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from issue no. 04 - 2008

Sudan, as would have pleased Don Bosco...

The small Salesian presence in Sudan. Between Providence and unexpected favors of the local power

by Davide Malacaria

The boys taking the courses in professional training set up by Salesians in Sudan

The boys taking the courses in professional training set up by Salesians in Sudan

The Salesians arrived in Sudan in 1980, by express desire of the Holy See. “A complex country indeed”, explains Don Vincenzo Donati, in charge of the Salesian Works in El Obeid. “In the first place because of its ethnic composition, with the co-existence in the same country of two large groups, the Arab-Islamic to the north and the African to the south, divided in their turn into hundreds of tribes and different ethnic groups. A division that is also religious, with the north Islamic and the south animist and in part Christian. To complicate things, then, the discovery of great quantities of oil... “ Ah, yes, oil. Along with other reasons for friction, that also exist, it seems that the black gold is indeed at the base of the conflict that has been devastating the country for years in a ferocious war for control of the deposits, with China supporting the Khartoum government and the United States close to the so-called liberation movements. For more than twenty years the Sudanese slaughterhouse has been at work full time, and the country has been tormented by a war between north and south that ended with the peace agreement of January 2005. But that turned out to be only a pause, inasmuch as another hotbed of crisis in the eastern area of the country, in Darfur, where there has been trouble since 2003, has since flared up. Here, engaged in battle on behalf of others, on the flesh of the worn-out local population, there are other liberation movements opposed to the Janjaweed, accused of receiving support from the Khartoum government. A conflict that seems unstoppable and that up to now has caused approximately 400,000 deaths and 2.8 million refugees... The Salesians have experienced all these horrors in trying in their way to help all the needy, without distinction of any kind. As would have pleased Don Bosco, they love to emphasize.
In 1986 they opened in Khartoum the Saint Joseph professional school. A technical center that attracts students from all over, so much so that, shortly after opening, nine hundred pupils had enrolled, while the flow of admission applications continues... So they decided to open another school, on the outskirts of the capital. All with the blessing of the government. The president himself, Omar al-Bashir, met with the representative of the Congregation in Sudan, the Salesian layman Giacomo Comino – Jim, as they call him in these parts – to offer an area on which to build. But the plan didn’t work out. It was then that an unexpected dispatch arrived, written by the vice-governor of the State of northern Kordofan. This is the text: “The year 2000 has begun. Christians and Muslims must join in the effort to cooperate for the public good. We invite you to construct your technical center in the capital of northern Kordofan, in El Obeid”. And so the new school, dedicated to the first Sudanese saint, Josephine Bakhita, arose in the southern part of Sudan, by the express wish of the local authority, of Muslim religion. “It was Providence that diverted us here”, explains Don Vincenzo Donati. “El Obeid is relatively close to Darfur and when the idea came up of establishing a form of assistance for the lads undergoing this new conflict, it was natural to make use of this new structure”.
In the Sudanese refugee camps mothers, girls and children find shelter. The men are few, because they are conscripted into the militia or far away for work, and the young people are also few. According to Don Vincenzo it is precisely the latter category that is most at risk, because forced inactivity drives them into joining the militias, in which, among other things, they would have food guaranteed. Out of that came the idea of training them for jobs. An idea welcomed by the homeless: in the first year sixty boys poured into the “Josephine Bakhita” Center, the following year a hundred and twenty, the third a hundred and seventy-five and, in the year 2007-2008, four hundred. Since the school doesn’t have a boarding program, the students are housed in nearby rented private houses. Don Vincenzo is in charge of the project and he explains: “The boys spend the day in the workshops, where they can choose among six courses: mechanics, welding, electricity, masonry, carpentry, plumbing. They immediately become attached to the atmosphere. The secret is what Don Bosco called the ‘preventive system’, that is contained in three words: reason, affection and religion. Yes, also religion: there is a teacher of the Koran for the majority of the students, Muslims, while the few Christians are introduced to the Gospel. I live with them as in one great and joyful family. As well as study, there are periods of recreation: sport, music, trips.... At the end of the course they receive the diploma and, to make it easier for them to find work, a box of tools also. When they return to the refugee camps to see their families, they are received almost in triumph. The awarding of the diploma and the box of tools takes place right here, in the fields, in the presence of the tribal chiefs. ‘Only Don Bosco has thought about our boys’, I have heard the latter say, to emphasize their satisfaction...”. Soon Salesian nuns will come into the refugee camps, to take care of the mothers, the girls and the children. “Nevertheless all this is only a drop of good in so much desolation”, repeats Don Vincenzo. “Only prayer can save Darfur”.
Thanks be to God there is not only the war. In the south, where the fragile peace of 2005 still holds, the Salesians are carrying out some new initiatives. “Before starting our activities we drew up a Country strategy paper, an in-depth analyis of the political, economic and social situation of the country”, explains Massimo Zortea, president of VIS (Voluntary International Service for Development), the non-governmental body promoted by the Salesians that since 2006 has been working in Sudan and coordinating the support initiatives on behalf of all the “Don Bosco Network”, the international network of Salesian NGOs for development. “This modus operandi allows us to be incisive, that is to carry out interventions that become motors of change in a given socio-economic reality. The problem of south Sudan is the great dispersion of the villages. Seen from above, the area looks like a set of widely separated houses: a way of offering less easy targets for strafings in time of war, but also the consequence of widespread wariness among the population, where nobody trusts anyone else. So it is first of all a matter of rebuilding mutual confidence, the possibility of the social aggregation out of which a polis is born. From this idea came the plan, already funded, to set up ten rural schools, occupying three buildings. Another task is the promotion of the role of women, teaching literacy and organizing groups so as to enable them to cope with the alimentary needs of an entire village and even set up trade in agricultural products. In many areas of the south stores do not exist nor does a network of distribution, so we thought something of this kind important, optimising the role of women to the maximum. All these projects are based on local staff, trained by us, paid and monitored, because we want them to be the agents in these activities”.
A small drop of charity in a sea of desolation, certainly. But in a drought, a drop of water brings refreshment.

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