All posts by Comboni Missionaries Ireland

Western Africa: The confraternity of Knowledge. The mysterious world of the Donso hunters.

They are seers and traditional healers with a vast knowledge of medicinal plants, spells and fetishes. They represent an example of moral integrity. Today they enjoy a high position in Malinke society, especially in the rural environment.

African societies have always lived in a close relationship with the world of visible powers and that of invisible powers, between what is real and what is supernatural.   The men that act as intermediaries between these two worlds are considered the custodians of the traditions and pillars of society and are therefore greatly respected. Of these, among the Malinke Bambara peoples of West Africa, the confraternity of the Donso hunters, the guardians of animist rites, is one of the oldest traditional organisations untouched by time and still today present and recognisable in the entire Madinga area of cultural influence, from Mali and Burkina Faso to Liberia and the Gold Coast.

The word Donso comes from ‘don’ (to know) and ‘so’ (house), and means ‘the house of knowledge, the one who possesses knowledge’. Traditional society honoured them for their courage in confronting the fiercest of animals and for penetrating the most hostile forests. However, their basic vocation is to protect society from visible and invisible enemies. They are traditional seers and healers with a vast knowledge of medicinal plants, spells and fetishes.

The Donso are grouped in confraternities that are more or less secret and ‘democratic’ societies since they are open to all social classes from the nobility to the low castes, with members who may be important functionaries, small traders, smiths or farmers.

To become a Donso it is necessary, first of all, to undergo initiation with a teacher. The candidates must accompany their request with cola nuts and chickens. Once approved by the fetishes, the applicant must take a ritual bath that consecrates him as a Donso pupil, coming under the responsibility of the teacher to whom he owes unconditional obedience.

The education received includes a technical part directly related to the knowledge of medicinal plants but the moral and religious part is essential. Even though, on the one hand, being a Donso confers on the individual great knowledge regarding many aspects of life – from the art of hunting to natural medicine, cosmogony and, according to legend, to mystical powers, among which is the gift of ubiquity and invulnerability to projectiles – on the other, it implies respecting a moral and social code of conduct. Being a Donso implies being an example of moral integrity, having a deep sense of honour, dignity, loyalty and humility.

The presence of this group is recorded for the first time in the Late Middle Ages, during the epoch of the great Mandingo Empire. According to oral tradition, the existence of its confraternities owes its origin to two mythical brothers, Sanin and Kontron. The legend states that, driven by thirst among the ruins of the Ghana Empire, two young hunters killed a new-born child to gain possession of the water of its mother. Punished by God with death, they were resurrected and, having repented, they swore to be pure and chaste. As the ancestors of the hunters with great knowledge of the secrets of the forests, Sanin and Kontron belong to no particular clan and are known for their purity and chastity (from ‘saniya’, the purity of gold).

The head of each confraternity is a teacher; it is he who minds the altar on which ritual sacrifices are offered for protection and a successful hunt. He also administers the hunting territory and guards the fetish. The Donso are easily known by their clothing: they wear a dark brown tunic with leather fringes and decorated with geometrical signs and amulets, with a round and stiff hat made of large woven threads and decorated with mirrors and pompoms, hunting trophies, warthog teeth, lion claws and gazelle horns. He will always have a rifle on his shoulder and a fly whisk of cow or horse hair in his hand.

The present evolution of their environment is closely bound up with the socio-economic changes in contemporary society. Regional conflicts and migrations help to create local tensions also due to ignorance of local traditions and customs. Urbanisation and deforestation have reduced the great hunting grounds causing the hunt to become today a mostly religious activity for the protection of the environment rather than an economic pursuit. The Donso confraternities, having survived the slave trade, the influence of Islam and colonisation, today enjoy enormous prestige in Malinke society, especially in the rural context. All over the Sahel, it is possible to see the meetings, parades, songs and dances of the Donso, during somewhat ostentatious cults and rituals. They are a very important element of the contemporary identity of Western Africa and there are many Africans who see in them the guardians of ancient mystical knowledge, according to an uninterrupted centuries-long tradition.   (Alessia De Marco)

Sr. Maria Victoria: At service to the Word in Africa

It is true that a vocation is a gift from God, but it presupposes a response on our part. Sister Maria Victoria Acebes from Spain, tells us her vocation story.

When I finished my university studies and was teaching grade school in Madrid, I was starting to doubt my call to religious life. I felt divided between what God was calling me to do on one side, and then the need to leave family, work, friends and familiar surroundings. It was a difficult and hard time, but when one has a profound encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, all changes and this become possible within this moment of grace.

One day I went to visit the Comboni Missionary Sisters and experienced peace and joy, and said to myself “This is my place, the place I have been looking for.” I continued my visits to the sisters and they helped me with my discernment about what God was calling me to do.

I eventually joined the Comboni Sisters and was sent to the Central African Republic (CAR), where I have spent the past 33 years living and working. It is not easy to summarise these years in a few words. The experiences have been many difficult at times, but always enriching. My first assignment to the mission of Kaga-Bandoro was stupendous! We arrived in 1977 as a group of young sisters with much enthusiasm for life and to learn from the people we had gone to serve.

For eight years we dedicated ourselves to pastoral work, animation, formation of women and young girls. It was a rich experience with direct contact with the people, living simply and sharing with the local people and witnessing their faith and confidence in a God who will be with them through their problems. The experience increased my own faith too.

Nevertheless, other mission assignments were more difficult for me and the people. In the mission of Batangafo, everything seemed normal and we went about our pastoral ministry. Then in 2013, things changed as rebel groups from neighbouring Chad and others from the north of the CAR, started to intimidate and threaten the local population and we religious sisters, with violence if they did not hand over money, food, supplies and even vehicles. They were difficult times for everyone.

For the past four years I have been in Bagandou, which is located in the equatorial jungle of the CAR It is quieter here and we are able to go about our pastoral work without major problems.  We work with the Bantues and pigmies, in areas of education, health, justice and peace, and other pastoral activities.

How can I summarise these past 33 years of service as a Comboni Missionary Sister, who is dedicated to the most poor and vulnerable? Well in a few words only, I believe that everything I have lived over these years was possible because I had and continue to have a conviction that I am not alone and that God is always with me.

The Jesuit Refugee Service. The African microcosm in the streets of Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second largest refugee hosting country with more than 800,000 of them in its territory. They are victims of wars, persecutions or natural disasters. There is just one centre for refugees in Addis Ababa and it represents the microcosm of some of the problems that affect the African continent.

The large outdoor patio where several young people play volleyball, table tennis and table football or chat with their friends apparently could be a public space of any city. In reality, this is the courtyard of the only urban refugee centre of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, the sixth largest migrant hosting country in the world, and the second in Africa, after Uganda.

The wounds generated by the most serious conflicts that affect Africa are cured in this courtyard. Most of the people who arrive at the centre every day come from Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“The refugees of different nationalities escape from different tragedies and problems. Eritreans flee a brutal and oppressive  regime and compulsory military service for life; Somalis escape from Al Shabab’s terrorism, violence and atrocious drought; the Sudanese escape from violence, insecurity and hunger; the South Sudanese from the violent conflict and the famine that are ravaging and emptying the country … “, says Eyesus Mulugeta, director of this  centre run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) along with the Intercultural Foundation, the Jesuit NGO for education and development.

Neway Alemayenu, a manager of the centre, says that the geographical proximity has facilitated also the arrival of a relevant flow of Yemenis seeking refuge in Ethiopia. They try to escape from bombing, famine and cholera. “The situations in Yemen and South Sudan are currently the most dramatic”.

The philosophy of the JRS is based on sport, education and entertainment.  These are the tools that help to manage the drama lived by each migrant and help them integrate in the new community where they have just arrived. “We help refugees to integrate until they can return to their cities, which is what the majority of them want”, says Mulugeta. The JRS is a day centre. Migrants are not supposed to spend the night there, but they can attend Inizio moduloworkshops, courses, and sports during the day.

The centre opens very early in the morning and closes at five in the afternoon. Refugees at the JRS can participate in the activities that include training and leisure such as: English and computer lessons, classes of music, education programs for adults, teenagers and children. “Basically we help urban refugees – who usually live in precarious living conditions – to integrate into society and have opportunities”, Alemayenu explains.

Besides training and entertainment, the JRS also provides psychosocial support, information and guidance on migrants’ rights, and a service for carrying out legal and social procedures. “Refugees are often asked to fill out paperwork in order to get help or access to an opportunity of whatever kind, and we help them to fill the forms, and at the same time we offer them  psychosocial support and recreational activities.”

According to UNHCR, Ethiopia has currently become home to some 300,000 South Sudanese, who represent the largest group of refugees, which is followed by more than 250,000 Somalis, more than 150,000 Eritreans, 40,000 Sudanese, more than 3,000 Kenyans and some 10,000 refugees from countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Burundi or Djibouti. Ethiopia is one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in the world. (Sara Cantos)

Philippines 2019: “Year of the Youth”

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has announced that it will dedicate 2019 as the “Year of the Youth”.

The year-long celebration, which will start on the first Sunday of Advent on Dec. 2, will carry the theme “Filipino Youth in Mission: Beloved, Gifted, Empowered.” Its observance, which the bishops described as part of the “nine-year journey for New Evangelisation,” will end on Nov. 24, 2019, the Feast of Christ the King.

In 2013, the bishops’ conference launched a “nine-year journey” to 2021, the fifth centenary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, with a different theme each year.

The first five years were dedicated to “integral faith formation” (2013), the laity (2014), the poor (2015), the Eucharist and the Family (2016), and the parish as a communion of communities (2017). The year 2018 was dedicated to the clergy and consecrated persons, while the remaining two years of the preparation will be dedicated to ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue in 2020 and Missio ad Gentes, or bringing the Gospel to all people, in 2021.

Archbishop José Palma of Cebu said: “We await with gratitude and joy March 16, 2021, the fifth centenary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. We remember with gratitude the first Mass celebrated on the island of Limasawa, on Easter Sunday, March 31 of that year. We remember the baptism of Rajah Humabon, who was given the baptism name Carlos and his wife Harah Amihan who was baptized Juana in 1521. Our eyes look at the Santo Niño de Cebu, the oldest religious icon of the Philippines, a gift from Ferdinando Magellano to the first Filipino Catholics. 2021 will be a year of great Jubilee for the Church in the Philippines”.

Next year, activities are aimed at youth in formation, youth in communities, church and society, youth in mission, and youth ministry and youth ministers. “The Year of the Youth is a journey of encounter with Jesus, accompanied by Mary,” read a statement from the bishops’ Commission on Youth. “In this journey, we tell the story of the Filipino youth with our Risen Lord … [and] as we are blessed and gifted during this journey, we are empowered to witness to and share our faith,” it added.

The “Year of the Youth” observance comes after the Synod of Bishops on young people last October. The final document of the meeting stressed the concrete aspects of the lives of the youth, the role of schools and parishes and the need for the laity to be trained to accompany young people.

Oral Literature: How the First River Was Made

A long long time ago, when God made this earth, He chose the mighty elephant to be king of the world.

The elephant and his subjects roamed through the dark green forests, and since there were no rivers in those days, God made a pond for them to drink from. Now one day the elephant trumpeted loudly, and called for his friends the hawk and the crab. “Tomorrow – he announced – I am going hunting in the forest, and you must come with me.”

The hawk was overjoyed and flew away to get his bow and arrows, but the poor crab was a slow-moving creature and could not hold any hunting weapons. But he was determined not to be left out, so he crawled away to his home and began to think hard about the problem.

The next morning all three creatures met on the edge of the forest, and while the hawk and the elephant went off with their bows and arrows to a section of the forest where they knew they would find plenty of game, the crab dragged a long net behind him, set it up in a spot he had chosen, and waited.

Presently a wounded animal rushed away from the elephant and the hawk, straight into the crab’s net, and seizing a large piece of wood the crab quickly beat the animal on its head, so that it died at once. This happened again and again. If the elephant or the hawk killed an animal outright, then they put it beside them for themselves, but if they only wounded one, the poor creature rushed away towards the crab’s net. Once it was entangled there, the crab soon dispatched it with his heavy stick, removed and hid the arrow that had wounded it, and put the carcass on his own pile.

By the afternoon, the elephant had killed five antelope and the hawk three, and each thought he had done very well. “Let’s go and find the crab – suggested the elephant – I don’t suppose the poor thing has managed to catch anything at all.”

How amazed they were to find the crab sitting proudly beside the carcasses of ten animals, all much bigger than himself. The hawk began congratulating him but the elephant was furious that the crab had killed more animals than he had, and shouted: “Hawk! Kill that wretched crab. I, your king, order you to do so. Cut off his head at once!”

“Oh, sir! Oh, king! – Begged the crab -. Please do not kill me. I will give you all this meat and never come near you again if only you will let me live.”

At last the elephant consented, and seizing the crab’s kill he bellowed: “Go! Go! And never let me see you again.”

The crab sidled clumsily away, and hiding himself in the thick undergrowth, once again gave himself up to deep thought, wondering how he could revenge himself on the elephant. Presently he made his way to the elephant’s home and crept up to the elephant’s wife.

“Good woman, – he croaked, – I have a message for you from our noble king, your husband. He says that the place where he has been hunting all day is very cold. You must make him some good soup with plenty of peppers in it to warm him up. Now don’t forget! Plenty of peppers,” he repeated, and he hurried away as fast as he could.

The elephant’s wife did as, she was told, and flavoured the soup very strongly with peppers. No sooner had she finished cooking it than the elephant and the hawk came home from their hunting trip. They were both extremely hungry and began to eat the soup straight away.

Meanwhile the cunning crab made his way to the pond and began to fill it up with earth. He worked so hard that at last there was no water left at all, and feeling very satisfied with his evening’s work, the crab dug a little hole in the middle of the place where the pond had been and I hid himself there. He had not long to wait. The hawk and the elephant finished up all the peppery soup and very naturally felt extremely thirsty. “Let’s go to the pond now, – suggested the elephant to his friend -. I’m so thirsty, I could drink it quite dry.”

Of course, when they reached the pond it was quite dry and the two animals were angry and perplexed. “What an extraordinary thing -, said the elephant – . You must help me dig until we get down to the water again.”

So the two animals dug and dug, getting thirstier and more irritable every moment. Suddenly the elephant reached the hole where the crab was hidden, and as soon as he saw the crab he knew that it was he who had filled up the pond with earth. “Ah ha! –  He bellowed in a furious voice – . “It’s no good begging for mercy this time.” He seized the poor crab, cut off his head and threw him back into the mud.

Immediately the water started bubbling and gurgling up from below and soon the pond was nearly full again. The elephant and the hawk were delighted. They drank their fill and washed themselves, trumpeting and squawking with delight. They decided to leave the crab’s body in the pond, as that seemed to be the cause of the water flowing again, and as they stood at the edge watching the water still rising rapidly, the elephant commanded: “Dig an opening at the lower end of the pond, so that the water can run away. It’s beginning to overflow.”

The hawk did as he was told, and sure enough, the water began to trickle out of the pond so that very soon a little stream was flowing. It got wider and wider and deeper and deeper until it became a big river, still flowing downhill.

Now the crab was not really dead, and soon realised that he could escape from the pond by way of the river. But the poor thing had no eyes since his head had been cut off, so he went to the mud-fish to see if he could do anything for him. “I will do anything that I can – replied the kindly fish -, but I cannot give you any eyes. If you go to my friend the prawn, I think he could help you.”

Sure enough, the prawn could. He took some eyes and fastened them on to the crab’s shoulders, since he had no head on which to put them. The crab was delighted to be able to see again, hurrying down the river he left the pond, the elephant and the hawk far behind him. So now you know how the first river started, and the crab has no head. (Folktale from Ekoi people – Cameroon)

Peru: “Mission is timeless”

“The little miracles and signs that have reached me through these people who are now part of me.” Neuza Francisco, a Portuguese Comboni lay missionary working in Peru tell us her experience among poor people on the outskirt of Lima.

Many lives are already part of me, and many are the smiles that belong to me, the hugs I do not avoid and renew my strength. With the intention of just dropping in, I spend hours to no end conversing on the doorsteps. For me, mission is timeless.

The doors of our house are open, doors that open to receive the greatest joys of passers-by and welcome the sufferings of those who seek refuge from us. They ask of you the only thing you have to give, yourself.

When night falls, that is when I like to revisit my day and, even though often I fall into tears, they are tears of contemplation of the marvels God is working in me and, through me, it’s impossible to ignore it, and not thank God for it all. Many a times I see, countless times, the little miracles and signs that have reached me through these people who are now part of me.

Mission is hard, and you would lie if you said otherwise. Mission is arid, here, where the landscape is covered with the roofs of what is left of homes close to be disintegrated by the strong wind.

In August, part of a year’s work falls apart, when nature blows so strongly that it is impossible to resist. Without fear, they roll up their sleeves, without giving up, and even though what they have is little, nothing is stronger than the will to move onward. I am not lying, mission is hard. At time it becomes cruel, it hurts. You see the suffering in the eyes of these brothers of mine and the helplessness in the face of what they have to bear with.

Many are the times when I simply listen, give a hand, my shoulder. Many are the times when we smile together, as we share this love of God so concrete and free. Many are the hugs, the hands shaken. Many are the moments of silence and mutual commitment, in the simplicity of sitting on the ground and be one with them.

Yes, mission is hard. It is in this hardship that I met the deepest meaning of my presence on Peruvian land. It was in this arid land that I placed my dreams and my hopes. In this little corner of the world that I pray daily for the integrity and the rights of people similar to me, created by God. It is a constant state of being fragile and be integrated in the simplicity and humility of those who have nothing. Without expecting anything in return.

Mission is hard, but this is the mission I always dreamed of, this constant discovery of who I am and of what I am doing here. It is to know that I am nothing and often see how miracles just happen, naturally. It is trust that makes us flesh of the same flesh. A little at the time everything falls into place, a little at the time everything happens simply, not in human but in heavenly times.

Brazil: “Justiça nos Trilhos” receives the 2018 Human Rights and Business Award

Justiça nos Trilhos  (Justice on the Rails)  has just received in Geneva, the new Human Rights and Business Award. Justiça nos Trilhos is an organisation – supported also by the Comboni Missionaries – working closely with local communities in remote parts of Brazil – including indigenous peoples, peasants, and Afro-descendants – to address human rights and environmental abuses by mining and steel companies, in particular the multinational Vale.

Mining and steel companies have polluted the rivers on which these people depend for drinking water and their livelihoods, polluted the air causing respiratory and eyesight problems, contaminated the soil with industrial waste, displaced communities, and decimated the cultures and lives of indigenous peoples.

The board members of the Human Rights and Business Award Foundation – Christopher Avery, Regan Ralph and Valeria Scorza – said in a joint statement: “We launched this annual award to recognize ‘outstanding work by human rights defenders addressing the human rights impacts of business.  Justice on the Rails epitomises such a group, working rigorously and conscientiously over many years in challenging circumstances – always in close collaboration with the local communities whose fundamental rights they seek to protect.”

The human rights defenders of Justice on the Rails, and the local communities they work with, have been subjected to surveillance and retaliatory lawsuits by Vale.

Danilo Chammas, a lawyer at Justice on the Rails, has commented: “We work to reinforce the principle of human rights, which is at its core the principle of democracy.  But I think we still have a long way to go.  There is still a lot to do to provide real opportunities for access to justice to those whose rights are violated by these companies.”

Alexandra Montgomery, the member of the foundation’s Advisory Network who nominated Justiça nos Trilhos for the award, commented: “The day-to-day operations of Vale’s projects in Carajas have harmed more than 100 communities….Justiça nos Trilhos’ work is done in a very solid and organized fashion, accessing legal mechanisms, researching, and closely strategizing and measuring their actions.  They work with university centres and professionals who research and analyse the data.  The claims that they make are not spontaneous, they are grounded in the experiences of the communities.”

The Human Rights and Business Award Foundation is an independent non-profit foundation. 

Dr. Denis Mukwege. A Nobel Peace Prize for Africa

Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege and Yazidi human rights activist and survivor of sexual slavery by Islamic State in Iraq, Nadia Murad, have won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their work and commitment to fighting sexual violence in conflicts around the world.

The award, which will be presented at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, was not a surprise since Denis Mukwege has always been on the list of favourites. In addition, he had already received twenty prestigious awards for his commitment to the protection of women’s rights, especially those women who were ‘victims of rape and war crimes’.

The news of the award made pre-electoral tensions cool down among the Congolese political class. Both the executive and the opposition have expressed their satisfaction. “I am proud to be Congolese”, said the country’s top opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, in a Twitter post, “Good deeds for others always ends up being rewarded”. Another opposition figure, Vital Kamerhe, said, “It is the right reward for a noble struggle in favour of women”. Interior Minister Henry Mova showed appreciation and expressed gratitude for the doctor’s work: “Congratulations and thank you very much, dear friend. Perseverance is rewarding”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres congratulated Dr. Denis Mukwege, and said in his remarks: “Dr. Denis Mukwege has been a fearless champion for the rights of women caught up in armed conflicts who have suffered rape, exploitation and other horrific abuses. Despite regular threats to his life, he made the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a haven from mistreatment”.

Denis Mukwege was born in 1955 in South Kivu province of Democratic Republic of  Congo to Protestant parents. In 1983, Mukwege graduated from the University of Burundi in medical science. Then he worked as a paediatrician in the rural Lemera Hospital; later Mukwege received a scholarship from a Swedish Pentecostal Association and he pursued further study in Angers, France, to specialise in gynaecology. In 1989, despite having a well-paid job in France, he did not hesitate to return to Lemera where he established an obstetrics and gynaecology service.

After the hospital in Lemera was destroyed during the civil war that erupted in the country in late 1996 and many of its patients and health personnel were killed, Mukwege took refuge in Nairobi (Kenya) until 1999, when he was able to return to Bukavu where, with the help of the Community of Pentecostal Churches of Central Africa (CEPAC), he founded the Panzi Hospital, where he served as director and chief surgeon. The hospital currently has 350 beds, of which 200 are for victims of sexual violence. Since its opening, more than 40,000 women and girls in the region who were victims of mutilation and genital lacerations have been treated.

Inizio modulo

Rape used as a weapon of war is one of the most despicable practices that women in eastern DRC have suffered since the war of 1996. Denis Mukwege has denounced in different international forums that “Kivu pays the consequences of an economic war” and that “the region where I live is one of the richest on the planet (…) where the body of woman has become a real battlefield”.

Women, used as ‘military strategy’, have been the first victims of the war of 1996. Since then, more than 500,000 women have been raped or mutilated by the Armed Forces and by the numerous rebel groups that still continue to spread terror in the region. The reason for such barbarism, says Dr. Mukwege, is the “complete and profound destruction of society, of all values and of all that is sacred” through the founding symbol of a people, women.

The Nobel Peace Prize 2018 did not just provide women with medical cures. He has stated that “I identify every raped woman with my wife; every raped mother with my mother; and every raped child with my children”.

Dr. Mukwege is deeply committed to fighting this scourge on different fronts; he travels around the world to mobilise the international community in order to condemn this crime and to participate in the search for a solution to this sacrilege against human life. When he received the Sakharov Prize in 2014, he declared at the European Parliament’s gallery that “in a world where values are inverted, where violence becomes common and takes increasingly abominable forms, rejecting violence makes you a dissident”.
Mukwege, who is known for sending strong and loud messages, has denounced all those forces involved in a tragedy that will leave indelible marks in the life of a good part of the Congolese people. The executioners of women are recruited from the armies of neighbouring countries, including Rwanda, the Congolese Armed Forces and rebel groups operating in the region. Mukwege’s clear and resounding accusations have cost him several assassination attempts. The doctor lives inside the Panzi hospital compound under the protection of the UN forces.

Kinshasa’s establishment is irritated by the gynaecologist’s frequent criticisms. Nevertheless he continues to fight against the lack of justice for abused women, against the increase of poverty, against the inability to guarantee the security of the Congolese citizens and their properties, and especially, against the regression of democracy since the 2011 elections.

His clear denunciation and his work make him one of the most esteemed personalities in the country along with Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, archbishop of Kinshasa. So it is not a surprise to see that Congolese civil society and a large part of the country’s politicians would have liked to have seen one of them standing as a candidate for the country’s presidency in the next general election on December 23, 2018. (Jean Claude Kobo)

South Africa. The art of changing

The Imbali Visual Literacy project, an NGO started thirty years ago to find creative work for the talented children of the more disadvantaged black families. We visit the place.

The morning sunlight streams through the windows of the old building and lights up the table around which seven black boys and girls are sitting. The speaker is one of them, who occasionally stops to answer questions or hear suggestions. This is a classroom but it is located in an old repair shop for buses and trams known by all as the Bus Factory, an example of how the years have transformed Johannesburg.

Today, the huge shed in Newtown is the seat of some civic offices for development and various cultural organisations. One of them is the Imbali Visual Literacy project, an NGO started thirty years ago to find creative work for the talented children of the more disadvantaged black families; it moved to this location in 2002. «We wanted to belong to the Newtown Cultural District as it seemed the right place to be », explains Justine Watterson, 40, the South African who directs the project.

It is the artistic and historical importance of the area that is the main reason why the authorities plan to re-launch it. Its emblem, 500 busts sculpted in wood, represents the various African peoples, and, since 2001, has dotted the quarter. They are the work of the Mozambican Americo Guambe who recently restored them, creating some anew to replace those stolen or damaged over the years. It is evident that much remains to be done if we leave the sculptures behind us and enter the Museum Africa, the historical heart of the Cultural District.

The main hall is practically empty. On an iron frame hangs an enormous poster of a young Nelson Mandela: the poster was part of a display of four years ago but now abandoned. “Some years ago – Justine Watterson also admits – there was an office for the purpose of improving Newtown, including such aspects as public health, cleaning and security; then the cash from the Town Hall dried up.” Recently, a festival sponsored locally tried to reverse the tendency. “They asked us – Watterson tells us – to bring our work out into the streets” and students present and past created decorations in the square and on the steps of the Museum.

Sello Mdlane is one of the youths involved: in the hall displaying school activities where some of his companions operate a large loom while others add the finishing touches to handbags, clothes and other small objects, he stays close to one of windows, concentrating preparing the sketch of a stamp for printing cloth. He is 29 and comes from a township west of Johannesburg and continues to collaborate with Imbali where he finished the courses. On his work apron he has printed a motto:  “I have never seen a colour I didn’t like. It seems I have to do the best I can with what I get,” he explains.

For Sello Mdlane, as for others of his age, the new project for development is an opportunity. But there are also many difficulties. “I am now contacting bigger clients but there is a lot of paperwork and some of us clash with the bureaucrats.” This is surely not the only obstacle to be overcome in this land in which youth unemployment is extremely high: Two thirds of the 4.3 million unemployed for more than a year, according to the latest statistics, are under 34. Plans for the renewal of cities may well be pointless if they do not receive the investment they so urgently need. (Davide Maggiore)


Oral Literature: Why the Monkey Still Has a Tail

Once upon a time the monkey and the rabbit made a contract. The monkey was to kill all the butterflies and the rabbit was to kill all the snakes.

One day the rabbit was taking a nap when the monkey passed that way. The monkey thought that he would play a trick on the rabbit so he pulled the rabbit’s ears, pretending that he thought they were butterflies. The rabbit awoke very angry at the monkey and he plotted how he might revenge himself on the monkey.  The rabbit and the armadillo are very good friends. The armadillo is very, very strong, you know, so it was he whom the rabbit asked to help him.

One day the rabbit caught the monkey napping. He had watched and waited a long, long time to catch the monkey napping, but at last he succeeded. Even the monkey sometimes takes a nap. The rabbit called the armadillo at once and together they rolled a big stone upon the monkey’s tail. The monkey pulled so hard to get his tail out from under the stone that it broke off. The cat, which at that time had no tail of her own, spied the tail and ran away with it. The monkey was very angry at the rabbit. “O, we thought it was just a snake lying there,” said the rabbit. “When you pulled my ears, you know, you thought they were butterflies.”

That did not help the monkey to feel any better. How was he to live without his tail! How could he climb without it! He simply had to have it back so he at once set out to find the cat. At last he found the cat and said to her: “O, kind cat, please give me back my tail.”  “I will give it to you,” – replied the cat – , “if you will get me some milk.” “Where shall I get the milk?” asked the monkey. “Go ask the cow for some”, replied the cat.

The monkey went to the cow and said: “O, kind cow, please give me some milk that I may give the milk to the cat so that the cat will give back my tail to me.” “I will give you the milk,” – replied the cow -, “if you will get me some grass.”

“Where shall I get the grass?” asked the monkey. “Go ask the farmer”, responded the cow. The monkey went to the farmer and said: “O, kind farmer, please give me some grass that I may give the grass to the cow so that the cow will give me some milk so that I may give the milk to the cat so that the cat will give back my tail to me.”

The farmer said: “I will give you some grass if you will give me some rain.”Where shall I get the rain?”, asked the monkey. “Go ask the clouds”, responded the farmer. The monkey went to the clouds and said: “O, kind clouds, please send me down some rain that I may give the rain to the farmer so that the farmer will give me some grass so that I may give the grass to the cow so that the cow will give me some milk so that I may give the milk to the cat so that the cat will give me back my tail.” “I will give you some rain,” – replied the clouds – “if you will get me some fog.” “Where shall I get the fog?” asked the monkey. “Go ask the rivers,” replied the clouds.

The monkey went to the river and said: “O, kind river, please give me a fog that I may give the fog to the clouds so that the clouds will give some rain so that I may give the rain to the farmer so that the farmer will give me some grass so that I may give the grass to the cow so that the cow will give me some milk so that I may give the milk to the cat so that the cat will give me back my tail.”

“I will give you a fog” – replied the river -, “if you will find a new spring to feed me.”Where shall I find a spring?” asked the monkey. “Go search for one among the rocks upon the hillside,” replied the river.

Then the monkey climbed up the steep hill and searched and searched among the rocks until at last he found a little spring to feed the river. He brought the spring to the river and the river gave him a fog. He took the fog to the clouds and the clouds gave him rain. He took the rain to the farmer and the farmer gave him grass. He took the grass to the cow and the cow gave him milk. He took the milk to the cat and the cat gave him back his tail. The monkey was so glad to have his tail again that he danced and danced with glee. Ever since that time the monkey has been very careful to guard his tail. He still has one and he is still happy because of it. (Brazilian folktale)