Annalena Tonelli, a lay Italian Catholic missionary, dubbed the ‘Mother Teresa’ of the Somali people is an example of a life full of meaning. Murdered in 2003, she spent 33 years totally dedicated to the poor in a Muslim environment. In a testimony given before her martyrdom, she said: “I strongly feel that we all are called to love”, because “in the end, it is the only thing that truly matters
All Christian vocations are a call to live life in all its exuberance. The existence of a Christian is not a ‘diminished’ life, but a life elevated to its maximum potential—a life that breathes energy from every pore of the skin and really savours the taste of living; a profoundly rich sensory life, because it feeds on the entire sensory capacity that God endowed us—with the five physical and spiritual senses. Origen says that ‘there are two men in every one of us: an inner man and an outer man.” To every physical sense corresponds a ‘spiritual sense’ of the soul, of the ‘inner person’. I would like to present to you the testimony of a “life overflowing with sense”. It is the life of Annalena Tonelli, a lay volunteer, an Italian Catholic missionary, nicknamed the ‘Mother Teresa’ of the Somali people. She was an extraordinary woman who lived quietly for 33 years, fully dedicated to the poor, a life of evangelical radicalism in an environment completely Muslim. She was murdered on 5 October 2003, precisely on the day Daniel Comboni was canonised. Annalena never liked to talk about herself. But in 2001, she accepted the insistent invitation to participate in a meeting on volunteering in Rome. On that occasion, she gave an extraordinary and exciting testimony, of which we offer some excerpts.
TO LIVE FOR OTHERS
“My name is Annalena Tonelli. I was born in Italy on 2 April 1943. I left Italy in January 1969. Since then, I have lived to serve the Somalis. For thirty years, I have shared and lived with them except for short breaks due to unavoidable circumstances. From the time I was a child, I chose to live for the others: the poor, the suffering, the abandoned, and the unloved and this is what I have been doing and will continue to do until the end of my life with the help of God. I wanted to follow Jesus Christ. Nothing else was of any interest to me: only Him and the poor in Him. For Him, I have made the choice of radical poverty… even though I will never be so poor as the truly poor, the poor that fill every moment of my life. I serve without a name, without the security of a religious order, without belonging to any organisation, without a salary, and without putting aside money for a pension in my old age. I am not married because such is the joyful choice I made since my youth. I wanted to belong totally to God. I did not have the call to have a family of my own. And so it was, thanks to the grace of God.
THE ‘CRY’ OF LIFE
I left Italy after six years in the slums of my hometown, serving children in the local orphanage: little girls mentally handicapped or victims of family violence, and poor people coming from the Third World. I thought that I could not give myself totally if I stayed in my own country: I felt suffocated within the narrow boundaries of my area of operation. I soon realised that one can serve and love everywhere. But, by then I was in Africa and I knew that it was God that had taken me there; and there I remained with joy and gratitude. I had left, committed to “cry out the Gospel with my life” in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld, who had ignited my existence. Even now, thirty-three years later, I continue proclaiming the Gospel only with my life and I burn with the desire to continue proclaiming it in such way until the end. This is my basic motivation, together with an invincible passion, which I have always had, for the wounded and downtrodden innocent people, beyond the boundaries of race, culture and faith. I try to live with complete respect for those that the Lord has given me. I have adopted their style of life as much as possible. I live a very modest life in terms of housing, food, means of transport and clothes. I spontaneously abandoned my western habits. I try to dialogue with everybody. I have given tenderness, love, loyalty and passion. May the Lord forgive me if I use such lofty words.
I LIVE WAITING FOR GOD
In Africa, I have almost always lived with the Somalis; first with the Somalis of northeastern Kenya; then with the Somalis of Somalia. I live in a world—bordering Ethiopia and Djibouti—that is strictly Muslim. There are no Christians to share my faith. Twice a year, around Christmas and Easter, the bishop of Djibouti comes to celebrate Mass with me and for me. I live alone now, because my companions, who together with the poor people made my life a paradise during my 17 years in the desert, took different paths when I was forced to leave Kenya. In 1984, the government of Kenya tried to commit genocide against a nomadic desert tribe. They wanted to exterminate 50 000 people. They managed to kill a thousand. I managed to stop the massacre. For this reason, I was deported a year later. At the time of the massacre, I was arrested and taken before a military/ martial court. The authorities, all of them non Somalis, all Christians, told me that they had arranged two ambushes which I providentially avoided but that I would not have escaped another. It has been my experience over the years that no evil ever remains hidden, and no truth remains unrevealed. What matters is to go on fighting as though truth was already upheld, wrongdoing was not able to touch us and evil was not triumphing. One day goodness will shine forth. We ask God to give us the strength to wait, because we may be dealing with a long wait—that might even last until after our death. I live waiting for God and I understand that is less burdensome than the waiting of other people just for earthly things. I live, identified with the poor, the sick and those who nobody loves.
MY FIRST LOVE
The people infected with tuberculosis were my first true love. They were the most rejected and abandoned in that world. Tuberculosis has been raging in Somalia for centuries. It is estimated that everyone is infected with TB, even if providentially only a small percentage of the people who are infected develop the illness during their life. It was shocking to see that they were completely abandoned and nobody cared about their suffering. I knew nothing about medicine. I started by bringing them the rain water I collected from the roof of the nice little house that the Government had given me as a teacher of the local secondary school. I would empty their containers which had previously been filled with the salty water from the wells of Wajir and fill them with potable water. They were apparently disturbed by the clumsiness of a young white woman whom they seemed to want to get rid of as soon as possible. Everything was against me then: I was young, thus unworthy of attention or respect; I was white and therefore despised
by a race which considered itself superior to everybody; I was a Christian, thus rejected and feared. Everybody was convinced that I had come to proselytise. Moreover, I was not married, an absurdity in that world where celibacy doesn’t exist and is not considered at all a value to live for. I immediately started studying and observing them. I was with them every day. I served them on my knees. I was beside them when they were getting worse and did not have anybody to take care of them, anybody who could look them in the eyes and give them courage. After a few years, sick people aware of imminent death wanted only me next to them so that they could die feeling that they were loved. For five years, people had been warning us that we would never make it to heaven for not saying the Muslim formula of faith: ‘There is no god but Allah, [and] Muhammad is his prophet.’ Then a very serious event occurred which jeopardised our lives and made people change their minds about our entry into paradise. We began to be taken as an example to emulate. The first to do so was an elderly chief who cared a great deal for us: ‘We Muslims have faith, and you have love,’ he said one day. It was like a great thaw. People increasingly said that they ought to behave as we did, that they ought to learn from us to care for other people, particularly for the most sick and abandoned.
ONLY LOVE MATTERS
I have been through so many and serious dangers; I have faced death so many times! For years, I was in the middle of wars. I have experienced it in the flesh of my own people, of those that I loved, and thus in my flesh, the wickedness of man—his perversity, his cruelty, his unfairness. And I reached the rocksolid belief that the only thing that matters is love. Only love has a meaning; only love can free a man from everything that makes him a slave; only love allows one to breathe, to grow, to blossom; only love makes us daring; only love can bring us to offer the other cheek— the cheek not yet wounded by the mockery and beating of the one who hits us because he does not know what he is doing; only love makes us risk our lives for our friends; only love makes us believe all things, bear all things, have hope and endure all things. It is then that our life is worth living. It is then that our life has beauty, grace and blessings. It is then that our life discovers happiness even in suffering, because we feel the beauty of living and dying. I strongly feel that we all are called to love, that is, to holiness. The poor woman of the French novelist, Léon Bloy, wandered from door to door as a beggar… and kept repeating: ‘The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.’ I love to think that there is another sad thing in the world: not to love. In the end, it is the only thing that truly matters.”