Swallows & Amazons? No, just Capuchin Friars!

One hundred years ago, the Capuchins arrived in this corner of the Amazon to live among the people, even in the most remote parts of the forest. After a century, the original enthusiasm has not yet subsided

Sante Altizio

He looks like Jovanotti.  If instead of the robe and sandals he dressed jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, could be the stand-in for Lorenzo Cherubini.  His name is Paolo Braghini, he is a Capuchin friar, born in Varese 35 years ago, a missionary in the Brazilian Amazon since 2005.

«I graduated in missiology with a thesis on the Tikuna Indians.  I became a missionary in order to live among the indigenous people».Brother Paolo has always had the Indians in his head.  Tikuna Indians, to be precise.  They live in the Upper Solimões, in the westernmost region of the Amazon, almost near the border between Brazil and Peru.  There are tens of thousands. The Umbrian Capuchins who arrived in the Amazon at the beginning of the twentieth century began to go among the Tikuna in beginning of the thirties.  Epic pages.  

With two main characters: Father Fidelis of Alviano and Father Arsenio Sampalmieri.  There’s never two without three. The third Tikuna capuchin Friar Paolo Braghini. He speaks their language and knows their customs and costumes«Our task here is one: to help them regain and maintain their identity.  We do not evangelize the Ticuna, we live in the midst of the Ticuna».

The most numerous indigenous community is in Belém do Solimões, a day’s boat ride from the Peruvian border and three from Manaus.  Here you can only move by sailing up or down the  Rio Solimões.  Throughout the region there are about 30,000.  Friar Paolo Braghini, supported by his brothers, in the three years he has worked work among the Ticuna has stirred dormant souls and has contributed to instating a festival of dance and indigenous culture (the first of its kind in Brazil) and the first indigenous Olympics (archery, tug of war, canoe race, arm wrestling tree cutting competition), which has caught the attention of the giant Brazilian TV Globo, which has sent a sports editor to report on the competitions each day.

Belém do Solimões has become the cradle of indigenous rebirth for all the Eastern Amazon. And Friar Paolo Braghini is the main author.Now that he was also appointed provincial deputy, and therefore responsible for all pastoral work of the mission, he has decided to expand the borders and move his range of action even deeper into the forest.

The new frontier is called Javarì». And when you say it his eyes shine.  It will not be the Pillars of Hercules, but it’s not far off.  The Rio Javari, a southern tributary of the Rio Solimões which runs 1,100 km between Brazil and Peru, literally looses itself the forest.  A forest that is unexplored, or nearly, by white men. It is indigenous land, period. Virtually no one has ever set foot there. Until last July».  Back in July, Friar Paolo became an explorer and together with a half-dozen Brazilian scholars he went to make contact with the indigenous peoples of that area.”We want to open a mission in the Javarì, to do what the Capuchins did here a century ago, in the Upper Solimões.  Walk alongside the Indians, share their everyday life.  Lend a hand if and when possible».

The small expedition met with a delegation of indigenous elders. These are groups that have actually always lived isolated, identified recently by FUNAI, the government agency that deals with the protection of the indigenous world.  The scope is to monitor the situation. Understanding the dimensions of the phenomenon of isolation.

Useless to ask Paolo Braghini what his projects are. «My dream, I’ll confess, is to go down there and live among them».

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