Fr. Francesco. A Heart for the Pygmies

He has spent 50 years in Africa, mostly among the Pygmies. “In my heart, I keep my love for Africa and Africa’s love for us missionaries”. 

I was born in Biancavilla, a small town in Sicily (Italy). Thanks to a catechist from our parish, I was able to enter the minor seminary of my diocese, Catania where I spent eight years. During that period, two Comboni missionaries who were visiting enthused us by talking about the missions in Africa. That is why I decided to join the Comboni Missionaries.

I was ordained a priest in 1968 and after a period of service in Italy, in 1972 I was assigned to what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and more precisely to the mission of Mungbere, a community in the middle of the jungle in the north-east of the country. A year later, purely by chance, I saw, for the first time, groups of pygmies on the streets of Moley, Dodi and Dingbo. I also witnessed the baptism of the first pygmies in the parish.

Two years later, I was assigned to the parish of Nangazizi and then to that of Rungu, where I spent most of my time in the bush visiting the 95 Christian communities of this huge parish; the furthest chapel was 110 kilometres from the central church. In 1984, I was assigned to the parish of Gombari, where the Comboni community was engaged in pastoral work with the Pygmies. 

From 1984 until 2018, my missionary life was centred upon this village. For ten years I was the diocesan head of Pygmy pastoral care. Our work with the Pygmies focused on two fundamental and complementary areas: evangelization and education, although there were also health support programs and more specific training in agriculture and other fields.

The forest is the natural habitat of the Pygmies. As they are often on the move, one of our commitments has been to set up small schools near the larger camps so that, for at least a few months, the pygmy children could study alongside other children to help them integrate. We felt that this was the only way to enable Pygmies to go to secondary school.

The Pygmies are the poorest people in Congolese society, but the school has allowed them to better themselves. Many have learned to read and write; some have been able to go to college and now work as midwives or teachers. I am very happy with the progress the pygmies are making. One of the highlights of our work was when we organized a march in 2005 to demand respect for the rights of the Pygmies. About 2,500 people started out and travelled, in some cases, up to 300 kilometres, to the city of Isiro. Despite this, difficulties remain and much remains to be done to ensure that the Pygmies may be Congolese citizens with the same rights as everyone else.

As for myself, it takes much more than a lifetime to accompany these people who, being one of the poorest and most abandoned, are a priority within the Comboni charism. My memories are of thanksgiving to God because I have never felt alone. The people, especially the Pygmies, welcomed me very warmly. God has been with us in all circumstances, even during the war, when I was taken prisoner and held for 14 days, I never felt abandoned. The Pygmy people always protected us and took care of us. I keep in my heart the love for Africa and the love of Africans for us missionaries.