Comboni Lay Missionaries

About the mission among the Gumuz

Gumuz situation
Gumuz situation

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.

Gumuz situation

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.

Fraternal embrace,

Pedro Nascimento, LMC in Ethiopia

Maiata organizes an exhibition about the mission of volunteers in Africa

Cristina Sousa

Cristina Sousa, 51, already has an enriching experience of two years of volunteering in the Central African Republic to show in her photos.

As a Comboni Lay Missionary, she did not want to stop recording in photos, as an amateur, a people that brought her closer to the best there is in the world. Now she is organizing, together with the Municipality of Maia, an exhibition of which we will soon have news.

Cristina Sousa

Cristina Sousa is from Gueifáes, Maia (henceforth maiata), and in January 2018 she went on mission as a volunteer to the Central African Republic, to the Mongoumba region, where she knew the Pygmy people. When she returned to Portugal two years later, she felt the need to share the audiovisual records she collected throughout this time to give more visibility to the daily life of this “wonderful people”.

Cristina Sousa is a Comboni Lay Missionary and, according to her, being a missionary is a vocation, something that accompanies us inside”. Cristina affirms that to become a missionary she had to spend three years of formation. “We prepare ourselves spiritually, we wait and then we are sent,” she explains. This sending is done by the team responsible for the Laity, but for Cristina “it is something interior, where we feel that it is God who sends us”.

The missionary has been on this path for about five years and, according to her, “we do not need to go abroad to be missionaries”. The need to go out to meet “our brother”, as Cristina explains, “is something that is born and boils within us” and if this need is not nourished “we do not feel well”.

The Pygmy people are “extraordinary”.

Her first and only mission up to date has been in Central Africa, “right in the heart of Africa”, where she has shared her life with the Pygmies. According to Cristina Sousa, the Pygmies are “extraordinary and very special”. They have a humility and simplicity that “I have only experienced there”. For this reason, she considers it a “privilege to live with these people, to be welcomed, conquered and to conquer them as well”.

The Pygmies live in “sparsely populated” camps scattered throughout the jungle, and the aim of the Comboni Lay Missionaries is to help with integration in the villages. “They are almost never welcome, because they live in the forest and are quite discriminate”, Cristina explains. “They are exploited and have no access to school or hospital.” Thus, the role of the laity is to serve as a “bridge in this integration”.

Currently, thanks to the work done by missionaries like her, there are many children in school and more access to health care, but discrimination is still quite visible among the population. Cristina says that one of her biggest concerns is the fact that there are no records of these people “as people, it is almost as if they did not exist”.

In the attempt to grant some identity to these people, Cristina Sousa encountered their reality, because “they are nomads, their houses are not protected from the rain and they have no way of keeping documents in their clothes”. Thus, the existence of personal identification documents is almost impossible.

According to this Comboni Lay Missionary “the process of inculturation requires a lot of care”, because “we go with our ideals and we have to understand that they have theirs. Our main charism is to Save Africa with Africa. That is to say, to help in the formation of the African so that they can walk on their own”. Thus, the role of the laity is “to be, to witness and to transmit the Good News”. The sharing of knowledge with the African people is, according to Cristina, “quite difficult, because then we leave and they may not even have understood very well what we wanted to transmit”.

Cristina Sousa returned from the Central African Republic just on the edge of the first confinement.

When Cristina Sousa returned to Portugal in February 2020, she says it was a matter of luck that she was not “caught at the airports” because, two weeks later, the country entered its first confinement. To receive news from Africa, Cristina tries to establish contact with “Portuguese compatriots who are in the capital, priests and brothers”.

The Covid-19 pandemic is “uncontrollable in the Central African Republic”. According to Cristina, due to the lack of economic resources and the “lack of suitable places, people do not have access to tests and, therefore, the true cause of death is never known”, but “because the average life expectancy is about 40 years, the number of elderly people is extremely small and, for this reason, I believe that there Covid-19 will not be so aggressive and resistant”.

As for prevention measures, “sometimes they send me photos or videos and you see people wearing masks”. Which for her “doesn’t make much sense, because at bedtime they are all together”.

For her, talking about the covirus in these scenarios is even more difficult, among other things because there are other more serious diseases that have been killing for several years, such as malaria, Ebola and leprosy, for example, in which thousands of people die every day. “This has been going on for a long time and there is still no vaccine,” she adds.

The inequalities between developed and developing countries “are still very present” and Cristina Sousa explains that she does not understand “the lack of demonstrations on the rights of African peoples”.

Cristina would like to see more fighting for the rights of Africans.

“I see a lot of demonstrations for human rights and animal rights, but what about these people? It’s important that we take to the streets to demonstrate inequality.”

However, Cristina reflects that it’s not all bad: “Maybe we have also unbalanced these people a little bit, because we went to show them a different reality than the one they know. They live off nature, and we cannot take nature away from them”. According to her, “there is a paradox here that requires reflection”.

The Comboni Lay Missionary also says that she has seen “children die from snake bites and other simple things”. If these things had happened in the West, they would not have caused death. It is difficult to manage emotions, because one always thinks that if these people had been born somewhere else, this would not happen to them.”

During her mission, Cristina Sousa used her camera to capture the moments she spent with the Pygmy people. In an amateur way, this maiata recorded the daily life of this sui generis people with the purpose of “spreading the message that the image conveys, that is, to make this wonderful people known”. Our duty as missionaries is to bring their reality here and somehow make people a little more aware of other realities”.

Currently, Cristina Sousa is negotiating with the Municipality of Maia so that her photographs can be exhibited and shared with her community of origin. Cristina Sousa hopes to be able to share the daily life of the pygmies with her compatriots, with place and date yet to be defined.

The missionary believes that “sharing what we have and what others can give us is what develops us as people”. The exchange of experiences of different realities is, in the end, what enriches us and makes us grow”.

Cristina Sousa
Cristina Sousa

Light and darkness

Etiopia

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.

Ethiopia

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.

Ethiopia

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.

Ethiopia

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.

Ethiopia

Vicenta Llorca, Comboni Missionary Sister and Pedro Nascimento, Comboni Lay Missionary.

Hope School

Colegio Gumuz
Gumuz school

Our school time, especially infant and primary school, usually marks our lives in one way or another. Great memories pile up: friends who are a big part of who we were, teachers who touched our hearts and opened paths we had not even imagined until then… In general, a shared life that filled us with passion and joy and that we will almost always consider as the best stage.

However, in Ethiopia, school can have a more complete meaning.

In the region where I live, Gumuz, the Comboni family has 5 kindergartens (3 run by the Comboni Fathers, 2 by the Comboni Sisters) and an elementary school (run by the Comboni Sisters). All these centers were requested by the local government itself, more than 20 years ago, which understood that this underdeveloped region needed educational spaces that would fulfill two objectives: on the one hand, to promote education in order to be able to guarantee an autonomous and dignified future; on the other hand, to create spaces where boys and girls of all the ethnic groups present in the area could coexist, in equality and friendship, so that the division (so present and so deep in the region) would disappear from the pillars of life (childhood and adolescence) and the idea of complete fraternity would be fostered.

Gumuz school

This has been the objective of the Comboni Family all these years, from the general educational plans to the daily work: to create a place where living together is as important as the acquisition of knowledge and skills.

However, the social reality has changed a lot in the last two years. When I arrived in Ethiopia, this region was in the midst of an ethnic conflict between ethnic groups (with killings, displaced people, burning of houses, etc.). When the situation was normalizing, Covid-19 appeared to break the normality, close everything and spread panic (which had already become a regular “visitor” in this area). And, without having managed to stop this problem, a new ethnic conflict, even more serious than the previous one, struck the life of the inhabitants of the region. The problems that we found in the first conflict multiplied, expanded and knew no religion, age or sex to have a little mercy. The day to day life was dominated by a panic already known, but that reached unsuspected limits. EVERYTHING was locked again with the key of fear, violence and discouragement.

The situation demanded a response, and the school of the Comboni Sisters, which is the one I am writing about, became more than a center for living together, it became the ” Hope School”.

Gumuz school

Facing the reality of violence, many people, mainly women, children and the elderly, chose to leave their homes. Many went to hide in the forest, but the vast majority of those who lived around the school, almost instinctively, and out of enormous trust in the sisters, chose to take refuge in masse in the school. It was amazing to see how they entered by dozens, or hundreds, with the few things they could grab before escaping, in an improvised diaspora, carrying belongings, children, babies, grain, animals, etc. The school opened its doors, and became, more than their home, their refuge, since, more than comfort, they sought security. The classrooms were emptied and transformed into places to sleep, cook, eat and receive care; as well as other spaces and common areas, even the courtyards and fountains.

As the weeks passed, the situation gave some respite; people returned to their homes, but not to normality. Fearing that their belongings might be looted, they feared mainly for the grain they had collected throughout the year. They again placed their hope in the school, which once again opened its doors so that they could take the grain, in hundred-kilo sacks, to be stored in the only place they trusted at the time.

This situation was especially serious for the boys and girls, who were living in fear and feeling unprotected. The sisters, aware of this, put the school back at the service of the children, creating a space of trust. Despite the fact that officially all the schools in the area were closed, the doors of our center were opened almost daily to give tutoring and review classes, to welcome anyone who came and allow them to paint, draw, read or write; and, what was most successful, to organize (or rather, to improvise) games and sports activities. At that time, the most important thing was not that the children and young people learned or were evaluated, but that they could arrive to a place where they felt safe, excited, with the joy that should reign at this stage of life. That they could play, interact in peace and tranquility and feel embraced and comforted was the priority; in short, that they could be what they are, boys and girls, forced to grow up by a harsher reality than they should have known.

Gumuz school

Throughout this process, my missionary mate (Pedro) and I wanted to be involved to the maximum (even though sometimes it was impossible for us to move because of the danger of the ten kilometers of road that separated our house from the school, due to attacks, raids, shootings, etc.). Our daily work, our illusion and our strength were mainly focused on accompanying and helping to carry out the daily activities for boys and girls; as improvised teachers, sports coaches, monitors, chaperones, and everything else we could imagine, we tried to offer a space of welcome and hope to everyone who crossed the doors of the street.

Gumuz school

Tomorrow, February 23rd, and after having stabilized the situation, the school officially opens its doors for the new school year (having lost almost half a year). The students, from 3 years old to the end of primary school, will return to their classes. In this return, the nightmare will be behind them; and I doubt that any of them will cry at the doors of the school. On the contrary, they will be eager to return to the place from which they never felt apart; the place that was for them the only space of tranquility and carefree. Parents, for their part, will feel more relieved than ever, since, if in the moments of greatest torment they trusted blindly to protect their sons and daughters (the most precious gift they have), the return to teaching will fill them with renewed enthusiasm.

That is why, although it has another name, I have preferred to baptize it as “Hope School”.

Gumuz school

David Aguilera Perez, Comboni Lay Missionary in Ethiopia