His Name Was João
TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 7 Feb 2011
Letter of Peace Addressed to the UN
Time, many battles and much suffering have taught us that no one person is superior to another. It doesn’t matter if you are a carpenter, gardener, minister, black or white… the only thing that really matters is that we are human beings. Society must provide us all with the same opportunities because we are all equal. The authorities are merely a service put in place by the people, which in all areas must contribute to the respect, freedom and dignity of all people. Society delegates a series of services to people and institutions so that they can administrate the common good. If anyone holds a position of power it is because they have been given this power by a sector of society. People who wish to exercise false authority without being given this role fall into the temptation of power. They use force to try and crush people’s freedom in favour of their own interests. They authorize a power that they do not truly possess and can in no way justify, because nobody has given it to them. In order to legitimize themselves they have to resort to invoking the gods, history, false ideology or the need to achieve a better future for the people or humanity.
Despite all this, we see so many situations where people do not reach this level of understanding and must withstand this kind of life, one such person is a good friend of mine, João Tomé Chonze. From a very early age he had to accept this situation. His parents, simple people who lived in a time and place of conflict and war, couldn’t care for their child as they wanted to. They wanted the best for him, but they didn’t know how to give it to him, because Mozambique was a very complicated place then. With sadness in their heart they saw no other solution than to give him to a Portuguese soldier (surely in exchange for money), who promised to make sure he would receive an education and the possibility to live a dignified life. Like many others, this man did not understand, and thought that because he had paid for the boy he wielded some sort of power over his life and instead of letting him grow freely he did all he could to bind him so that he would forever be attached to him and would not go off and do other things. An easy way to achieve this was to not provide him with documentation; as a result both Portuguese and the Mozambican guerrilla groups rejected him. Without the Portuguese Colonel João had to suffer the unfair consequences of a society that wants to control the lives of others, but forgets that people are more important than the documents that register their existence.
The colonel failed to understand the responsibility that goes with taking on another person and helping them grow in every sense. This man had other intentions for the child; he had to do what he wanted, what he said and if he wanted to do anything else he would find a way to dominate him and force him to do what he thought was best. This went on for a long time. João’s life was a continuous mission to free himself from that ball and chain and the colonel did all he could to keep him in his service. We cause such terrible battles when we try to make others our property, when we believe that they are ours and must be at our service. If the base of this argument is commercial then it becomes even more indignant. But if we look around us we can see so many power struggles in the family, at work and many other situations. All this suffering is so sterile!
João tried to get away from the colonel a number of times. Although he tried, when he had nearly succeeded he found that the colour of his skin and his illegal status made things hard for him. When he managed to get away from the colonel the local authorities would stand in favour of the military official and once more João was forced to submit to this man’s control. It’s a familiar story wrapped up with issues of prestige and social tradition… Uniforms and medals are given more importance than being a human being. João had few medals, whilst the colonel had more than enough. This is the way our society works: sometimes laws deprive people of the possibility of living in line with their beliefs and desires. These structures do not always recognise the freedom of individuals and they often forget that it is not their job to give or take away someone’s freedom, but rather to facilitate people so that they may use their freedom and be treated with respect.
However, precisely because we are headstrong and end up using force to get what we want, João finally managed to escape to Spain. He was invited to Barcelona by a friend he had met in his beloved Lisbon. He was a good person and wasn’t bothered that João had no papers, all he saw was someone who needed help. It is odd that such a simple thing can often seem so complicated.
In Barcelona he sought refuge in Montalegre Monastery. Perhaps he thought that those men so dedicated to contemplation wouldn’t worry about his background. He was far from Portugal and could now rebuild his life and maybe even his past. Here he met some kind and welcoming men who opened the monastery door to him. The monks barely speak, perhaps this is why they didn’t ask him many questions, and they could also have thought that god had sent them a new calling. This dark skinned man with a broad smile lived peacefully hidden from the world’s eyes, from those damned papers that didn’t let him be himself and were a constant reminder that he wasn’t a free man. Over time it became clear that João wasn’t meant for a life of religious contemplation, but that he was just taking refuge from people who once more wanted to crush him. The monks loved the young man and didn’t know how to resolve the situation. He couldn’t stay with them, but they couldn’t abandon him either. However, when people want to they always end up finding solutions even if it seems impossible. There was an old man called Augustín who was a friend of the monks who would surely know how to solve a situation like this one.
Agustín decided to accompany the young man and find a path for him. First of all he took him home with him; he didn’t know him at all, but he knew enough from what the monks had told him. He treated him like a friend. He didn’t care about the colour of his skin or the fact that he didn’t have any documents. João couldn’t prove anything to him, but listening to João and looking him in the eyes was enough for Augustín to trust him completely. For the first time in his life João felt that someone was letting him be himself, this was no easy task, because after thirty years of not doing so he now found he was trapped by the weight of habits he had born all his life. Agustín and his friends helped him grow as a person and they received a testimony of goodness and generosity from the young man. Who was this lad who never complained or spoke badly of those who had done him so much damage? Where did he get this incredible capacity to forgive, and enjoy life? But, although these people let him live, he needed to feel that society could also be generous and that the powers that be would not force him to return to Portugal and lose everything that he had so unexpectedly found.
But when they want to social institutions are also capable of understanding, and although the law can seem heartless, laws can always find a way to give human beings dignified answers. We already know the way it works, the law is made for people, and people are not made for the law. With great effort and support, João initiated a process to be recognised by the law, and trace his documentation, which he needed in order to be considered a citizen and not an “illegal alien”, a status which prevents people from really knowing who you are and in the end stops you from doing almost everything.
And whilst he went through this long process he began to live, meet new friends, create close friendships, feel integrated and all in all, to rebuild his life. A person like him who is so easy to love didn’t need to do anything else. But while the matter of his documents was being resolved he had to confront another very important decision. He had to make a decision he had not foreseen and which in the eyes of many arrived at the worst possible moment. He now didn’t need to decide whether he wanted to be Portuguese, Mozambican or Spanish, if he wanted to live here or there, if…, no; freedom to choose does not always mean a choice between two things, sometimes it is just one thing; being free means deciding whether to accept or reject something. The doctors discovered that he had a serious illness and told him that sadly he only had six months to live. All this struggle and now this? But João had fought all his life and he showed us that when someone has experienced love, they can accept illness with an almost heroic quality. I have to say that he is one of the people who has taught me most about how to live with death, to understand this stage as a human reality that I do not need to fear, to understand that I don’t need to feel anxiety about the fact that I have to die.
On October 27th 1984 a large group of people gathered beside the deceased João. It was an intimate, special and very moving moment for us all. The death of a friend is never an indifferent experience and always awakens an affinity of sensations and questions. João was born in Mozambique and on that October afternoon, none of those gathered round him was from his country, nor even his continent. We were all friends from the last few years. We can only experience true friendship when we are free. We are all born into a family, but often this grows over time, and sometimes, as in this case, when we reach the end of life, we are not accompanied by blood relatives, but by those who have become our family through freedom and friendship. There is no doubt that João had a big family. When he left this world after an agonizing period, someone turned up with his passport. For the first time in his life he had documents, he was legal, but now he no longer needed them. These are the contradictions of men: it seems that things come to us when we no longer need them. But if we can say one thing about that young man from Mozambique, it is that his life was a continuous search for freedom, the desire to be himself and to live in accordance with his values and beliefs. João represents the cry of many men and women around the world who call out loudly: “Listen, people who can’t understand: always remember that no man ever has authority over any other”.
His name was João, but we could add many names to his. There is so much still to do…, but history shows us that although it can seem impossible, when we really want to we can find solutions.
Jordi Cussó Porredón, economist – Barcelona, Spain
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