· Vatican City ·

The Silent Forest in the Central African Republic

“We cure pygmies at the heart of the equator without doctors or electricity”

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29 August 2020

Sister Donata Ferrari, from Maranello to Zomea hospital, 50 beds and solar panels

To speak on the phone to Sister Donata Ferrari you need to make an appointment and be patient. It may even be weeks before the Combonian missionary leaves Zomea, a small village in the equatorial forest of the Central African Republic.  From there she confronts 150 kilometers of bumpy road on board an off-road vehicle to the capital Bangui.

The journey takes half a day, and in the city Sister Donata finds the world that cannot reach her in the middle of the forest. Here she can use the telephone and the internet. There is also electricity In Bangui, which is non-existent in the village of Zomea where the Modenese nun returned to at the beginning of 2019. Here there is a tiny hospital, which is the only health care facility in the region and the only dispensary in the area. The structure was founded by the Polish diocese of Tarnow and is run together with the Comboni nuns at the service of the last of the pygmies in this territory. The pygmies are an ethnic group which is slowly abandoning nomadism, and whom have always been subject to the historically dominant group - the Bantu.

The clinic in Zomea, with fifty beds, runs on solar panels and a generator for emergencies. Two years ago, Pope Francis donated two thousand euros to activate more energy resources, a cheque that arrived thanks to the visit of a delegation from the Roman Bambino Gesù Hospital. To the hospital come mothers with undernourished children or children suffering from malaria, which is the main cause of children’s deaths in this place in Africa. “We have no real doctors; the urgent operations are performed by a nurse with long experience in the operating room. Doctors are very rare in the Central African Republic. To sterilize the irons we have to wait for a certain number to save on the cost of the operation,” says Sister Donata, hanging on the line of a WhatsApp phone call that comes and goes. She calls her family in Maranello every two weeks via the same method. Maranello, her hometown in northern Italy, which is famous throughout the world for being the home of the Ferrari brand. She shares an identical surname, but it is just a coincidence.

“Since I was a child I dreamed of becoming a missionary in Africa. Then it happened, growing up, that I became a nurse and headed first for Uganda and then for Zambia”. At the age of twenty-seven Donata Ferrari decided to become a Combonian, and for this reason she left Italy for Spain, Ecuador. Finally, in 2011, she arrived in Zomea, her first destination in the Central African Republic, followed by five years in Bagandou in a better-equipped hospital. Last year she was asked to return to the forest where the pygmies were, where cohabitation with the Bantu is problematic and often leads to contempt. “The pygmies live in a sort of self-restraint; they hardly ever come near for help. Our work is also cultural and begins from the smallest details.  I often have to remind the patients of the aka ethnicity, that is the pygmies, that it is their turn and they must not give way to a bantue” says Sister Donata for whom this dispensary on the outskirts of the suburbs “is actually the navel of the world.” Her relationship with the sick becomes an almost family relationship of gratitude and mutual recognition.

“Let’s ensure that it is not purely welfareism - she explains - Public and free healthcare does not exist in Central Africa, but historically the Bantues have more economic power and can afford treatment and medicines. Instead, in Zomea, , we apply symbolic tariffs for the pygmies so that they come for treatment and understand that in exchange for something they can get better health. Sometimes they come back with a chicken or cassava powder because they don’t have anything else”.

The heart of the mission is this. Sister Donata speaks of it as is quite astonished about the attention provoked in those who are listening thousands of miles away. An rarely recognized and tireless work, which especially embraces the maternal education and nutrition of women who arrive with children like skeletons. “Perhaps mothers are well and children are malnourished, it seems a paradox, but it happens that these women have many children and are unable to feed the youngest adequately, or ignore the principles of nutrition, or neglect the children of men who have abandoned them. This is not material poverty; the forest is really full of every kind of food”. Sometimes, instead, it is malaria: “Very young children arrive when there is nothing more to do and then as a woman of faith I wonder why this injustice is happening”.

In addition, there is the second mission that concerns nursing staff in need of training. “The courses for nurses only last nine months, and there is no obligation to bring their training up to date. We make do with a Médecins sans frontières (MSF) manual and also thanks to my experience as a professional nurse”. For this reason, in addition to the management activity for which she was sent to Zomea, the missionary often makes home visits so as to give a second opinion and make a diagnosis together with the nurse in charge of the visit. “My presence is a medical aid but it is also important to prevent the re-emergence of ancient legacies of power, even unintentionally, between Bantu nurses and pygmy patients. If I have to find a similarity I would say that I often feel like oiling the mechanisms of relationships so that things go in the right direction”.

by Laura Eduati