Sr Liliana “I have not risked my life for nothing”

Sister Liliana Rivetta was born on November 15th 1943 in Gavardo, in the Province of Brescia, Northern Italy. Times were hard in the post-war years in Italy. Although she did well at her lessons, Liliana was a somewhat disinterested pupil and left school at the age of fourteen to go and work for a dressmaker in the nearby town of Brescia.

On March 26th 1965, when she was twenty-two years of age, Liliana joined the Comboni Sisters. A few months later, she left for London where she did her Novitiate of two years and then took her First Vows as a Comboni Missionary Sister on September 29th 1967. 

After her First Vows, Liliana began to prepare herself for work in the Missions. After completing a Montessori Course, with a view to teaching pre-school children, she was assigned to Uganda.   On September 12th 1969, the SS Asia set sail from Venice with Sister Liliana and one hundred and twenty other passengers on board, bound for Mombasa in Kenya, where it entered the port on the morning of Wednesday 8th October 1969.

Liliana continued her journey by train from Mombasa to Lira, a town in the North of Uganda. 

She gradually grew accustomed to the climate, the environment and the people of Lira. During the dry season, the hot sun beat down mercilessly. All the grass dried up, becoming a yellowish straw-like colour, and died scorched by the hot wind. When the rainy season came, all would suddenly change.

With the rains, the stunted straw-like grass was transformed into luxurious tall growth. The rains brought new life everywhere they fell. Adults and children alike welcomed the rain; their faces turned upwards to receive it, like dry fields thirsting for water. Rain is considered a blessing in Africa. The first time Liliana saw a tropical storm, she was terrified by the amount of water that fell, and wondered how anything could survive such a downpour: the local huts of dry grass and mud, the fields of cassava, millet and sorghum, or the gravel roads. In fact the rickety bridges across the local rivers in the District were often washed away by the force of such water and the wetlands around Lira became lakes passable only by canoe.  

The land inhabited by the Lango ethnic group has been generously blessed by nature. If the rains do not fail, there are plenty of beans, cereals, vegetables and all sorts of tropical fruits. Mangoes hang down from the trees within easy reach. Citric fruits abound, oranges, mandarins and lemons, although they have a colour of their own, a greenish yellow colour unlike those seen in the shops of Europe.

The Mission was like a ‘Garden of Eden’ with fruits and flowers of every kind: bougainvillea, hibiscus, and frangipanis adorned the entrance to the Convent of the Sisters. The wetlands were covered with lotus flowers. Together with the green vegetation and abundant growth, however, the rain also brought mosquito larvae to life after they had been dormant during the dry season.

To avoid getting malaria, it was necessary to take chloroquine tablets and sleep under a mosquito net. At first, Liliana would scream at the sight of a caterpillar, a scorpion, a cockroach or a spider; yet she soon learned to live together with these and the countless other creatures, great and small, of Northern Uganda. She even managed to eat the flying white ants that would swarm around immediately after the rains started and which are a much sought-after delicacy in the locality.


The children of St. Kizito Nursery School became an integral part of Sister Liliana’s life. As she would go to the local villages to visit their families, they would follow her along the paths that were like shady tunnels through the long grass that met above their heads. The children who had never seen a white woman before would keep repeating with a mixture of trepidation and amazement, “Muzungu, muzungu” meaning ‘European’. Along the way she would meet women with a wonderful combination of balance and strength as they carried large pots of water on their heads, with a ring made of grass as a protective cushion, and their babies on their backs. They walked with long steps, majestically, she thought, like royalty.

After three years running the Nursery School in the Mission of Lira, it was time for Liliana to return to Italy to prepare for her Final Vows which she took on July 2nd 1974. She stayed another three years in Italy working on the ‘home front’ while undertaking further training as a primary school teacher. 

In January 1977 she left once again for Africa, this time bound for Kenya. Her destination was to the Parish Primary School in Kariobangi, one of the many shanty-towns scattered around Nairobi. The crowds of human beings coming and going from the cardboard shelters with their roofs of plastic sheeting among the open sewers and mountains of rubbish made a deep and lasting impression on Liliana.

She did not know where to start. In that part of the city, countless poor children searched among the heaps of rubbish for scraps of food in order to survive. With the help of ‘Caritas International’, Sister Liliana began a soup kitchen near the Primary School to feed local children, and the number receiving a nourishing daily meal soon ran into the hundreds. Liliana was literally besieged by children whose odour of destitution and rubbish soon became her own. Yet she was heartbroken at the sight of so many hungry children, and in her heart of hearts longed for a world away from crowded humanity.

Sister Liliana was relieved, therefore, when a year later she was again assigned to Uganda. This time to the Mission in Amudat in the South of Karamoja, on the border with Kenya, among the Pokot ethnic group. Being free to spend time with the local people without the pressure of school responsibilities made Liliana very happy indeed but this was not to last long. The headmistress of the Girls’ Primary School in the Mission fell seriously ill, and the School was desperately in need of a new head. Sister Liliana reluctantly obliged. It was the beginning of 1979. 

This year was to see the start of a terrible time for Karamoja. The region was in the grip of armed conflict, with the abundance of weaponry left by the former soldiers of Idi Amin, between the different ethnic groups. Sister Liliana personally saw thirteen people shot dead around the Mission of Amudat. There was the worst drought in living memory which saw the death of all the livestock and widespread famine among the local people.

The children were starving and Sister Liliana gathered eight hundred of them into the Mission compound. When supplies were running low and she feared having nothing to give them to eat, the tears would begin to flow and she would go to Church, praying to God to urgently send some food for her hungry children. At the time, she wrote to one of her friends in Italy, “I would be prepared to pay the price personally to alleviate the suffering of these people”. 

It was early on the morning of Monday 10th August 1981, with armed robbers and cattle raiders on the roads, that Sister Liliana drove to Moroto, the regional capital of Karamoja, to buy food, stationery, uniforms and medicine for the School. The trip would be her last. On the way back to Amudat, she was driving the vehicle with another Sister, Rosaria Marrone, in the passenger seat. She was very happy, as she had filled the vehicle with all the items needed at the school. Shots from an AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle rang out. The first struck her in the shoulder but the second pierced her heart. The vehicle came to a halt in the grass by the side of the road. The attackers approached, and on seeing the Sister dead at the wheel, one of the band apologised to Sister Rosaria, saying, “Oh, we didn’t mean to kill a Sister, we didn’t mean to kill a Sister” and they immediately departed without even bothering to look further inside the vehicle.  

Sister Rosaria removed Liliana’s veil and used it to cover her lifeless face. She moved Liliana’s body to the passenger seat and set out for the nearby Mission of Nabilatuk. Liliana was only thirty-seven years of age. “I have not risked my life for nothing”, she had written tellingly to a friend only a few days before.