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from issue no. 11 - 2008

The roses of Kampala

In the poor neighborhoods of the capital of Uganda hope is burgeoning among a group of women infected by AIDS. The story of Rose and her friends

by Gianni Valente

The hill of Kireka is not like the others. On the seven hills of central Kampala the houses of the rich and the walled compounds for foreigners and politicians firmly occupy the top of the hills. They look like islands floating on the sea of mud, men, tin roofs and poverty that swarm below, in the slums stacked between one hill and another, as if they were piles of debris washed ashore downstream after an African storm. On Kireka, however, the shantytown of the poor, swollen by waves of refugees from forgotten wars, has taken over the summit, clinging to the irregular edges of the stone quarry which shows up like a huge open wound.
There, along with the others, Agnes goes with her children. She hammers the large stones her husband has chipped out of the rock wall and smashes them into pebbles and gravel to sell to the construction companies’ trucks. Usually, from morn to night, the silence of that desolate land is broken only by the hammering of women and children as they squat on the ground, breaking stones for a few coins a day, the bare necessity for life. Were you to ask her how things are going she would answer in a wisp of a voice that things are getting worse, the price of food goes up every day, but the price for stones remains the same. Today, however, from the path that climbs up from the village, comes a different sound, yelling and cries, bursts of laughter, rhythmic songs, until the din made by a small and festive procession pours into the quarry. Dozens of women with homemade gourd drums start dancing and singing right there, in that human anthill burned by the sun of the equator. At one point even Agnes is taken over by the contagious energy, she lays down her hammer, sets her worries aside and begins to dance. And when Massimo photographs her she bursts into laughter when she remembers her missing front tooth.
The small band of singing dancers might seem a mirage blown in from who knows where. But here they all know each other: Alala, Janet, Agnes, and all the other women of the Meeting Point International. They also live there in shacks of mud, brick and sheet metal scattered on the hill. And added to the misery everyone suffers, they share the fact of being infected with the plague of AIDS. Most of them ended as poor thirty-kilo scarecrows, ghosts who wandered the roads and garbage dumps looking for food, poor bodies wrecked by infection who expected to die in silence, crouched in some stinking corner. What drove off the darkness that had already smothered their lives was – they all say – Auntie Rose. But Auntie Rose says no, nothing to do with her.

The beard of God
Certainly she, in her heart, would have liked to heal everybody. That was why she studied to become a nurse and midwife: to treat the suffering and make sure children were born healthy. But then things remained out of reach of her generous intentions. “The sick let themselves go, they didn’t want to take the medicine I gave them. The children I wanted to save by sending them to school stayed sad, seeming to prefer rolling in the trash. The first day at hospital I fainted at the sight of blood”. What a shameful figure. She had gone there to take care of the sick and dying but it was them who bent to restore her courage and give her back hope. It was she who was borne up on a wave of unexpected tenderness. Just like what happened when she went to see Don Giussani, her great friend. “When I would meet him”, Rose recalls, “it seemed that he’d been waiting just for you for who knows how long. I’d arrive there with the intention of setting out all my problems but on seeing him my tangled thoughts would all melt at the door, and I wouldn’t say anything. ‘But just think,’ Don Gius once said to me, ‘even if you were the only person in the universe, God would have come all the same to die for you! Only for you!’ I wasn’t at all interested in knowing what Communion and Liberation was. But that God takes something that is nothing and saves it, that God would come to earth just for me, is something that moves me every time I think of it. When I left his study, I went out on wings. I would repeat to myself: but if a man, a human being, limited like me, loves me so much, then who knows how much God must! How much God must! If I thought of God, I imagined playing with him, joking with him, like with a grandfather, plaiting his long beard. Then others would say: you’re immature. Once when I saw him, I said: Gius, my friends say I have an immature faith. He jumped to his feet as if he was going to dash out and thump someone: ‘Tell me who it is! Tell me who’s saying this! If they say you’re immature, it means that they’re complicated!’’’.
The fact is that after that time at the hospital, another story began for Rose. Unpredictable as a new grace. As the Kampala sky, which rains when you least expect it.

The children’s house
Today the year-end report cards for the older children, those in the elementary classes, have arrived in the house of Kitintare. All passes. Rose reads through them one by one, sending pleased smiles to the small heroes, who one by one stick out their chests with shy pride. When her patients began to die (and at first it was a disaster, four or five a week were going), their children, including new-born infants, stayed there, and Rose didn’t know what to do. “At first I got angry even with Jesus. ‘You hide yourself too much’, I told him, ‘that’s why then people don’t believe in you. And then you send me all these children, and I can’t even manage to feed them, what am I do with them?’” Now, the two-storey house is brand new, the dormitories are slowly filling with bunk beds. All paid for – just think – with development funds provided by the Zapatero government. Moreover, land in Kireka to build a small crèche and a little school where the children of Rose’s patients will grow, has been donated by a local wheeler-dealer politician. “He saw the work we were doing, that’s all. Even on the name of Jesus you can do business. You can even do harm, using the name of Jesus. And instead, you can do something naively without thinking, instinctively following the movement of your heart, and the thing gets embraced by the Lord and becomes a big thing, even if you did it for no clear reason”. Now in Kitintare it is the children who embrace her. The smallest, including the baby girl just arrived, number about thirty. There’s Brigitte. There’s Gloria. One has been called Luigi Giussani, and another is called Carron. There’s also Carras, who had been dumped in the garbage. And there’s Moses, adopted as a tiny baby sleeping in the arms of his dead mother. Now they all hug the legs of Rose and of the women who look after the house. If she kisses one, the others wail, also wanting to be cuddled. They stretch out their arms, they want to be taken by the hand. Then it’s them who pull her up the stairs, to make her look at their bed, or the little broken doll that has somehow finished up there.

Things as they come
HIV, even in Uganda, is only the latest scourge to spread death and pain among simple and lively people already plagued by poverty and disease, wars and massacres, greedy politicians and fear of evil spirits. In Kampala, as in other parts of Africa, many are landing to set out their ethical and spiritual nostrums for the ills of the time. The miracle merchants have been here for some time. Pentecostal sects have alice away from me. The first wish of a person who suffers is to be freed from the disease. For someone to give the medicine to heal him. Pain and death are against us”. And then, one shouldn’t agitate oneself about the things of God. They come of themselves. Like the sunsets that she sometimes goes to see with her friends from a hill along the road to Entebbe: “They don’t last long, but they’re beautiful. The sky becomes all sorts of colors”. Or like the Abruzzo folksongs she has heard from her Italian friends, and that she liked so much that now even her patients’ children sing them in chorus: So’ sajutu aju Gran Sassu, so’ remastu ammutulitu, me parea che passu passu se sajesse a j’infinitu… (I climbed up the Gran Sasso, I was reduced to silence, it seemed that step by step I climbed toward the infinite). “Now”, Rose says, “they even go to sing them to the women working in the quarry. And they put their hammers down and stop to listen to the beautiful songs of the Abruzzo”. Like the Guaraní of the Jesuit Missions in South America, who sang Latin hymns. And there’s no point in explaining anything. “Because beautiful things are striking in themselves. They don’t need translators. Mystery speaks a language that we all understand”.
The chorus intones another song in English: “I can’t walk”, sing Rose’s young friends, “unless you take me by the hand. The mountain is too high, the valley is so deep”. When William died he was still a little boy. The disease had been passed on by his parents. In his last days he asked Rose to hold his hand when the time came, because he didn’t want to die alone like his father. “I’ve always been struck”, says Rose, “by that episode when the only thing Jesus knows how to say to the mother mourning the death of her only son, is: ‘Woman, do not weep!’” That reaction, in that moment, seemed almost a limit to his omnipotence. Instead, it was him who was moved first. God is moved by us, he softens more, more than the greatest Dad”. Perhaps this too has to do with the fact that, at a certain point, Rose’s friends wanted to change the logo printed on the Meeting Point t-shirts. “I’d chosen Icarus by Matisse. I explained to them who he was and the meaning of that small red dot the painter had put in place of his heart.” The desire for the infinite, to fly to the sun ... “But my patients told me they weren’t like Icarus. They weren’t screaming and dying in the void, like him. They’d seen that an orphan, even when playing, plays in a more timid way, with less freedom and creativity, than those who have their Mom and Dad. I answered it was true. I asked them to suggest a new logo. And they came up with Peter and John running to the tomb of the Risen Christ”.

Paper pearls
That God is touched by them, you can guess from how the women of the Meeting Point are moved by the children who no longer have parents. Rose says that “at Kireka they never say: we don’t have enough to eat for ourselves, we can’t help others. If some child has been left all alone, they begin competing: I’ll take it, no, I’ll take it”. Also in Naguru, in the field with the wooden shed near the church of Saint Jude Thaddeus, where other patients of the Meeting Point meet, not many big speeches are made. None of them has lessons to give, no one pretends they’ve seen it all and know all about it. They all, including the many Muslims and animists in the group, ask the guests from Rome – (“Don Giacomo, my great friend sent them”, says Rose introducing them to others) – to greet the Pope for them when they get home. If they have to say anything, they just thank Rose for very elementary and concrete things: the antiretroviral drugs she gives them in the infirmary, the adoption-at-a distance network she has set up with her friends from AVSI so that the children can go to school, the microcredits thanks to which several of them have opened small shops and bought tools and materials for their modest manufacturing businesses. Some of the women pick up paper in the road, cut it into long, thin strips that they roll around a needle, and with a bit of glue and dye produce beautiful necklaces that friends have managed to get taken by deluxe boutiques in Milan. And then there’s Agnes, who has begun sewing clothes again. There’s Dorina who fled with her three children from the war in the north and who remembers when what they ate were wild herbs and what they found in the trash, but now instead eats well, and you can see it ... And then there’s Vicky, the beautiful one, who says of herself, without anger or pride: “If you’ve never seen a miracle, here’s one, it’s me, because I was dead, and I’ve come back to life”. All this is why, when they are together, they let their hair down and sing and dance the village dances, laugh, make fun of each other like way-out and cheeky teenagers. It’s their very African way of celebrating and showing gratitude for the infectious contact of the good life, of healed life, that has come to them and let them flourish again. In their improvised skits they make fun of death that had already almost claimed them. They play exhilarating football matches among themselves, and there are people who go to enjoy the show. The shed of the women who were going to die has become a meeting place for people who want to relax and come there to enjoy a sip of joy after a day’s toil, in a place where life is beautiful.
There are now over four thousand patients and children taken care of by Rose and her friends at Meeting Point International. It’s her whom everyone thanks but Rose says “there are no bosses here, if I weren’t here they’d go on just the same”. Indeed, now it is she who would spend her whole life listening to their stories, watching how they help and console each other among the shacks of Kireka, without worrying, with peace in their hearts. So now it is they who are going ahead, and she lets herself be carried, be led by the hand. In the words of another song the boys are always singing: “Look at the sky, that holds out promises for us. Even if the Traitor hates us, we hope to arrive home. Look at this land full of pain: we weep, but we are strong, because Jesus will rise and bring us to his house”. “As for myself”, says Rose, “I crawl on all fours, as kids do. Again today I’m like yesterday, if anything I’m worse. But that God should come all the same, take me up and save me all the same, that He should come for me, for my nothingness, is something that makes me want to cry. I have nothing to give you. But take it just the same”.

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