Many things occur in life outside of our direct control or effort to make them happen. When you revisit them through your memory, you discover that what mattered most is not that you tried hard, but that you said “yes” to what you felt it was right, and you had the courage to jump, not knowing where you would land.
At times, I allow my memory to go back to my past life, and, infallibly, I marvel at its mysteriously complex tapestry. In this re-visitation, I encounter a string of meaningful faces, I re-live joyful and painful events that marked my existence, and I see myself in painful and delightful situations that forced me to make decisions I would regret or be proud of later on.
Surprisingly, I am always able to spot a thread of gold that runs through my forty odd years and glitters against the sombre colours. This thread is faith that takes the risk of trusting God. Thanks to it, I realise that everything in my life makes sense, and this sustains my confidence that the Weaver will also beautify my future with glitters of gold.
I was blessed with lovely parents. Dad was a man of integrity and inner strength. Mum was a wonderfully compassionate person who, in words and deeds, taught me and my siblings Christian values. Their capacity to love their family and their neighbours had a great influence on me.
Our extended family had been Catholic for several decades. Fr. Santino Kadu, my uncle, had been one of the first priests of Arua Diocese, in north-western Uganda. I had never met him, since he died before I was born, but people spoke wonderfully of him. He was a constant presence in our family, thanks to what mum and dad told us about him and to a photo of his hanging on a wall of our sitting room.
Our parish in Moyo town was one of the first in North Uganda. Created in 1917 by the Comboni Missionaries, it was still run by them when I became an altar boy. I had daily contacts with them. I admired them. They were fantastic with people in general and with the youth in particular. Their love for us was what made things go round in the many institutions they were managing.
When old enough to be a member of the parish youth group, I joined it. Fr. Aladino Mirandola, an Italian who had come to Uganda in 1954, was animating it. Though quite elderly by now, he could disseminate joy wherever he was. If I had a problem or a burden in my heart, I would turn to him, and his words, as if by magic, would solve or dissipate them. How beautiful it would be to be like him!
In August 1988, my cousin William Nyadru, who had joined the postulancy of the Comboni missionaries some years before, was ordained a priest at Moyo Parish. I felt like a thousand bucks. I told everybody present at the festive celebration that he was my cousin, the son of my auntie Katerina. He appeared to me like a hero in his white vestments. For a moment, I saw myself in his place, and I rejoiced immensely. At the end of the celebration, I told Fr. Aladino: “I will be like him”.
Three years later, on 25th October, 1991, Fr. William, who had been posted to Moroto Mission, in Karamoja sub-region, was found dead in an isolated place. His body was lying face down in the grass. He had been stripped, except for his underpants. His arms and hands were crossed to support his head. It looked like a position taken deliberately, carefully, serenely, even though imposed by others. His heart was transfixed by a bullet, shot through his back, and the ground below was still wet with his blood. His motorcycle was properly parked on its stand and undamaged. Nothing had been taken from him. He had not been killed by robbers. More probably, the priests-diviners of the area had ordered warriors to kill someone – anyone – on a motorcycle, so that the clan could avoid some imminent catastrophe. Many owner of motorcycles in the area had stopped going around on them.
Fr. William’s body was buried in Moyo. I served the mass of his funeral. I kept looking at his coffin, laid exactly where he had prostrated himself the day of his ordination. The thought that, at the supreme moment of his life, he had laid himself on the ground, with his head rested on his crossed hands, convinced me that his death had been a ‘sacrifice’.
At the end of the ceremony, Fr. Aladino placed his arm around my shoulders and said: “Our Christian faith leaves us in no doubt that William did not die in vain. We can be certain that the Lord will be bringing manifold gifts from his sacrifice”. I whispered: “I will take his place”.
One year later, I began my secondary school and the idea of following Fr. William’s steps faded away. Like any other student with dreams for a bright future, I threw myself into my studies. I wanted to become an engineer. For my A levels I chose Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics.
Towards the end of my secondary education, I attended a series of weekends organised by the YCS (Young Christians students) and vocation group of the school. During one of these retreats, one afternoon, each was to read and reflect upon a Bible text. The piece of paper I picked from the box read: “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me’, he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him” (Mt. 9:9).
I was tempted to drop it and pick another one, but something inside me prevented me from doing so. For the next hour, I fought strenuously with that text – which soon became a clear voice – and I lost. The words I had whispered to Fr. Aladino at the end of the funeral of Fr. William were now booming in my head and I could not silence them.
It was not easy to deal with the swirl of thoughts and emotions that accompanied me for several weeks. The situation was no longer the same. In 1994, when I was still in Senior 1, my mother had died, leaving in me a void that no one could fill. Gradually, however, I got closer and closer to my younger siblings, caring for them and giving them what mum had been pouring on them. A strong bond of love grew among us. We were supporting each other in all possible ways.
We would do domestic work together. It was as if we were one single soul. I could not even imagine that one day I would have to separate from them.
At the end, however, I had to let go the branch of tree I was holding onto –the attachment to my family – and join the Comboni Missionaries. Like Matthew, I left them and put aside the idea of being an engineer and the type of life that I had attached to it. In life, one is called to take risks, to make painful decisions and plunge into an unknown future.
In August 2000, I entered the Comboni postulancy in Jinja for a three-year course of philosophy. In August 2003, I began the novitiate in Namugongo. In May 2005. I made my first religious profession in my home parish. Soon after, I was assigned to the Theological Scholasticate of Lima (Peru), where I remained until January 2010.
After a year of missionary service in the Comboni community of Kyamuhunga Parish, Mbarara Archdiocese, in Uganda, on 14th January 2012, I was ordained a priest in Moyo. That day, Fr. Aldaino’s joy went through the roof. “You kept your promise”, he told me. I answered: “Fr. William will be my guiding star for the rest of my life”.
In May 2012, I was assigned to Holy Trinity Parish, in Old Fangak, Malakal Diocese, in the northern part of Jonglei State, South Sudan, among the pastoralist Nuer ethnic group. The area is called Al-Suud (an Arabic word for ‘barrier’ or ‘obstruction’). It is the largest swamp in the world, and one of the most remote and impoverished places in Africa. People, especially children, die of malaria, kala azar, diarrhoea, and malnutrition.
Life is difficult in Old Fangak.
The parish territory spreads for 100 km long (from north to south) and 50 km wide. The population is about 120,000. There are 60 Christian communities, each led by a catechist and a committee of people who deal with practical things. The catechist is the prayer leader on Sundays, the teacher of catechism classes and the animator of community meetings.
There are no roads in Old Fangak mission. We have no vehicles, motorcycles, or bicycles. We walk from a community to another, crossing immense swamps. We have no cell phones, either. Internet connection, present only in the centre, is usually cut. When a father leaves Old Fangak for a pastoral tour, he knows that he will not be back before a month or two. He has to rely on people and on their generosity.
The great hope borne with the independence in 2011 has vanished in a thin light. Many lives were lost in the last conflict and thousands of people have been displaced. Witnessing this has been a difficult test for me. And still is. Yet, I have always found enough reasons to push on. The Neur taught me to be patient, humble, prudent, hopeful and, above all, to work and overcome hardships together. Now I know that good relationships are the missionary’s first tool in a situation of first evangelisation.
I continue to believe that the Word of God I am sowing one day will sprout and give fruit. Meanwhile, I gladly accept to suffer with the Nuer and to grab together with them the little joys of living. And every single day, I pray that I may always be worthy of being Fr. William’s cousin. (Fr Alfred Mawadri)