All posts by Comboni Missionaries Ireland

Reflection: Witnesses of the Resurrection

The Resurrection of the Lord marked a radical new beginning in the history of humankind. That special event, which is related to the first day of creation (Gen 1: 1-5), is the foundation of our faith and discipleship.

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews; Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you”. When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you”. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20: 19-23)

The experience of the disciples on the first day of the week (Sunday) is renewed for us every Sunday especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Risen Lord does for us what he did for his disciples, namely: He comes in our midst through the brothers and sisters who are gathered in his name and through the one who presides at the celebration.

He is present in his Word that is proclaimed and, last but not least, he is present in a special way in the consecrated Bread and Wine that become our nourishment for living the Christian life to the full during the week. He gives us his peace. Like the disciples who betrayed and abandoned the Lord, we might have failed in our Christian life, but every Sunday the Risen Lord offers us his peace, forgiveness and strength to live in communion with him and one another. We experience peace when we discover how much we are forgiven and loved by God.

He shows us his hands and side and feet. The apostles had not witnessed the passion and death of their Master. Only John was there with Mary and some women. Now the disciples are given the opportunity to see the signs of Christ’s passion and death, the signs of his great love for us. Like Thomas, we, too, contemplate the great love of the one who has given his life for us his friends. God’s love, revealed in Christ, is more powerful than evil and sin. God’s love will triumph at the end of time.

He bestows upon us the Holy Spirit. The Risen Lord gives his apostles the great gift of the Holy Spirit. The Risen Lord ‘breathed’ on them just as God had breathed life into Adam. We too are filled with the new life of the Spirit especially when we receive the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord at Holy Communion.

He sends us to be witnesses of his forgiveness. The encounter with the Risen Lord dispelled the doubts, fears and incredulity of the apostles. Empowered by the Spirit they were able to be true witnesses of the Resurrection and, through their life and ministry, they brought the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The encounter with the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, marked the victory of forgiveness over revenge and hatred. We too are empowered by the Risen Lord to be witnesses of his forgiveness, to continue his mission of healing and peace wherever we are.

We celebrate Sunday because of the Resurrection of the Lord and we do so not only once a year at Easter but on a weekly basis, in order to deepen our awareness of the presence of the Risen Lord and his Spirit in our life. We are witnesses of the Resurrection when, full of joy and hope, we commit ourselves to create a more human world.

Ethiopia: The Monastery of Debre Damo

It is the largest and the most important. The monastery concentrates certain original characteristics that do not occur in others.

In the first place, its antiquity. Founded by Aregawi, one of the ‘Nine Saints’, at the beginning of the 6th century, it is at least as old as those founded by his fellow monks, such as that of Pentelewon in Axum, Afse in Yeha, Gerima in Medera or Jim’ata in Geralta. But, should the monastery not be the oldest in Ethiopia, what is generally admitted is that the church of Debre Damo is the oldest now existing in the country.

According to tradition, it belongs to the time of Emperor Gebre Meskel, son and successor of Kaleb, during the first half of the 6th century, while Aregawi was still alive. Even though it was destroyed and rebuilt more than once, it has kept the original form and is the only existing proof of Aksumite art. In spite of its apparent rusticity, it is a work of perfect harmony. The perimeter of the building is rectangular. Its walls alternate layers of stone and wood, which break up the monotony and create a soft contrast of light and shadow. Also of great beauty is the ceiling, consisting of wooden coffers on which numerous animal and plant figures are engraved. Its connection to the Aksumite architecture is obvious. For instance, the shape of its doors and windows can also be seen in the reliefs on Aksum’s obelisks.

The second characteristic is its picturesque location. Debre Damo is an oval-shaped flat-top plateau, rising up 17 meters from the surrounding landscape and measuring one kilometre in length and a half in width. The bare rock walls drop off steeply on all sides, being accessible only by using the ropes that the monks throw from the top. Tied to them, the visitor is lifted up. Sensations, not all of them pleasant, take hold of him as he climbs up, and even more so, when it is time to go down. Vertigo is one of those sensations, as one dangles off a 17 meter-high cliff. No female presence, not even that of female goats or sheep, is allowed to the holy mountain.

One question arises then: if today it is the monks who throw the rope down to anyone who wants to climb up, who did it for the old Aregawi, the founder of the monastery? Tradition provides an answer to this question. Before Christianity arrived, there was a snake, worshipped by the locals, dwelling on the rock. It was this snake that, in an attempt to kill the holy monk, first helped him up the mountain but, once on top, hurled him violently to the place where the church stands today. The numerous and varied paintings depicting this scene always portray Archangel Michael with his sword raised, deterring the snake from hurting the Saint.

Despite its geographical isolation and difficult access, Debre Damo was very influential throughout history. The emperors through the Middle Ages tried to keep control of it by nominating its abbots. In the 13th century, Iyasu Mo’a and Tekle Haimanot, the future founders of the two great monasteries of Hayk and Debre Libanos, were educated in Debre Damo by the Abbot Yohanni. In the 16th century, when the Muslim leader Aḥmad Grañ began sacking and burning throughout the nation, Emperor Lebna Dengel took refuge in Debre Damo and died there. It was at that both tragic and glorious moment in history that, for the first and the last time ever, the rigid rule forbidding women to climb up the mountain was broken, because it was there that Lebna Dengel’s widow Seble-Wengel welcomed the Portuguese soldiers who had come to the nation’s rescue. It was there that she ‘wisely and cautiously’, according to the Portuguese chronicles, planned the armed resistance against Grañ and it was there that she finally received the news of the decisive victory over him. Debre Damo is, in fact, one of the very few places throughout the Christian empire that escaped the destructive fury of the Muslim Conqueror Ahmed Grañ.

Starting from the 17th century, however, the monastery lost much of its primitive splendor and influence. Talking today with any of the monks living in Debre Damo produces a strange feeling. Their answers to the curios questions of the visitor may respond not so much to how things actually are as to how they should be according to what old traditions affirm. And some of their answers may differ from the reality the visitor can see with his own eyes. For instance, one of them states that the monastery, in all its past splendor, accommodated up to six thousand monks and that, even today, the monastery houses 200 monks and 150 young aspirants. But it is hard to imagine that this rocky and barren ground could house even those 350 people. In the monastery, they have no common life except daily prayers. At midday, they are supposed to meet for the Eucharist. It is now noon and the bell tolls but, out of the labyrinthine alleys, the visitor can see no more than a dozen monks emerging to gather.

Another monk deeply rejects the idea of sending monks from Debre Damo to be educated somewhere else. His viewpoint is that every monk has, in his inner life and in his communion with God, enough resources to feed his monastic life without seeking outside knowledge. Knowledge about the world – he affirms – does not help the monk. Logically enough, he is also against accepting adult vocations in the monastery, “because, in fact, they already know too much about the world”. For him, the ideal vocation is that of the young boy who joins the monastery before having worldly experiences. Even though his answers may not represent the opinion of all monks of Debre Damo, the fact is that boys – almost children – are the ones joining the monastic life. Adult vocations from any sector of society are rare, and even more so from among the educated class. Difficult to imagine today Debre Damo as a centre of learning as it is said it was in long past history.

Debre Damo used to possess abundant lands from which rent the monastery lived. But those times have been left behind, especially after the nationalisation of the land made by the revolutionary government of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1974. Today the few monks of the monastery live on the offerings of the faithful or the few tourists and from the little subsidy that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church passes them. (Juan Gonzáles Núñez)

Oral Literature: Spider’s Web

The animals were lonely. They stood in the forest talking to one another, wondering how they could each get a wife to keep them company and to cook their food for them.

When Hare joined the group, he was soon able to tell them what to do. “I have heard that there are plenty of wives up in the sky, beyond the clouds, he said. “But how shall we get there?” they asked.
“I will spin a strong web and fasten it on to a cloud -, said Spider -, and then you will be able to climb up it, and find wives.”

So Spider began to spin, and very soon he was lost to sight high above them all with only the ladder of silver thread to show them the way he had gone. Presently Hare declared that all was ready and, leading the way, he began to climb up into the sky followed by all the other animals.

How the silken thread trembled as the elephant, the buffalo, the lion, and the monkey climbed higher and higher, while Hare turned back from time to time, urging them onwards. At last they reached the country above the clouds and began to bargain for wives with the people there, Hare had been quite right when he said there were plenty of wives to be had, and soon most of the animals had chosen a wife and paid the agreed dowry.

Not so Hare. He chose his wife and made some excuse to her mother so that he did not pay the price immediately. Then he crept round the back of his future mother-in-law’s hut, to see what he could find to eat. There was a large pile of beniseed, and Hare made a most satisfying meal of it while everyone else was busy talking about their new wives. Even Hare was surprised a little later, to see how small the beniseed heap had become, and felt somewhat apprehensive as to what the owner would say when she found out.

Of course, he soon thought of a way to get himself out of trouble, and taking a handful of beniseed he ambled across to where the animals were still busy talking and rubbed some seeds on to Spider, pretending to brush off some dust.

He was only just in time as the next moment a woman came stamping up to the group of animals, shouting angrily: “Who has been stealing my beniseed? It’s always the same. When you folk come up from the earth something always gets stolen. Now, who did it this time?”

Of course, all the animals protested and said they were innocent, which indeed they were. Then the cunning Hare stood up and went towards his mother-in-law, putting on a kind, patient voice and saying: “There is only one way of finding out who stole your beniseed. Let us search every animal and look for signs of seeds or leaves which are bound to have clung to the fur of the thief.”

The woman agreed and together she and Hare began to search the animals, none of whom objected since they knew they had stolen nothing. Suddenly Hare gave a cry. Oh nor he exclaimed: “Not you, Spider! How could you have done such a thing?”

“What are you talking about?” asked Spider, as the other animals crowded round him, and the woman seized him to have a closer look.

“Yes -, she said angrily – . You have some beniseed clinging to your body. You must be the thief! Don’t try to deny it.” The other animals were angry too, telling Spider what a stupid thing he had done to steal from Hare’s mother-in-law, and they would not listen when he swore he had done no such thing.

At last he managed to get away from them all, and calling out in disgust: “I got you up here, but you can get yourselves down again”.  He began his descent to earth, rolling up his web as he went.

Now the animals were in a fix, for their ladder had gone, and it was a very long way down to earth. They shouted to Spider and begged him to come back and spin another web for them, but he would not answer and at last they lost sight of him among the far-distant trees of the earth.

“Now what shall we do?” they asked one another, for they had no desire to stay in the clouds for the rest of their lives. “I’m going to jump”, said the monkey, suiting the action to the words, and with a mighty leap he dropped like a stone towards the earth.

“So am I”, exclaimed the antelope, and he gave a bound after the monkey, and was followed by a number of other animals, all encouraged by Hare.

“That’s right! That’s splendid!”, he kept saying, as animal after animal jumped from the clouds. But he did not tell them that they were jumping to their deaths, and as each one hit the ground he was killed outright.

All except Hare, of course. He stood back and waited beside the elephant, telling that large and cumbersome creature to wait until last in case he fell on one of his smaller brothers. Eventually, when all the animals had gone, Hare told the elephant it was safe for him to jump too.

“I’ll come with you”, said Hare, leaping on to the elephant’s head and clinging tightly as they sped through the air. The poor elephant landed with such a crash that he was killed at once, but his huge body saved Hare from striking the ground and he was not injured at all. So the cunning animal ran off into the bush to look for Spider and to try to make friends with him again, simply because he hoped for Spider’s help at some other time.

But since that day nobody has ever been able to climb up into the sky, and those who have heard this story have no wish to try. (Folktale from Zambia)

Herbs & Plants: Entada abyssinica: A resourceful herbal medicine

It is used as medicine, source of fibre, and wood. But also in the treatment of numerous diseases and disorders.

It is a low-branching deciduous shrub with a flat, spreading crown and usually grows up to about 10 metres in height. The stem-bark is grey to reddish, the leaves alternate, bipinnate with apex, round to slightly obtuse and slightly mucronate, appressed, pubescent above and below. Or sometimes they are glabrous above, but rarely entirely so; petiole glandular. In florescence it has creamy white or fading yellowish, sweet scented flowers.

The fruit is a large, flat legume and the seeds oval and flat. The pod splits between each seed and leaves the pod rim forming a wing-like structure, which is important for the seeds dispersal process. The name Entada is derived from an East Indian vernacular name while its botanical Latin name Abyssinica means ‘from Abyssinia (Ethiopia)’.

Entada abyssinica (Fabaceae Family) is widely distributed all over tropical Africa including Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and from Sierra Leone to Ethiopia.

The tree is harvested from the wild for local use as medicine, a source of fibre, and wood. It is sometimes grown as an ornamental plant in homesteads. It is traditionally used for the treatment of bronchitis, coughs, diarrhoea, fever, and to alleviate arthritic pains. It has also been used in the treatment of numerous diseases and disorders.

A decoction of the bark is taken for treatment of coughs, colds, syphilis, chronic bronchial engorgement, rheumatic pains, and abdominal pain. In addition, the decoction is also used in some communities for the treatment and management of peptic ulcers. The stem bark is also used to treat mouth wounds and malaria.

The leaves are febrifuge and tonic. They are used to make a tonic tea and for wound healing. The leaf decoction is used for treatment of fever and malaria. Babies are bathed with the leaf decoction to remove skin rashes. The decoction is also administered to expectant mothers as a treatment for morning sickness and bathing with the leaf decoction is known to relieve backache.

An infusion of crushed roots is good for treatment and management of bronchial problems. In some communities, the roots decoction/infusion is administered as an antidote against various toxic agents. The root decoction is also used as a remedy for fever. The powdered root bark can be mixed with petroleum jelly and applied as a massage for swelling. The crushed fresh roots decoction is administered to treat gonorrhoea.

The roasted pulverised seeds can be inhaled to relieve frequent sneezing and can also be used to treat cataracts and diseases of the eye. The raw fruit induces vomiting and is used as an antidote for snake venom.

Apart from its medicinal potential, Entada abyssinica‘s ashes from the wood are rich in potash and are suitable for soap making. A fibre obtained from the inner bark is used for making bands and ropes. The soft wood is used for small carpentry and also provides a good source of wood fuel. Furthermore, the tree is often used around homesteads as ornamentals. It also has the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil.

The phytochemical screening of Entada. abyssinica indicates the presence of alkaloid, flavonoids, saponin, terpenoids, and kolavic acid derivatives. The leaves contain rotenone and tannins. In fact, the presence of these bioactive phytochemicals in Entada Abyssinica may explain their reported pharmacological properties including antibacterial, anti-trypanocidal, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory activities. (Richard Komakech)

Brazil: Prisons without walls

In Brazil, where prisons are places of violence and the rate of re-offending is as high as 80%, there are also penitentiaries where the detainees succeed in changing. The secret? Trust, because nobody is beyond redemption. An experience born of a Christian context.

Cleubert was born into a poor and afflicted family, of an alcoholic mother. By the age of thirteen he was already living a life of crime and he was soon confined in various penitentiaries for minors. As soon as he came of age he was condemned to fifteen years in prison. His was one of those explosive Brazilian prisons, places of real violence and actual torture, scenes of furious rebellions by the prisoners among whom the percentage of re-offenders was as high as 80%. Cleubert happened to be given an unexpected and life-changing opportunity. He was sent to serve the last two and a half years of his sentence in an Association for Protection and Assistance to Convicts (APAC) centre.

It was a prison run by an association for the protection and assistance of prisoners. Founded 47 years ago in the state of São Paolo, its method is today recognised by the UN as one of the best among prison systems. They call them ‘prisons without bars’, since the detainees, called ‘recuperands‘, are themselves responsible for security within the structure: there are no guards or arms and the prisoners are not just numbers, irredeemable delinquents, but human beings who are offered the chance to take their life in hand and turn it around.

They have to come to terms with their faults and overcome them, to become reconciled with their families and with society and to change into new men and women. “It was here in this prison that I discovered the real meaning of life, the meaning of respect for others and the meaning of such words as love and family”, says Cleubert, now married with two children and looking after his mother.

In prison he was able to study and earned a degree in jurisprudence. He is now a member of APEC in Betim and in Belo Horizonte and working for the Brazilian Fraternity for the Assistance of Prisoners (FBAC), the organisation founded in the mid-seventies by São José dos Campos lawyer Mario Ottoboni, to ‘kill the criminal and save the person’. Ottoboni died on 14 January last.

“Ottoboni, with a group of volunteers involved in prison pastoral, visited Jacarei prison and was struck by the inhuman living conditions of the detainees: this brought him to think of creating a process that would allow those people to recuperate their ‘image and likeness of God’ now overshadowed, through hope, trust and mercy, the three pillars of what would become the APAC method”. The story is told by Valdeci Antonio Ferreira, a Comboni Lay Missionary, General Director of the Fraternity, who recalls: “The experiment soon began to produce positive results, so much so that the keys of the cells were given to the volunteers with responsibility for the administration of the structure. At that time I was working in the metal industry at Itaúna, in the state of Minas Gerais, and I, too, was shocked when I visited the city prison. When I heard of the first APAC, I decided to go and see it for myself. I stayed for a year, living together with Ottoboni and the detainees of São José dos Campos. I then returned to Itaúna, determined to create another unit there”

“It took many years of contrasts and challenges and we barely escaped failure for lack of funds, but, with help from the Catholic and Protestant Churches, the project took shape and countless successful social rehabilitations of former prisoners helped us to show the authorities the validity of the method and the thinking behind it: to protect society, bring help to victims and promote justice. Since then, the APECs in Geazil have multiplied: today the method is being fully applied in fifty centres in six states with a total of around 3,500 detainees; a further hundred centres are being established.”

‘People enter here, crimes stay outside’: this maxim – attributed to the Spanish Beccaria, Manuel Montesinos y Molina – looms large on the walls of these special penitentiaries where there are no overcrowded cells or criminal gangs who ‘keep order’ or groups to defend against the violence of the guards as is sadly the case in the 1,436 detention structures in Brazil, the country with one in four of the world prison population. 

“The APAC – Ferreira explains – are coordinated by Associations that collaborate with the judicial and executive powers in guarding detainees and, once they have served their sentences, in their reinsertion in society, through a virtual partnership between the state and organised civil society. Even though they only receive finance from the state in special cases, to all intents and purposes they represent an alternative to the traditional penitential system: the prisoners serve their sentences in cells but there are no prison guards. The prisoners themselves keep the keys of the structure and see to the cleaning and cooking, as well as the organisation of security measures in collaboration and co-administration with those responsible for the APAC.”

This begs the question: how come the prisoners do not try to escape?  “A phrase once pronounced by a detainee is now written at the entrances to all the APAC: ‘Nobody runs away from love’. When the method is properly applied, with its twelve points that work  in combination, with the involvement and commitment of all the personnel, the volunteers and society, in the recovery of the prisoners, they are brought to reflect on themselves and to realise that their sentence is not only a physical state but is also a mental and spiritual condition which must be overcome”, the Director of  the FBAC explains.

“The method requires that the person in question must learn to take responsibility for their own actions, to respect others, to love and to live in a community in which they trust. These are values, which, within the context of valuing the human person, of accepting reality, of work and of study, lead to a commitment towards society, the family and oneself. This is why, even though it would be easy to flee from within the walls of an APAC, the awareness of having to pay for their mistakes and the recognition of the efforts made for their recovery, do not permit them to do so. Last but not least, the detainees know that a failure on their part could close the doors to other prisoners who, in Brazil and elsewhere, are clamouring for the chance to change their lives in one of our institutes”. In order to recognise the evil one has done, it is necessary to experience good: and this, in synthesis, is the meaning behind the method invented by Ottoboni. Nevertheless, serving a sentence in an APAC prison is not as easy as it might seem.

The structures, usually of small dimensions and set up in places away from large centres, with the agreement of the local community, are ruled by very strict discipline – “it is not sufficient to stop doing wrong; we have to start doing good”, with a full timetable of activities starting at 7am and continuing until 10pm. The experience of the Associations for the protection and assistance of detainees was born in a Christian context but is open to prisoners of all faiths who are assisted in line with their particular beliefs. “The most important experience for us is to come to know God”, Valdeci Antonio Ferreira again explains. “During these years, we have had various cases of recovering prisoners who professed no particular religion but who, helped by the example they received during their stay with others, decided to become Catholics”.

On the other hand, there are many unusual instances that occur in these prisons without bars. For example, the level of re-offending which in the ordinary prisons in Brazil is as high as 70-80%, is here between 10-20%. One more reason for investing in this model whose costs are 1/3 the amount spent for the same number of detainees in ordinary prisons. We may also mention that, in 47 years in the APEC units, there have never been any episodes of  rebellion or uprising or acts of violence as is so sadly the case in the ordinary prisons of Brazil. (Chiara Zappa)

South Sudan: A great heart with great faith

A poor woman takes a foreign mother into her house and looks after her sick daughter. She goes to the church and asks the missionary to pray that the child gets well.

In the eyes of many, Nyamuone is a woman of little account. Her husband abandoned her because, in his opinion, she was unable to manage the household the way he wanted. Now she has no home and she is always someone else’s guest. Even without a husband she has not stopped having children.

At daybreak each day she sets out for the forest to gather firewood. She collects a bundle as big as she can carry on her head and carries it to the market to sell to the women cooking food, to get a little money to buy enough food to feed herself and her children that day. She spends the rest of the day doing odd jobs and can be seen in the streets, never idle. If needs be, she is not afraid to ask help from anyone she meets.

One morning I saw her in church, a place she was not familiar with. She approached me timidly and, almost prostrated herself before me. ‘Who knows what she wants’, I thought.  “My daughter is sick, she whispered, come and send away the evil spirit that is in her”. In the Nuer language, any incurable sickness is called a jock, an evil spirit in witchcraft.

At that time I was busy with catechism for the children so I encouraged her to go home and come back in the afternoon. She came back with three daughters: one was about four and the others twins about a year old. One of the twins was sick.  A closer look showed the healthy child in the arms of the four year-old with a nice, dark round face.

The sick child in Nyamuone’s arms was light-skinned with straighter hair and a long nose. She looks slender and shows signs of malnutrition. I said: “Tell me the truth. These babies are not twins, are they?”. She nodded in agreement. “And are the other two yours?”. She nodded again.

I then asked her to tell me her story. Following the armed conflict at Malakal, an Ethiopian woman came to Phom. Nyamuone saw her alone at the port and took her to where she herself lived. Nyamuone spoke only Nuer while the other woman had only a smattering of Arabic. Nevertheless, they understood each other quite well. Both were pregnant and, only a few weeks later, they each had a baby girl. The Ethiopian woman, however, was not well: she was weak and was visibly losing weight. Nyamuone looked after her as best she could and started nursing her new-born baby.

When Phom was attacked by the soldiers, they fled to the forest together with others forced from their homes. They had to stay there for about ten days with absolutely nothing. The Ethiopian woman’s condition worsened and she died.

“That is how the little girl became my daughter. Even though she was Ethiopian, she was no stranger to me. We know that the food of the children is always shared. We are all siblings and no one is left out”, Nyamuone explained. “It is also true that the mother will always pay more attention to her weakest child”.

Seeing that the baby was not putting on weight as it should have, she brought it to the hospital at Fangak where the child was found to have tuberculosis. She was admitted and kept in isolation with other children to prevent her infecting others. The treatment would take quite some time. Nyamuone would have to work very hard every day to provide the daily needs.

She ended her story asking for the prayers for which she came. We prayed together and she went away in peace, certain that the evil spirit had been driven out. The child could now get well without any further trouble.

As I watched that woman slowly leaving the church, I began to see her in a different light. Nyamuone has great faith and I can only admire her great compassion and the help she is giving that child. (Father Christian Carlassare)

Journey in to Monasticism and Monasteries in Ethiopia

If it is true that the Christian Europe of the Middle Ages was shaped by monasticism, more so it can be said of the Ethiopian Christianity.

Ethiopia converted to Christianity around the year 330 through the work of two Syrian young brothers who were taken prisoners in the Red Sea and brought to the court of Axum, where they reached a prominent position. They instructed the young prince Ezana in the Christian faith, who later declared Christianity the official religion of the state.

One of the two brothers, Frumencius, went to Alexandria in search of a bishop for the incipient Church. To his surprise, he himself was consecrated bishop by St Athanase. The Ethiopian Church venerates him as its founder and gives him the names of Abuna Salama and also ‘Kesete Birhan’, the Revealer of Light.

It was not, however, until the end of the fifth century and beginning of the sixth that evangelization spread outside the capital. It was mainly the work of the so-called ‘Nine Saints’ or Tsetegn Kidusan, who were monks from various parts of the eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium). Some of them, such as Alef, Afse or Tsegma, are supposed to have come from Syria, while others, like Aregawi, Pentelewon or Likanos, came from Constantinople. It is believed, however, that all passed through Egypt, where they were influenced by Egyptian monasticism. From there they brought the Rule of San Pacomius, which they translated into Ge’ez and which served as a main reference to Ethiopian monasticism, without however losing the strong Syrian reminiscences, visible above all in the tough penances so typical of Ethiopian monks.

The Ethiopian tradition speaks of another group of monks who also came from outside the country during the same period. They are known as the ‘Just’ or Tsadekan, to whom the founding of other monasteries is attributed. In Ethiopia we find, throughout history, the two main forms of monasticism: the eremitic or solitary and the coenobitic or communitarian.

The Nine Saints lived in Axum for a short time, but they soon dispersed in the countryside, founding each one of them a monastery that was a focus of evangelization of the surrounding areas. The most famous of all is the monastery of Debre Damo, founded by Aregawi, the Elder. His fame comes first from its location on the top of a mountain almost inaccessible, with its flat summit in the form of a table, and second from the role it played in Ethiopian history.

The monasteries founded by both groups, the Kidusan and the Tsadikan, were like the seed of a series of monasteries that spread throughout the nation, to the most distant borders, helping to define the limits of the Christian empire. They usually chose the most rugged, but at the same time, the most picturesque places: inaccessible and challenging mountain peaks, deepest valleys. Debre Damo, Debre Bizen, Debre Sina, Zuqwala, Waldebba, Gunde-Gunde or the islands of Lake Tana are but a few of the most notorious examples. The monks influenced all aspects of the religious and civil life of the nation. Their intervention in politics could be decisive, as it was, for example, in the restoration of the so-called Solomonic dynasty in the thirteenth century, through the mediation of Abuna Tekle Haimanot.

The 12th  and 13th centuries are particularly important in the development of Ethiopian monasticism with the appearance of great monks such as Jesus Mo’a (+1287)), founder of the monastery of Hayk, Tekle Haimanot, founder of Debre Libanos, and Ewostatewos (1273-1352), promoter of a monastic reform alternative to that of Tekle Haimanot. In fact, Tekle Haimanot and Ewostateos represent the two most important currents of Ethiopian monasticism.

The one of Ewostatewos, more rigorist, spread mainly in the monasteries of the north (Tigray and Eritrea). The one of Tekle Hiamanot, more moderate without ceasing to be austere, spread in the monasteries of the south (Amhara, Gojjam, Shoa). Some of the positions of Ewostatewos, such as the observance of the Sabbath in addition to Sunday, were considered by many as heterodox and were condemned by Patriarch Yakob.

Due to the opposition he found, Ewostatewos left Ethiopia and went to Egypt, the Holy Land and Armenia, where he probably died. But his disciples persevered in the same line, which eventually gained the support of Emperor Zara Yakob, who in 1450 imposed the observance of the Sabbath throughout the empire.

The differences, and even rivalries, between monasteries had many manifestations, some of them beneficial, like contributing to a greater push to evangelization. Thus, the monastery of Hayk, in order to extend its influence, undertook the evangelization of the populations to the west of its monastery, reaching to Lake Tana. Likewise, the monastery of Debre Libanos evangelized the southern areas, reaching Lake Zway and the Kafa region.

Another manifestation of their rivalry, this one less beneficial if not harmful, was the bitter and largely sterile, dispute over the anointing of the humanity of Jesus, which deeply divided the Orthodox Church as a whole during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

While the monasteries of the north aligned themselves with the sect called karra (knife), those of the south, led by Debre Libanos, aligned with that of ye-tsegga-lij  (son of grace), also known as sost lidet (three births). The dispute finished towards the end of the 19th century (1876), due to the intervention of Emperor Yohannes IV, who imposed the formula of the karra sect in all the country.

The deep changes which took place in Ethiopia in recent times, starting from the revolutionary Marxist regime of Mengistu Hailemariam (1974-1991) and followed by the spreading of modern education and the sweeping growth of the Protestant Pentecostal-type denominations necessarily had a deep impact on the Ethiopian monasticism, still very much anchored in its old traditions.

The number of young candidates to monastic life has visibly dropped. Nonetheless, the nearly 800 monasteries with hundreds of monks still living in some of them, tell us that monasticism in Ethiopia is far from being condemned to a rapid disappearance. However, it will depend on the capacity to renew itself that monasticism continues to play in the Ethiopian Church the fundamental role it played in the past. Continued…(Juan Gonzáles Núñez)

Oral Literature: The Victorious Tortoise

The tortoise is a very clever fellow. He has to use his wits to get along in the world because he has neither the strength of the lion nor the speed of the hare. However his cleverness doesn’t make him popular with everyone, partly because he is inclined to be a bit conceited about it.

For a long time he had irritated the elephant, until one day the elephant became so annoyed that he lost his temper. “You think you’re very smart – he shouted -. But if it came to a fair fight I’d win every time!”

“Do you think so?”  Sneered the tortoise. “I know so!” said the elephant, and tore up the trunk of a tree and smashed it like a matchstick just to show what he could do. The tortoise moved away a little, and watched the performance, but he was not very much impressed.

“I think you would find you are mistaken,” he said calmly -. However if you like we shall try it.”

“You mean you will fight me?” said the elephant.

“ Exactly. Just at dawn tomorrow morning, on the bank of the river.”

“Why the bank of the river?” The elephant asked suspiciously. “Because the ground is level there, and because its near where I live. As you started this, I am at least entitled to choose the spot.”

“The river is as good a place as any for the disposal of the body,” the elephant agreed.

“I hope yours won’t block up the river,” the tortoise commented.

The elephant put back his head and trumpeted loudly. He shook with laughter until tears ran down his cheeks.”Oh, go away, before I die of laughter!” he sobbed at last.

The tortoise moved away at his usual slow pace. “You’ll laugh on the other side of your face my lad,” he vowed. As he walked off he saw smiles on the faces of other animals that had heard his encounter with the elephant, but he treated them with contempt, an expression that a tortoise assumes with great ease as you have probably noticed.

He made his way to the riverbank where he found the hippopotamus wallowing comfortably in the mud. Now the hippo is an unsociable fellow. If people let him alone, he lets them alone, but if there is any attempt to provoke him he can be very bad tempered indeed.

“Ugh –  snuffled the tortoise -. How can you bear to wallow in all that nasty mud. Such a horrible smell!”

“I like it – the hippo growled -. My family have always taken mud baths.”

“I think it’s a perfectly filthy habit,” said the tortoise.

“No one asked you what you thought! – grunted the hippo -. No one asked you to come here either!”
“I have just as much right to be here as you have”,  snapped the tortoise.

“Then keep a still tongue in your head,” the hippo told him.

“You know, your manners leave much to be desired. What a pity you are such a rough diamond. I really should try to do something about it!”

The hippo rose from the mud with gigantic upheaval. “Oh, you would, would you -, he retorted, his little eyes alight with rage -. I don’t think so much of your manners myself. In fact I’d like to give you a lesson or two!”

“Are you threatening me?” asked the tortoise calmly.

“Call it what you like, I’m coming to teach you a lesson “, the hippo replied, and started to wade towards the tortoise.

“Stop! –  said the tortoise -. I don’t believe in any rough and tumble business. If you want a fight we’ll have one in a proper manner. I’ll meet you here at dawn tomorrow, and then we’ll see who is the best man!”

The hippo gave an unpleasant laugh. “Excellent, nothing would suit me better. It’s nice and cool then. Don’t forget to come though, will you?”

“I certainly shan’t forget – said the tortoise, and went away looking very satisfied, as indeed he might be, for his plot was working out perfectly.

News of the contest between the elephant and the tortoise got around, but no one knew about the arrangement of the second fight, because the hippo was too unsociable to talk to anyone. The tortoise was perfectly well aware of that; it was in fact an essential part of his plot.

Shortly before dawn the tortoise rose from his bed by the riverbank, and peered through the mists for the elephant. Right enough he soon saw the elephant lumbering along followed by a large circle of his friends who had come to see the fight.

The tortoise then looked into the river, and there was the hippo lying in wait. As soon as he heard the noise of the approaching crowd he stood perfectly still, so that it was impossible for anyone to detect him in the mist. That also was just the way the tortoise wanted things, and he moved carefully behind some reeds, and waited, until the elephant reached the bank.

“Ho – the elephant chuckled -. So my brave friend has not arrived. I wonder if he has thought better of it.” Just as the elephant passed the spot where the tortoise was hidden, the tortoise grabbed the tip of the elephant’s trunk. The elephant was so surprised and hurt that for a moment he was helpless, and during that critical moment the tortoise swung himself straight out over the riverbank towards the hippo. The hippo naturally made a grab at his foe, but in his excitement he caught the elephant’s trunk, while the tortoise wriggled free, and dropped into the mud.

With a wild heave the hippo dragged the elephant over the bank and into the water, where the two of them thrashed round wildly, and the crowd unaware of what happened, were amazed at the extraordinary strength of the tortoise, who was actually sitting at a safe distance down river watching the gigantic struggles of the elephant and the hippo, who were badly mauled, and had fought themselves to a standstill before they discovered what had occurred. Then they dragged themselves to the bank, bruised and exhausted.

“What on earth made you attack me?” asked the elephant. The hippo tried to explain what had happened, and became very excited, but during lengthy and confused explanations, and while practically everyone, including the onlookers, almost had a fight with everyone else, the elephant and the hippo realised that the tortoise had played a very cunning trick on them.

So they apologised to each other, and parted, after vowing that never again would either of them become involved in any arguments with the wily tortoise. The onlookers came to the same conclusion, and that is why the tortoise is always left severely alone. No other animal ever attacks him, and they are all careful to keep on polite terms with him. (Folktale from Zambia)

South Sudan: “We are on the way”

Father Jean Paolo Pezzi, director of Justice and Peace office of the Comboni Missionaries based in the United States has just visited the country. I sent this report.

The Sudan Airlines’ 737 rolls on the Wau’s runway. I look down while the land widens towards the horizon, painting mangos and acacias trees on the grey and reddish sand, making the brushwood and shrubbery look like ground miscarriages. Scattered here and there the small huts of mud and straw: those with zinc roofs go quickly behind as soon as the flight going up leaves the city area.

I contemplate the borderless Wau’s land. While the ground passes behind, a cloud of memories suddenly brought me back to the past. Wau! A name I heard first long time ago, in 1957 when I joined the Comboni Missionary. Nannetti, a father recently back to Italy from Sudan, was supposed to teach us geography. Actually, to our delight, he spent the lessons talking about his missionary experience and we became more familiar with people’s names such as those of Shiluk, Dinka, Nuer, Bari, Acholi and places like Juba, Rumbek, Malakal, Wau, and Gondokoro than with European capitals and Spanish and French rivers. Guided by his imaginations we were running after lions and elephants, antelopes and gazelle in this African savanna. Was not a part of Sudan call Bahr el Ghazal, land of gazelles?

Suddenly an unexpected page of history came up breaking all dreams. In 1959 the first missionaries’ deportation by the Islamic power ruling in Khartoum took place. Some went to Isiro, in the northern Congo where they met their martyrdom in 1964. Another huge deportation followed in 1964 and in the Southern part of Sudan few missionaries remained just because there were Sudanese. It did not take long and the rebellion of south Sudanese ethnic groups, Christians and animists, against Khartoum dominated more and more by extremist Islamic and Arab ideology, burst forth.

A long war followed and in this wild region, most of the exotic animal were hunted and disappeared.  John Garang, a great leader of the SPLA (South People Liberation Army) succeeded in unifying all the rebel groups and forcing Khartoum to sit at the table for dialogue. He would prefer to keep a unique nation with huge and secured autonomy of the Southern part of the country. Garang died in a helicopter accident and the new leaders imposed on Khartoum a call for an independence referendum followed by independence itself.  The world’s newest country was born on July 9th 2011 and named South Sudan.

Joy and hope for a bright future gave way soon, too soon, to the strife and battles for power and riches – the discovery of gas was the spark to set fire between different groups. The Dinka prevailed and imposed their rule. Open war, guerrilla, rebellions, peace agreement meetings, fighting stops, international and national dialogues went on and on for eight long years.

The pilot’s call to fasten the seat belt because of turbulence brings me back to ‘now’, and I review the 7 days spent in Wau. I visited the Comboni Hospital where every day 400 persons, among them several dozens of children, receive attention. In these days, the Diocesan Pastoral Health through the Swiss Red Cross organised a specialist visit for eye operations. One hundred patients, their cataracts removed, recovered their sight while about three thousand had no more than a promise for a near or future help.

With Matteo, a friend who in his fifties left his post of professor at the Milan Polytechnic University to spend his life in South Soudan, we crossed on foot several times the town of Wau.  Sand and dust are reddish like children greeting us while smiling and repeating their day class of English: “Yesterday it was How are you?, today is What is your name?, says Matteo.” Everywhere we enter, is it the Catholics Health Training Institute, or a great Jesuit’s secondary school, or the 1,200 pupils’ Salesian sisters’ primary school, he I cheerfully greeted with a show of sincere affection. They are happy to see him and swiftly flow the questions like “Did you bring the lead lamps we were looking for?”, “What about the starter motor of the generator?” “Have you got time to repair my computer?”, and on and on.

In the local cemetery, I meet the tombs of a dozen Comboni Missionaries. Some of them were already buried in their 29, 32, 36 year. Among them the tomb of Brother Josué dei Cass who spent his life among the lepers.

Near to the cathedral we enter what is called POC, Protection of Civils, what in fact is a displaced camp of 8,000 people. Many children and youth greet Matteo by name. This POC is a small one; the biggest build by the UN program received 40,000 people, while now they are no more than 13,000. Many went back to their homes and villages. I see signs of hope. Visiting it, reconciles me with the UN. They did good work, comments Matteo. I can see, the drive away for raining water, huts separated one from the other by straight and clean small streets. Banks and walls were raised to prevent erosion and mud from penetrating everywhere.

For public transport, we have a choice: the boda, the raksha and tuku. The last is for material, the second is a three wheel motorcycle and expensive. We give priority to the first, just small motorcycle and bargaining the price between 300 or 250 Sudanese pounds amuses me: the difference for two persons and 20 m. of journey is of 12 cents. One-dollar rate is of 270 Sudanese pounds. Travel is without any problems and we can walk peacefully up and down through the huge and well-traced streets and avenues: Wau will be a wonderful town when peace returns. However, when would this longed-for peace be back?

Five out of eight months of the transitional period towards a comprehensive peace, are already over without any implementation. Soldiers should be in theirs camps, but the population did not accept the first proposal for fear of army proximity. Dinka officials are said to be going around enlisting new recruits to replace those who will be eventually confined in the camps. When I go out of the town with a local priest, we are stopped at several barriers and we receive glances and words of suspicion. NGOs, UN programs are seen as supporting the rebels: without food, medicines, or clothes the rebels would have surrendered long ago, is the guess. Visiting the Catholic University fills my spirit in sadness.  An obsolete building, few students, no future in sight.

However, Matteo organised as a last moment of my visit a meeting with a dozen of young women, current or former students of the Catholic University in agriculture. I am here for training on land grabbing and I am eager to listen to them.

Seated in a corridor of an old building Matteo had repaired for housing them, and sharing a panettone from Italy enriched with a glass of warm water on a hot afternoon, I bring them several questions. Do they know what land grabbing is? Did they hear about the 8-10% of Sudanese land already leased to foreign corporations? What about the 2009 Land Act, the sugar plantation in Mangala, the Nile Trading and Development a Texas-based company, or the Al Ain National Wildlife Emirate based company? No hint of knowledge or of interest from them.

However, when I question the right of women’s land ownership, or the implication of land tenure in women rights, freedom of marriage, and women’s authority in family and social life, the discussion warms up. The picture they draw for me is one of no more negative thoughts of an enclosed, isolated, retrogressive, and regressive pastoralist society. They smile, they shake their heads and their hand, they swing their index finger in an indescribable mood of discontent and frustration.

Despite the overall consent to what is said, one voice concludes speaking for all, with a “however”, a “nevertheless”, a “no matter how”, and a “still”. It is Mary, the shortest and thinnest of all, the one who seems the most rough and rustic of all. “I was supported by my mother to come to the university”, “My father accepted my refusal of early marriage”, “and In my family it is already decided which land will be mine “,” I can speak in front of the elderly”. “Yes – she ends the meeting – we are far from the goal we hope for, but we are on the way, even though we are at its beginning.” The rights of women seem to be the icon of peace: they are not yet at the horizon, but they are dreaming hope. As a hope it is peace dreamed too.

Destruction and death left by tropical cyclone Idai in southern Africa

After more than three weeks since cyclone Idai hit southern Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi still live in extreme emergency conditions. According to Caristas in Mozambique, the official number of deaths in Mozambique alone has risen to 520. The first reception centres for the homeless has given hospitality to 110 thousand people.

It is estimated that there are more than 800 victims in the three countries, but there are fears that the number of deaths may increase. An exact figure will be obtained only when the water decreases and the bodies are recovered.

The cyclone has left behind a trail of destruction. Most of the damage was suffered in Mozambique, where 90% of the city of Beira was destroyed. In many districts of Beira, people are forced to live in the putrid water that surrounds their homes. Many houses do not have a roof and people are exposed to the rain. Local sources pointed out:  “There are fears of cholera and typhoid epidemics (the recorded cases of cholera are already 270).  While acute forms of diarrhoea and intestinal pain are already on the agenda. There was also a sharp increase in malaria due to the fact that thousands of people sleep without the protection of their homes and without mosquito nets “.

In Zimbabwe,  the Rusitu valley of Chimanimani has been the most affected, where the confluence of the Rusitu and Hanoi rivers is located. Both rivers flooded. The inhabitants of the villages of Nyamatanda in Mozambique report of having seen bodies floating in the water. Hundreds of bodies are abandoned in the streets and thousands are left in the forests.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has launched campaigns in various Countries in the world to facilitate the donation and delivery of basic necessities. 

There are 63 Comboni Missionaries working in Mozambique and Malawi.  In the message of the Superior General of the Comboni Missionaries,  Father Tesfaye Tadesse wrote:  “We want to respond to the calls for help coming from Mozambique and Malawi, due to the tragic consequences of Cyclone Idai, through material aid to the most affected people and through prayer for all the victims of the cyclone.”

“We want to ensure our communion and fraternal especially to those in the areas most affected by the cyclone, to the communities of Beira and Muxungué, in Mozambique, and the communities of Balaka, and Lirangwe, in Malawi. We are sure that other Comboni circumscriptions will also collaborate generously in the reconstruction of the lives of these populations”.