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It’s not (only) a Mafia Game

"Estate Liberi!": volunteering and studying on the properties confiscated to mafia. Picture by Elena Tubaro on Flickr: http://bit.ly/psmSBL

Last week we wrote several articles on volunteering on the occasion of the II Youth Convention on Volunteering. A recurrent assumption on voulunteering is that you “help the others”. Allow me to disagree: for me volunteering is, first of all, helping yourself. And – at best – some trees.

Last year’s project to spend a month in Burkina Faso doing a theatre activity was exotic enough to attract the curiosity and even the envy of many friends. This year’s choice, on the contrary, had become the big joke: “and you will spend your summer holidays working in a mafia field in Sicily, right?”, they were asking with unmasked irony.

They had almost managed to convince me, and the day I learnt that my inscription hadn’t been registered (just two days before the start of the camp) I wasn’t too sad. But then they called me to tell that “where 30 can sleep, 32 can fit too”: mmmh, good start, I thought. But the experience exceeded all my expectations, and I will show you how volunteering has first of all helped myself, at least in three regards.

The trees, the nature, the land I love

Basically the idea was: working on a field of orange trees and olives confiscated from a mafia family a long time ago, abandoned for twelve years, now given to a cooperative of 5 people that obviously don’t have the resources to take care of the 95 Hectares assigned to them.
The task was cleaning up each tree from all the weeds and bushes that were suffocating it. They told us that when they were given the land, they couldn’t even see where their land started and where it ended. Now, after one year, you could understand if the trees were olives or oranges, but not much more. And still, they were alive.

We woke up every morning at 5:00 (4:30 when it was your turn to prepare the breakfast), walk to the fields and attacked the trees at 6:00. One of us would pass the rake to take cardoons and asparagus away, the other would cut the dead branches, and another one would remove the grass just under the tree. And then the orange tree would suddenly look like a tree again, breathe again, and even – what a miracle! – show new fruits and leaves, liberated by the vine that covered them.

Meet the Cooperative Beppe Montana: 95 Hectars, 5 people and 1 tractor. Photo by Vincenzo Bevivino

Being 30 Italians in few square meters, you can imagine that the noise was not missing: somebody would sing, another would do impressions, and most of us were chattering and learning of each others’ lives. In the meanwhile the sun would rise, and it’s difficult to describe the beauty of the light on the tree leaves, the bitter scent of the green oranges, and the variety of colors that this earth would get in the different hours of the day.

(Re) starting from the land to solve some of the most urgent problems of the planet: it’s a conviction I had before, and it got strengthened after this experience. That’s why, every tree I was liberating from the weeds, I would feel a bit freer too, and every single drop on my back would sweat happiness and satisfaction.

A “s*** country” plenty of beautiful people

In the afternoon, after a good lunch and a long rest, we had several meetings with people committed in the fight against mafia. I thought that thanks to this I would learn more about mafia. But it wasn’t the most relevant: what I learnt is – there are so many people, simple people, people like you and I, very far away from the news on some “excellent arrest” or other Padrino-style scenes, that fight their daily war against mafias and beyond mafia: against corruption and illegality, against the connivances that hold together the system, against indifference and silence.

Impressive people, starting from the ones managing the cooperative where we were hosted: young or very young, with a simple, common goal. Working in their land, and don’t be obliged either to go abroad or to abide by the mafia’s rule. Having a clean job: it’s a normality that in some places is still a very courageous dream. In the same way as it is opening a private company and refusing to pay a local “tax” to the mafia, or to do your job as a true journalist and not as a servant. As it is working with the thousands of immigrants landed in Sicily after an unutterable journey from Libya or Tunisia.

Even if some think that Italy is a “s*** country”, there are people that love it so much that want to change it.  I met energies that I have never known abroad, flowers that can blossom only in the desert: a mix of courage and lightness, of commitment and joy, of willingness and naiveté, which gave a boost to my ideals and to the belief that change is possible. That it’s already happening.

Men are not islands

26 August, Catania Airport – We had been told to be there at 11:00 to meet “the group”. When I saw this colorful mix of sleeping bags, guitars and backpacks my instinctive reaction was “Run NOW – you’re still on time!”.

Proud to be tired! Photo by Elena Tubaro on Flickr: http://bit.ly/pveCbZ

The first night I went to bed (in my room shared with my boyfriend…and other 15 people) quite early, trying to prepare for the 5 AM alarm. Around midnight I was opening the window to shout against the dozen of people playing bongos, guitar and maracas just below my head. I said to myself “They will get tired soon, too”. I was wrong. The second night, I played cards till 1:00 AM. On the third, everybody could listen to my singing talent. The fourth we finished the beers in the fridge, and the fifth I was already very sad at the idea of leaving them in a couple of days.  The last one, we danced till morning and then we slept all together under the stars.

It must be between the third and the fourth day that the idea crossed my mind: men are not islands; we are not done to live separate. The dimension of community is a natural one. It’s true – you give up some individual freedom – the right to sleep when you wish, for example. But you discover that you don’t need to sleep 8 hours, because there are other energies – such things as enthusiasm and joyfulness – keeping you awake.

Conclusion: the invasion of the red t-shirts

One day we went to a small village to make an excursion. The organizers had asked us to wear the red t-shirt they had given to us, exposing the name of the association and the project we were participating to (I hate wearing t-shirts with things written on them, by the way). When we arrived to the main square, locals were starring at us, with our t-shirts, our quest for “gelato”, our noise and our laughs. Several people, old, young, men, women, got close to ask who we were, what we were doing. Some thanked us; some said “you are the energy that will change this”.

Right in that moment, the time of a gelato, I felt blessed by this incredible human feeling called hope. Do you know anything else to help yourself better?!

PS: if you are interested in the summer camps, consult the list here… and get ready for next year ;)

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