Fr John Scalabrini was well-known for having founded the famous Bishop Cipriano Kihangire Secondary School and the well-respected charity, Emmaus Foundation, established in 1979. PHOTO/ COURTESY


Fr John Scalabrini: The Italian who deserves to be called Ugandan

What you need to know:

  • On November 28, Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo launches the book, The Faces in Their Eyes, at Bishop Cipriano Kihangire SS in Luzira, Kampala.
  • The book celebrates the man who lived in Uganda for 54 years and founded legacy media, school, church, medical and charitable projects in Kampala, and northern Uganda. Julius Ocwinyo takes a peep into what the book offers.

The great Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, once said: “It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have – otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.”

This remark is particularly apt for The Faces in Their Eyes, written by a young woman, Pompilla S. Agalo.

Agalo’s book is an autobiography, but also an elaborate combination of many little stories, a skilfully woven tapestry of separate and intertwining events and human experiences – both happy and sad, even horrendous.

It is a commentary on the goings-on, past and present, in various spheres of life in Uganda and elsewhere.

At the heart of the autobiography are two persons, irrevocably linked: the late Fr Giovanni (aka Fr John) Scalabrini (1934–2016) and Pompilla S. Agalo herself. Fr John Scalabrini (RIP) is well-known for having founded the famous Bishop Cipriano Kihangire Secondary School and the well-respected charity, Emmaus Foundation, established in 1979.  Fr Scalabrini’s story in Uganda starts in Awach, a sub-county that extends from the centre to the eastern edge of present-day Gulu District, northern Uganda. 

Intriguing figure
The book delineates the priest as a pretty intriguing figure: frugal, temperamental, tempestuous, generous, sharp-tongued, humorous, flawed, venerated, indefatigable, affectionate… And there is another aspect to him: if there is one man who deserves to be called Ugandan in the light of what he loves and what he focuses his effort towards, then it is him. 

This is epitomised by his charity work, which spans three generations, dating back to the time he first set foot in Uganda from Italy in 1962. By the time of his death in 2016, literally tens of thousands of people have benefitted from his philanthropic work. 

But he has also had a rather troubled relationship with the Ugandan government, which partly explains why Bishop Cipriano Kihangire Secondary School ends up being located in Kampala rather than in his beloved Awach.

The second person is the author herself, Pompilla S. Agalo (Pompi for short). She comes across as focused, confused, happy-go-lucky, hardworking, recalcitrant, hurting, affectionate, beautiful, self-destructive, exasperating, imperfect … all at once. She is one impetuous being, something akin to the product of a marriage between a storm and a whirlwind. 

Agalo is something of an involuntary nomad, a constant ‘deplacee’, from before she is born, with her mother fleeing an impending punishment, even before other life-altering events start occurring. Her life gets intertwined with the forays and depredations of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the Rwenzori region, and the various rebel outfits (Cilil, Otong-tong, Olum-olum, Lord’s Resistance Army) in the north. 

She is the charge of uncles and aunts before she becomes part of the very large Fr Scalabrini family. By that time her mother is dead and buried, and she has been a student at the highly esteemed Sacred Heart Girls Secondary School, Gulu.

Her integration into the Scalabrini family evokes memories of her homeland. She remarks, “Back north, our people were yet to be free, for the warring men still rejoiced. Not until total freedom was restored would we again be effective.”

As part of the Scalabrini family, Agalo meets and becomes friends with and co-conspirators of some of the people who later become prominent in Uganda. One of them is Daniella Atim, the gorgeous niece of Fr Scalabrini, who later becomes wife of pop star Chameleone, and another, former Aruu North MP Lucy Aciro Otim. In this family, Agalo finds herself in a milieu filled with love and affection, but also fraught with intrigue, jealousy and gossip, involving both her peers and the staff. 

Of the staff, perhaps the most remarkable are Overarching Voice and Mamma. Regarding the latter, Agalo remarks: “In her apron, she looked her part, but the look in her eyes was so dark that it could taint the food she cooked.”

Agalo also becomes aware of the sheer scale of human suffering and of the variety of solutions, some of them urgent, that people seek. For instance, one morning a man erupts into Fr Scalabrini’s office, distraught. This is how he presents his problem: “I do not like the life I am living, Father… Please help me… I was initiated into this life…Father. I am ‘a wife’.” Besides those with genuine needs, there are, of course, those who simply intend to take advantage of the priest’s kind heart.

In addition, Agalo gets a first-hand peek into the inner workings of philanthropy. At one point in the book, she remarks: “Employees (of a charity organisation) sometimes came down to shoot documentary films capturing our lives. Of course, they filmed a select crowd. Kids with a real story. Potential benefactors would then watch this at fundraising meetings … In spite of their generous donations, Father (Scalabrini) always told us that it was the very poor … who contributed most cheerfully.”

Agalo is placed in Bishop Cipriano Secondary School, from where she proceeds to Makerere University and graduates with an Information Technology degree. She then dabbles in radio as DJ, focusing on rock music. Fr Scalabrini is not happy about that and railroads her into a teaching career, which she grows to love.

Many conversations
Agalo recreates many conversations that occurred in her interactions with the many people she met, from and in different parts of Uganda and of the world. Since human memory often plays tricks on us, it is reasonable to suspect that some of the conversations lack verbal exactitude, and it is obvious that some are inflated by hyperbole. Still, the spirit of the conversations seems to have been upheld.

As part of the backdrop are a variety of personalities who need no introduction – giants who in one way or another embody(ied) the dreams and aspirations of the Acholi and many other people elsewhere: Dr Pierro Corti, the founder of St Mary’s Hospital Lacor, and Dr Mathew Lukwiya, who died in the worthy battle against Ebola, at the same hospital. 

Then there is Daudi Ocheng, the famous and controversial Kabaka Yekka politician, and brother of the celebrated Dr Martin Aliker; Alexander Mwa Odonga, professor of surgery; Erinayo Oryema, one of the first African commissioned officers in the police, and minister in the Amin regime; Prof Ogenga-Latigo, former Leader of Opposition, Parliament of Uganda… 

The autobiography ends with the send-off of Fr Scalabrini, marked by both grandeur and a heart-wrenching sadness. Agalo puts this most memorably: “Three city-press media each aimed for an exclusive. Tag-bearing officials moved up and down the aisle…. They distributed three thousand Order of Mass books, while a choir of 150 men, women and children awaited the chance to churn the crowd with their voices.” 

And regarding those to whom the priest had been everything – a saviour, father, educator, shepherd, comforter…, Agalo remarks: “Outside the church, we, Father’s own, sat bereft, in our black T-shirts printed with Father’s image. Other mourners sat under long canopies on benches or chairs. It looked like some thousands more.” 

Agalo uses language that is influenced by her indigenous roots, imparting a much-appreciated authenticity. She writes with candour and often waxes lyrical.

The prose is interspersed with poetry and, at the very end, is graced with a eulogy to Fr Scalabrini.

Background...About the book 
Title: The Faces in Their Eyes
Author: Pompilla S. Agalo
Reviewer: Julius Ocwinyo
Price: Shs65,000