“I was asked to share something from my long stay in South Sudan, during a national symposium about the future of this new country held last year. I told the participants to remember the traditional values of honesty and communal living, a viable programme for development tailored to real people”. These are the words of Brother Valentino Fabbris, 90, a Comboni Missionary who has spent over 60 years of his life in the Sudan. He comes from Zané, a hamlet near Vicenza in northern Italy and first went to Sudan in 1949. With the exception of a brief stay in Italy and in the USA, he worked there for the rest of his life. He is now back in Italy where he plans to retire. Just before hanging up his tools for good he accepted to answer a few questions.
What drove you to spend 60 years of your life in the Sudan?
I went there in the aftermath of WWII and met people very different from those I was used to. Like a brother, I started working with them, side by side. I soon realized how important it was for them that I took an interest in their lives, customs, and problems. Like it or not, it was easy for us Europeans to wear the hat of superiority. Even without wanting it we could easily assume we knew more. Once this pretence is removed, then one is able to meet the people, grateful to be treated with equality. When I was to leave the Sudan for good many people told me they were sad for my departure, they felt they were losing a real brother. In a way, I was happy to hear that because I have tried to be a real brother to them throughout the years.
You mainly worked in the field of human promotion. What does this entail?
Human promotion is supporting people in the discovery of human values that are not yet present in their culture. I endeavoured to help them develop a new feeling for values, for aspects they did not appreciate. It is a long journey. In a way, we missionaries have worked too much. In planning and building our missions, we considered our needs. We built beautiful structures, bringing technology and methodology unknown to locals. We checked that everything was made to perfection. Perhaps we could have gone slower. This would have helped our workers learn from simplicity and would have given them time to digest what they were learning. In any case, we also did plenty of work preparing people for the future; something very important now that South Sudan needs all kind of skills in order to develop.
Besides being a teacher you are a missionary. How did you evangelise through your work?
I do not know exactly how to answer this question. Certainly, I evangelised through daily encounters, in talking to people. I did not make great proclamations, I expressed my faith with my work. I especially shared time with the elders of the various missions where I was. There I could talk to them and challenge them to be good leaders: those leaders who do not take advantage of their position in society but look after the good of their people. I believe that when you help people realize the importance of being brothers and sisters you have already preached the Gospel.
Where is South Sudan going?
No one really knows. Rivers of ink have been used by ‘experts’ to theorize about the future of this country. We should not forget that South Sudan is a new country; that prior to independence it fought a bitter civil war for the better part of half a century. Today we see many contradictions. There are cases of real heroism on the side of the people, but also cases of mismanagement and corruption. The Church is helping in this journey. Personally, I believe that South Sudan will find the way to join the community of African nations which is where it belongs.