Nairobi: A Rediscovery of the Origins

A week’s course in Nairobi is transformed by a deep discovery of the EoC

By Vittorio Pelligra

120716-28_Nairobi_Cuea_04_ridI am on a plane which will bring me to Nairobi, Kenya, for the second edition of the Intensive Course of the Economy of Communion which will be held these next two weeks at the Catholic University of Oriental Africa (CUEA).  It is dawn and the airplane is flying over the desert directed to the first stop-over at Doha in Quatar.  The enormous arid expanse we are flying over for hours, takes on a particular meaning for me: that sandy emptiness is a sign of the cultural jump I’m about to make.  I am going to teach in an unknown land, to people about whom I know nothing, not their problems, their interests, their fears, their hopes.  The desert can be, then, the place where I can prepare myself for this encounter after having left there my categories, my prejudices, my roots, in order to be free and curious enough to receive all the newness and the beauty that this experience can offer.

Here I am at Nairobi, an enormous metropolis, with chaotic traffic and streets literally invaded by reckless pedestrians crossing among the cars and the little Matatu (a form of public transport typical of Kenya, generally, 14-seater minibuses) which whizz past indifferently.  It is Sunday evening, and there’s just enough time to settle into the home of friends who are hosting me and to finish the first lesson for the following day.  

Early the next morning we arrive at the CUEA with Charles, my guide and guardian angel.  The campus is orderly and welcoming, everyone greeting each other with great warmth.  We do a fast round of introductions and then we quickly enter the hall.  I am presented to the class and the course begins.  During this week, we will be doing many things together, lessons, exercises, some experiments, but the most important thing, will be to get to know one another better, to build a stronger relationship with each participant, because, in the end, at the roots of the EoC, are the relationships, real ones, made of gratuity, reciprocity and trust.  Only within this type of relationship, can the concepts of the economy acquire meaning beyond the differences of context and culture.  

The first lesson is a presentation of the project of the Economy of Communion, its history, principal characteristics, and most recent developments.  Then, little by little, we get into the particulars.  The fundamental idea which guides the first part of this course is that of trying to understand why the EoC model can work, not only for the saints, but for all, truly for all.  It is in fact, a way of doing economy which brings out the best in each human person.  In each one of us there is much more gratuity, selflessness, trust, and ability to cooperate, than what the economic theory tells us.  And the market is first of all a place of freedom and cooperation, more than a place of competition.  The entire course will be then, a journey in discovering this ‘much more’.  With the language of economic theory we discover together which are the conditions which ease or impede the emergence of this ’more’ of which each man is capable.  

It makes a certain impression on me to analyze the mechanisms trough which groups and societies have become able to collaborate so as to obtain astonishing results of progress and wellbeing, right here, two steps from the Rift Valley, where humanity as we know it had its beginnings and where the greater part of these rules were tried for the first time and became common patrimony. But at the same time, here in Africa, in Nairobi, Kenya, the inhuman conditions of poverty of millions of people who live in the slums, is the unequivocal sign of the failure of these same rules,  a contradiction present in the mind and heart of all the course participants, but difficult to resolve.  It is, then, the occasion for a collective examination of conscience: the white man, heir of the colonizers, who left many open wounds, and the locals who too often feel dependent on international help and struggle to find that determination, self-esteem and love for the common good, which could be at the base of a rebirth.  What most surprises me and consoles me is realizing how much the Economy of Communion can offer this land: a vision and a practice of an economy that is respectful of man, of his dignity, his beauty and of his most genuine sociality.  A surprising syntony exists between these fundamental principles of the EoC and the vision, so relational of the ‘ubuntu’ philosophy, which originates in this place.  This is the message which everyone is feeling and which I myself am rediscovering through the many experiences which the students shared.  

During the Sunday rest I have the good fortune to be able to entre in the slum of Kibera, where a million people live with open sewers, under makeshift huts beneath the open sky.  Only a few weeks before, I was strolling along the streets of Manhattan in New York.  The contrast is lacerating. I understand as never before, the reaction of Chiara Lubich in San Paulo in 1991, upon seeing from the airplane the city of skyscrapers surrounded by the misery of the favelas.  A pain that is almost physical, from which came the spark of the EoC, her answer of love.  The EoC is more than ever today, that answer, it is my own answer.

To Nairobi and Kenya, but above all, to the classmates of these few days, goes my gratitude for this rediscovery and for their commitment of real pioneers.  The forefront of a new class which will guide, I’m sure, the development of this land, and because of its being African, will be more human and social than material and individual. 

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