All posts by Comboni Missionaries Ireland

Oral Literature: The monkey and the crocodile

Once upon a time the monkey and the crocodile were good friends. At midday, the monkey would always go to the riverbank and call the crocodile: “Crocodile come! Let us chat together.”

The crocodile would hear him and go to his friend to have some pleasant time together. One day the chief of all the crocodiles was severely ill. Several doctors tried to help him but could not find a cure. They all said that it would be worthy to try an ancient tradition: he should eat the heart of a monkey to get better. And so they told the crocodiles to be on the alert and hunt a monkey for their chief.

The following day the crocodile met with the monkey at the river bank. He told the monkey “I wish we could go together to visit a friend of mine across the river.” The monkey replied that he couldn’t swim. The crocodile offered the monkey his back to carry him across the river.

The crocodile took his friend in the middle of the river to the place of his chief. He told the monkey: “My friend, it is good that we came to visit my chief.  He is severely ill and the doctors said he would need a heart of a monkey for getting better. I wish, in name of our friendship, that you could give your heart.” The monkey was clever and answered considerately: “I will help you with my heart as you asked. However I left it on the tree at home. You should take me back so that I can give it to you.”

The crocodile was pleased and helped the monkey to get back. Once they reached the river bank, the monkey jumped swiftly and climbed his tree. Once on top of the tree he yelled to the crocodile: “You are a stupid crocodile, so go and look for a stupid monkey that will give you his heart. Personally, I want to keep my heart for it is precious.” Hence the monkey saved his life and feels safe staying in the trees. (Folktale from Nuer People – South Sudan)


Eswatini: Arriving unannounced

Originally from the Argentine, Mons. José Luis Gerardo Ponce de León has for five years been Bishop of Manzini in the Kingdom of Eswatini, the former Swaziland. He shares his experience with us.

Before becoming Bishop of Manzini I had been appointed, in 2009, to the Apostolic Vicariate of Ingwavuma in South Africa, a diocese on the border with Mozambique. These are the two different nations where I lived: firstly in South Africa and, starting five years ago, in the Kingdom of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland.

In both places I started in the same way. I didn’t know much about the area entrusted to me and so I decided to visit each and every community, great or small. Here in Eswatini there are 120. I came unannounced. I didn’t want the people to be there ‘because of the bishop’ but because of the Lord’s Day (Sunday).

It was no simple matter for people to accept my manner of visiting them since they would have liked to welcome me differently. The impact was deeply felt since, in many places, it was the first time for the people to see the Bishop among them. “Today, we are the cathedral”, they would say, smiling broadly. There were places where they were happy to see a new face among them but it never occurred to them that it belonged to the bishop.

The mission always involves going out to meet others and, especially those who do not feel worthy of such a visit. In fact, my episcopal motto: The Word Became Flesh has become a form of greeting in the diocese. Whereas people used to say: “Praised be Jesus Christ”, they have now begun to say: “Izwi laba yinyama” – The Word became flesh. And people would answer: “Lahlala phakathi kwethu” – And dwelt among us.

The diocese is witnessing to this encounter in fragility, with initiatives unique to this nation. Eswatini is the country with the highest percentage of AIDS sufferers in the world.

For the past twenty years, the diocese has been running a home for adults and children who are AIDS patients. First opened when AIDS was a death sentence, it accompanied many to the encounter with the Father. Today, instead, it is a place where they recover their dignity and return to their homes. The challenges lie in having them go back home where they always lived as well as they did with us. The care of the disabled (children, youths and adults) is another expression of this love that raises people up.

A few weeks ago, a missionary of the Servants of Mary received an award for having introduced the use of braille for the education of the visually challenged. That man, who died a few years ago, often said to me: “I have managed to do a lot for the disabled but I never succeeded in changing the way their families and society see them”.  It is for this that our centres have become expressions of the love of the Father.

The situation of the refugees is a call to look beyond our own little world where we are tempted to close ourselves inside. For many years now, ‘Caritas Swaziland’, as the organ that implements the agreements between the government and the UNHCR, runs the centre for refugees that was opened during the civil war in Mozambique.

Today it receives families (composed of a husband, wife and several children) who come from countries of the region of the Great Lakes (Rwanda, Burundi, Congo). They travel the breadth of the continent in the hope of a better future. In response to the appeal of Pope Francis and according to the initiative launched by the laity of the diocese, all the parishes gather once a year at the cathedral to celebrate Mass and present their gifts.
The mission is all of these … a culture of encounter, opening one’s eyes, learning to see, gratuitous love and always the Good News about Jesus who gives us life in abundance.

In welcoming Pope Francis’ appeal to revive the missionary commitment, I asked our diocese to deepen its missionary commitment and awareness by celebrating not just one month but an Extraordinary Missionary Year (EMY), from October 2019 to October 2020”. The appeal was received with great interest and joy.  This year will be an opportunity to deepen the missionary spirit that gave birth to our Church in the Kingdom of Eswatini when four members of the Order of the Servants of Mary came to Mbabane in 1914.

After those humble but spirited beginnings, today we thank God for his abundant blessings to be plainly seen in the 17 parishes and the 120 small Christian communities: our commitment to public health through the Good Shepherd Hospital and College and the other medical centres, as well as our commitment to education by means of 47 primary schools and 13 high schools.
Last October, during the vigil at our cathedral, a special ‘Missionary Year Candle’ was lit. The candle will visit each parish and community of the diocese to light up our missionary commitment.

Young Indios: “The world must listen to us”

During the Synod for Amazonia, we heard stories of young Indios who struggle against environmental exploitation, in recognition of their own identity, and they want to create an alliance with the young people of the West.  The earth is not a good to be milked dry but an inheritance to be handed down.

Marcivana Rodrigues Paiva, an ethnic Sateré-Mawe, is from Manaus, and the youthful leader of Indigenous Peoples Coordination, (COPIME), the first organisation in Brazil to concern itself with the indigenous people in the urban context, participated in the Synod as an observer. Speaking of indigenous peoples in cities she says:  “The problem of the indigenous peoples in the urban context is destined to become a brutal reality that can no longer be kept hidden. The lack of recognition of our presence in the cities denies us our rights, approved by Brazilian law. For the indigenous peoples forced to flee to the cities, the greatest danger is invisibility: those who cannot be seen have no rights ».

“Over the past five years, the exodus from the aldeias, the villages of the entire state, has greatly increased. Today, 52% of the indigenous population is to be found in the capital: they number 40,000 people of 45 different ethnic groups. Without land, we have no right to our identity. Finally Marcivana launches an appeal “to assist indigenous populations who come to the cities” by means of an “indigenous pastoral” suitable for them.

Delio Siticonatzi, 28, is from Peru. He belongs to the Ashaninka people. He studied at the Catholic Seat of Wisdom University of Nopoki, the centre for third-level studies created with the backing of the Vatican in the Vicariate of San Ramón in Atalaya (Ucayali), where studies are done in six different languages by young indigenous people from eighteen different ethnic backgrounds.  He speaks to us of his difficult journey of ethnic discovery. It began when he was 13 years old and his parents sent him to school in Atalaya since his own community, Junín, had no middle school. “It was then I first had to face discrimination. I put up with the comments in silence until I could stand it no longer and I decided to stop dressing like an Ashaninka, speaking like an Ashaninka and just being and Ashaninka. I wanted them to stop despising me”. The turning point comes when he enrols in Nopoki (I am coming). “Nopoki taught me to rediscover the beauty of being indigenous. My belonging to the Ashaninka, which I first saw as a burden, became a plus for me”.

Delio has decided to dedicate himself to teaching in the native communities. “I wanted to help other boys to understand that it is cruel to deny one’s self”. When, in 2017, Nopoki offered him a post as a teacher, he left the civil service. While at the Synod, which he attended as an observer, he made the voice of the young people heard. “I proposed an alliance between us Indios and the young people of the North of the world. They, too, are concerned about the environment as the global warming strikes show. By ourselves we cannot achieve our aims. Only if we work together can we succeed”.

Yesika Patiachi proudly displays a waterfall adorned with the traditional images of his people, the Harakbut, ancient inhabitants of the Peruvian region of Madre de Dios.  Yésica is a bilingual teacher of the Harakbut ethnic group. He lives in the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Maldonado

“We could have died out. We almost disappeared because of the “caucheros”, the natural rubber traders. If it had not been for Apaktone….” And so Yesica starts to tell us, in her calm teacher’s voice, of the trauma of the Harakbut who were massacred, in the late eighteen hundreds, by the men of the great rubber baron Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald. “At that time there were fifty thousand of us; now we are less than a thousand”.

The thirty-three-year-old woman combines stories of the massacres with that of the intrepid Dominican, José Alvarez, who defied both smugglers and prejudices to defend the Harakbut. “For us he is Apaktone, ‘our wise father’”. For the people of Madre de Dios, Pope Francis is, instead, ‘Wamambui’, the brother. “I always call him Wamambui Francesco”, Yesica insists. She met the Pontiff on 19 January 2018 when he went to Puerto Maldonado. “On that occasion, I was chosen to make the welcoming speech. I told him about the great fear we indigenes have of dying out, ignored by a system that does not accept us. Before I spoke, I was very excited but then I calmed down as I thought of my duty not to make mistakes, out of respect for my ancestors whom I was called to represent”. It was with that same sense of responsibility that I accepted the invitation to take part in the Synod as an observer. “Wamambui Francesco listens to the indigenous people”. He understands that human life on this planet is in danger. Yesica continues: “We asked the Pope that we be represented in national and international institutions, so that they will not allow us to die out as a people but allow us to live independently. It is we who feel the brunt of the crimes against the common home: no journalist has taken up the cause of our protests or that of the mothers who were hunted down and killed. We have no tribunal where we can denounce these crimes. We want our cause to make a breakthrough into human consciousness, without endangering humanity”. “Personally – Yesica emphasises – I do not trust the environmentalist movements: they often speak without ever having paid personally the cost of extractionism. For this reason I say this to the young people who took part in the climate: get informed. Come and see what is happening in Amazonia. We are also fighting for you. Do not leave us alone”.

Paulinha Meireles, 21, a Law student, was born and grew up on the outskirts of Manaus, the largest metropolis in Amazonia, says that  “there is too much prejudice against the culture of the Indios. The Church is the last  hope of the Amazonian peoples. Only the Church has the moral authority to bring their cries to the attention of the world. No one else; the parties and movements are accused of being partial”.

Paulinha remembers that also in Manaus, the schoolchildren went on strike against climate change. “I would never have thought it possible. Hitherto, there has been little interest in the environment. This reawakening is something beautiful. And it would be nice to create an understanding between two mutually distant parts of the world. We young people are the driving force for change and this gives me great confidence for the future”.

Amazonia Synod: The Prophetic River

A Comboni Missionary, Father Dario Bossi took part in the Synod of Amazonia held in Rome last October. He shares with us some reflections.   

The waters of the great River of the Synod have formed an ocean: finally we came to the conclusion after three weeks of intense discernment. Now, I feel that this Synod offers a huge contribution to the ocean of the Catholic Church, which is enriched by the colours and flavours of the life of the Amazon; and just as the Amazon River collects water from many tributaries, this Synod also fostered the meeting of many experiences, from Latin America and churches from other continents.

Just like a river, this Assembly had its ups and downs, its accelerations and its obstacles. But the Spirit of God was leading it: we felt this Spirit present, acting and alive, in the fraternal result and in the feeling of communion with which the Synod concluded.

The perception of the urgency of the Amazon’s drama and the socio-environmental and climate emergency is clear and strong. The Church responds with listening, which is not a passive attitude, but a prophecy of encounter, dialogue and alliance with the poorest that this economic model is condemning to death.

“Alliance” is a key word which resonated deeply during the Synod hearings, when we consulted thousands of people and hundreds of Communities in Pan-Amazonia. They sought a Church that would be present, and would stand by the victims. And the Synod responded in equal measure to these expectations. And decisively.

Alongside communities, in defence of their rights and territories, the Church now assumes with greater awareness and depth the paradigm of integral ecology. However, living by integral ecology in the Amazon, for the Church and for society, for politics and for economic models, means recognising the urgency of conversion. That is why the Final Document contains conversion as a red thread, as it portrays a Church that listens and recognises that she herself still has much to change and learn.

Rather than teaching the way, the Amazonian Church wants to be the first to change: it recognise that it needs to be more open to intercultural and inter-religious dialogue; it undertakes the commitment to ecological conversion, for which there are very specific proposals; and it acquires the courage and firmness to approach the victims and the threatened.

Also, in this spirit of conversion, the Church opens spaces for new ministries, in the creativeness of the Spirit and in the constant inspiration and nourishment of the Eucharist, which was defined as a “sacrament of cosmic love”, an encounter of all creatures in the celebration of Easter.

The Synod also brought together a Church that recognises that it still has an incomplete vision of women. That is why it requires another, urgent and necessary conversion. Pope Francis refers to it this way in his final speech: “We welcome the challenge of women who want to be heard”.

In this way, concludes what I consider to be the second stage of the Synod, since the first consisted of listening in the territories. This second phase was that of discernment, of the meeting of the pastors of Latin America and others from the rest of the world. But now comes the third stage, which will be the return of the Final Document to the communities.

There is still a lot of work ahead of us. But we are encouraged by the strength of the ecclesial communion that we lived in this month of October. We feel the power of the Holy Spirit who confirms the steps of the Church. Pope Francis’ vigour also caught our attention. And finally, there is the voice of women and indigenous peoples, who resonated with dignity and strength in the Vatican halls and initiated new irreversible processes within the Church.

The Synod is recommenced as we await Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, to be issued this year, and we now return to the communities’ intuitions and ideas for moving forward in action and opportunities for collaboration. Christ continues to point towards the Amazon. Let us return to the Amazon.

DR. Congo: What it means to be a doctor and a missionary

Comboni Brother Juan Carlos Salgado, a medical doctor, has the joy of serving the poor and needy at Bondo hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bondo is a small city towards the north of the country in the province of Bas-Uele, about 200 Km. North-west of the capital Buta. It has about 40,000 inhabitants and is located in a very isolated region. The roads are poor and one can only travel by motorcycle or bicycle. Since consumer goods are transported by motorcycle and there are many military road-blocks where payment is necessary, the products are very expensive.

Bondo is a multi-ethnic city – with communities of Azande, Ngbandi, Benges or Nandes -Many people come here in search of gold. For the most part, they are Congolese and the majority come from Bas Uelé and the surrounding provinces. The mines are rudimentary. The miners dig in the sand until they find gold which they then sell by weight. The market price here of a gram of gold is around 45 euro.

In Bondo, a great deal of money changes hands but since the local authorities show no interest in the infrastructure and do not build good roads, the city is not developing. There is no electricity and solar panels are in use. There are four of us here in the Comboni community of Bondo. We provide pastoral service in a parish a few kilometres from our house.

I am Mexican and, having taken first vows, I studied nursing at Monterrey in my home country. In 1998, I went to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. That was my first contact with the African continent. Four years later, when I had finished my religious training I was appointed to the democratic republic of Congo where my first mission was in Duru. I worked there for four years in a dispensary.

In 2003, in order to improve my knowledge of tropical diseases, I went to study medicine at the University of Gulu, Uganda, for six years. I wanted to complete my education in an African environment.

In 2009 I was sent to work at Mungbere Anualite Hospital.  It belongs to the diocese of Wamba where it was founded in 1980 and it is managed by the Comboni Missionaries. It has 140 beds in five departments: Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics, Paediatrics and Maternity. Seven dispensaries located between 10 and 54 Km from Mungbere ensure medica assistance to a large portion of the people of the region. My work was to supervise the work of the seven dispensaries. I spent hours moving from one dispensary to another due to the bad roads. Besides that, there are also the many military road-blocks. They knew I was a doctor and sometimes let me pass but on other occasions they would ask me for money.

After about a year I was transferred to Bondo. As well as my usual medical work, I spend a lot of time coordinating the work of the dispensaries and meeting the nursing personnel. My day begins very early. I meet with the night-shift nurses and then I see each one of the patients and I see to the people who come for medical consultations. If there are cases that need surgery, they are scheduled according to urgency. We carry out at least two operations every day, even though ours in a small hospital and our resources are few. We are two doctors and 18 nurses and we have 70 beds for admitted patients.

For me this experience is very meaningful and enriching. Through my work I am able to do my best as a missionary and professional. I learn a great deal from the people. I believe it is a reciprocal enrichment. My greatest benefit is to see patients returning home cured. It always gives me great pleasure to meet someone on the road who greets me. When I ask them where we met they tell me how I was the one who assisted them on the birth of one of their children or that I was the doctor who operated on their appendix. This is beautiful and gratifying.


South Sudan: Death – A place of rest

The Bari, a South Sudan ethnic group who live on the Savannah along the White Nile, believe that death is not a curse but a ‘going to rest’.

Among the Bari, death is seen as something natural, the common fate of all. It is desired by God but is not seen as a curse. God sends death indirectly through illness, old age or wicked spirits. He intervenes directly only when he sends the lightening. This means that anyone struck by lightning, or their family, has committed some evil act, and God punishes them. Epidemics are also seen as God’s punishment. These considerations, however, are concerned only with the manner of death. Death in itself is long rest, without tiredness or pain. The elders, especially, are happy to meet with their beloved dead of former times and say: “At last I am going to rest”.

Death is liberation from all worries. Dying parents may be displeased if their children are still young as they would still need them. Fathers and mothers who are about to die weep and say: “I am weeping because my children will be left alone with no one to look after them; I am going to my rest leaving them nothing but suffering”. Still, the thought that their children will continue the family consoles them: they have fulfilled their duty as parents. The sorrow a young person feels when about to die is, instead, that of not having left even one son to continue the family line.

The Bari believe death is sent by God but this does not remove the fear and suffering accompanying it. Almost all of them think death is accidental. Many take poison to end their pain. Suicide is available to all due to the abundance of poisonous fruits that cause death in less than five minutes. Hanging is also an option, taken especially by girls who do not wish to marry the man chosen for them by their family. In any case, suicide is seen as cowardice in the face of the problems of life.

When a gravely ill man or woman is about to die, the women surround them while the men remain outside the hut. All the people of the village go to the family of the dying person, without saying much. As soon as the person dies, the women burst into loud cries of mourning. Some men then go inside to verify the death. One of them goes out and sounds the drum to announce the death. All the people of the village, and even men and women from nearby villages, go to the hut of the deceased to offer condolences to the family. When all the relatives have come – the presence of the maternal uncle is essential – the funeral rites are begun.

The drum continues to sound and some men dig a grave in front of the house of the deceased; in the case of a young unmarried person, the grave is dug in front of the house of the mother. The gravediggers must work barefoot as the soil they dig up is sacred. Meanwhile the closest related women wash the corpse, shave its hair and, in the case of a woman, anoint it with seed oil and dress it in its finest clothes and ornaments. At this point, some men enter the house and cover the body with a funeral sheet, leaving only the face uncovered. Now only men may touch the corpse. They carry it to the grave where the relatives say their last goodbyes, dipping a finger in the seed oil and brushing the face.

There is a deep silence. The face is covered with the sheet and the corpse is lowered into the grave, resting on its side, after the Bari sleeping custom. Then the relatives, while looking at the corpse, each say a double prayer (not ‘for’ but ‘to’ the deceased: they ask them to pardon any trouble they may have caused them during their life and ask not to be forgotten before God during their glorious repose. One of the relatives – or one of the parents if they are still alive – throws a little earth into the grave. Then the drum begins to sound, sending out the message that the burial has taken place, while the women recommence their loud weeping and wailing.

If the deceased belonged to a large family or had an important social role (sorcerer, village chief, etc.), people dance at their grave throughout the day. After a day free of dancing, the dancing is resumed daily for a month, then less frequently, for a whole year. At first the songs and dances are very sad but gradually become more joyful. Besides these main rites, there are others that are complementary. For example, after the men have dug the grave, they do not go to the river to wash as they usually do on other days. It is the task of the women to bring them water to wash themselves near the grave: even the soil adhering to them is sacred and they may not take it elsewhere.

Other rites concern the relatives of the deceased. On the day following the burial they shave off all their hair: this may take one or two days according to the number of relatives. Afterwards, each person is given a necklace of palm fibres. If the dead person was a married man, his wife will wear a bracelet similar to the necklace, she will dust her whole body with ashes and will not wear her usual clothes for at least a year. The closest women relatives will keep their heads sprinkled with ashes for at least a month.

All those who come from other villages for the funeral are provided with food by the family of the deceased who kill two or three cattle and obtain two or three barrels of merissa, the local beer. Once those coming from a distance have left, the neighbours gather round the relatives of the dead person to console them. They never leave them alone so as to avoid the possible suicide of the brothers, sisters or parents of the deceased. Games or play of any kind are prohibited; the children of the neighbours are kept at a distance. The children of the family in mourning stay with the adults to weep for the dead person. For at least a week, and sometimes for a month or more, nobody sleeps in the house of the deceased but outside it, close to the grave. The neighbours do the same, in solidarity. All the above concerns only the death of adults.

In the case of a young man or woman, or a child, the ceremonies are much shorter: there is no dancing at the grave, not many people come from far away, the drum is not sounded and no cattle are slaughtered. At most a lamb will be provided. The reason for this is social. Among the Bari, an adult man, unlike a child, has many relations; he helps, defends and participates in important times in the lives of many people both in his own village and in others. When he dies, all the good he has done is remembered everywhere he has been.

While it is true that the Bari see death as a going to rest, they nevertheless do not like to die. Dying is rarely spoken of and people may simply say death is inevitable, a mystery about which one should not speak. Instead, they feel much more at ease saying that, after death, all are equal, both rich and poor.

Death is the last word for all the things of this world. For this reason, nobody should exalt themselves in this life. When a man or a woman shows outstanding talents of superiority, whether real or false, the Bari say: ‘Have no fear, after death we are all equal’. So it is that the poor and those in any situation of inferiority, console themselves. Even children tell their cleverer or stronger companions that they will all be equal after death. The true and only superiority belongs to the one who never dies. For them, this is God alone. All the others, even if they are chiefs, must be humble since there were other more famous chiefs before them and yet they are dead. (F. Pitya – E. Lado)

Philippines: The Butbut People – Death, a celebration and continuity of life

The Butbut people of the larger Kalinga ethnic group live in the Cordillera region in the north of the country. For them, death is a celebration and a continuity of life; it strengthens their social relations with their ancestors, perpetuates tradition, and unites the community together.

Butbut elders describe death (natey) as a ‘body that has not awoken’. A departure of the spirit to the jugkao, a place where the spirit of the ancestors lives: “it is far beyond the mountains”.

Death among the Butbut is not taken as a horrible experience. For the Butbut, death can be good (whayu) and bad (lagwing). A good death is when a person had been sick for a long time or when people die of old age; those who are left behind take this with acceptance and resignation. The bad is when a person had untimely death, such as when a person is killed or died from accidents. As such, there are appropriate rites performed to appease and to free the spirits of the deceased from pain and torture.

The spirits of recently deceased, in any circumstances, are believed to hover around the village to guard and protect the living – the Butbut would refer to them as ayan (also alan or spirits). When the demands of the spirit of the deceased are fulfilled, and appeased through the performance of appropriate rites and offerings (of chicken, pigs and carabao, food, wine and others), then the spirits translocate to the jugkao. If the spirit is not appeased, it stays in the village and the Butbut regard them as malevolent spirits that caused sickness and misfortunes to the community. Therefore, the relatives of the deceased meticulously do preparations at death.

The announcement of death is passed on by word of mouth. This is done when one travels to the mountain trails: news is passed on from people to people, until all the villages would learn of the news. Preparations are made during this occasion – before they travel, a family would carry bundles of rice, a black dog, a pig, labna (baskets) and other necessities such as atod (gifts or offerings that serve as a contribution) to bring to the family of the deceased. They gather in the house of the deceased to pay their tribute to the dead.

The Butbut regarded death as a celebration and not the end of life. Treatment of the deceased is most admirable for the Butbut – close kins are gathered inside the house to wash, to wrap and to watch over the dead like a ‘living person in deep sleep’. The spouse would patiently sit nearby the coffin to watch over the deceased wife or husband. There are also ritual taboos observed by the spouse during the wake and after the burial.

The rest of the community gathers outside the house to chant the chanchanag (chants for the dead) for days, most especially on vigil nights to keep the people awake and to accompany the dead. The Butbut do not wail or weep during on these occasions, but they express their grief through the chanchanag. This is done through chanting and singing lines that pertain to the life of the deceased. A lead chanter sets up the tune and the others respond in chorus following the same line. The men and women are close together, swaying their bodies to and fro with the infectious rhythm of the chant performed to a distinct tune.

The chanchanag is performed at the presence of the deceased. People believe that the spirit of the deceased will be pleased when he/she is honoured this way.

Meantime, as the chanchanag is performed, each household contributes food, such as rice, butcher a pig, and serve the rice wine – all these last for days. Meals are fed to the mourners and the relatives of the deceased. The wake lasts for three to five days depending on the stature of the person and the nature of his/her death.

The old ones’ celebrations last for many days, and the young ones for a day or two. Burial ceremonies are mostly carried out inside the house, and to be interred in one’s own ground under the house or near the yard is most honourable for the Butbut.

Only the elderly men are allowed to carry the wooden coffin outside of the house. Pregnant women, young children, including infants, are not allowed to observe the interment. It is also taboo to sneeze in the belief that it will bring bad omens. When the deceased is interred, the corpse is wrapped with a binaliwon or pinagpagan, a death blanket and is placed in a wooden coffin. The blanket is to keep the spirit of the deceased warm and to be recognised by the ancestor-spirits in the realm of the jugkao. Bundles of rice are buried with the dead and a chicken is butchered. These will serve as the dead person’s food as he/she journeys to the jugkao.

After the body is interred and elaborate rituals performed, the community prepares a feast for the dead called acherma. Women pound rice on mortars, the men butcher the pigs and carabao, gather firewood for cooking, and prepare meals. The members of the kin-group would give their share; other relatives and friends may also incur expenses besides the gift. Shared meals are communal among the Butbut and are often done since they involve their wellbeing. The celebration for the dead is believed to bring good health, good harvest and good fortune for the community. In other words, in their local language, everything will be whayu (good) once the spirits are pleased.

When a child is born, the name of the deceased ancestor is given to the child. This is to perpetuate the memory of the ancestor. They also believe that naming the child after the deceased ancestor will pass on his/her special characteristics, such as strength, fortitude, discipline, patience and others, to the child. In this way, there is continuity of life after death through generations. (Analyn Salvador-Amores)

Mexico: The Day of the Dead – A great feast

There is no place in Mexico where the cult of the dead is not celebrated with feasting and ritual. Among the indigenous peoples, the encounter with the dead is feast, ceremony, identity and reflection. A journey through some celebrations of the country.

 In the heart of the land of the Tsotsil people stands San Pedro Chenalhó, a drop of ancient blood, profound and primordial, at the foot of the mountains that form the Chiapas plateau south of Mexico. In this place, the women spend the day weaving as their grandmothers taught them. In their view, the weaver profession is divine and exclusive to women as mothers.

Here the souls of the dead are welcomed only on 1 November. Early in the morning, the men will have already slaughtered a cow to be used, together with the plants as an offering to the souls that return from hatibak (paradise) where they live for many years amidst abundance and youthfulness to return to the earth and be reborn.

In the darkness of the dawn, the sound of drums, the noise of fireworks and the chiming of the bells are meant to guide the souls on their return journey. This is where the local and traditional authorities come together to visit the sacred places. Dressed in gala clothes and holding the rod of authority, they pray at the feet of the three Tsotsil crosses and prepare to abandon their offices for twenty four hours to spend some time with their dear ones without any public duties to perform. Through dense clouds of incense smoke and to the sound of drums, the women walk in procession carrying images of Our Lady through the centre of the city; this is a journey of purification.

Chenalhó is ready to receive its dead: a rope tied to the bell tower of the church hangs down in a curve towards the three crosses in front of the door of the church of San Pedro. This taut rope will be used to sound the large bell and create an imaginary space, a separate ceremonial space where the souls of the dead may walk and speak as they did in life. This is the social and public space of the souls, of the Mictlán and of the land where the local authorities carry out their functions; seated on benches, they will spend the night ringing the bells and seeing to any problems that may arise during the celebrations.

There is a tangible air of recollection and respect; the Tsotsiles talk among themselves and weep out loud for their dead. Unlike other places, here the feast of the dead (sk’in ch’uelelalo) is a reason for grief and sadness.

On the central Pacific Coast of Nayarit, the Wixarika people gather constantly throughout the year to adore ‘Our Mother the Sea, at the sacred place known as Tatei Haramara’.

The Wixarika do not celebrate the day of the dead but they believe death to be a sacred event. When a little one dies, rites are held for their transition to the underworld where they must arrive purified. In their cosmic view, the earth floats on the sea which they identify with the lower part of the world.

The great white rock called Waxiewe is the precise point of departure of the initiating journey of the gods that leads to the furthest end of temporal space. This place of cult is considered to be the house of Tatei Haramara; the monolith is believed to be the first solid object of the cosmos. The west (tat+ata), the sea and the coast of Nayarit are to be found in a dark area. This fact has a series of important implications. For one thing, it is here that the dead, or at least most of them, live.

In this holy land there are ritual offerings left by them or by pilgrims of times past, both on the surface and the sea-bed as well as on the beach and in the sacred caves. Their offerings are thrown into the depths of the sea between the so-called ‘Piedra de la Virgen’ (Rock of the Virgin) and Cerro del Vigía, a lighthouse in the port of San Blas. Among the offerings made is the tzicuri or ‘Eye of God’, a cross made of rushes covered with wool which constitutes a symbolic replica of the homeland; many votive cups, carved or engraved stones, wax candles, pieces of chocolate and biscuits with animal symbols are also offered. 

Like the Virgin Mary at Tepeyac, our Mother Sea chose this exact ‘sea hill’ to show her head and left arm. The sky is her hair adorned with clouds and birds; the Pacific is her blue dress and the froth of the waves is the lace which adorns it. It is also at this sea hill that the Sea collects the offerings made to her. This is why the sand, the piers and the rocks close to the hill and the Tatewarita cave, ‘the house of our Mother Fire’, are full of offerings and prayers which were deposited over thousands of years in this terrestrial paradise. The past, present and future seem to unite in this ritual that the Huichol have jealously preserved from time immemorial. (Pedro Santacruz)

Bolivia: A journey towards an unknown place

For the Quechua, death does not mark an end but a transition from this life to another different experience. Dying means to be reborn to continue living a new life, a new beginning. Death therefore is considered as part of life, its continuation in the Janaj pacha (the world beyond).

Quechua peoples see death as a journey towards an unknown and eternal place. Monday is the Day of the Dead among the Quechua, on this day of the week they perform special rites for the deceased. According to the wise men of the Quechua communities there are signs that forewarn the death of a member of a family or of a community. One of the most traditional signs is the arrival of the owl, this nocturnal bird is considered as a mysterious bird, and when it gets near a house and starts to hoot it means that somebody will die. Other signs of death are the howling of dogs, or a black butterfly. When these signs appear, the elderly or the one who is sick in a family makes a will.

When a person dies, relatives gather at the house of the deceased in order to organise the wake and the burial. Godchildren generally are in charge of all this, but when there are none, somebody else is asked to collaborate in exchange of some coca and cigars: a cook who is in charge of the funeral reception, a carpenter who will build a coffin, while somebody else is in charge of preparing the grave and the corpse of the deceased for the burial.

The person in charge of preparing the corpse is generally an elderly person. He/she washes the body of the deceased with rosemary and broom water, then dresses them with the clothes they loved the most and organises the wake. During the wake, coca, cigarettes, tea and food are offered to the attendants. After a communal prayer is said, the deceased is laid in the coffin, and the special belongings are included believing that these things may be used in the other life. Attendants at the wake also put letters or messages in the coffin for those who previously died. Once everything is prepared, the coffin is taken out of the house, the participants at the funeral ceremony say goodbye to the deceased, ask them for forgiveness, and say prayers and words of appreciation in order  to make sure that the harmony between the deceased and the community is restored.

The day after the burial, an elderly person washes the deceased’s clothes with the aim of purification, and the relatives wash their heads and share food, drinks and coca. The purpose of this ritual is to soothe the sadness of the family.

The purification rite, is performed nine days after the death of the loved one; on this occasion a yatiri (indigenous priest) while saying a prayer of purification, prepares some llama fat and other ingredients and gives them to the grieving relatives who use them to rub themselves with the purpose of purification. Then at sunset the yatiri burns the deceased’s clothes. On the anniversary of the death, all relatives and neighbours attend the wata misa (Eucharistic celebration in the name of the deceased). The deceased’ s family offers food and drinks to those who have attended the wata misa, then they take off their black mourning clothes to wear coloured ones, symbolising in this way the end of the mourning because life must go on.

Death does not mark an end but a transition towards a new life among the Quechua people. That is why there are times and places for meeting those who went to Janaj Pacha and those who are in Kay Pacha, the world of the living. The meeting between the two worlds takes place on the day of All Saints. On this day those who were bereaved during the previous year lay out a mast’aku, a table covered with those dishes and drinks the deceased liked best, since the Quechua people believe that the deceased come to visit their relatives to share the food and drinks that they have prepared for them. Some of the products most associated with All Saints celebration are t’atawawas (sweet wheat bread rolls shaped and decorated in the form of a baby), the urpus (special bread figures), and other goodies that are made for the occasion.

In Bolivia, the ceremony begins at noon on 1 November and goes through noon on the second since it is believed that on 1 November at noon the ajayus (souls) return from their mountains to dwell for 24 hours with their families and friends. This ritual includes donation of offerings to the souls by setting up an altar or table that is decorated with flowers, candles, reeds, fruits, drinks and sweets.

On 2 November people go to the cemetery to lay out a mast (aku) on the grave of the deceased. They say prayers and offer t’antawawas, urpus, fruit and other goodies to visitors. The day of the dead’s festivities is a time for togetherness, where family and friends pray waiting for a sign that their loved ones have returned to them once more.  (Jhonny Mancilla Pérez)

African Witness: South Sudan, Father Barnaba Deng

The soldiers grabbed him. Fr. Barnaba did not resist. He asked to be allowed to take his cassock and pray. He put it on, made the sign of the cross, and recollected himself in prayer while the soldiers released the safety catch on their rifles. “I am ready,”

On 3rd September 1965, Hassar Dafalla, Commissary of the Bahr Ghazal province, in South Sudan, sent the following letter to the Bishop of Wau, Ireneus Wien Dud : “ I very much regret the death of Father Barnaba Deng, which occurred or the evening of August 23rd  at a point three miles north of the army barracks on Aweil road. The official record that I received from the security forces on his case shows that suspicious behaviour was mainly responsible for his death. He was met by a military patrol at 6.30 p.m. while parking a car at the side of the road, in an area which everybody knew was quite notorious and, ignoring the curfew, had aroused the suspicion of the patrol. When the man in charge of the section stopped the car to make inquiries, Father Barnaba, who was dressed in shorts and a shirt, stepped down from the car and attempted to run away. Failing to obey the army order to stop, he was shot dead’.

The letter continued: “ It may be relevant here to mention that our intelligence record of Father Barnaba is not clear. He was observed many times collecting monetary donations for the Anya Nya and it was suspected that he was supplying them with food and ammunition in the mission car, in addition to typing their leaflets and correspondence.  His activities were mainly centred on Odwel near Aweil. The circumstances of his case under review have also cast a heavy shadow of doubt over his relations with the outlaws”.

The letter concluded: “I feel it my duty to bring to the attention of Your Lordship that this is the second occasion of substantiated relationships between the Anya Nya rebels and the Catholic Church. The first occasion was after the demise of Father Archangel, which took place on 21st July. (The soldiers killed Fr. Archangel on July 21st 1965).  The file included the very portrait of the priest himself which gave clear indication as to his association with their dealings.”

The real story was, of course, entirely different. The Khartoum government of 1964 did not want eyewitnesses to what was happening in the country, so on March 3rd they expelled all the missionaries – more than 300 Comboni fathers, brothers and sisters.  Many places of worship were destroyed, many Christians killed and communities dispersed.

The Anya-Nya movement was established as a loosely knit rebel group in 1963, deriving its name from a snake poison. This guerrilla army’s core members were veterans of the 1955 mutiny in Torit. However, the revolt failed and the repression of the Khartoum government was severe. This then, is  the true story of Fr Barnaba Deng.

Barnaba Deng was born in Atokuel, a small village of Kwajok Mission, Bahr el Ghazal, towards the end of 1935. He belonged to the Dinka Rek. Barnaba’s mother was the second wife of Akec on whose death, she was not, contrary to the custom, inherited by a brother or relation of the late husband. She remained in her hut and brought up her family alone. She succeeded in sending little Barnaba to the Catholic school of Gogrial. She did not object when he told her that he frequented the catechumenate. The boy was baptised on 1st June 1947 in Kwajok.

Two years later, having finished the Primaries in Mbili, Barnaba asked his mother’s permission to enter the seminary. She was not a Christian and, although understanding little about what the boy asked, she gave her consent. Barnaba was received into Bussere seminary on the 25th February 1949. Having completed Secondary School, he left for Lacor in Gulu, Uganda. When St. Paul’s Seminary in Tore River was founded,  Barnaba left Uganda and spent 2 years there before he expressed his wish to enter the Comboni Institute.

In 1957, Barnaba was sent to Italy to join the Comboni Missionary novitiate of Gozzano in Novara. two years later he went to Venegono Superiore in Varese in the North Italy for the theological course. He was ordained priest in Milan on 7th April 1962 by Cardinal Montini.

A few months later, he was back in South Sudan, first in the mission of Dem Zubeir, then in those of Raga, Gordhiim, and Aweil. In November 1963, he was transferred to the town of Aweil, where he was in charge of three missions: Aweil, Nyamlel and Gordhiim. Bidding farewell to the last missionaries whose cars the soldiers had looted on 4th  March 1964, he spoke these prophetic words – ‘Father, pray for us. We shall see each other again only in heaven’.

Month after month, he went around visiting the scores of Christian communities entrusted to his pastoral care.  In Nyamlel, the soldiers had been so busy with their killing that there were hardly any Christians left to visit.  It soon became clear that the government officials were after him as well. Since he was going from village to village with clothes and food, they saw him as bringing supplies for the “Dinka soldiers”.  Now his name was amongst those that had to be eliminated. But now another Dinka enters the story. His name was Santino Deng, a Dinka who had defected to the Arabs and taken upon himself the infamous task of denouncing his own brothers.

One morning, news reached Fr Barnaba that Santino Deng had come to Aweil with a contingent of soldiers.  At once he called Cyril, the house boy and went to the market square to have a meeting with Santino Deng’s secretary.  There, they heard disquieting news: “ There is an order to arrest you and Acuil Mayuen (a Dinka merchant), they were told. ‘The soldiers have been ordered to arrest you and kill you”.

Fr. Barnaba lost no time in making good his escape, but not before passing the news to Acuil Mayuen. He returned immediately to his mission and after hurriedly loading some things into the car, made for the forest. At the end of the road, he abandoned his car and proceeded on foot. Cyril was sent back to the mission to ascertain from a safe distance what was happening back at the mission. In the mission yard were soldiers’ cars with the headlights on. The soldiers went to Father Barnaba’s house, and after breaking down the doors they searched every corner. Full of fear, Cyril fled and spent the night under a tree, with some women who had also fled, on hearing gunfire near their houses.

At sunrise, Cyril went back to the mission, saw what the soldiers had done during the night and returned to the forest where he reported all he had seen to Fr Barnaba:  “They have forced open all the doors except that of the office which they did not succeed in opening.”

Fr Barnaba gave him the keys and some clear instructions: “Go and bring me the typewriter and what remains of the money. But be careful not to be seen.” The boy came back successfully, two hours later with the typewriter and the money. The Father gave him some money so that he could go to the market and buy food.

Meanwhile, ten other people had sought refuge in the forest. The majority were women and children who feared the revenge of the Arab soldiers who were hunting those who had defected to the guerrillas. As evening fell, Father Barnaba made a plan: “Let us go to my mother’s house. She is alone and certainly anxious about me.” Everyone decided to follow him, including Cyril.

Non one  else knew the paths leading to the small village of Kwajok, so by shunning the usual roads and walking from dawn to dusk, on the evening of the fifth day the group arrived safely at the hut of Fr Barnaba’s mother.  She could not believe her eyes. Deeply moved, she embraced him, spitting abundantly on him, as is the Dinka custom. She prepared maize porridge for everyone. After supper the women exchanged their news. ‘Thanks be to God, here we are at peace,’ said mother Aluel, wishing them good night.

The following morning, however, Fr Barnaba said that he was thinking of going to Wau and of taking a radio: “We are completely cut off from the world, without news.” His mother objected, saying that it was dangerous and that one could certainly live without news. But Fr. Barnaba insisted, saying that Cyril would accompany him. In the end his mother gave in and wished him a happy journey.

As they came near Wau, Father Barnaba gave a message to Cyril to be taken to a priest of the town. One hour later, a car came, driven by the priest who had received the message. He took Fr. Barnaba to the mission. There was little traffic in the town.  People avoided the roads because the scene of the massacre that had taken place the previous month was still vividly etched in their minds.

All was very quiet in the afternoon, and Fr Barnaba went out by car. ‘I would like to visit some families,’ he said to the priest. He planned also to see a sick person, and so he carried his cassock. As usual he took Cyril, and after having seen the market, he drove in the direction of Aweil. At the airport crossing before Khor Grinti, he noticed a military convoy on the road.

He turned back and parked the car off the road and waited for all the cars to pass. The boy counted them. Five had passed, the sixth seemed about to pass too, but it stopped. On board was Santino Deng, the renegade Dinka, who recognised Fr. Barnaba and said to the soldiers: ‘Look, there’s the one we were looking for in Aweil!’ The soldiers grabbed him. Fr. Barnaba did not resist. He asked to be allowed to take his cassock and pray. He put it on, made the sign of the cross, and recollected himself in prayer while the soldiers released the safety catch on their rifles. “If you wish, I am ready,” he said, looking at Santino. A soldier broke away from the others and from very close range fired at his head.

The Father fell backwards. The same soldier finished him off with three bullets in the chest. It was 16.30 on 23rd August. Father Barnaba was only thirty years old.  The convoy left, but five soldiers remained to guard the body. Cyril, trembling after all that he had seen, ran to carry the news to the nearby parish. He came back with a priest and asked for permission to take the corpse. They refused. He went back to the mission and returned with another priest to recover Fr. Barnaba’s car, left on the roadside. After some hours, the soldiers buried Fr. Barnaba’s corpse nearby. The grave was very shallow, and during the night the hyenas played havoc with his body. A year later, Acuil Mayuen, the Dinka merchant who had been placed on the list with Fr. Barnaba, was also killed.