To visit this girls’ school, the only one of its kind in all of the emergent state of South Sudan, means to touch with one’s own hands the ‘revolutionary’ force of education. The rejected stone, in this instance, refers to the girls of the Dinka, the chief of the Nilotic (i. e. Negroid) tribes of these plains. After all, it is the women who have to shoulder the burden of the greater part of the labour, whether at home or outside it: the education of the children, domestic chores, a job outside. To give an example: going to get water, in these latitudes, is far from being a trifle – for it requires a journey of many kilometers on foot every morning and every evening. Here at Loreto School, however, the girls receive something different: they go to school, they are educated and they prepare to become leaders in their society. They have the enjoyment of a small well-maintained Eden. “Ah, you can always see the hand of the Sisters,” exclaims Bishop Mazzolari, who hails from Brescia, though his vocation came to him in America (he studied and worked in California) and he is Sudanese by adoption. “Look at the flowers and the plants: everything here is so beautiful!”. And in fact the interior of the building looks as though it has been architect-designed, considering the modernity and good taste shown in the ordering of the rooms. Right now the 54 girls at this secondary school are preparing for their end of year exams. The teachers – all from abroad, Uganda and Kenya, which tells us a lot about the backward situation of Sudan, the 150th poorest country in the world – are testing them in English, science, geography, and history.
Loreto School is indeed a one-off in the whole of Sudan, a country that was previously the largest in Africa, dismembered by the historic referendum which on 9 January this year sanctioned the independence of the South after 23 years of extremely bloody civil war. […]
In a country whose population is 85% illiterate, the first challenge is definitely education. Not merely teaching people reading, writing, and arithmetic, but building a personal identity, the shape of a people, a nation looking to the future. Mazzolari explains it clearly in the course of a journey by jeep: he is at the wheel despite his 74 years and the roads of South Sudan – little more than tracks in the savannah. One of the problems that the missionaries have to confront every day is the subjection of women in a culture of polygamy. “One of the things that will put an end to polygamy is the education and emancipation of women, so that they will understand that they are destined for something better than to be the 20th or 30th wife of the rich old man of the village – argues Mazzolari with conviction. Even though modernity is making its timid inroads into an impenetrable society like that of South Sudan, the young, confused by social customs, “are completely chained to their culture by a sort of system. Polygamy, the obligation of vendetta, and other negative situations: people are victims of this vicious circle. They will need tremendously strong Christian convictions to escape from all that,” explains the prelate from Brescia.
In addition to the critique of polygamy – a practice that represents a defeat for the dignity of woman and for the value of love itself – education, understood in a Christian sense, is bringing into the ancient Nigritia another very important human and social value: forgiveness. “As a Church we have reconciled the Nuer and the Dinka through our diocesan association dedicated to Saint Monica: we have brought about meetings between tribes at one time in conflict with one another, Dinka families have gone to find the Nuer and the Nuer have visited the homes of the Dinka. This has been happening over the last 7-8 years, while the war was still raging.
When individuals forget about vendetta, peace comes. Many women have forgiven the wicked deeds that the North committed against the South: in Khartoum they were tired of fighting, we in the South were prostrate with exhaustion. Basically, the peace agreement was an act of reconciliation, even if the North regards it simply as a truce.”
The Church’s work of reconciliation has not taken place only in the rooms of political power. Though it is true, as Mazzolari notes, that “for the sake of peace we did a tour of the embassies: we went to South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya, where we finally managed to get a peace agreement. We bishops also came to Europe: to the Foreign Secretary in Rome, to Germany, France, and to Great Britain. The US Bishops’ Conference has been to visit us as well as the Bishops of South Africa. It has been a continuous drive to create a new situation, an era of freedom to revive the spirit of these people who have suffered from too many years of war.” What Mazzolari and others like him have tried to do is to heal the wounds suffered among the people through twenty years of battles and confrontations – in such a way as to overcome the very term ‘enemy.’ An example: “In the area on the border between the North and the South many young persons managed to escape from the tented camps where they had been collected as slaves of the baghar, the Arab slave traders. So we set up schools in Gordhim and in Marial Lou, two of our missions, where an education has been offered to these lads who were formerly slaves. They were traumatised youngsters mentally disturbed to such a point that they could no longer speak their own dialect. I remember having seen in a camp near Malualkon some lads living under canopies of branches: they had only just escaped! Our schools have not just been schools but real refuges for these kids. They were places where kids who had come from the North, were (very reluctantly on their part) mixed in with the ones from the South: our centres have been able to bring about a real reconciliation and integration. We have been in a position to offer a future to hundreds of kids who were formerly slaves. One day they will say: ‘If it had not been for the Church, we would still be abandoned and ignorant.’ I have sent some of the kids who were ex-slaves to university. One girl, Suzanne, even went to Oxford: now she is in charge of public relations for the government of South Sudan.”
Education here serves as bread for the hungry and water for those who are thirsty. […]
Monsignor Mazzolari does not hide his enthusiasm when speaking of his first Christians: “In the first years of mission among the Azande I was personally responsible for preparation for baptism. Then, as Bishop, on one single evening I baptised a good 1200 youngsters in Niam Liel alone. The following morning I confirmed 900. There are moments – when we become instruments of sanctification – when we are sanctified ourselves too. We must not forget how and how much God works in the hearts of people. And when you become His minister, well, it’s wonderful! A gigantic experience!». […]
*The full text of this reportage will be published in the next issue of Oasis journal, forthcoming in September 2011