It is now a good twelve days that I have been in the vast Nubian kingdom, where I am beginning to realise that I am far from you. But please understand what I mean by the word far. If I look back over the physical distance that separates us, over the kingdoms, over the countries I have crossed since the last farewell I gave to Italy, I realise that I am far from you, even if I have only gone half way to my destination. If on the other hand I reflect on the continuous immediate relationship I have with you, on the affection I have for you, on my ever-caring concern for you, oh, well then I am always close to you, I am always speaking to you, we are always exchanging our mutual feelings of affection, I am always in union with you, because love knows no distance or limits in time.
Yes, dear father, dear Mama, however various and different the objects which surround me may be, instead of arousing in me thoughts associated with them, they awaken the dear memory of you, so that I think of you a lot on the enchanting
banks of the Nile, in the arid sands of the desert, and under my tent and in every place in which I dwell. So sweep from your mind that false proverb which you may have learnt from your own grandmother as she sat spinning, namely: out of sight, out of mind; because when it is a matter of true, Christian, filial love, no distance can weaken it in any way: indeed this is what I feel.
When I was in college, several days might go by without my thinking of you, of all I have received from you, of all that I owe you: now not an hour or an instant are you absent from my mind’s eye, do I not think of you, of what you did for me, of what in your parental love you are prepared to do, and above all of the heroic consent you gave me, which can only come from a God-fearing soul who spurns all earthly complacency and sees nothing but the heritage of the saints: we talk about you almost every night and it is always with admiration that we speak of your great courage which is incomparably superior to our own not little resolve to persevere in our great mission. We are therefore supremely content with our lot; we always thank God who, despite our faults, has called us to serve him so closely; and I particularly thank you and will always thank you, O dearest ones, for allowing me to follow my vocation.
As for our health I do not know how it is: since the day we left Cairo we have always slept either on a plank in the boat or under a small tent on a thin reed-mat, constantly exposed to the mockery of the winds, the sand and the flies which are countless and so annoying that they seem to be the descendants of the ones that plagued Egypt in the times of the Pharaohs. We are still eating fresh bread bought in Cairo, which will last a few more months and we put up with a great deal of other discomforts that are typical of long and difficult journeys; and yet we must confess that by the grace of God we are in a better state of health than we were in Europe. I find I no longer have bad breath in the morning as I did in Verona; Fr Angelo rarely suffers from his inseparable headaches; Fr Alessandro hardly has his stomach pains any more. In fact we cannot complain of the heat so far because under the tent it never rises above 32° since it is winter; and in the neighbouring desert we are about to cross, it does not rise above 43° at the moment, but the other discomforts related to our present position are somewhat to be expected: so we must only thank God who is granting us his special assistance.
But you will be longing to know something about our journey: so I am about to give you satisfaction. Once we had got over the daunting Aswan cataracts on the 15th of this month, we were glad to enter the Nubia territory which looks very different from the Egyptian lands. The banks of the Nile are nearly always flanked by huge granite mountains, rarely by copses of dates and palms; the sky is most beautiful; the inhabitants are the colour of the paler Moors in our Institute, with a finer spirit than the Egyptians and with a whit less loyalty to the Grand Pasha who has entrusted the government of Nubia (a vast kingdom more than one and a half times the size of the Austrian empire, though less populated) to appointed Mudirs whose task it is to collect not only taxes, but also all the produce of the land in Nubia, to put it all in the warehouses of Cairo, leaving the people naked and eating nothing but dates and occasionally a little durra grain.
It moves one truly to compassion to see these people steeped in their poverty and the greatest deprivation; and yet daily thanking Mohammed who wants it to be so.
[Here Comboni dwells on the description of the environment.]
After briefly visiting the famous island of File, noted for a very large temple built by King Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt and a most fortunate voyage, we reached Korosko, located on the edge of the great desert, from where I write.
After pitching our tents under a date palm a quarter of a mile outside Korosko, near the bank of the Nile, our first thought was to celebrate Mass there, for which purpose we used two crates to erect an elegant little altar under our tent, decorated with flowers from our Institute. I cannot find words to express the consolation we felt at offering this august sacrifice in such an unfortunate land, where perhaps, according to what we have been told, the pacific Host of our Redemption had never before been immolated. It had been nearly three weeks since we last celebrated. Before we leave we intend to make an inscription with a chalice painted on it to record this happy occasion for posterity. The first night after our arrival, we were awakened and up in arms against a hyena which came close to our tent; and on the second night there was a little rain: it was the first I saw since we had left Verona; and what is more it was the first to fall in Korosko, given that in human memory never had a drop of rain been seen to fall in Korosko.
In this village we are awaiting about 60 camels to cross the great desert. We hope to leave in four days; and this desert crossing is one of the most daunting stretches of our journey; but do you think we will be sick with some illness, like most of those coming from Europe and passing this way? You may be sure we won’t; and I shall confirm this with a letter from Khartoum. God is with us: while we are and always remain ready to die, nonetheless we have an inner feeling, that we are bound to reach Khartoum, and first cross the great desert, which stretches from Korosko to Berber, without even a headache. I say this because at the time we will be crossing the great desert there will be the feast of St Francis Xavier, our protector, whose day is 3rd December, and there will be the feast of the Immaculate Conception, under whose protection we place our mission, and which occurs on 8th December. In the meantime, here we are preparing our things and Fr Giovanni and I are being consulted about some illnesses.
The other day a captain of the Egyptian militia came to see me to ask my advice about a disease of the genitals: since it was a question of syphilis, I prescribed among other things that he should not only abstain from going with women, but also that he should not sleep with his own wife or else he would soon be going to join Mohammed; to which he replied: What do you expect me to want so many women for? I have ten at home who are my wives, so I have enough without looking for more.
Polygamy is widely practised by all those who have the means. In our position in the midst of these gentlemen, we are often grieved to see so many wretched sons of Adam, victims of the most deplorable servitude, who after suffering here on earth are bound to suffer even greater pains in hell. Our Religion was promulgated here in the 5th century by St Frumentius who was sent by St Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria. About two centuries later, the Mohammedans arrived and destroyed everything, including the Religion of J.C.; and from then on, over one thousand one hundred years, the Christian religion has never penetrated the Nubia region where even today there is the death penalty for those who preach, as for those who embrace our Faith. Only in 1848 was Mgr Knoblecher, the present Pro-Vicar Apostolic, able to establish a Mission in Khartoum with Fr Vinco, where they can see to the welfare, if not of Mohammedans, at least of the black slaves.
But enough, you will be tired. I am impatient to reach Khartoum where I hope to find many letters from you; the post gets there before us, because from Egypt to Khartoum it is carried by dromedaries which travel very fast day and night.
In the meantime be happy, calm, and trust in God, who sees all, who can do everything and who loves us. Remember that we are praying for you, we remember you always and we are ever grateful for your great spirit. You have placed all your trust in God; he will know how to reward you worthily. Oh divine Providence is the pivot of all hope for a poor Missionary who having trampled all the enticements the world offers, ventures under her beneficent wing into foreign lands to promote the glory and kingdom of Jesus Christ.
I urge you to take good care of yourselves, do not spare anything for your physical well-being: for the Lord, you have done everything. I hope you have found yourselves a decent servant; there will be trouble if you have not. You will force me to send you an ugly Moorish girl from Central Africa who will serve you extremely well. Goodbye, dear father, dear Mama, write tome often, and above all do your part: be happy, I repeat, and be constant on the way to Calvary which measures 820 paces, from Pilate’s Palace to Calvary, and of which you have already covered 800. Are only 20more paces going to frighten you? That cannot be true.
I beg you to carry out my duties as godfather for my godson Giacomino, known as Pilès, the son of Carlo and Anna Maria. I am sorry I did not go to Riva to say goodbye to our dear relatives: please give them my fondest greetings, one by one; and also convey my greetings to uncle Giuseppe, who is certainly praying for me, Eustachio, Erminia, the little ones, Signor Consigliere, our master, his brother and sister-in-law in Riva, the Rector, Fr Bem, Signor Beppo and Giulia Carettoni, Luigi and Prudenza Patuzzi’s family, the good ladies Minica, Virginia, Gigiotta who promised to pray for me and are certainly doing so, Doctor David, Dr Fantini, my friends Antonio Risatti, Rambottini, Caporale – also on behalf of Fr Angelo; to Signor Vincenzo Carettoni and his offspring in Bogliaco, our relatives in Bogliaco, Maderno, the gardeners in Supino and Tesolo, SignorMaestro, Candido, the parish priest of Voltino, and all those who ask after us, with amost tender greeting to Signor Pietro Ragusini and through him to Signor Bortolo Carboni who are my benefactors and are beautiful souls, and also to all those to whom I have been a cause of displeasure and especially to you and my dear Mama, to whom I send my blessing, while I sign myself, with all my heart
Your most affectionate son
Fr Daniel Comboni