When Fr. Enrico Uggé arrived in 1971, they were close to extinction. Today there are 10 times more of them, thanks to the Indigenous School.
The boat docks and the children immediately appear on the bank. After all, it is a bit difficult to go unnoticed in a village like Simao, a community that suddenly pops up, after the umpteenth bend in the river. It is even harder to be unnoticed if you arrive in the company of the PIME Missionary who changed the fate of the Sateré Mawé, one of the 305 tribes of the Brazilian Amazon.
Born in Lodigiano of Castiglione d’Adda, now 76-years-old, Fr. Enrico Uggé has spent his life among the Indians of the diocese of Parintins since 1971. “When I arrived, Bishop Arcangelo Cerqua said to me, ‘There are villages that no one has visited for over 40 years; see what you can do’” With a boat, he began to climb the Rio Andirá from Barreirinha to the smaller communities. Since then the engines have changed (today they are a little more powerful, and faster), but the amount of villages to visit has not. Fr. Enrico continues to have dozens to visit, always back and forth along that river. His is an emblematic story that is indicative of all the indigenous pastoral care in the Amazon, and of the challenge that the Synod, called by Pope Francis, will address.
The Sateré Mawé were a people who were disappearing when Fr. Enrico arrived, there were little more than a thousand of them left. These indigenous Brazilians were abandoned to fend for themselves and threatened by those who robbed them, offering them hammocks in exchange for their lands. “There were also major health problems, especially tuberculosis and measles, that killed children,” Fr. Enrico recalls. “The first mission for me was to take care of that. I also talked to a judge in Parintins about them, who replied, ‘but are they Brazilians?’. Words like these, words of total indifference, drove me to love them even more.”
The Sateré Mawé were already truly Christians, and not only on paper. “They had chapels of mud and clay. In the seventeenth century, the Jesuits had created the aldeamentos, missions among the Indians very similar to the reduciones (as seen in the famous movie The Mission). However, after the Jesuits were expelled, missionary presences became sporadic. Yet, when I arrived, some still sang the litanies in Latin. One day I saw them rummaging in my Holy Mass briefcase. ‘We wanted to know if you were a true missionary,’ they told me. We have seen that in your briefcase there is the rosary, there is the chalice of the Mass, just as our elders had told us.’”
“I was arriving where God already was, but He also lives in many aspects of their traditional cultures. I immediately asked myself the question of the meaning of their rites and their legends,” he explains. “If I am a missionary, and I speak of God they think of Tupana, the supreme being of their culture. And I need to know the concept they have of God, along with so many other aspects of their world-view. So, with an old woman, I went from village to village to collect their stories, which we recorded on tape. But don’t think that I am talking about a formal interview: it takes time because these people relive what they tell you.”
From these meetings, the rebirth of the Sateré Mawé began. “I told them, ‘your weapon is not to quarrel with the merchant who sells you four light bulbs for a basket of flour. You have to learn to read and write to understand the world that comes from the river.’ At the beginning I sent some boys to study in Barreirinha; then these, in turn, became teachers. With tuxawa Donato, one of their leaders, we thought of creating a place where the Sateré Mawé would feel at home, study their language, but also learn everything they need to learn in order to feel on equal footing whenever they go to the city, without being ashamed of being Indios.”
The San Pedro Indigenous School is a place where one learns farming techniques, mathematics, and Portuguese; this pioneer institution celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Father left with 30 teenagers when the school began. Nowadays, counting both those who sleep here in the hammock because their villages are too far away and those arriving every morning by canoe, their number is over 200. It is more or less the same increase that the Sateré Mawé people experienced, today ten times more numerous than forty years ago. A decisive step took place in the 1980s, when the Indians of the Andirá stream, together with Fr. Enrico, obtained recognition from the Brazilian government of their land rights. Today theirs is a guaranteed indigenous area: on paper, no one can come to exploit this territory. But the balance remains delicate all the same because there are new pitfalls that today are called alcohol, drugs and much more that still arrives all the way here.
It is precisely the tuxawa Donato who tells us about his concern for young people. “Many do not realize the dangers,” he explains. “They end up taking everything at face value that comes from up the river, and this is not right. I don’t want my people to fall victim to drinking alcohol or fatalism.” This is why the San Pedro School remains an important place. We follow the tuxawa under the large shed, where we are waiting for the representation of the legend of the guaranà, the sacred fruit for this indigenous culture. We are also getting ready for the tucandeira, the rite of male initiation for entry into adulthood: a test of strength and courage which consists of wearing a glove, filled with poisonous ants, accompanied by a ritual dance. Fr. Enrico is close to the teenagers who perform this ritual. “They have done studies on this poison: it is painful but strengthens the immune system,” he comments. “Science acknowledges that there is a profound wisdom within these traditions.”
However, the most demanding tucandeira has to do with the “ants” mentioned by the tuxawa Donato. This is the challenge of the relationship between tradition and modernity that appears in the Amazon, with its opportunities and many contradictions. “The elderly come to me and say: we entrust our children to you, today we can no longer convey the values of our tradition.” It will be one of the great themes of the October Synod, for which the Rio Andirá missionary has a clear priority in mind. We understand what it is all about when Father takes us to church in the evening to celebrate Mass with his boys. We cross the Divine Mercy Door – wanted by Fr. Enrico because “the Jubilee had to arrive among the Sateré Mawé as well” – and the celebration begins; on an altar which also has the guaranà depicted on its tablecloth.
“Evangelization must take a more substantial step forward to bring the Eucharist to these communities. Jesus told us, ‘do this in memory of me’. Though, if the priest has dozens of villages distant from each other, that are only reachable by boat and he comes only a few times a year, how can it be done? We need to find a way. Bearing in mind that in these communities there are already leaders; people who have families and have shown proof of educating their children in the faith. I see them as the elders mentioned in the letters of Saint Paul, elders esteemed by the community, to which to confer the ministerial priesthood. Certainly with adequate preparation and support, not so much philosophical training but tailor-made for these communities,” he explains.
Meanwhile, the PIME Missionary has built many small, brick churches in the villages. “Because the Eucharist needs a beautiful place,” he says excitedly. “Of course, even in a prison one can say Mass, but we are not at the time of the catacombs. People need to see their faith.” He painted the frescos on the walls. They tell the stories of the life of Jesus, intertwined with the myths of the Sateré Mawé: are they not fishermen themselves? He does so without losing sight of the novelty brought by Jesus; for example Fr. Enrico does not think about replacing the wine of the Eucharist with the juice of the guaranà. “They themselves don’t want that. They say, ‘Jesus gave us bread and wine if he did so we respect him’. It is a sign of unity for all peoples. And then the Mass is not only the offering of food and drink, it is the mystery of Jesus that is fulfilled on the Cross.”
From the Synod, Fr. Enrico expects to see a new face of the Church that would accurately represent the reality of the Church in the Amazonian territory. “At the Council of Jerusalem, Paul and Peter were discussing, but at the end, they said to each other: ‘well, what shall we do?’ They took concrete steps. Here, the important thing is that it does not end by the bishops saying: ‘well we have to talk about it again’. At the Council of Ephesus, there were crowds clamoring and quivering outside when the bishops proclaimed Mary to be the Theotokos, the Mother of God. The same expectation is present today in the Amazon.”