Different ways of seeing
The first encounter was with the Mary Help of Christians. She was standing there, dressed all in white, her gaze turned to those about to cross the threshold. Sister Graziella has just dropped a lit match onto the sheets of paper with our drawings; a dark smoke rises from the bucket. She says to us happily, “Your prayers are flying in the sky, children”. We follow the smoke with our gaze and get lost in the blue. Today, we are on the terrace of that same Institute, on the threshold of Mary Help of Christians, and she dominates the town with her gaze still. I come back to the present, to this Madonna who welcomes me with a benevolence that moves me, I pass through the entrance of the Institute and I feel as if I have come home.
Sister Zvonka Mikec has a nice smile, though there is a little embarrassment on her calm face. She knows that a writer has come to interview her, to ask her questions about Africa where she has lived for thirty years as a missionary; she looks at me perplexed, and certainly not expecting my troubled heart.
“It’s just that I grew up among you”, I hasten to explain.
Her eyes light up and she smiles, “Where?”.
“So you were a pupil of ours”.
“Yes, since kindergarten”.
The roles are surprisingly reversed, she asks the questions and I answer. I tell her about Sister Graziella, about Sister Maria with whom I followed a missionary group for years, about the young people in Amazonia who sent us exotic letters and photographs; one of which was unforgettable, of a child with a large snake around his neck. Another quick exchange of banter and God is already in our conversations, in our telling each other our life stories in parallel. We are the same age - 14 May 1962 for her, 10 May 1963 for me - but we come from two different realities. Sister Graziella is from Slovenia, from a communist regime that prevented believers from carrying out activities outside the church. “I was born in Novo Mesto, a beautiful land called Little Switzerland”, a land that pours out rites and liturgies and hinges the lives of its people on them. She consecrated to God, I devoted to a pen that allows me to speak of God too.
I look at her. She is a solid woman with dark eyes and a frank smile. I am told she has Africa tattooed on her. With what physical signs does she show herself, Africa? Skin darkened by the sun? Eyes steeped in the pain of variously oppressed peoples, starved by wars and famines? In her, none of this. Therefore?
“Would you tell me about your Africa?”.
A frank, beautiful laugh comes forth. “Where should I begin?”, and she nods vaguely.
“From the moment you realised you wanted to be a missionary?”.
She nods. “I always liked children”, she begins, “I knew I would like to be an educator. Our parish priest, even in a regime characterized by prohibitions, was always inventing new ways to gather us little ones. When I grew up, I realised that the vicarage was the oratory”.
She recounts that when she was eleven years old, a missionary from Burundi came to the parish. His words, combined with the slides he was projecting, were so vivid that she and two other little friends became enthralled. “Let’s go missionaries”, they said to each other. However, how to go about it? They talked it over with the parish priest. “You have to grow up”, he replied, and yet, “Smart!” he added, smiling, he put them in touch with some nuns from Vicenza and proposed that they attend three days of spiritual exercises in the nearby town of Bled.
“I still remember that first meeting. We were in small rooms, cramped together like sardines; there was an atmosphere of joy, of celebration. We were naughty little girls”. The naughty little girl still lives inside her, it emerges in her smiles, in her eyes that are so capable of expressing joy.
In Bled, she met an elderly nun called Francesca, who loved talking to the newcomers. “I told her I wanted to become an educator. She intuited my vocation”; in fact, she continued to follow her, and wrote letters to her that accompanied her vocational journey. At the end of eighth grade, she returned to Bled again. “I liked being with the sisters, but I was not sure if I wanted to become one”. Sr. Francesca, however, asked her in a letter what she wanted to do with her future.
“I didn’t answer her, I lived in a communist Country, if I had expressed my intentions, I would have had difficulty studying. The regime forbade teachers to practice their faith. Therefore, I enrolled in a vocational school. Contact with the nuns, however, remained constant. Inside of me, I knew what I wanted, but I kept silent about it. Then, the nun came back to ask me what I was thinking of doing. I talked it over with my mother and decided. I attended high school in Ljubljana from 1976 to 1981, which was a happy time. A year of postulancy followed, then the novitiate at Castel Gandolfo. On August 5, 1984, in Bled, I made my first religious profession”.
“And the mission?”
“Inside, I could hear the missionary voice, but I did not speak about it. Nothing, however, happens by chance. I was in Conegliano, Veneto, while the first expedition to Madagascar was being prepared. I was a young nun, and I was watching all that preparatory activity and I told myself that I would like to go, so I applied; but I was still in my first year, they told me to wait for my perpetual vows and then, if I was still willing, I would go”.
She stops speaking, watches my pen run across the paper. She waits until I have finished writing. She begins again. “The preparation time for perpetual vows is a time of serious reflection, the time when the Lord comes to you. I was praying to discern, to understand. His voice was saying something, but I did not understand what was being said well. One day, the inspector asked me if I was still thinking about the missions. That seemed to me to be the sign. “All right, Lord,” I said to myself, then sent off the application and, in a fortnight, I got the answer, “Finish your studies and go”. I finished my studies, then the destination arrived; Angola!” Sister Maria looks at me dreamily, “Angola...I knew it was in Africa, but nothing else, not even that there was a war going on there”. For a moment, she seems to get lost in her memories.
“On April 25,1990, with twelve other sisters, I received the missionary crucifix and left for Verona, where there is a diocesan preparation centre. Missionaries with experience of working in Africa instructed us. They told us what we would find there, the cultures, the taboos. The real preparation, however, you do on the spot. Before leaving, I didn’t ask myself, ‘What would it be like? How will I manage it?’ I thought to myself, ‘Africa, children, party, catechesis, talking about Jesus’, and I was happy”.
“What language did you use?”.
“Portuguese. I studied it for five months in Cascais”.
“What was your first impression when you arrived in Angola?”.
“Getting off the plane I saw everything was red, the land, the houses, the mountains of red earth. The air was not too hot, like here [in Italy] in June. I was very excited. I walked slowly along with the others, when I saw the nuns I sighed with relief. The community in Luanda - the capital - was on the fourth floor of a building, I was amazed, it was tiny, just four nuns, everything was very simple, very poor but so welcoming that I felt at home. Two nuns came to pick me up and take me to Cacuaco, fifteen kilometres from Luanda. The journey in the Range Rover immediately gave me a sense of mission. Waiting for me were the nuns, and many young boys were singing. One of them welcomed me with a huge helmet full of bananas (I like bananas so much). It was a wonderful arrival”.
Sister Maria says that at that time the area was full of war refugees, which had recently ended, but had destroyed many families and those arriving from the interior of Angola in needed everything.
“We gave what we could, we did catechesis, we taught mothers how to sew, and we taught children literacy. In the beginning there was no school, so we built on in 2002 with the help of young people”.
“Were you able to pay them?”.
“Yes, they received a salary that helped them support their families. We started from nothing, making bricks out of red earth, and we built a beautiful centre, which today houses more than one thousand five hundred children; some of them still work with us, they are very capable, one electrician did the installation for the entire school”.
“What about your first Christmas in Angola?”.
Sister Maria smiles. “Oh, I spent Christmas Eve in a village chapel distributing food. More than decorations! The best decoration was distributing corn, beans, oil. The living conditions in the villages is the most critical, there are situations of extreme poverty there”.
“Do people emigrate from there to Europe?”.
“No, they move, more likely, to the capital. Young people arrive in the city and do not find what they hope for, some stay on the streets selling, others adapt to any job they can find in order to survive, for they have no family. If you find something, that’s good, if not you end up among the other delinquents. There are very young people there too which worries us, we try to offer them schooling opportunities, an interest that keeps them away from hunger and delinquency, but it’s not easy”.
“I have heard that you went somewhere else after Angola”.
“To Mozambique. I lived there from 2010 to January this year. It is poorer and more difficult than in Angola, although the war ended earlier. In the north there is a return to violence caused by jihadist groups that attack and burn villages. Our community is experiencing difficult situations, some teachers have seen their families killed; there are many orphans, too many people fleeing for their lives. In the south, the situation is more peaceful, there we provide education; the children study, they learn trades, like sewing, baking, and working in the fields. We have also set up two centres to take in girls at risk. Many of our teachers are the children we have trained. I always say that with a little effort, a lot of prayer and a lot of work, we can reap good fruits”.
“I am convinced of it too”.
I look at my watch, I realise it is time to take my leave. We pass through the chapel, where I make a greeting to the Blessed Sacrament, one to Our Lady, a hug to her as she accompanies me to the entrance, then at the moment of parting, “Bye”, she says, “come back whenever you want”.
by TEA RANNO
Tea Ranno was born in Melilli, in Syracuse province, and today lives in Rome. She has a degree in law and deals with law and literature matters. She has published for e/o the novels Cenere [Ash] (2006, finalist for the Calvino and Berto prizes, winner of the Chianti prize) and In una lingua che non so più dire [In A Language I No Longer Know How To Say] (2007). In 2018 for Frassinelli Sentimi. Mondadori has published La sposa vermiglia (2012) [The Vermillion Bride] and, Viola Fòscar (2014), L’amarusanza (2019), Terramarina (2020), Gioia mia [My Joy] (2022). Her latest book is Un tram per la vita [A Tram For Life], freely inspired by the story of Emanuele Di Porto, who escaped the Nazi round up in Rome on October 16, 1943.