The legacy of the pioneers


Reading the early history of these 90 years of presence of the followers of St Daniel Comboni in South Africa, one cannot but appreciate their commitment. Three notes can be made: The Comboni pioneers were people of great religious discipline, dedication and endurance. They accepted the hardships inherent to the mission and they worked hard to establish the Church in the region entrusted to them—the Lydenburg Vicariate—which was almost as big as Portugal. Their work of evangelisation was very much obstructed by apartheid—the Group Areas Act, for instance, required that to minister in ‘black areas’, missionaries had to obtain a permit which was rather difficult to get—but they never gave up. For them, mission was for life. Some managed to visit their families overseas after two decades. The Comboni Brothers had a prominent role in the missionary work. They were involved in a great diversity of workmanship, as builders and handymen, as farmers and gardeners, as carpenters and millers, as administrators and youth workers. In the words of Fr Konrad Nefzger, author of the book on the history of the Comboni presence, “The brothers had to work for nothing with nothing.” He explains how they started from scratch: “In Maria Trost, the only thing they found on the farm was a dead ox stuck in the mud; no plough, no oxen, nothing. They were supported by local people, local Catholics who gave them 12 oxen to start ploughing the fields.”

From the very start, there was a fruitful co-operation with Sisters of diverse religious institutes. The contribution of social institutions run by the churches was acknowledged by no less a person than Nelson Mandela who, speaking on the influence of religion on his life stated: “You must remember that during our time—right from Grade 1 up to university—our education was provided by religious institutions. I was in missionary schools.”

South Sudan - Reconciliation is urgent
As the civil war enters its fifth month, the spectre of a great famine looms in South Sudan The reconciliation between South Sudan’s two main ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka won’t be easy. It requires equal parts of forgiveness and justice. At its roots is a power struggle between various political factions in general, and between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, in particular. At times, the crisis has dissolved into ethnic violence, partly because of rumour and hearsay and fears by both the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups that they are being targeted for their ethnicity. The deteriorating situation could spell disaster in a number of ways. UN officials, usually not given to hyperbole on the issue of hunger and famine, said as many as one million could face famine if action is not taken quickly in South Sudan. At the root of the problem is the massive amount of displacement that has forced tens of thousands of people off their land, who are unable to plant crops. “Millions are going hungry today and we are seeing evidence of extremely high levels of malnutrition among hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict, especially women and children,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. If more is not done to bolster access to food in the country, nearly a quarter of a million children in South Sudan could suffer severe malnutrition by the end of the year, UNICEF said.
On a recent Sunday, at one of the UN camps in Juba, Fr Antonio La Braca, 77, an Italian Comboni missionary who has spent 18 years among South Sudan’s Nuers, celebrated Mass outdoors and spoke in his homily about forgiveness, reconciliation and the need, however difficult, to love one’s enemies. La Braca acknowledged that there are numerous hurdles ahead in doing that, requiring equal parts of forgiveness and justice. “This is the difficulty”, he said of the Nuers he has served, “they are wounded and you can’t say ‘reconciliation’ just like that,” he said with a snap of the fingers. Last May, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signed a ceasefire agreement in Ethiopia, on a Friday, and on the Monday, South Sudanese rebels had already engaged in fresh fighting with government troops in the oil-producing state of Upper Nile, dashing hopes of a swift end to five months of brutal civil war. By Chris Herlinger / Dennis Coday Caption:Mediated by the bishops, the ceasefire lasted just three days. Revenue from oil has an important role in the war.
Risking their lives to be with their people

In the Central African Republic, missionaries have been risking their lives in solidarity with people as the Chadian and Sudanese rebels of the Séleka coalition conquered the country and sowed violence, terror and death


The Central African Republic (CAR) has been on the news headlines since 13 South African soldiers were killed and 27 injured there on 23 March. The victims belonged to the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission. The perpetrators are the rebels of the Séleka coalition. They came from the North and took over Bangui, the CAR capital, on the 24 March, causing President François Bozizé to flee. Michel Djotodia, leader of one of the groups of Séleka (Alliance, in the local Sango language), proclaimed himself president of the Republic.


They started their incursion in the North—many of them are from Chad and Sudan—in mid-December and as they made their way towards the capital, they looted, terrorised and killed people. They occupied one mission after another, camping in the house of the missionaries and stealing all they could. The regular army soldiers were easily defeated and fled with the people.


Here is the testimony of Msgr Juan José Aguirre Muñoz, the Comboni Bishop of Bangassou, about the conquest of the city on 11 March:

“They stole a dozen mission cars of the minor seminary and of the second parish in Bangassou. They destroyed the home of the Holy Spirit Fathers and of the Franciscan Sisters; they stole and destroyed the rector’s house in the diocesan minor seminary, the carpenter’s shop, the internet centre and the Catholic college, the pharmacy and the new surgery block in the hospital”. He concludes recalling how he was one of those in danger: “They brutalised the people, fathers and nuns. They have a list of people to hit: I am the first, followed by my vicar, then the prosecutor and others”. He sought protection in Bangui but wants to go back: “I wish I could be there with my people, but planes cannot land in Bangassou because the airport has no fuel. The road has been closed since December. As a result, food or medicines do not arrive in the territory of the diocese, officials have not been paid because they would have to collect their salaries in Bangui, and they cannot pay school fees for their children”. The country is in chaos and people are living in fear. The Comboni Missionaries have been working in the Central African Republic since 1975. There are 28 (two bishops, 25 priests and one brother) and have 12 students in formation. With all the other missionaries, they have been putting their lives on the line in order to be with the people. Two of the communities (Grimari and Dékoa) are still isolated and there’s no communication with them. Towards personal responsibility in a world of injustice

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of freedom and liberation. The liberation is primarily a release from all kinds of personal, economic, political, social or cultural bondage. These forms of slavery are obstacles that prevent men and women from living with dignity and from making decisions as full human beings. When men and women choose their own ways freely, their decisions are unfortunately often influenced by the unfair circumstances and structures that prevail.


When we encounter situations in which poverty and social injustice are part of the people’s daily life, when social inequalities are due to unfair economic arrangements, when people are displaced by conflict, when men, women and children are exploited at work or suffer the disastrous consequences of the forces of nature caused by global warming, it may be difficult to know whether responsibility lies with unjust structures or at a personal level.


The liberation of the human being is therefore not only a personal responsibility. Liberation from the injustices of this world is a relational dynamic among individuals, people and human structures. In the task of transforming this world, our commitment to Christ requires a personal commitment to social and economic justice that works for human liberation. Our Christian commitment to economic justice must focus on changing those structures that perpetuate injustices among the poorest and do not help the integral development of the human being.

Therefore, part of our role as Christians is to denounce the many abuses that the neoliberal economy, forgetful of the purpose of the creation, inflicts on the poor. Our commitment to Africa begins with listening to the Word of God throughout Scripture and to God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed. This inspiration of our faith becomes a commitment to personal, economic and political justice. The salvation offered by Jesus in the Gospel is, first of all, a community salvation; men and women living in community who try to incarnate the Trinitarian relationship. Salvation is God’s will for humankind to live the fullness of creation. But for this salvation to become a feasible reality, a change of society is required, solidarity among peoples, political commitment of public institutions and the transformation of the neoliberal economy into a liberating one. Our commitment to the poor is a realistic look at suffering people and an opportunity to work with them to improve the living conditions of the oppressed who lack the basics for life, as well as a way to restore strength to those who have lost their dignity under work exploitation, wars, violence, abuse or discrimination. Moreover, the democratic aspirations of the people and the desire for economic and social justice are necessary so that people may own their destiny and be true protagonists of the kingdom of God. By José Luis Gutiérrez Aranda, Africa-Europe Faith and Justice Network Policy Officer


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