All posts by Comboni Missionaries Ireland

Peru: It is impossible to remain silent.

On both sides of the border between Ecuador and Peru, there are oil and gas operations. The consequences are disastrous for the environment and for the indigenous peoples who live there. Two Augustinian missionaries living in Iquitos (Peru) talked about the challenges for the church and for the indigenous people. Governments traditionally have partnered with oil companies, to the detriment of their own people. The practices of ChevronTexaco in Ecuador are well known. In Peru, Pluspetrol, an oil company with Argentinian capital, concocts shady financial strategies in offshore tax havens. The conglomerate it has created owes 1.5 billion soles (approximately US $46.8 million) to SUNAT, the Peruvian internal revenue agency. The company’s environmental practices leave much to be desired. And its relationship with the indigenous population has caused more than considerable impacts. This has not kept Pluspetrol from entering into agreements with the church for 'assistance programs' or other programs for indigenous peoples - a terrible practice. During our early years in the Amazon basin, we saw only the oil barges that traversed the river and the indigenous people’s fear of being overtaken by the tugboat called the Ciudad de Iquitos. The boat’s strong wake swamped and sank any number of canoes. What 'woke us from the dream of cruel inhumanity' was an oil spill in October 2000. We were alerted by radio, and two hours before we saw the entire Marañon River turn black from bank to bank, our noses were assaulted by the strong, penetrating smell of oil. We had never seen or smelled anything like it. We had few resources and limited contacts, and we knew nothing at all about oil. It was impossible to remain silent. There were no telephones, and the city was a 24 to 30-hour trip away by river boat, a journey that has been shortened since then by passenger boats with outboard motors. But our cry reached even the government’s ears. The minister of women’s affairs, who had ties to the human rights movement, came to visit, arriving in the oil company’s helicopter. The media barely reported the story. Local residents did not understand why we were so upset. One merchant pushed the oil slick aside as we watched and filled a bucket with river water to take home. “This is the way it has always been”, people told us. “You’re getting upset for nothing; no one will pay any attention to you”. In the indigenous cosmology, the disappearance of animals or deterioration of the environment is the result of human evil. If the evil persists, either a conversion occurs, or the only thing to do is wait until the world is upended and a new era begins. Noise, bad behaviour and a lack of ethics can cause this 'end of the world', which is followed by a new earth. We contacted a member of Greenpeace in Lima, but their headquarters was in Santiago, Chile, and they could not travel to the area. The church was worse: they looked askance at us. Peru had other urgent needs, and the environment seemed like a hobby for the rich. We had to put up with people laughing at us and patting us on the back log. We were too naive and inexpert. We were stunned when someone dared counsel us that those were not real problems and offered us a list of true concerns. Nearly two decades later, during his visit to Puerto Maldonado, Pope Francis, whose sensitivity to environmental issues is far greater than average in the church, said: “We know of the suffering caused for some of you by emissions of hydrocarbons, which gravely threaten the lives of your families and contaminate your natural environment”. A few furtive tears slid down our cheeks. The time we spent in the oil-producing area and the pain in accompanying the Kukama people gave us new insight into the 845 kilometre (525 mile) Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, built in 1977, which crosses the Andes Mountains to connect the oil wells in Block 192 (formerly 1AB) and Block 8, in the Amazon, to Bayóvar, on Peru’s Pacific coast. We gradually began to comprehend the scenario. Two new events are important for understanding the impact on indigenous peoples in the area. One is a 2012 agreement between the governments of Peru and Ecuador to 'promote and facilitate the transportation of oil from South-eastern Ecuador by way of the Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline'. The other is the Peruvian government’s investment of more than US $5 billion in upgrading the refinery in Talara, on Peru’s northern coast. These two issues connect the oil-producing area on both sides of the Peru-Ecuador border with the petrochemical industry proposed for the Peruvian coast. But the Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, which is 40 years old and seriously deteriorated, does not receive the attention it deserves and has suffered periodic spills. A Peruvian parliamentary commission found irregularities and excessive payments in the contracting of the companies that have cleaned up oil spills. After a spill in 2010, Kukama families along the Marañón River began to collect rainwater to drink. The cultural change is huge. The Kukama believe that rainwater causes goiter, rheumatism and itching. Because of protests by indigenous communities, several years ago the government began to install temporary, small-scale water treatment plants in some communities. We have serious doubts about whether they effectively eliminate heavy metals and about disposal of metals trapped by the filters. But we also believe the plants conceal the real problem: the fish. The water treatment plants give the impression that everything is fine. But contamination of the river poisons fish, which are an essential part of the Kukama people’s diet. The water treatment plants cover up the real problem and the fish travel throughout the watershed. What began as a localised oil spill opened our eyes to a local facet of geopolitics. This region along the Peru-Ecuador border, which is covered by oil concessions and crossed by the Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, is the ancestral territory of many indigenous people: Waorani, Záparo, Taushiro, Omurano, Urarina, Kukama-Kukamiria, Awajún, Wampis, Achuar, Shapra, Kichwa. Some of these peoples are on the verge of extinction. The spatial interconnection created by the pipeline should force us to look at wider scenarios. Some NGOs, with vision limited by the scope of their projects, act only in narrow areas that do not allow them to see the problem in its true dimensions. The atomisation of the church is another great challenge, especially for the vicariates located in this border area. It is not just a matter of oil spills, or even of the pipeline or the oil concessions on both sides of the border, or of the petrochemical industry. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, because of the accumulated impacts. This overall situation will not improve until there is a change in the country’s energy matrix. Pope Francis has told us of the need to convert economies based on fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, to cleaner sources of energy. The idea of changing the energy model makes governments nervous. However, recently mayors of some of the world’s major cities have begun to question oil companies’ role in climate change. We hope that this movement grows in the coming years and results in positive change.

India: Celebrating Hues Of Divinity

During the Hemis Festival, the Monastery comes alive with dances and colourful celebrations. The religious mask dance remains the centre of attraction. This year Hemis festival is going to be celebrated from 23rd June to 24th June. Synonymous with peace, tranquillity and meditation, Ladakh is known as the “land of high passes”. A region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that currently extends from the Kunlun mountain range to the main Great Himalayas to the south, inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent. After a long dreary winter, summer is the time to rejuvenate with pomp and fervour. Here, rejuvenation is a celebration, a way of attaining supreme truth. The festivals are a perfect concoction of ancient customs, rich culture and celebration of life. One of the most famous festivals here is Hemis Festival celebrated in Hemis Monastery. Situated 45 km away from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Hemis Monastery is the largest in the region. It is famous for its magnificent architecture and the Buddha statue positioned atop a mound overlooking the monastery. This two-day event commemorates the birth anniversary of Buddhist guru Padmasamabhava who brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Central Asia, China and the Himalayan region. Revered as the second Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava was invited to India in the 8th century to conquer dark forces and transform them into guardians and protectors of dharma. The festival is celebrated every year on the 10th lunar day of the Tibetan calendar. This year will be celebrated from 23rd June to 24th June. The central courtyard of Hemis Monastery sets the stage: Drums, trumpets and wind instruments commence the celebrations with an early morning ceremony in which thousands of Buddhist followers take blessings from a portrait of Lord Padmasambhava. Uncooked rice, incense sticks, tomas (butter-and dough dish) and holy water are the main ceremonial items. The chief monk of the monastery carries the holy water throughout the courtyard for purification. However, the key attraction is the religious masked dance performed by the lamas (monks) around the central flagpole in the courtyard. Known as Chhams, these dance dramas are performed wearing vibrant clothes and intimidating masks. The dance consists of two parts: the first pays homage to the eight aspects of Guru Padmasambhava. The second part shows Maha Dongcren, a horned masked figure, slaying demonic forces. The eight manifestations of Padmasambhava belong to the tradition of the revealed treasures. It includes the depiction of union with consort, a fully ordained Buddhist monk, a young crowned prince, the Saviour who teaches dharma to people, the intelligent youth, a naked yogi pointing towards sun, fierce manifestation of Vajrakilaya and the Lion of Debate. These religious dances are used to educate people about the impermanent nature of all phenomena and the victory of mind over ignorance and evil. Blaring horns and hypnotic drums serve as perfect soundtracks for the dance with most movements consisting of measured steps and twirls. The stunning colours of whirling robes, antique masks and swaying movements create a visual treat. Witnessing the mask dances is believed to remove ignorance and take one closer towards to attaining nirvana. “By watching these mask dances, ‘choreographed’ by celestial beings for enlightened masters, we should receive the blessings of being able to cut through afflictive emotions and realise the nature of our own mind and wisdom,” says one of the monk from Hemis Monastery.

Colombia: “We Are The Guardians Of Our Land”

In the centre of the Colombian Amazonia, we find the Vicariate of Puerto Leguízamo-Solano, created in 2013. A Christian community that wants to take care of the environment and its people. We discuss the peace accord, the cocoa growers and the indigenous people with the Bishop of the Vicariate, Mons. Joaquín Humberto Pinzón Güiza. How would you describe your Vicariate? We are at the heart of Columbian Amazonia. The Vicariate covers areas in the Colombian departments: Caquetá, Putumayo and Amazonas. It is characterised by two great rivers: the Caquetá River and the Putumayo, as well as their tributaries. In the Vicariate we have the National Park of La Paya, the National Park of Chiribiquete and the Amazonia Forest reserve. The main urban centres are Puerto Leguízamo (Putumayo), Solano (Caquetá) and Puerto Alegría (Amazonas). We reach the borders of both Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazonia. For many, the Putumayo River divides; for others it unites. The river allows people to travel, obtain food and communicate with the inhabitants of this South-Colombian, North Peruvian and North Ecuadorian Amazonia. The Vicariate has a population of 46,000 inhabitants of whom 32,000 are Catholics. When we speak of the inhabitants of Amazonia, we must speak of different people and cultures. On the one side we have the Indian peoples such as the Murui (of the Huitoto family), the Inga, the Koreguaje, the Siona, and the Kichwa. On the other we have the people who came later and have occupied the ancestral lands. At the same time, the city and its population have grown larger. To sum up, modern Amazonia challenges the Church to respond meaningfully to this great human variety. Until a few months ago Puerto Leguízamo and the whole of this region were under the control of the FARC guerrillas. Has the peace agreement changed the situation? The majority of those belonging to the guerrilla movements have gone away. In two territories of the Vicariate there are still some small groups of dissidents. In particular, a group that came from the East – known as the Frente Primero dissidents – and other small local groups that emerged from Frente 48. However, we can say that the situation has changed because the guerrillas no longer exercise that social control they formerly had in most of this territory. What we need now is a response from the central government. People nowadays ask: today, who has authority in these places? Who will be in charge from now on? There is uncertainty. People are afraid that other groups of outlaws may come and take over from the FARC. Briefly, people are happy with the changes, but they are also disconcerted due to the lack of a response on the part of the central government regarding the power vacuum that has been created. The peace agreement does not seem to have changed the cocaine economy which continues to be produced in large amounts. The coca production continues. Little has changed in that area. On the contrary, some say production has increased. We must think about the fact that people continue the cultivation and that production is increasing. The problem today is commercialisation. Previously, the FARC acted as intermediaries; today this stage is missing. Meanwhile, production has increased but commercialisation has decreased. People still see coca production as a vital activity, but they are worried about the commercial aspect. It is very difficult to make a living as small famers. On the contrary, with three hectares of coca a family can make a living if they have no great requirements. It is also true that the movement of money generated by drug sales has increased people’s requirements. The real problem is that there is no policy of substitution, an alternative that enables families to leave coca cultivation to dedicate themselves to other activities that enable them not only to live but to do so with dignity. Another problem is that of illegal gold mining, a rather serious problem because, since it is illegal, it is not regulated by law. Those people come and set up in places where they can hide from curious eyes. This sort of situation is very difficult since they carry out their work without taking measures to lessen its environmental impact. They are interested only in mining the minerals – gold in this case. Just think of the tons of mercury being poured into the rivers. By contaminating the rivers, they also contaminate the fish and those who eat the fish. The effect on the people is already quite apparent. In nearby Ecuador and Northern Peru, the oil companies are destroying Amazonia and polluting the rivers. What is the situation in your area? To the north of Putumayo – in the area of Puerto Asís, in particular – surveys are being made to see if there is oil available. At this moment, discussions are taking place with the communities involved. The people were not well prepared, and it can happen that, with little money, they can be sometimes bought off. As a result, there is much corruption and many false promises. In November 2017, your Vicarage organised a ‘Frontier Amazonian Minga’. Why did you use the term ‘minga’? Minga is a Kichwa word that means offering something in exchange for something else. In practice, it becomes an experience of community work that brings benefits for all and to which all bring what they can. In other words, all of us work together for a common cause to obtain common benefits. Here in Puerto Leguízamo a sizeable group has been formed of people from Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. We have received as our guests the bishops of San Miguel del Amazonas (Peru), San Vicente and of Florencia. The aim is to create a space where the people and the religious and civil institutions can meet and talk about Amazonia as a ‘public amenity’. All of us are united around a common cause: to be responsible inhabitants seeking a sustainable solution which does not damage but, on the contrary, protects the Amazonian environment in which we find ourselves living. We want to be defenders of this land and this living space, we and the public, environmental and ecclesial institutions together. All of us wish to transform ourselves into guardians of this land. The motto of the minga was: “Somos territorio, somos pobladores, somos cuidanderos”, ‘we are the Land, we are the People, we are the Guardians’.

Herbs & People: Aspilia Africana – The Unique Anti-Haemorrhage Plant

The plant is commonly found distributed in the Sub-Saharan Africa. It is widely gathered from the wild and used locally in traditional medicine. Aspilia Africana C.D. Adams (Family Asteraceae) enjoys a folk reputation in African traditional medicine due to its unique ability to treat numerous disease conditions. The plant is commonly referred to as the 'haemorrhage plant' in some of the communities where the plant is distributed due to its unique potential to stop bleeding. Aspilia Africana is a rapid growing, semi-woody herb usually producing annual stems about 2 metres tall from a perennial woody root-stock. It has a somewhat aromatic carroty smell. The leaves are opposite and with rough lamina. Its capitula are terminal, solitary or in 'lax racemes', at times axillary, radiating, white, yellow, lilac or purple. The medicinal parts of the plant collected in the wild are prepared mainly by crushing/pounding to form a paste and then the essential medicinal component, extracted by using cold or warm water or by decoction, carried out by boiling in a given quantity of water for a specific time duration. In most communities, Aspilia Africana medicine is generally administered orally or by topical application. Although all the different parts of Aspilia Africana are widely used in African traditional medicine, the leaves are those most often used in treatment of a number of health conditions. The infusion from the crushed leaves is applied on the wound, throughout many African communities, to stop bleeding and for cleaning the surfaces of sores. The infusion is taken orally to treat rheumatic pains and for management of problems related to cardiovascular diseases. The sap from the crushed/pounded leaves is applied topically to treat bee, wasp or scorpion stings. An infusion of the leaves of this plant is usually given as tonic to women after delivery and also to increase milk flow. The leaf infusion is commonly administered to children as a cough remedy. In East Africa, Aspilia Africana is also used for traditional treatment of malaria and related symptoms. To relieve febrile headaches, the patient’s face is washed using the leaf decoction. The leaf juice with little salt and lime juice is applied to eyes for corneal opacities and also to remove other foreign bodies in the eyes. The leaf decoction with native chalk is used to cure stomach troubles. For children, the decoction is mixed with clay and orally administered to treat stomach upsets. The leaf decoction is also taken for the treatment and management of sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea. In addition to the above treatment uses, the leaf decoction is also believed to be important in alleviating menstrual cramps and dysmenorrhea in women. The leaf is important as pain-killers, sedatives and ecbolics. It can cause uterus contractions and hence expectant mothers are warned against taking the decoction of any part of this plant as it may result in abortion. In some West African countries, women boil the leaves of Aspilia Africana and the decoction is drunk to prevent conception. This therefore indicates that Aspilia Africana may have some contraceptive or anti-fertility properties. Like the leaves, the roots of Aspilia Africana are also used in the treatment of numerous disease conditions. The cold water extract of crushed roots is administered orally to treat a number of conditions including sore throat, diarrhoea, gonorrhoea, intestinal worms, dysentery, and as an antidote against snake poison. The sap from the crushed roots is applied topically to wounds to promote rapid healing and to stop bleeding. The roots can also be chewed and the sap swallowed to induce appetite especially in patients. The decoction from a mixture of the leaves and roots has been used in some communities for treating pulmonary haemorrhage. In some East African countries, the root decoction is used to treat and manage tuberculosis. Unlike the leaves and roots which are known for treating a myriad of diseases and disorders, the stem bark decoction is notably used to treat limited diseases and conditions including fever and malaria in West Africa. Incredibly, the flower of this plant is also greatly used for medicinal purposes. The sap from the crushed mixture of flowers and leaves of Aspilia Africana is applied topically to heal and stop bleeding in a fresh wound. In some West African countries, the infusion of the mixture of flowers and leaves from the plant is credited with even the capacity of arresting the bleeding of a severed artery, hence demonstrating the extraordinary properties of this plant in stopping bleeding. In addition, the sap from the flowers has also been used to treat scorpion stings. Apart from the medicinal uses, many communities also use the plant as fodder for animals and as building materials. Scientific studies credit the unique medicinal potentials of Aspilia Africana to the numerous bioactive phytochemicals present in it including saponins, tannins, alkaloids, flavonoids, terpenoid and phenol. - Richard Komakech

African Myths: A Door To The Mysteries Of Creation

In Africa, there are thousands of myths to explain what reason cannot explain. In a lot of them, God made man from clay, as in the Bible. In some, life and death are brought to men by animals. Myth always has something mysterious, hidden like the seed within a fruit, and somehow offers the explanation, the interpretation. The scholars of anthropology, history of religions and psychology naturally propose a wider definition - myth is an attempt to answer the great questions that, sooner or later, we put to ourselves about the world, the past, life, death, happiness, evil. Questions and answers that every generation puts and gives to itself and then passes over to the next. We find myths in every culture and they have the same dynamics - stories that greatly use the imagination and have the task of representing whatever reason and experience cannot fully explain. Myth has always something mysterious, hidden like the seed within a fruit, and somehow offers the explanation, the interpretation. Myths are many - they deal with the universe, the heavens, weather phenomena, the beginning of life, social organisation, etc. It has been calculated that in Africa alone, myths, popular stories and legends that contain them, could be as many as 250,000. They do not pass from one generation to another only under the form of simple stories, repeated at night around the fire in order to entertain children and make them sleep. They are almost always transmitted by means of rites, ceremonies, dances, invocations and celebrations that allow the individual to integrate with nature, with the invisible and not to remain at the mercy of the events that are transient, above all those of suffering and death. Many myths refer to creation, to how the universe was put in order. In almost all, the notion of "high" and "low" repeats itself - the Divinity is "up there" in heaven; human beings, animals and plants are "down here" on earth. Almost always, human beings appear last. The Kiga people, or Abakiga - "people of the mountains" - an ethnic group located in northern Rwanda and southern Uganda, have a myth that narrates that Imana - The-One-who-dwells-with-us - in the beginning created two countries - one above the clouds made up of the sun, the moon and the stars and the other, below the clouds. It is this second one that we inhabit, together with the trees and the animals created by Imana. In the stories, we see a golden age, when the Divinity was living close to the human beings and was sending messages entrusting them to the so-called "mythical ancestors", whom anthropology calls "cultural heroes". The Gbaya people of the Central African Republic speak of the mythical ancestor, the first human being, the cultural hero who brought people the seeds of plants and taught them how to cultivate the land. He was cunning, if necessary, a liar, a provoker and anti-conformist. The Chagga people of Tanzania tell that God had a servant to whom he used to entrust the tasks to be executed. It was this servant who discovered that humans, disobeying God's order, had eaten a certain type of tuber. God then decided to punish them with sickness, famine, war and death. In order to mould the human being, God acted like a potter. Shilluk people in Sudan think that God used clay of different colours and this would explain the different pigmentation of human groups. The Bambuti pigmies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo say that the Divinity (Arebati) shaped the first human being with clay; he then covered him with skin and poured blood on the lifeless body. Only then did the first human being start breathing and become alive. The Batwa pigmies state that they are 'children of God'. The Tivs in Nigeria narrate that the first human beings didn't know how to cultivate the land until the day when Aondo taught them; from that day, great was the joy of all. To the Bambuti, God taught blacksmithing so that they might build for themselves the weapons and the necessary implements for a life of hunting in the forest - "You will never lack game", is what Kmvum swore to them. Then came the separation of the two worlds, with ill-omened results for humanity. The communication between God and people was interrupted; the messages destined to human beings are no longer there or are no longer understood. Many myths explain how the happy relationship between the Creator and humanity ended in a definite way. Most accounts attribute this to an open disobedience on the part of the human beings - God imposed laws on them but they didn't respect them; neither did they take them seriously. An Ewe's (Togo) myth tells us that God had decided to live with the people He had created. He was coming down regularly on earth, sliding down a rope. He was thus able to encounter His creatures and, being near, solve their problems. He, however, had ordered “Let nobody touch this rope for any reason whatsoever”. But, one day, a woman, driven by curiosity, decided to touch the rope. God then got angry; He went back to heaven, cut the rope and swore that He would never come back among the people any more. Ethnic groups such as Bari, Fajulu, Toposa and Madi (Sudan and Uganda) share the story that, in the beginning, heaven and earth were united by a rope or a bridge and that God, from time to time, came down on earth to spend time with people. The rope, however, broke accidentally or was eaten by the hyena, so the link between God and humanity came to an end. Without paying attention to the reason that brought about God's estrangement from the earth - whether because a disobedience or an unwelcome accident provoked by humans - in all the stories, it is evident that those who drove humanity into perdition were the human beings themselves. John Mbiti, Kenyan theologian and philosopher, comments in 'African Religion and Philosophy'. "It appears that the African image of happiness was tied to God's presence among the people, to whom He was warranting food, shelter, peace, immortality and a moral code. As far as I know, no solution that could remedy this great loss of human beings appears in any myth. Humans have accepted their separation from God and, in different ways, they try to recover the contact with Him by means of acts of worship". - Neno Contran

Africa: Puppet Theatre

The roots of puppet shows in Africa are as old as the myths and legends. Today, they are used very much in education but also as a way to condemn political power and corruption. According to a myth of the Ibibio people of south-east Nigeria, the puppet theatre was born in the land of the dead. In this subterranean world, such representations are frequently carried out. One day, a certain living man descended into the land of the dead and witnessed one of these shows. When he came back to the land of the living, he taught them this art. However, that caused his death. In Angola, an Ambundu legend tells how a woman died. When she was about to be buried, she came back to life and started speaking. She returned to her village and went to the house of a carver and took possession of a small statue that she impregnated with magical substances. As a result, the figure came to life and began to produce images showing hidden objects. In Guinea, it is said that the birth of the puppet was caused by the appearance of a mysterious speaking object that was found in water. A woman took it to the village and showed it to everyone there but the mysterious object would not speak. After that, the woman decided to send away the men. The object then began to speak, telling its sad story and how it had no husband, causing it to remain in the water. In Malawi, a Chewa legend tells how a man who had no children began to model two small images of clay. One night, they came to life and began to act like people; this went on until they disobeyed their adopted mother and were going away, following a footpath. They were drenched by a cloud burst and once again became the clay they were made from. The Africa puppet theatre is a pedagogical instrument which serves to transmit ancestral wisdom, especially to new generations. It is also used to criticise behaviour. Through laughter and satire they make fun of politicians and local authorities. It is also a means to transmit ancestral wisdom by means of theatrical spectacles at important times in social life, at initiation and fertility rites, in the celebration of cycles, funeral rites and the worship of ancestors. It is also used for social criticism. The testimony of the puppets carries elements of the joy of life, a utopia, a plan or a dream for the country, a person or a community, the memories of prosperous times of the past that it would be good to copy in the present and in the future. In some cases, the puppeteer accompanies the healer or the witch doctor and takes part in the diagnosis of the sick person. At present, especially in urban areas, puppets have become a form of entertainment that is used in theatres, television, the cinema, in musical videos and in behavioural therapy sessions and during courses of formation in development. South Africa is well known on the continent for its growing group of artisans and puppeteers. This is also helped by the fact that it hosts the largest international festival of puppet shows. In such western African countries as Mali, Benin, Togo, Nigeria and Ivory Coast, puppets tend to be more expressions of the lives of the people. In Mali, this ancestral heritage is present in the daily lives of eight people out of every ten. Yaya Coulibaly, originally from Mali and one of the master artisans, has contributed more than any other to preserving and spreading the puppets in his country and worldwide. He is the heir in a family of puppeteers who, for six generations – from the 15th century until today – preserves the precious treasure of the art of making puppets as a record of the oral patrimony of the Bambara kingdom of Segou. The puppets of Yaya Coulibaly represent different aspects of the Bambara mythology in relation to actual problems. Coulibaly’s workshop is located in the Magnambougou quarter of Bamako, the capital. He has a collection of about 25,000 pieces comprising masks and puppets as well as collective or giant puppets. The themes and colours of the puppets have their own symbolism. For example, one of the pieces is a mythical figure - the head of an antelope with its horns covered by six personages that symbolise the entire universe. Another is a representation of Captain Sanogo, the leader of the 2012 coup. Then there is Vilaine, mother of King Soundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire, used in one of his exhibitions in 2016. Coulibaly began learning the art of his father when he was only six years old. He is now teaching thirty puppeteers whose futures may well be decided by the Kabako Theatre Troupe Company of Yaya Coulibaly. The passion for the art of puppets is also to be found in other people of the country. Among these are the Sogo-bo society, a theatrical association which collects Bamana traditions; Somoni and Bozo of the central south of Mali, as well as the Troupe Nationale des Marionnettes du Mali in Bamako. The puppet theatre of the Bambara of Mali was discovered towards the end of the nineteenth century and became the first African puppet theatre to be known in Europe. In its most ancient form, the show materialises the spiritual beings that govern the destiny of the community, the protector fetishes, so that hunting and fishing may be successful and that peace may reign in the village. The puppets are moved from below with rods through a collapsible theatre called a kalaka that is made with a structure that supports a tent. They sometimes have copper decorations, especially among the Marka. The puppets are kept in a hut where women and children are not allowed to enter. In other African countries, Jean-Pierre Guingane is the instigator in Burkina Faso of the International Marionette and Theatre Festival at Ouagadougou. In the Congo, together with other sorts of puppets, we find the kebe-kebe of the Mbochi and the Kuyu that celebrate great personalities of the past. These figures are moved from below by wooden rods. The puppeteer is hidden by a hood and keeps the head of the figure higher that his own. In the city of Ketù, for example, close to the border between Nigeria and Benin, the Yoruba operate the mask-puppets, called gledé in a propitiatory fashion. They appear in rituals celebrated at the end of the rainy season and at the start of the dry season. The puppets are carried on the head and the figures that emerge high above the crowd are moved, during the dance, from below, by cords controlled by the dancer who wears them. The movements of the puppets and those of the dancers are integrated into a single action. In Togo, the Compagnie des Marionnettes of Danaye Kanlanfei in the capital, Lomé, is a school which, besides teaching the art, assists the youths to construct puppets using recycled material. The representations made by this company always follow themes of the environment and anti-corruption. In Kenya, Chrispin Mwakideu uses puppets to teach children, making them aware of AIDS, malaria and human rights, both on the streets and by way of TV programmes. - Fernando Felix

South Sudan: Reconciliation Paths

In a country ravaged by war, forgiveness is the contribution Christians can offer to a society divided along ethnic lines and rivalries. A missionary in South Sudan shares a couple of stories on how his teaching brought about pardon, mutual acceptance and peace. In the eastern region of South Sudan, there are people who live along the rivers in a territory that, for six months, is flooded by pluvial waters and the overflow of the Nile River. They are the Nuer people, who like to be called by a different name, nath, which means "people of the origins?". Like their Dinka neighbours, the Nuer belong to the Nilotic ethnic group of East Africa, including other ethnic groups such as the Luo, the Shilluk and the Anyuak. The Nuer are shepherds and they know almost everything about cows. During the dry season, they move with the herds to the grazing areas and remain there until the beginning of the rainy season. They also dedicate themselves to agriculture, but with ancestral methods, merely to cultivate sorghum, corn and vegetables. Tall and usually thin, dark-skinned as ebony, at the age of 12, they undergo the initiation rites. Without complaining, they allow to be marked on the foreheads with six horizontal strokes, the scars of which will remain forever, indicating the event of passage into adulthood. The Nuer are used to a hard life and, although generally they are kind people, a dispute over a woman, cattle or possession of land, is enough to cause a big quarrel. A fight, from time to time, seems to have become a way to break the monotony of life. When two groups, for serious reasons, are divided, the first step in order to achieve reconciliation is to seek an agreement between the people directly involved. If not, a representative of one of the parties appeals to the community. When the community intervenes and the culprit categorically rejects any proposal to restore concord, he is seen as a dangerous person and is expelled from the community. Unfortunately, this happens frequently. A Nuer accused of slander will be so infuriated that he will fight like a lion to defend his reputation, even if guilty. Even before the evidence, he will deny everything and will play himself as victim. His friends will be forced to intervene to calm him down and try to convince him that he was wrong. The Nuer know how to defend themselves and are very shrewd in changing the cards on the table in order to make the others believe that the culprit is the victim. In fact, such behaviour can be found anywhere among other peoples but the Nuer know how to do it exceptionally well. For a Nuer to admit he was wrong and to apologize is a humiliation. He feels the need to make others believe that he is a strong man who knows how to disentangle himself from a complicated situation and never does anything wrong. If someone wants to accuse a Nuer of something that can humiliate him, pay close attention not to do it in front of his wife or children. Otherwise, there will be serious problems. When a man is humiliated, he can kill without flinching, whether innocent or guilty. When two groups, for serious reasons, are divided, the first step in order to achieve reconciliation is to seek an agreement between the people directly involved. If not, a representative of one of the parties appeals to the community. One day, an elderly catechist came to me very angry. A young catechist had grabbed him by the hand and given him such a violent push that he had fallen to the ground and almost hit his head. I called the young catechist asking for explanations of what had happened, but without being able to understand much. Then I summoned the catechists who had witnessed the scene. They immediately got angry with the elderly catechist, accusing him of having gone first to me instead of going to them, following the normal procedure. From the version of the witnesses, it seemed clear that the fault was definitely of the old catechist. It was he who provoked the young man who, feeling attacked, instinctively reacted to defend himself. The meeting lasted for hours. The older catechist kept silent but angry because others dared to accuse him, he a veteran! Fortunately, with us was another community elder who, taking the word, reproached the old catechist. His intervention made things simpler. At this point I went to the elderly catechist and applying my long experience and knowledge of the psychology of the Nueres, spoke in favor of the young one. I sought to minimize the offense given to the elderly, presenting it more as an unpleasant incident rather than a deliberate lack of respect from the young man who had reacted instinctively for fear of being beaten. The two eventually reconciled in front of the group and I gave them my blessing. Once I was invited to speak at an elders' village meeting. I said "Do not stain this sacred land [South Sudan] with bloodshed". The next night, a man entered the hut of a woman who was with her husband. The latter took a spear to kill the intruder but restrained himself. It was enough to scare him away. The next morning, the woman's husband reported the case to the police and explained that he had not killed the adulterer because Father Antonio had told them not to desecrate the sacred ground. And asked for justice through the payment of a fine. Another episode. One day, George agreed that a friend, destined to be killed for revenge, slept in his hut, and he would sleep in the other's hut. During the night, some men came and asked George where the pre-chosen victim was. He lied but they insisted and pointed a gun to his head. Startled, he started screaming asking for help. He was killed right there. Gathered around his grave, the family designated the person who should be killed for revenge. But one of the persons present persuaded them not to do that because that was what Father Antonio had taught, adding that George was a catechist and a dear friend of the priest. Cases like these, however, are exceptions among the Nuer. In fact, reconciliation, after a person's death, is difficult to happen, even among Christians. Evangelization on this delicate point passes through the catechists. Starting with the presentation of the commandment "You shall not kill". The Nuer believe in God and, therefore, it should not be difficult for them to accept a divine command. God — Kuoth Cak — gave us the fifth commandment and He is our Father. We have to insist on the value of each person - each of us is created in God's image and called to share in the divine life. Earthly life is a time of preparation for heaven, where we will take part in the family of God. When Jesus came, He taught us to love everyone, even our enemies. And He did it first. Traditional rites should be preserved - the death of a bull (as in the Old Testament, sacrifices were offered to God), reparation by the offering of cows, and drinking the gall mixed with fresh milk. These rites can be concluded with the laying of hands on the culprit and the blessing by a priest as a guarantee of a permanent Christian reconciliation. - Fr. Antonio La Braca

Mexico: “I Could Be Killed Anytime”

Commitment to work side by side with migrants. A Church up and running. The testimony of Fr. Tomás Gonzalez. “I have received many threats. I know I could be killed but I am not afraid. I have dedicated my entire life to the defence of the weakest. I always ask myself what Jesus would do in this situation”. These are the quiet but determined words of Father Tomás Gonzalez, a 44 year-old Franciscan and director of a house for immigrants called “The 72” in Tenosique, in the state of Tabasco towards the south east of the country. Anyone taking the part of the immigrants become the preferred target of drug traffickers and organised crime who see this as a threat to their lucrative business of people trafficking which shows a worldwide yearly profit of 32 billion dollars. Human trafficking is the third most profitable business after arms and drugs. Mexico has become the most dangerous country in the world for priests and religious. From 2012 until today, twenty one priests were killed in the country. The Franciscans have been taking care of immigrants since 1995. Father Tomás came in 2010. “When I came here to Tenosique abductions were the order of the day. The Migration delegate and the Director of Public Security were members of the gang engaged in human trafficking and the kidnapping of migrants. At that time the reception project was very simple - just one meal a day, only for men and they were allowed to stay three days at the most. Very few people came, due partly to the fact that the hostel was in the centre of the city”. Two events totally changed the life of Father Tomás and the life of the house for immigrants. The Franciscan recounts “At the end of August 2010, 72 migrants were massacred in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. That same month, in the commune of Macuspana, just two hours from here, three migrants were brutally clubbed to death. These two events left their mark on us. We founded this refuge in May 2011 and we baptised it "The 72", in memory of what had happened. We wanted it to be a place of social struggle and the defence of life. A place of sharing with our brothers and sisters coming from other nations.” Father Tomás continues “Right from the start, we opened the project to anyone willing to collaborate. Volunteers began to come from all over the country, from the United States, Europe, Central and South America. At the moment we are working with "Medicins sans Frontieres", and ASYLUM ACCESS, an organisation of UNHCR lawyers.” The Franciscan tells how Mexico is a country of migrants and for migrants “It is unusual to find a family that has no relatives in the United States who is without documents or is an illegal immigrant. There are more than ten million undocumented Mexicans in the United States. Migrants are human beings in an extremely vulnerable state since they are the victims of an unjust political, economic and social system. The main force behind migration is the capitalist and neo-liberal economic system which literally catapults human beings into other areas. When will it end? When will this economic system change’? It is a system that some see a "their god". There are hundreds of thousands of people seeking to enter the United States every year. There are many stories of violence, exploitation and oppression. Father Tomás recounts, “This hostel has welcomed over 50,000 people since it was opened and all of them have experienced sorrow and pain, though some of their stories are really terrible. Mothers come with their children to escape from the sexual violence of their husbands or gangs; young adolescents between twelve and fifteen years old have fled from the youth gang recruiters, the well-known Maras. Many have seen their parents killed, there are adolescents the victims of trafficking and young adults who have suffered all their lives because of migration or because they are the children or grandchildren of immigrants”. With some regret, Father Tomás tells us “We are often faced with the fact that nobody cares about the lives of these people who travel in secret for fear of criminals and the police. Then, in transit countries, they are treated like real criminals or terrorists: arms, walls and security forces persecute them humiliate them and mistreat them in detention centres". That which worries the Franciscan most is the emergence of political leaders like the American President Donald Trump with his hostile language who “create in their citizens negative attitudes towards migrants and refugees”. Father Tomás states that Mexico is not sovereign in matters of immigration but depends upon the decisions of the United States. This does not make it easy to have a healthy discussion on the question of immigration. The question must be debated at international level and not left to Mexico and the United States. “As the Church" – Father Tomás says – "we must return to our roots as a Church that is up and running, a Church that is able to speak to the world of today and a courageous Church with no fear of martyrdom". He concludes, “We are living in a time in history in which we are ethically obliged to recover our humanity and dignity. As human beings today, we cannot accept hostility, walls, discrimination or exclusion. We must work hard for hospitality, integration and bridge-building, convinced that we are all one big family”.

Africa: Amulets For Luck And Protection

Amulets are an important part of an African's life, from birth to death. They are obligatorily worn in some stages of life and are considered sacred objects in African culture. Rebel groups have used amulets to make child soldiers believe they were invulnerable. Traditional medicine has always been an integral part of African culture. It was always transmitted orally from one generation to another within the same family, clan and tribe, in the past. This tradition, however, is disappearing nowadays. Medicine is related to prevention and healing. Ancestors are invoked before and after the healing in different cultures, in order to ask for their help and then to thank them. Ancestors are in fact believed to share the sufferings of the living. Medicinal plants are used to heal as well as some other objects that are believed to be endowed with protective and healing powers - amulets. They can be used to attract luck, health, or to solve love problems, but most of all, people keep amulets to protect themselves from evil spirits and their negative influences in their life. That is why many African kings and tribal chiefs always hold a sceptre tipped with an amulet. Amulets are not considered aesthetic objects, although they may look so, but are small objects, which are believed to be endowed with a power that acts as prevention and defence against specific diseases, accidents, misfortunes. Amulets are also believed to favour fertility. During wars in Africa, such as the civil war in Sierra Leone and in Liberia, child soldiers were given amulets, to make them believe they were invulnerable, and a mixture of drugs and tea to drink in order to have the courage to fight. One mother said "Rebel militiamen have transformed our children into irrational animals who believe that killing is an art and amulets are symbols of death. Whereas amulets have never symbolized death in the African culture, but protection of life”. Amulets are an integral part of an African's life from birth to death. For example, a ceremony is held and an amulet is put around a new-born’s waist or neck, on the seventh day after birth, in order to protect the baby from evil spirits. It is believed that there are spirits which, due to their bad behaviour during life, cannot find the eternal rest. So they wander around and since they are never invoked by their living family members, they feel marginalised and therefore try to send bad influences to the new-born and their family in retaliation. In other African communities a ritual bath is performed. The child is bathed in medicinal water, her hair is cut and the whole body is anointed with castor oil; the child is then given an amulet which is supposed to protect them from evil. This rite is performed at the presence of witnesses. Another amulet is given to teenagers in order to support them on the occasion of the initiation rite that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. When this phase of transition is completed, the new adult is given another amulet which is supposed to attract luck. Amulets are often hidden in objects or sacred parts of many African rural houses. Nobody is allowed to touch them. Therefore children are warned not to play in some parts of the house or hut, and not to open jars or pots. In this way they learn that there are some sacred places and objects that must be respected. Nowadays, with globalisation, immigration and exoticism, amulets are exported to several European cities. Many young Europeans wear them as exotic signs of luck. The use of amulets in the West is completely dissociated from the cultural context and the sacred meaning which is given to these objects in Africa. There, there is, instead, a clear distinction between fashionable objects which are used for aesthetic reasons, and amulets, which in African culture continue to be considered sacred objects. - Constantino Bogaio

Missionary Botanist: Camellia Tea

Pharmacist, botanist and missionary, the Moravian Jesuit Brother Josef Kamel (1661-1706) left the Hapsburg Empire to go to the Philippines where he continued his work and research. He was so successful that Carlo Linneo, the famous Swedish doctor and naturalist, named the genus Camellia after him. Tea is one of the simplest and most natural drinks in the world. According to an interesting legend it was discovered by chance in the third millennium before Christ by the mythological Chinese emperor Shennong. He was heating some water when some leaves from a tree under which he was resting happened to fall into the cup, changing the colour of the liquid in it. Curious, Shennong tasted the mixture and found it both tasty and good. That was how tea was discovered or invented. For centuries, the leaves of the tea plant were seen and used more as medicine than as a drink and it is no accident that Shennong, besides being considered to be the one who taught agriculture to humankind, is also seen as the master who started the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. Moving from mythology to historical fact, the earliest document that speaks unequivocally of the use of tea as a drink goes back to 59 BC, during the Han dynasty. According to a study carried out in 2015 by a team of Chinese researchers and published in the Nature magazine, its use also spread to the western parts of China, especially to Tibet and to present-day Xinjiang, in the second century AD, at least four centuries before it was hitherto believed. There is only one tree that produces the leaves with which the tea infusion is prepared - Camellia sinensis. As the adjective sinensis suggests, the tree originated in southern China. But where did it get its name of Camellia? The name was given to the plant by the Swedish doctor and naturalist Carlo Linneo (1707-1778) who latinised the name of Camellia as a tribute to an almost unknown Moravian Jesuit Brother, Jiři Josef Kamel (1661-1706), a missionary lay brother who worked in the Philippines. Brother Kamel was born in Brno (now in the Czech Republic), on the 21st April 1661. His mother was Austrian and his father Moravian. As part of the Hapsburg Empire, Brno had been named the capital of the Margraviate of Moravia, as a reward for the strong resistance posed by the city to the Swedish troops who, having taken the city of Olomouc, threatened to march on Vienna. The Jesuit order was enjoying great popularity at the time because one of the heroes of the resistance had been Martin Středa, Rector of the Jesuit College in the city. It was in that institution that Kamel passionately studied botany and, in 1679, became a chemist, practising his profession in the college pharmacy. On the 12th November 1682, Kamel entered the novitiate in Brno and, from 1685 onwards, worked as a lay brother directing the pharmacy of Holy Trinity College in Jindřichuv Hradec, moving to Česky Krumlov the following year. He remained only a few months in the small Bohemian city, having been granted, at his own request, to be sent abroad as a missionary. In 1688, having departed from Cadice, he arrived in the Spanish colony of the Philippines where he was assigned to work at the Colegio Màximo of St. Ignatius, the main college of the Jesuits of Manila. His pharmaceutical experience acquired in Bohemia and his great passion for botany led Kamel’s superior to entrust him with the task of founding the first pharmacy in the country. He himself prepared the medicines which he distributed free to the poor while deepening his knowledge of the local flora and fauna. The new environment in which he was working, however, was very different from that in which he had grown up and that in which he had practised - the climate, the culture and the flora often reduced his pharmacological knowledge acquired in Europe to largely impracticable theories and frustration due to his inability to understand the curative properties of any given species. Kamel therefore decided to undertake new botanical research. In his notes he sketched every plant, fruit and flower he considered useful for his work and identified each of these by their local names, trying to translate them into different European languages. Jiři Josef Kamel was, therefore, the first to classify the plants and animals of the Philippines and, in his research, he discovered the properties of the Bean of St. Ignatius (Strychnos ignatia), called after the founder of the Jesuit Order and whose seeds, dried and shredded are today used in the extraction of strychnine. In order to have at hand the ingredients necessary to prepare medicines quickly and chaply, Brother Kamel began to cultivate a garden of herbs that, within a few years, would become the first botanical garden in the Spanish colony. In less than a decade the Jesuit brother gained the esteem of James Petiver, a chemist and botanist who was also a member of the prestigious Royal Society of London. The British Society had only recently adopted the scientific concept of Bacon: «veracitas naturae» had to be sought in the authority of the senses. It was therefore necessary to study phenomena not in books but within nature itself. The new scientists had to travel or, if this was not possible, to depend upon someone of absolute proven trustworthiness and qualifications working in the field. Brother Kamel was one such man and time would reward the esteem Petiver had for the Jesuit Lay Brother. In order to keep in touch and exchange missives, information and study methods, they used the commercial routes and the naval companies that sailed the length and breadth of the seas between the various colonies. In January 1698, through Armenian and Portuguese intermediaries, Kamel sent his book Herbarium aliarumque stirpium in insula Luzone Philippinarum primaria nascentium Syllabus, which was a review of the trees and shrubs growing in Luzon, to Samuel Browne, a surgeon of the East Indies. Browne would then have sent the package on to James Petiver and his colleague John Ray. Together with his book, Bro. Kamel also sent some tree seeds. However, nothing of what he sent reached Great Britain since the ship was attacked by pirates. Though he was at first understandably discouraged at having lost ten years of intense work, the Jesuit again set to work and, in January 1699 again sent the book and the seeds which this time reached the botanists. Hi study was appreciated and in 1704 was published as an appendix of 96 pages to the third volume of Historia plantarum; species hactenus editas insuper multas noviter inventas & descriptas complectens by John Ray. However, the appendix did not include the precious sketches by the Jesuit Brother, essential for a correct understanding of the tract. This omission, caused by economic factors, besides being against the wishes of the author, also downgraded the work of Kamel, so much so that the major botanists of the century, one of whom was Linneo (born the year after the death of Kamel), regarded the supplement as being of no significance. Fortunately, however, a few months previously, the Royal Society had published Observationes de Avibus Philippensibus, an absolute first study of the birds of the Philippines and, above all, the Gazophylacium naturae et artis, decades before Petiver, which included numerous drawings by Kamel. Both these works gained international fame for the Jesuit Brother. From Indonesia there came one of the greatest contributions in making the Moravian pharmacist known to the world of botany. Kamel, while seeking an alternative to the communication route with Europe, found it in the route through Batavia (now Jakarta), a Dutch colony. There, fortuitously, Willem ten Rhijne, the greatest botanical expert of South East Asia, happened to come across one of the works of the Jesuit Brother. In July 1698, ten Rhijne proposed to Kamel a collaboration that lasted until the death of the Dutchman in June 1700. On his part, Linneo, after his initial disappointment with the appendix Historia plantarum, began to understand the scientific weight of the work of Kamel and, in 1753, decided to honour him by naming the tree from which tea leaves are gathered with the name of Camellia. Contrary to what is generally said, it seems that Kamel did effectively see in person the tea plant, or at least its leaves. An actual plant was found in the personal herbarium of the Jesuit missionary and he himself made a drawing of it, together with its fruit, giving it the name of tchia (the name given to tea in many oriental cultures). The drawing is dated 1700 and is today preserved in the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. News of the death in Manila of Brother Jiři Josef Kamel, due to an intestinal infection, on the 2nd May 1706, reached Europe only in March 1710, when his main correspondent Petiver learned of it from Vincenzo Serrano, a confrere of Brother Kamel. Communications with the Philippines, already difficult under normal conditions, had become prohibitive due to the war of the Spanish succession. Despite the fact that Linneo conferred on Kamel the honour of the botanical name of Camellia sinensis, the Moravian missionary, as said above, wrote little or nothing about the plant. Instead, it was the German doctor Andreas Cleyer who, during his visits to Japan in 1682-84 and in 1685-87, was the first to describe the tea plant. In 1712 the German naturalist and doctor Engelbert Kaempfer, who lived in Nagasaki, wrote «Amoenitates Exoticarum», considered the first scientific European study on the tea plant (which Kaempfer referred to by its Japanese names of tsubakki and sasanqua), containing a tract of only two and a half pages to the plant. Linneo, for his part, never suspected that the Thea sinensis, the botanical name given to the plant by James Petiver in 1702, was the same as the Camellia. In his book Species Plantarum, Linneo distinguished Thea sinensis from Camellia sinensis. Only in 1818 did Robert Sweet notice the error of the Swedish scientist and decided to re-name all the species of Thea sinensis as Camellia. Today there are four recognised varieties of Camellia: Camellia sinensis sinensis, Camellia sinensis assamica, Camellia sinensis pubilimba and Camellia sinensis dehungensis. The work of Jiri Josef Kamel are today kept in the British Museum, while at the theological faculty of the University of Louvain, we find 260 drawings of medicinal plants, animals and minerals of the Philippines collected by the missionary from Brno. Piergiorgio Pescali/CM