36 Years in Africa

The witness of Fr. Valerio, who after 36 years is leaving his beloved mission in Africa to return to Italy

Valerio Valeri, 83, has been in mission in Africa since 1986. In the photo, a moment from the going away party at the parish of St. Joseph (Nairobi, Kenya)

If it had been up to me, I would not have spent the last 36 years of my life in mission in Nairobi, Kenya, but in Latin America, where some of my friends lived.  My vocation was born above all as a response to the invitation to share the experience of the movement of Communion and Liberation that I had met just two years after my priestly ordination, in 1964. Fr. Giussani said in 1984 that we needed to “empty the boot [referring to Italy]” and I immediately gave my availability. One month later, in September, St. John Paul II said to the Movement for the 31st anniversary of its birth: “Go out to all the world to bring the truth, the beauty, and the peace that is found in Christ the Redeemer. Take on the weight of this need of the Church: these are the instructions I give to you.”

If I left for Nairobi in 1986, it is because Cardinal Maurice Otunga and Comboni Father Marangoni, founder of the Missionary Congregation of the Apostles of Jesus, had asked for a priest and several Memores Domini, mainly to educate children and university students in the faith, but also to open a new professional school, the Apostles of Jesus Technical Institute, in the suburbs south of the city. At the time, I was not yet part of the Fraternity of St. Charles: the first house of the Fraternity in Africa was born in 1993 with Fr. Roberto Amoruso and restarted in 1997 – when my bishop finally gave me the “nulla osta” to join the Fraternity – with the arrival of Fr. Alfonso Poppi and the beginning of our pastoral work.

At first, Africa was an unknown continent for me, but I was certain that what I had encountered in the Movement could respond to the questions in the hearts of Africans. I started enthusiastically with the idea of sharing the beauty of the faith. However, we didn’t want to transplant the Movement to Africa but to live it in a new way together with our African friends. What struck them most was above all our experience of the house (I was living with the Memores Domini), to which we often invited them. Used to a largely “spiritual” Christian experience, a life together like ours which was willing to face everything in reality was fascinating to them.

«In Africa I saw spontaneity in the yes to life, a freshness of the religious sense and of hope, a perception of reality in its totality with God».

Personally, I was always impressed by the profound religiosity of Africa (its “religious sense”), that permeates every aspect of life, even if it can be lived in a fatalistic way which minimizes personal responsibility. I always found the young people very much open in front of the Christian experience: in Africa, you don’t find all the objections that young people in Italy have. At school, we didn’t limit ourselves only to teaching a trade, but we always tried to pass on the meaning and the beauty of work and life. Thus were born the first communities of Communion and Liberation, thanks to (and through) a few families that spent several years with us.

I can say that I felt truly at home only with the arrival of the Fraternity: sharing a place every day with other priests was fundamental for my vocational journey and my missionary work. The house of the Memores and the house of the Fraternity were and are the heart of the Movement: it was above all the unity among us which was a “credible” sign of our experience. This presence was then enriched in 2012 with the arrival of the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo.

Our presence in the neighborhood of Kahawa Sukari, on the outskirts of Nairobi, has been reinforced thanks to the experience of the parish. I was always amazed to see that the faith is able to unite people who, coming from different parts of the country, didn’t have any link between them, if not for belonging to the same tribe. From this vibrant community, open to the needy and vulnerable, were born various works of charity: the Meeting Point for those afflicted by AIDS and the Ujiachilie for disabled children. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the experience of the Movement in Kenya began in a school. Fr. Massimo Camisasca and later Fr. Paolo Sottopietra would often insist on education as the way to change the future of this country wounded by “endemic corruption” which weakens the responsibility to work for the common good. Only education can change this mentality and only a Christian experience can teach one to live responsibility as service. For this reason, several schools were born in the parish: the Elena Mazzola Kindergarten, the Urafiki Carovana primary school, and Cardinal Otunga High School. I will always have a special place in my heart for St. Kizito school, where I taught for 28 years. When it opened, it had sixty students and three professional courses. Today it has about 800 students and more than ten courses. Many students, after graduating, return to thank us for what we had taught them about work and about life. I remember with particular affection the witness of a student in the course for electricians: “At that time I was doing drugs and was often suspended by the principal because I smoked marijuana. But I was given a second chance and I met friends in my class who encouraged me to love my life and live seriously. They introduced me to Communion and Liberation, through which I grew in the faith. At St. Kizito, I didn’t just learn a trade: on April 27, 2019 I was baptized and the principal was my godfather.”

I like to sum up my 36 years of experience in Africa with these hope-filled words of Benedict XVI: “In Africa I saw spontaneity in the yes to life, a freshness of the religious sense and of hope, a perception of reality in its totality with God […] on which the Church can count.”

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