I would like to tell you the story of Tarekegn who used to be a street child. Tarekegn comes from a family that is not well-off. He has both parents and as many as seven siblings. Tarekegn used to go with his father to the district called Zero Amist. His father used to give catechesis in one of the Protestant churches. The boy, however, began to fall into bad company. In the local area, he met street children who encouraged him to use stimulants, to go out with them and to beg.
Tarekegn got so screwed that one time he ran away by himself and stayed on the street. He began to spend days and nights there. He took on some very bad habits. His family knew this and had sporadic contact with him as his home is just outside Awassa and his father works in the city itself. Tarekegn, however, was not listening to anyone.
One day he ended up at the center. He began attending open classes. He was one of the first boys to be admitted to the center shortly after the pandemic started. The boy was glad that he could live with us, but I must admit that it was not easy with him. During his rehabilitation, we had various problems with him, which were relatively more than with other children. Tarekegn has changed a lot over time. There was a year with us. In the end, it all turned out well and he went home. He lives with his family and continues school. I believe it will stay that way and he will never come back to the street.
Since our center for street children began to operate, God has helped many children with our hands. I believe our work makes sense even if we change the life of just one child. Meanwhile, I counted all the children we sent to school, providing them with the most necessary clothes, uniforms, exercise books and school supplies and for whom we provided full board or whose families we offered food and cleaning products every month. It turned out that there are exactly 30 of them. We changed the fate of 30 children! 30 children started or returned to formal education.
Overall, we helped more children. There were many more children who came to us, could eat a hot meal, wash themselves, wash their clothes and participate in activities. This is not the end, because our mission is still going on and getting more and more active. Many boys come to us and we continue to try our best to find the best solution for them so that they have a relatively happy childhood and future ahead of them. After all, God has beautiful plans for them … “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jr 29,11
Ethiopia is a country very different from the rest, in many aspects. Among them, its own calendar, both civil and religious. Christians follow the Orthodox calendar (both Orthodox and Catholics), in which Holy Week began yesterday, Sunday, April 25 (day 17 of the month Miaziah for Ethiopians).
In these days we have been in Lent, a period characterized by fasting and by the personal and voluntary commitment to abstinence in order to rethink our way of life.
However, our people have been suffering from forced fasting for weeks now. Since the conflict became radicalized and negotiations to reach a peace agreement in our region broke down, thousands of families of all ethnicities had to leave their homes, and it was then that this imposed period of true penance and abstinence began.
Abstinence from food, because they fled with the clothes on their backs, thinking that it would be temporary; and they spent days, if not weeks, without being able to enter any village, wandering through the forests, without eating for long periods, in order to feed the babies and the youngest children with what little they had. This forced fasting has kept them with hardly any strength for more than a week, and malnutrition has surfaced, as well as related health problems.
Abstinence from shelter, because they did not even have time to find something to cover themselves with. No blankets to protect them from the cold and humid night in the forests, nor from the suffocating heat of the days in the sun. Moreover, forced to sleep on the ground, with nothing to rest on and nothing to cover them; exposed to all kinds of animals and insects, especially the mosquito, which has wreaked havoc, leading to a major resurgence of malaria, which is now manifesting itself.
Abstinence from health, since the aforementioned situations, as well as stress, worry, fear and anguish are causing the flourishing of all kinds of physical illnesses, as well as worsening psychological health, especially of the most vulnerable. Hopelessness has a negative effect that I could not even imagine, and that also materializes in the body.
They are not only exposed to inclement weather, but also to attacks from the militias of different ethnic groups, from those who, out of desperation, are engaged in looting, from those who want to profit from the conflict. Life is so fragile in this situation that it seems to have lost all its value.
Tomorrow the Holy Week will begin with Palm Sunday. With the absence of almost all of our people, with the uncertainty of whether we will see many of them again, and with the suffering that is taking root in our hearts. The Passion and Death of Jesus makes more sense than ever at this time when, for hundreds or thousands of people, every day is a Calvary.
For this reason, the Last Supper has to regain its full meaning, when Jesus, before beginning, began to serve his own and washed their feet, a gesture understood in his time as a humiliation of the one who must revere the one who is above him. However, He gave it a new meaning, staging one of the greatest works of mercy that exists: let our faith in God serve us to seek to serve and not to be served. We cannot remain impassive before the suffering of our brothers and sisters. May the suffering of our people (understood from the universal fraternity) not be alien to us, but “neighbor”.
From our mission in Gilgel Beles, from the beginning we opened our doors to the thousands of refugees in the forests around our area. With the limited means we had, searching even under the stones, and with the collaboration of our diocese in Ethiopia, as well as of the local government ( little collaboration due to the number of needs) we tried to alleviate the little we could reach, focusing mainly on the most vulnerable.
For the sick and the pregnant women we set up an emergency medical post, which is always overwhelmed by the numerous cases of malaria, typhus and typhoid, serious skin problems, pneumonia, severe malnutrition, etc. For the children we set up a daily canteen, which unfortunately is almost always overwhelmed by the needs.
The means are insufficient, the forces weaken, the number of people arriving daily increases, the needs multiply, the days go by and the situations deteriorate. But at the end of the day, when our hope is about to be exceeded, we realize that all the children have received at least one meal, the sick have been medicated and at least recognized, the women have received care, and the distribution of clothes and means to protect themselves has been completed. Where there was no food for all, it arrived, and where there was no plan, the solution emerged.
As St. Augustine said, “work as if everything depended on you, trust as if everything depended on God”. These simple day-to-day miracles are what make me recognize that in spite of the fact that we are so foolish as to spoil His work, God continues to take care of us and protect us, especially when nothing is left, “God alone is enough”.
With this bittersweet feeling of confidence on the one hand, and of discouragement for the situation on the other, we begin Holy Week, with our eyes always fixed on the Resurrection, that is, on the confirmation that in spite of everything, goodness and forgiveness must always have the last word. And it is difficult to believe it with what people are living, but was the resurrection expected?
Because, if these “unexpected miracles of everyday life” are not a sign that there is a God who overflows with Love, “may God come and see”.
David Aguilera Perez, Comboni Lay Missionary in Ethiopia
When, in November 2020, I returned from Portugal, I never thought I would live the moments I have lived in these last months.
I live in Guilguel Beles, Benishangul-Gumuz region, Ethiopia, and in the mission we work essentially with the Gumuz people (we Comboni Lay Missionaries live with the Comboni religious in the same mission). We do not close our doors to anyone, but this is one of the most forgotten and abandoned people in Ethiopia and in the world.
Several people of other ethnic groups also live here, such as the Amara, Agaw and Chinacha. The soil is fertile and that makes it a desirable area. And therefore, many times, the Gumuz have lost land that belonged to them.
But even then, the people lived in peace, without major problems. In 2019, I was already in Ethiopia, a Gumuz village was attacked, people were killed, houses burned…. Our mission was a pioneer in providing aid to displaced people.
When I come back, in November 2020, Gumuz rebels started attacking some non-Gumuz. With great pain I learned of the death of many innocent people. Human life is precious.
However, I also witnessed the persecution of the Gumuz. People fled to the forest, houses were burned, dozens of young people were arrested without any justification.
I remember going with David, CLM, my mission colleague, to Debre Markos, in the Amara region, with two Gumuz because they were afraid of being killed. Several times we went to assist the detainees at the police station.
In the meantime, the government started to negotiate with the Gumuz rebels and for almost two months we managed to open schools, the clinic and the library.
However, the negotiations failed and the Gumuz rebels killed more people. It is not always easy to conclude negotiations when the proposals demanded are impossible to achieve.
In response, rebels from Amara and Agaw attacked villages, killed people and burned houses. The young men I share life with, the women in the group I followed, the children in the school and kindergarten had to flee into the forest: with no food, no clothes, nothing. People I knew were killed: innocent people!
Many people came to our mission to ask for food, money to buy food, medical assistance….
At first we prepared food for all the needy who came to us [“give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16)]; then, with the help of the Diocese, we offered pasta and every morning we offered a meal to more than 200 children. On Sundays we offer a meal after Mass.
David takes care of the meals every day and Sister Nives (a Comboni Sister) provides medical care to dozens of people each day.
I alternate between helping with the work with the children and going to Mandura, to the mission of the Comboni Sisters (who had to leave the mission, due to this guerrilla situation, living for now in our mission. But during the day they try to stay in the mission where they were, Mandura, to welcome the people who come) where I help in the domestic chores, like fetching water for the animals, for the house (as the sisters have no water at home), etc. and I welcome (me and the Comboni Sisters Vicenta and Cristiane) the people who come to greet or ask for help. Many of them risk coming to the mission, after walking three or four hours, to fetch the cereals they have stored in the sisters’ house or to ask for help.
It has been very hard to listen to so much suffering: people who are suffering, malnutrition, seriously ill children, people who have lost their relatives, who have lost their grain. How many times I find it hard to fall asleep thinking about this reality.
Mission consists of faces… and I see so many suffering faces. When I pray in Church and look at the cross of Jesus, I see many faces, I contemplate this suffering reality and I realize that Jesus is on that cross for us and that He continues to suffer daily for us. But at the same time I feel these words in my mind: do not be afraid, I am with you!
It is not easy to live these moments of suffering, but the experience of faith in Jesus, who spent His life doing good, who suffered, who was killed but was resurrected helps us to be witnesses of God’s Love among people.
Thank you to all of you who have contributed to the mission at different levels of prayer, friendship, affection and help. Without your participation we would not be able to help. Thank you very much from the bottom of our hearts!
There is no lack of tribulations, but be assured that your prayer sustains us. The mission is God’s and in Him we must put our trust.
Sharing God’s love with others, receiving and giving, have determined our missionary vocation (Vicenta Llorca, Comboni Missionary Sister in Ethiopia for more than 40 years and Pedro Nascimento, Comboni Lay Missionary, two years in Ethiopia). As he did with Abraham, also to us, through prayer and personal discernment, God said: “Leave your country and go to the land that I will show you” (Gn 12:1). Our destination was Ethiopia, a country full of sunshine and hospitality. Ethiopia is a beautiful country, rich in history and culture, full of traditions and many peoples, with great linguistic diversity.
Benishangul-Gumuz is part of one of the regions of Ethiopia and one of the tribes present here is the Gumuz, a people of strong character, ready to fight to defend themselves in many ways. Our missionary work is especially among the Gumuz.
Our first impression was very good, as we always wanted to share our life with such a simple people. The community of the Comboni Sisters, located in Mandura, offers education, health care and catechetical pastoral care. The community of Comboni Lay Missionaries (David Aguilera and Pedro Nascimento) lives with the Comboni religious in Guilguel Beles, ten kilometers from Mandura, and tries to help both communities in the areas of education and catechetical ministry, as well as in the care of some of the sick.
Vicenta and Pedro work in pastoral and social service, since the person is complete with the development of the soul and body. One of the activities we carry out together is the accompaniment of the catechesis of women in their spiritual, human and material development. We know that women have an important role in the transformation of society and here they need to be aware of this. Gumuz women work very hard and are often left behind in opportunities such as education, where educational attainment is not a priority, especially for women and girls. Above all, they have to work in the fields, collect firewood for cooking, carry water from the spring or river, carry heavy sacks of cereals (the fruit of their work in the fields), take care of their children, cook…. The life of the Gumuz woman is difficult and full of sacrifices and hard work.
We meet every week with a group of women who have chosen a name for the group: “Peace Builders”, a name due to the war situation that we have been living for more than two years in our area. In this group we share the Word of God, pray for peace and have coffee together with the economic collaboration of all, and we become close in our experiences of pain and suffering, strengthen our friendship, share dreams and aspirations for the future. These meetings give us the possibility to get to know each other and to be closer to each other. It is our desire, according to our possibilities, to develop activities that can help women in the economic part, since they have an important role in the maintenance of the family.
All this is very beautiful and attractive, but human life is made of happy moments and painful moments, days of light and days of darkness.
Due to ethnic clashes, especially over land ownership, social stability has worsened, many have been killed, villages have been burned, some crops have been stolen by opportunists, many innocent people have been imprisoned without knowing the reasons, schools and medical posts have been closed due to insecurity, for fear of students being attacked by rebels and teachers and nurses attacked and kidnapped, as most of them belong to another ethnic group. Unfortunately, this has been our reality for the past two years, with times of peace and times of conflict and insecurity. However, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord (Rom 14:8) and He is always with us and accompanies us.
In the Sisters’ mission, some women asked for protection for few weeks, staying there to sleep. The situation worsened and they decided to escape to the forest, where they were able to hide. When the situation calmed down, little by little, the families returned to their huts. As we have already said, this situation has been repeated for two years and together we have experienced pain, insecurity, but also God’s protection. The works of God are born and grow at the foot of the Cross, as St. Daniel Comboni used to say.
None of this was foreseen when, full of illusions, we came to this mission, but we decided to make common cause with this people, to share the good and the bad moments, we decided to stay here and abandon ourselves in God’s hands. We have lived through many difficult moments and our presence here, in the midst of difficulties, is intended to be a testimony of fidelity to God manifested in fidelity to the people with whom we share our lives. It was Jesus who told us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).
In the midst of pain, of seeing the suffering of those who escape, of those who mourn for their loved ones, either because they have died or because they are deprived of their freedom, all this has become a time of grace that helps us to strengthen our faith and fidelity to a people who live in times of suffering. Making the pain of others my own shows us how important they are to us, how much we love them. St. Daniel Comboni taught us: I make common cause with you and the happiest day of my life will be the one when I give my life for you.
Right now peace talks are taking place between the government and rebel groups, schools and medical posts (some) are beginning to open. We are hopeful for times of peace, happiness and prosperity.
Pray for us and for the people of Ethiopia, because we cannot lose hope; pray that we will find support to develop economic activities with women and help families in need; pray for peace and fraternal communion.
Vicenta Llorca, Comboni Missionary Sister and Pedro Nascimento, Comboni Lay Missionary.
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