Kenya, placed us in contact with the Italian Catholic Church and with Pope Francis by commenting on Evangelii gaudium. More than arriving in Africa with money and construction plans, he observed, it was a good idea to be with and amongst people and be marked by the scent of sheep.

Moving from the rudder to the oars

The time has come for us missionaries to move from the rudder of the boat to the oars.  Certainly, the question spontaneously poses itself: what will happen to what we have achieved? How can the existing institutions be made autonomous and sustainable? How can the locals be educated in leading and administering these works? What kind of formation should be given to local priests and religious?

With respect to the Camillians, after the departure of Brother Albano last year and of Father Avi in May, our missionaries in East Africa have been reduced to three in number: two in Kenya and one in Tanzania. The time of mission in the other direction has now arrived, that is to say now it is Africans, whom we have helped to grow, who are crossing the ocean and coming to help the Western old world which, indeed, needs a new evangelisation. Cycles and counter-cycles: nothing new under the sun!

Paolo Guarise