Peace and goodwill to you. This page has unexpectedly emerged from my diaries. I wrote it after emerging safe and sound from an adventure. It does not go very well with Christmas: it is rather the premise of the surprise that I give you at the end of the letter.
On the morning of a splendid day, I left at dawn for Sunday Mass at the Ekango Chapel, Maboma Mission (DRC). Ekango is a modest Christian community, not very organized, where catechists and leaders do what they can; but they are very welcoming people. Following the path that goes through the thick Congolese Ituri forest, still submerged in the night-dew, it was a pleasant twenty-kilometer trip. The only difficulty that awaited me, and I knew it, were the two bridges in the middle of the road.
It had rained at night and I was soaking wet up to my knees, zigzagging through the tall fresh grasses, in and out of ponds and streams, but still very comfortable. It was a Sunday visit routine: confessions, the Eucharist, visits to some families, discussion of one problem or another. Suddenly, there was the first bridge! To my delight, it was “well arranged”: the straight, leveled tree log was a nice white plate of 15cm wide; lined up nearby was a small pole to rest a foot on, for safety. I pass with ease. Not so the second: there was only a crooked and somewhat rotten log and the support pole, it was half broken and bent until it sank in the muddy water.
I perform a stunt game: balancing with difficulty, I move along the broken pole holding the motorcycle at low speed on the log, which in the middle of the journey is almost at the height of my shoulders. It turned out well for me - I think proudly - The problem will be when I return, when I will have to do it all over again.
After the Eucharist and the frugal meal with the Christians of Ekango, the day continues splendidly. I decide to go to Bedegao, a small community that I still don't know. I go two kilometers by motorcycle, and then I cross the Mulobi marsh on a ramshackle pirogue in the middle of tall grasses, which cover us like a dome; 50 minutes on foot, then crossing the Nepoko River by canoe, and another fifteen minutes on foot. It is very nice to exchange greetings with people, meet pygmies on the way, find out about different situations, contemplate splendid landscapes: in short, an extremely friendly afternoon. The sun is always shining, and I am late for contemplating many beautiful things: the panorama and the affectionate children who run to hug the “mupe” Juan-Pablo, the pygmies with their bows and arrows, a woman weaving beautiful baskets.
I counted while the sun so cruelly sank to the horizon and I repeated to myself: you have to cross the two bridges before nightfall. In the dark how do I get out of trouble, especially with a broken pole? The two log-bridges are a few kilometers from each other.
It is four in the afternoon, I am back at Ekango at the scheduled time and the sun still bright and hot. Suddenly, while I fix the Mass briefcase on the motorcycle carrier, thunder explodes from an invisible corner of the jungle: I have learned from experience that this is the elegant announcement of a storm that will arrive in a few minutes.
I start at full speed, in the middle of tall grasses that do not let you see the ground, zigzagging between the standing trees and the fallen ones, between bamboo that cross you in front and termite mounds that threaten you from the other, jumping over ponds and roots.
I am still three kilometers from the bridges when the wind begins to blow, the drizzle filtering through the bushes and leaves: I cannot accelerate any more, the only thing is to hope for the storm to arrive after the bridges. Only one kilometer to go when I pass three groups of pygmies returning from a party: they greet me happily, they shout my name, unconcerned with the wind and the storm that threatens. Well, I tell myself, shortly they will also be at the bridge of the broken pole, if I have a difficulty, I will wait for them." The Jaguar motorcycle jumps around the roots, skims the rare stones, cuts the curves without any care. I want to pass the broken bridge before the storm. I reach the broken bridge under the first violent blast of rain – useless fear of mine! Near the trunk there is another pole on which I can rest my left foot: covered by the grass of the morning, it is now exposed by the wind. I cross it without issues and looking at the stream I see an already a flooding river.
The back wheel has not yet touched the ground on the other side and all hell breaks loose: the wind blows me with gusts of fallen leaves, pieces of dry branches, and blows of rain. My glasses are covered with dirty water and mud – mine don't have a windshield – and in three seconds I am a garbage drain. Dark waves gather in the sky and under the immense trees of the underwood of the jungle that rise 30-40, even 50 meters, the afternoon turns into a dark night. The mud makes the wheels spin, the darkness increasingly dense and penetrating, forces me to turn on the headlights. Thunder and lightning envelop everything: the lightning under the trees with the motorcycle reflections are horrible, dangerous. I have to find shelter, and the first village is two kilometers away, hurry up, I tell myself. I take a risk and jump in.
A curve in the path, a broken branch that forces me to bend down, a turn to avoid a fallen log: as soon as I put my Jaguar back in line, suddenly over my already useless glasses, coming from the opposite direction I glimpse a white line a few meters away: The other bridge! I had completely forgotten!
Like the speed of light, a decision resounds in my mind: don't stop, accelerate to give stability to the bike and may God’s Angel protect you!
You won't believe me, but I didn't even feel the tires rub against the wood, the motorcycle hadn't skidded a millimeter, and in two seconds I was on the other side. If fear catches me and I break, I end up in the already deep pool of water, if I exit the curve without being in line with the log and fall in between the log and pole I break my head. The only reaction I had as I got under the back of the rain was: Thank you, Guardian Angel, and people say you don't exist!
The path was an entire quagmire, with branches of trees and African palms, bushes of every kind that fell at each turn of the road. However, it was no longer worth stopping to wait for the rain to break, because then the mud would stick to the wheels. I get home after 40 minutes of muddy trail, soaked to the bone, as they say, but with all of them whole! The storm has already stopped, and a gentle sun appears at sunset. I have the chills: is it from the rain or is it the goose bumps of an adventure? I don't know: the cold water in the bucket, the only one we have, seems warm to me, it revives me, and I find myself praying a short and sympathetic prayer in Kiswahili in a low voice: Malaika mlinzi wango, unilinde katika hatari zote za roho na za mwili. "My Guardian Angel, protect me from all dangers of the soul and body."
Say what you like: quick reflexes (but at my age!), cold blood (freezing in that rain!), luck (but I have never won anything in the lottery). For me it's simpler: I don't know if angels exist or what angels do, but mine is a knight who never leaves me in distress.
News, maybe a surprise for some. They have asked me to support a training project for the spirituality of Justice and Peace in Kisangani (Congo). In the letter for next Easter, I will explain it in detail. And they have also asked me to return there to collaborate directly in the project. I have accepted. “At your age?” a person who has been my friend for years tells me: “Isn't it risky?” Well, the matter is in the hands of eternal Rome for the final word. I take a risk, my Guardian Angel has not been fired due to the economic crisis or retired due to age, since he does not have these issues. Also, just among us, it is more elegant for a missionary to die of malaria in Africa than of Covid in the United States.
If I am a missionary, I owe it to a spiritual father who has opened my eyes, if I am a priest it is because of a priest who has inspired me, if I continue on this path it is because our founder Daniel Comboni said, If I had a thousand lives, I would give them all for Africa. I only have one, and it better be for the same mission.
Merry Christmas and my special remembrance.