The Second Coming

By Stephen Ssenkaaba

Fr. Scalabrini returned to a dry, increasingly unstable Uganda. But this did not deter his resolve to support the people of Northern Uganda- one sunflower seed at a time, writes Stephen Ssenkaaba

Bishop Cyprian Kihangire worked tirelessly with the in-coming Obote Government to return Fr. Scalabrini and other deported Missionaries. “I was in Italy when Hon Andrew Benedicto Adimola, the new Minister of Reconstruction and Rehabilitation called me. I had been accepted to return and continue my work in Uganda. I returned on Christmas Day 1979.”

In addition to his spiritual duties, the priest remained keen on economic development. In the face of economic hardship and food shortage, he initiated the growth of Sunflower.

Sowing the sunflower seed

It all started small. “One day I went to visit a family at the Italian embassy in Kampala who were returning home at the end of their stay here. They offered me their parrot and half a bag of sunflower seeds to feed it. On returning to Gulu, I sprinkled some of the seeds on the ground. They sprouted after three months. I was surprised.” He tried to squeeze some oil out of the seeds, “but very little came out.” This was the start to a rich harvest for the future.

“I collected 9 million Italian Lira (about sh 15m) on my next visit to Italy, bought seven tonnes of sunflower seeds and produced some small sachets of oil. We also developed sunflower growing manuals for farmers. I returned to Italy and bought a sunflower oil extraction machine. It was installed in Gulu”.

By the mid-80s, Fr. Scalabrini’s sunflower project was producing over 3,000 20-litre Jerrycans of cooking oil and supplying seeds and other sunflower products to Masindi, Hoima and other areas. Sunflower growing blossomed in Northern Uganda and spread to other parts of the country. The liberation war destroyed a lot of what we had done,” he says. This was the beginning of tough times.

Deported for the second time

Fr. Scalabrini served in Gulu through the 1980s liberation war. He continued supporting the people of Northern Uganda until it became too dangerous for him. “I was at Entebbe international airport awaiting a flight to Mombasa when soldiers arrested me. They led me to Entebbe Police station, without an explanation,” he recounts.  After one night in Entebbe, he was transferred to the Central Police Station (CPS) in Kampala and detained for allegedly supporting rebels.

“I told my captors that these people were my former students. They were known to me. They respected me. But I had nothing to do with their activities.”

The priest spent two weeks in detention at CPS, flowed by three weeks under house arrest in Bugolobi. He was deported back to Italy in 1989. After discussions between the governments of Italy and Uganda, which included threats by the former to withdrawal its support for Uganda- Fr. Scalabrini was allowed back in the country in 1989.

However, he was not to return to Gulu.

Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, the archbishop of Kampala archdiocese together with other church leaders offered to find Fr. Scalabrini a place to continue his pastoral duties.

“Since he had been refused to return to Gulu we were happy to welcome him here in Kampala as a member of the Catholic clergy. We offered him a place in Biina Parish, Cardinal Wamala recalls.

Changing the face of Biina

“Biina Catholic parish was a rural-looking place, with miserable structures when Fr. Scalabrini arrived there in 1989,” Fr. Izidole Mbaleeba, the parish priest recalls. It was the Italian priest who breathed life into the now thriving urban presbytery and its environs. “We always struggled to raise sufficient funds for development. When Fr. Scalabrini came, he told us not to worry. “Just pray for me”- he said.”  In 1989, Fr. Scalabrini established Emmaus Foundation, a not for profit organization to coordinate development projects in Biina. With its main focus on improving the lives of poor people, particularly the youth and orphans, the foundation founded several projects to provide health, education and income-generating services.

Today, Bishop Cypriano Kihangire secondary school stands tall and proud- a soaring architectural spectacle on the sidelines of the Kampala Luzira Road and perhaps one of the most visible fruits of Fr. Scalabrini’s efforts in Biina. Established in 2000, the school, named after Gulu’s deceased bishop Cypriano Kihangire- today has 2593 students- 1,273 of them in its day section and the rest attending the boarding section. The school also employs 154 teaching and 105 non-teaching staff. According to Victor Okello Nam, the head teacher, about 400 of all the students in the school are Emmaus Foundation beneficiaries. The school is resplendent with modern structures that include electronic boards in place of black boards. Inspired by the values of its founder, it continues to provide quality services and most of all care for the needy in the community.

Within the precincts of the secondary school, Benedict medical center stands facing the school’s main entrance- a red-brick beauty with 67 admission beds for the community and 10 for students. The medical centre provided in and outpatient antenatal, immunization and other medical services to students and members of the community. The hospital founded in 2007 has become a medical refuge for communities in the neighbourhood.

Emmaus foundation also runs Bishop Cypriano Kihangire primary school in Kitantale with 1300 pupils. It also founded Our Lady of Fatima Nursery school at Biina parish and sponsors over 1000 young people in different schools and universities. Emmaus Foundation also funded the construction of a new church, the priest’s residence at Biina parish and St. Bruno’s church for the secondary school students. They have also helped to fund the construction of Makerere University Business School (MUBS) chaplaincy and will soon complete the construction of Kyambogo University Catholic chaplaincy. Several other projects including the Biina parish hall, 2 carpentry workshops, and a school feeding programme for children from poorer parts of the country is part of the work that has kept this Italian priest busy since his arrival in Biina 26 years ago.

Biina Catholic Parish church built by Fr. John:Photo by Tony Rujuta

Making all this work

While he still lived in Gulu, Fr. Scalabrini used to return to Italy every five months to raise funds for his work in the diocese. I would ask my friends and generous Christians from different parishes to contribute to our work,” he says. In 2000, he, together with some Italian Good Samaritans formed a fundraising association called Italia-Uganda. “We now use this to raise money from generous individuals, parishes and organisations in Italy. We also publish real life stories of our beneficiaries in a quarterly magazine Solidarieta Per La Pace (Solidarity in Peace) for our benefactors.” The association remits about sh 3.5bn every year to run Emmaus Foundation projects in Uganda.

There have also been very generous financial contributions from individuals, Fr. Scalabrini says. “People like Maria Beatrix Chupisser who bequeathed sh 617 m towards the construction of Benedict Medical Centre, Engineer Alberto Ginobbi who donated sh 816m towards the construction of a modern building Bishop Cypriano Kihangire secondary school’s day section- in remembrance of his late wife; people like Paolo Villa who in conjunction with Engineer Ginobbi contributed sh 568m towards the construction of girls’ and boys’ hostels.”

Bishop Cypriano Kihangire SS
Biina established by Fr. John.
 Photo by Tony Rujuta

Living testimonies

Fr. Scalabrini’s story gets all the richer with the experiences his children; the men and women that he has supported over the last 51 years. People like James Labongo.

“I lost all hope for education when my father died. My mum was too poor to pay my schoolfees. I dropped out of school when the war broke out. I sold sugar cane and lay bricks to pay for my education. It was all too little to make a difference. I was almost 20 when I sat my Primary Leaving exams. In S5, someone told me about Fr. Scalabrini. I came to Kmapala for the first time to find him. When I told him about my story, he gave me a place to stay and admitted me into Bishop Cypriano Kihangire Secondary school. I passed highly and was admitted to an engineering course at Kyambogo University. Today, I head all engineering projects at Emmaus Foundation and have a family. Fr. Scalabrini turned my life around. I hope to one day help disadvantaged people. That is the only way I can give back.”

64 year old Angela Anyoda was only 13 when she met Fr. Scalabrini in Gulu.

“I was one of the girls that prepared Fr. Scalabrini’s visit whenever he came to visit us in Pawel for prayers. He was still a young priest in Gulu. I was out of school then because my parents were too poor.  He offered to pay for my education and even sponsored me to study nursing in Italy. I worked as a nurse in Northern Uganda for some time and now I am here serving at his residence.

Ronald Katwalo, General Manager of Emmaus Foundation says: “When my father died, my mum was deprived of all the deceased’s wealth. We had no house to stay. I went to the streets to survive. I once walked to Fr. Scalabrini and asked to be supported. He took me up, paid for my education and here I am- leading a fruitful life, serving other disadvantaged people. My life has been blessed through this man.

Today, Fr. Scalabrini’s office and living room is a gallery of happy, fulfilled faces- young people in graduation garb, wedding gowns, formerly hopeless and now making a positive change in society.

Next: If it were up to his father, John Scalabrini would never have become a priest: the bumpy road to Scalabrini’s priesthood

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