St Valentine’s Day has become associated with romantic love, even though Valentine was an early Roman martyr – that is, someone who dies as a witness to supernatural love. Christianity has inspired many people over the centuries to live and die (often a violent death) for love. Two lay people who chose in recent decades to live out their personal mission of self-sacrificial service, even to death, are John Bradburne, born in 1921 and murdered at the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement in 1979 during the Zimbabwean civil war; and Annalena Tonelli, born in Italy in 1943 and murdered in Somaliland in 2003.
Bradburne, whose cause for sainthood is proceeding, was a convert, a soldier, a wanderer and a poet before recognising his vocation lay in caring for the lepers in Mutemwa. Inevitably this eccentric figure clashed with the authorities who were managing the leper colony. At the time of his murder he was sleeping in a little hut outside the leprosy compound, where his memory is still revered.
Annalena Tonelli whose life I have just been reading in Stronger than Death, a biography by Rachel Pieh Jones (Plough Publishing) was born and grew up in Italy, studying law at Bologna University. But her heart lay in radical action and this drew her to Africa, at first to Kenya between 1969 and 1985, then to Somalia until 1994 and finally to Borama in Somaliland, where she met a violent death at the hands of members of the future terrorist group al-Shabaab.
Her biographer, who now runs a school in Djibouti along with her husband, is somewhat uncritically in thrall to her subject, who was clearly a charismatic yet often divisive figure. Tonelli, unlike Bradburne, felt stifled by the Church’s official structures and during the 34 years she spent in East Africa, moved from orthodox Catholicism to a close identification with her Muslim patients and their culture, though she never became a Muslim. Essentially a religious free spirit, determined to live alongside those whom Mother Teresa would have called “the poorest of the poor”, her life was clearly exemplary in its austerity. She slept on the floor, gave away any money that was given to her, slept only four hours a night and ate as frugally as she could.
“You cannot love the poor without wanting to be like them”, she said, a conviction that caused problems with her co-workers and friends who felt unable to aspire to her daunting standards. Though not trained as a doctor or nurse, Tonelli, rather like Bradburne in his loving care for his lepers, worked out her own successful method of treating patients with TB. This was rife – though unacknowledged at the time – in the Horn of Africa, and it became the disease with which she is associated.
Tonelli called her method Directly Observed Therapy Short-Course (DOTS) – essentially keeping the normally nomadic and tribal TB patients for six months in a special compound, living in small individual huts, until they had undergone the full course of their drug treatment. She wrote, “I am ready to bend to the wishes of anyone who is sick and give them medicine at midnight if they want…I go to the huts sometimes two or three times a night.”
John Bradburne had three wishes: to serve the lepers in Zimbabwe; to die a martyr’s death; and to be buried in the Franciscan habit (he was a member of the Franciscan Third Order). Annalena Tonelli seems to have implicitly accepted that her death might be violent, writing after many years’ unstinting labour among her TB patients, “I feel I could die from this point onward…I could have joy, if not for the violence that often accompanies death, for I have not wasted my life.”
Both these unusual figures longed for a wholehearted purpose and mission in life, almost as a religious vocation, though enacted outside a religious congregation. They both refused to be labelled or classified, both clashed with conventional organisations, both were prepared to work on their own if help was unavailable and both were uninterested in joining western humanitarian or welfare projects directed at the Third World. Both led heroic lives of radical identification with those they served. As Annalena’s brother Bruno, put it, “She hated it when people called her a missionary. She said she was consecrated to the poor and to God, through the poor.”
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