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from issue no. 11 - 2004

Annalena Tonelli: a Christian among the Somalis

by Davide Malacaria

Annalena Tonelli

Annalena Tonelli

«I chose to be for others: the poor, the suffering, the abandoned, the unloved, when I was only a child and so I’ve been and I trust I’ll continue to the end of my life. I only wanted to follow Jesus Christ. Nothing else interested me so strongly: Him and the poor in Him. For Him I made a choice of radical poverty… I live in service without a name, without the security of a religious order, without belonging to any organization, without a salary, without national insurance contributions for when I am old. I’m not married because that’s the way I chose in joy when I was young. I wanted to be all for God. It was a necessity of being, that of not having a family of my own. And so it has been by grace of God». Thus Annalena Tonelli, born in Forlì in 1943, spoke about her life at a conference on voluntary work that was held in the Vatican in 2001. She didn’t like talking about herself, but that time she had to give in to insistence. And on the occasion she told about her young years, passed in the service of the lowest in her city and the poor of the Third World thanks to the Committee for the fight against hunger in the world, which she helped to set up. But, she added, the scope of its actions seemed limited. So in 1969 she went to Africa. There she soon understood that one could serve the Lord anywhere. «But by then I was in Africa», she said «And I feel it was God who had brought me there, and there I stayed in joy and gratitude.» Thus her work began on behalf of the Somali people, scattered between Somalia and neighboring countries. Scraps of wounded humanity that she helped «on her knees», as she often repeated. In northern Kenya she began to teach English because, she explained, it was the only work she could do «without harming anyone». Soon she began to devote herself to people suffering from tuberculosis, first bringing them the relief of a little water and then helping them in the desert. The work became known and in 1976 the World Health Organization asked her to do something new, which turned out to be so efficient as to become a model applied worldwide. Thus those infected with TB began to flow into the rehabilitation center for poliomyelitis, the blind and the mutilated, which she had meanwhile set up, along with some companions, in the desert. Her Muslims loved her, but were anguished that she, a Christian, would not be able to go to Paradise. But, little by little, they became convinced. And how could it be otherwise? With them she had a very delicate relationship of esteem and friendship.
But there is not only the help to the most wretched. In 1984 the Kenyan authorities tried to exterminate a tribe in the desert. Her public denunciations prevented genocide. Because of that she was arrested and brought before the military tribunal, where the authorities, all Christian, revealed to her that she had escaped two ambushes, but the next one …«Then one of them asked me what drove me to act in that way. I told him that I did it for Jesus Christ who asks us to give our lives for our friends.»
It is difficult to give an account of the good work that sprouted around her, outside and inside Somalia, thanks also to the many occasional fellow-travelers that the Lord set next to her. Such as the special school in Borama, the outcome of the visit by an old student of hers who came from Kenya to Somalia to confide to her his disappointed love and who soon joined in creating a school for the deaf and dumb which later also took in handicapped children. A training center so appreciated that, she recounts, «some intellectuals and then some of the rich came to beg us to accept their children». And then the campaign for the removal of cataracts that, among those peoples, cause blindness. But above all, the TB center in Borama, in Somaliland, which treats and cures thousands of sick. A center around which everything flourishes, including a Koran school for her Muslims. In her testimony in the Vatican, Annalena Tonelli said: «The little ones, those without a voice, those who count for nothing in the eyes of the world, but so much in the eyes of God, his beloved ones, have need of us, and we must be with them and for them, and it doesn’t matter at all if our action is like a drop of water in the ocean. Jesus Christ did not speak about results. He only spoke about loving each other, about washing each other’s feet, of forgiving each other always». On the evening of 5 October 2003 she was killed by a pistol shot to the head as she was going home in Borama. In the evening. An execution with mysterious aspects. In Somalia there were no priests and therefore she had few chances to hear mass. So at night she knelt in adoration of the consecrated Host. «The las time I consecrated, it was a month before her death», recounts the bishop of Djibouti, Giorgio Bertin, who every now and then celebrated mass for Tonelli. In her testimony, Tonelli said: «The Eucharist tells us that our religion is useless without the sacrament of mercy, that it is in mercy that heaven meets earth».

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