It was almost Christmas Eve when I realized how close it was, while I was about to start praying on my own and I was going through the liturgies of Advent. I know that, if I weren’t here, everything around me would remind me of Christmas. The proliferation of Christmas advertising would have pointed me in the direction of these celebrations practically starting from the year’s third quarter in an astute and gradual game.
Between the lighting, the external and internal decorations, suggestions for the menus always more exquisite and the dress code for the Holy Night and the Christmas dinner, the magic aura one feels in the city streets, the typical Christmas carols (…) between one dinner or another with friends and groups from here and there, nothing would distract us, not even the most absent minded, from “what is about to happen…”
Here there is absolutely nothing of the sort. In the city one may see some “imported” signs of Christmas. But not here. The senses are not overwhelmed by this avalanche of stimulations. There is no cold weather and fogged up windows showing flickering lights. One does not hear seasonal songs. One does not feel, or want to join, the frenetic glut of shopping and gifts – and even less the last minute shopping and needs. You do not watch things alone at home on TV. The heat is too intense to even think of changing from your slippers, skirts, shorts and light shirt into heavier clothing. There is no yearning for salted cod and extra-virgin oil. There is no king cake, French toast, walnut cookies or sweets of this or that kind. There are no dreams of toys or promises of instant and quickly passing paradises.
I must confess that, on Christmas week, I was a little apprehensive for being my first Christmas in mission, for missing my family, for everything being so different from what I was used to, and even for not having had electricity or water, making communications difficult and stunting my creativity…
But, this year the Baby Jesus has taught me this much: Christmas is not an ornament. It may look like Christmas all around us, but it will not be if it does not exist within our own self. Christmas is also movement, journeying. We must constantly be moving in order to find it. If we want to see the ‘great light,’ we must get up and go out; we must go meet the mangers where there is human suffering; we must return to the stable of simplicity; we must return to the manger where God’s hope and human hope meet – but always trusting that, between the silence and the word we are looking for, a star will always guide us.
Christmas, I believe, wakes us up to bring us back to our roots, up to the original dream that God has for each one of us. The childhood of God is also our childhood. That is why, after a long wait, we find peace when, finally, we rest in God.
An interesting fact…
After independence, Mozambique became a lay state. However, December 25 was preserved as a feast day, not because it was Christmas, but as the Day of the Family. Thus, on this day, independently of one’s religion, families get together to celebrate the gift of Family (naturally, for the Christian community, this day means much more, because it is the day of Jesus’ birth, when Salvation and true Peace descended on earth). This way, quite deservedly, they get together to celebrate and gain energy for the year that is about to come – but, after all, is not Christmas also this? On Christmas, each time we celebrate hope we end up saying in our hearts that “there is a future for Humankind.”
I will leave you with part of a poem by José Tolentino Mendonça (“We are the manger”) that has resonated with me over the last few weeks:
We are the manger
It is within us that Jesus is born
Within each age and status
Within each discovery and each loss
Within what grown and what falls apart
Within stone and flight
Within whatever in us puts us through water or fire
Within the journey and the path that seem without an escape Hoping you had a good Christmas,
Well, how should I start this witness? Words fail me to describe the whirlwind of emotions I felt, and the homesickness that is already pervading my heart. I waited days and even weeks to start writing this witness, at times out of fear, at times out of nostalgia. Each day I spend away from that land, I feel pain, but above all I feel homesick. It is something that come over me without asking to be allowed in, and determines how I feel, up to the point of dictating my dreams when I go to bed. I can’t describe what I lived, shared, loved, and above all what I have received. I loved and still love these folks as if they were family. Sincerely, how could I not? I was adopted and cuddled by all those who crossed my path, even though we were not speaking the same language, but this did not stand in the way of constant signs of love. In one of the visits to the barrio near the mission house I met a woman who immediately invited me to “mata-bichar” (have breakfast with them. When I realized it, I was surrounded by people who were watching me with great kindness trying to teach me their customs. My heart was shaken daily by the hospitality and love I felt, and by how we looked at one another and embraced with passion. I was at home.
I feel and think as I did when I stepped on that land for the first time and I cannot hold back my tears. The excitement to start, to know, to be, to help was such that the following Monday, two days after our arrival, I showed up to work at the ITIC. The night before I had hardly slept because of fear. I was wondering whether I would be able to deal with the kids who would show up in the infirmary to ask for help, whether all that I learned at the university would actually work, and whether I could adapt to the means at hand. There were many “Ifs,” insecurities, but of one thing I was sure, that I would give the best of myself from morning to evening.
I organized papers, reorganized the prescriptions shelves, but above all I dealt with the students in all their needs. I gave myself without fear, I remained after hours in that cubicle within those four walls, and filled my heart. I was always surprised when the students would look for me just to say Hi, to “give me a happy day,” as they would say.
The way I connected with those boys was indescribable, as if with a simple gaze we had established a pact of mutual protection. I felt intensely the illnesses and worries of each one, and dealt with each one as if they were the only ones, with all the love I could hold in my breast. Many times, when some of them were sick and had to sleep in the infirmary, it cost me to go home. I couldn’t think of anything else except of ways to make them get better rapidly. Very often I spent afternoons with them, playing games on the cold floor of the infirmary, taking their temperature every 30 minutes, or simply watching them sleep.
Some days were easier than others, but all of them were a constant challenge. Each day He helped me survive and realize that our obstacles only exist in our head. Very often I felt disoriented and knelt before Him, and He spoke to my heart showing me how he would overcome my difficulties.
One of the many situations I lived was the first time I saw the faces of those girls I was going to help in their studies. Each gaze entered my heart so intensely that I will never forget them. They were trying to learn by themselves, without books or anyone explaining things. They were motivated by an indescribable interior strength for wanting to be more, to reach a better future. Each one carried in her eyes stories and experiences that I will never forget, but always with a contagious joy and love.
I had the opportunity to help in the community clinic and there I understood that I belong to those people. I went for too much time avoiding to confront the health situation of the Makua and the pain it would give me. But in the end I rolled up my sleeves and went. I simply went. I covered all the branches, from the HIV patients, to the women patients with still undisclosed diseases, the maternity, the pediatric ward, ending with the TB department. I knew I was placing my health at risk, but I was sure of one thing, He was watching over me, and so I would not let this fear interfere with my helping people.
Endless lines would form at the entrance of the center, the screams of the children filled the corridors, and everyone awaited their turn. At times, language was a barrier in explaining how to take a prescription and the care that was needed, but I always made an effort to convey the message. I thank God who gave me strength daily in order to be able to help those people in need, and because a feeling of powerlessness never took over me.
With each passing day, the ties were growing stronger and my anxiety about returning home was constant. I knew that my place was there, that I belonged to them. This is the family God chose for my mission. And I loved them more every day, so that it was impossible to say good-bye without promising that I would return. With all my heart I am grateful for how they received me and for the love they gave me.
The best of this mission was not only the people I met, the smiles I saw, and the tears I shed, but also how God took over my heart daily without my knowing it. The need to talk daily with Him, was an intrinsic part of my routine, and the kind way He answered me was beyond description. I am sure that, without Him, I could not put up with my weaknesses or avoid my anxieties. How beautiful it was to discover God in this way!
It was a dream that turned into reality! It all started the first time I listened to the witness of a missionary priest and I marveled at the intensity of his love lived and shared. I was an adolescent and at that time my great wish to be able to love like that was born.
Time went by and I almost saw the dream disappear into my routines, responsibilities and job. But God knows what he is doing and could not possibly let such a rich dream die. He was able to lead me along the right path, on the journey of Faith and Mission that helped me grow closer to him, to know myself more deeply and to realize that I was called to do something more. So that, with a million fears and desires he wanted me to go even farther and lived this month where I could learn and savor a bit of the missionary life.
After the preparation, the gathering of funds and the good-byes, I only accepted that it was real when I saw myself in Nampula. So I got off the plane, picked up my camera to take some pictures and a security guard stopped me. There I discovered that this was not the world I had grown in and to which I was used.
On the journey to Carapira, I realized that I was living a different life. On the paved road, without painted lines and stretched to infinity I had the chance to see the reality of living in Mozambique. From the window I could see the scenery along the way, the little markets where they were selling a bit of everything, many women with their babies on their back and others carrying buckets of water or other things on their head. The red soil, the local trees and the infinite plain with some mountains in the distance completed the scenery. In some areas you could see straw huts and inhabited areas.
We arrived in Carapira and the warm welcome reminded me of my familiar world. The place was rather similar to what I had been imagining.
The first days gave me the opportunity to get to know the place where we would spend most of our time, the houses of the different branches of the Comboni family, and the work they were all doing. Tasks were assigned to the entire Faith and Mission community, mostly related to the Technical Commercial Institute (TCI) of Carapira and with the girls at the Comboni sisters’ boarding school.
We developed our assignments during the course of the month adapting them to the local rhythm of life. Time is relative and there is no hurry, always finding time for a chat whenever we were going from one place to another.
Every day we took part in lauds and vespers held in church together with the Comboni community. At first it was not easy to wake up so early for lauds, but as I entered into the rhythm of life I rarely missed any of the prayers. It was a time to stop and join Him and remember all the reasons that had brought me there.
Besides the tasks initially assigned, I had the opportunity to visit a community outside Carapira together with Sr. Eleonora. There I had the chance to “inculturate” myself by eating with the community. I also said the rosary in Makua in a barrio of Carapira and to accompany Sr. Maria José on her visits to the sick. These times gave me the opportunity to get to know a bit the customs and the life of the Makua. They were always happy to hear us use their language, as little as it was.
Marvels happened as time moved on. And each day had a special touch that made me enjoy being there where nothing else mattered. Even though I missed Portugal, the desire to stay was growing with every passing day.
Slowly I was learning more and more, especially with the girls at the boarding. From the first time I met them I was captivated by their smiles, songs and contagious joy. My heart was always full when I was with them! They endeared themselves to me with their simplicity and, even though my job was to teach them and help them in their studies, I felt that I learned from them even more. They were teaching me Makua words and always had a good laugh when I tried to pronounce them.
When I already was feeling my heart warmed by so much love and I thought it could not get any better, there appeared a little one who wanted to talk to me alone. I confess that I harbored many thoughts and some fears, together with much curiosity. What does she want to tell me? Finally the proper time arrived and the question was very simple and expressed very sweetly: “Would you like to be my friend?” I was unable to react and was speechless. I was not expecting such a small question but loaded with so much feeling. I hugged her and told her that we were already friends without having to ask for it. But this little heart was going to surprise me even more. Even after I tried not to accept it, she came with a gift for me. I know that we have a lot and they have little. How was it possible? It was a small notebook with something she, herself, had written. During the month, the little attentions of this child moved me in a very special manner, turning upside down also my world and my way of thinking about love. After all, it is so simple!
All this helped me see life in a simpler way, stopping to value some of the things I have and reflecting over this love almost wordless but very communicative. This is how God took me into the desert and spoke to my heart…
The time has come to share what is in my heart after one month into my mission experience in Carapira. I have some difficulty in organizing my ideas and in getting started, because I have many emotions in my heart. I will try to describe a bit how I have grown throw this experience.
First, I will tell you about the daily routine. We had moments of prayer every day. We always started and ended the day with prayer, both with the pastoral community and in our community.
At the very beginning we were made aware several activities where our cooperation was needed and we built our daily routine around these activities both at the Technical Industrial Institute and at the boarding run by the sisters. We accompanied the missionaries in their visits to people and communities. We took part in the celebrations that were taking place at the time to remember the 70 years of Comboni presence in Mozambique, the 150th anniversary of the MCCJ Institute and the 25th of Bro. Alfredo Fiorini’s killing.
We also kept faithful to special moments in our community of Faith and Mission.
Two things filled my heart: the first was the feeling of being small; the second, was a great but joyful serenity. I felt small, light, happy and at peace.
I felt small because I was seeing the best and the worst in me. I learned a lot about myself, I knew myself better. I perceived my limitations and my gifts with more clarity. I found limitations I did not know and qualities I was not aware of. As I grew, I felt small. This was because I was discovering that the work we were doing, even though it was important and done with our full dedication, did not change the world as we would have liked. Because the difference consists in small gestures of friendship and of love that grow and bear fruit. I felt small, above all, because what I received than what I gave. This includes the apostolic community that welcomed generously, the community of Carapira, the communities we visited, the people we met, the children and young people with whom we spent a lot of time, at the Institute and at the sisters’ boarding, and the persons with whom we made community, the other members of Faith and Mission.
At the same time I felt at peace, because my heart was full. It was full of love and of joy. God filled it. With each passing day, I was realizing all the more that I was there because God had wanted to talk to me there. I felt him very near, in concrete moments, in prayer, while working, in the people who were touching my heart. And I realized that He was guiding me and helping me to know myself better. This helped me to be more aware, more genuine. More myself. The one God already knew but I did not – my true self…
I look at this journey. How I was at the beginning and how I am now at the end. How I have changed: how God stayed in my smallness, and how he took hold of this smallness and went on to build something beautiful.
How I was touched by Him. I am happy in seeing and knowing that I lived intensely. For knowing that I lived that time with a passion for Christ and for people. I want to continue this way, with a full heart, thankful for all the marvels that God has done, for all that I received from the people who crossed my path, the many witnesses of faith and love that touched me and made me grow.
On August 17, my seven companions of the group Faith and Mission and I left Lisbon for a long journey to the airport of Nampula, Mozambique. It was not a vacation, but the beginning of a month-long missionary experience in the Comboni community of Carapira. Now that I am on my way back to Portugal, I can only say that it was an unforgettable month that has placed Mozambique in my heart forever.
The main focus of our mission was the Technical Industrial Institute of Carapira (ITIC), where we took part in many activities, each according to his or her own gift. In my case, being a Math student, I had the chance to help in the revision of the accounts, in teaching and in clarifying students’ doubts during the night sessions. Our mission, however, was not limited to the ITIC, because we were asked also to do some teaching to the girls at the Comboni Sisters’ boarding school and we were also able to take part in various pastoral activities, such as visits to the communities, to the sick and others. Despite the large number of activities, what made this month so significant was not the little I gave, but how much I received and learned in Carapira.
Welcoming and sharing are two words holding much of the magic of this mission month. It is incredible how the missionary community of Carapira – fathers, brothers, sisters, and lay people – opened its doors to receive us, to offer us a cup of coffee or to help whenever it was needed.
In my contacts with the people I perceived that such availability and willingness to share is what better describes the Makua with a rich culture very much at odds with ours… While in Europe life is full of stress and people get upset at the slightest delay, for example, waiting for a bus that is late, in Carapira I met people who do not live in a hurry, who know how to be and contemplate. The truth is that during my first weeks in Carapira I found it rather difficult to adapt to the culture and to its rhythm. But it was well worthwhile, because this slowing down brought me to rethink my style of life and to find this interior silence that helps us to listen to the will of God.
To be part of this community was another great challenge I had to face. During the month we were eight young people 100% joined in community. We ate together, we prayed together, we worked together… It was a routine far different to the one I am used to, because I left home when I entered the university and got used to a rather independent and solitary life… Adaptation was not easy, because in community living there are always situations leading to make mistakes – it is enough to be a little too tired and say the wrong word that will cause resentment. These situations are unavoidable and they did come up occasionally, but we were always able to get over them thanks to the power of prayer, which helped us to be more in tune with God, “to die daily in order to go against our will,” as a song we like a lot says, and to be able to forgive.
For anyone coming from a country like Portugal, it is sad to see how the majority of the population of Mozambique lives in a situation of great poverty. And it is even worse to realize that, for the most part, the mentality of the rich countries is responsible for this poverty. For instance, walking through the barrios I was often surprised to hear, “mucunha [white person], I need money.” In time, however, I realized that many “mucunha” help by giving money only to relieve their conscience, without trying to create the means people need to come out of poverty and stop begging. But I was happy to see right there the great and constant flow of charity and love for neighbor done by the Comboni family, faithful to Comboni’s slogan, “to save Africa with Africa.”
I could say a lot more about this “landing” in Carapira. I could speak of the fantastic beauty I found on our visits to the beaches of the Island of Mozambique, or of the great feast for our departure, or of many other good things. But what is most important is what I keep in my heart, and it cannot be put into words…
I thank God for having had the opportunity to experience all this.
Mozambique, let us keep united in friendship and in prayer.
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