by Bluto Ray
When Danilo Dolci stepped off the train in 1952, he was ready, as a peasant who knew him wrote, “to share the life of the poor.” As a teen, he had seen things that disturbed him while visiting his father who was posted as Trappeto’s wartime stationmaster. After the war, he remained haunted by images of emaciated children and fat government officials. Images of families subsisting on beans and insects and wild greens. Fathers forced into banditry.
At the age of twenty-eight, Dolci came back to help. He arrived in Trappeto with five cents to his name but rich in experience. Violently abused by his father as a youth, the wide-eyed poet grew up to be a pacifist and an activist. He cared for orphans in northern Italy under the tutelage of a priest whose social work rankled the right-wing Church of the postwar years. Dolci’s credo was “Participate in order to understand.”
Trappeto in the 1950s was a fishing village that more resembled a famine-ridden village of Africa. For years, Mafia-backed fishing pirates bombed the Castellammare Bay at night and scooped up the tons of sardine fry that surfaced. The state did nothing to stop the ruinous practice. Little was left for the local fishermen to scrounge. With farms and irrigation under Mafia control, grain was inaccessible to the peasants.
”Last winter I saw with my own eyes a newborn babe die of hunger. And this was only one among hundreds and hundreds of cases no less sad; children dying because there was no money in the house to buy the medicines that could have saved them, fathers and mothers gray with lack of food and anguish because they could not feed their children, old men of seventy and over, weak and ill, forced to spend whole nights fishing in the hopes of earning a few lire, widows struggling to bring up several children without any source of assistance whatsoever, sick men forced to go to a hospital and leave their wives and children at home unprovided for, fathers arrested (and children tearing their hair in the grief at the sight of their fathers in chains) because the need of these same children had driven them to steal from another man’s land.”
Dolci set out in several directions at once. He wrote letters to influential people in Rome. He ventured to distant towns to procure medicine on credit. He even announced a hunger strike, declaring, “Rather than see another child die of hunger, I would rather die myself. From today on, I shall not eat another mouthful of food until the thirty million lire required to employ the neediest and help the most urgent cases has arrived.”
Within a week of fasting he suffered a stroke, but word had already reached Palermo and the money arrived just in time. The legend of Dolci spread. Suddenly he could break ground on his greatest ambition to date, a house for the most destitute of Trappeto. He named it the Borgo di Dio (Hamlet of God).
Dolci was able to finance construction of the Borgo on credit, his only collateral being promises, good will, and growing notoriety. Dozens of unemployed men hauled materials up the hill overlooking the shores of Castellammare, confident of a distant payday. When Dolci’s promissory note to a furniture shop went unpaid, he surrendered his scooter to the threatening dealer.
The Borgo opened its doors in 1953. Its first occupants were a couple whose baby had died of starvation a few days before. They were joined by a woman with five children whose husband had been beaten to death by bandits. The rare sight of bread on the table drove the little ones to hide loaves under their pillows lest they vanish like a dream.
Though he was a published poet in Italy, Dolci’s sociological books travelled farther, some going paperback in the US. He recorded everyone on tape, from the poorest peasant (“Ever since I was a child I worked the fields.”) to the haughty Archbishop of Palermo (“The individual should always assume that established powers are wiser than he.”) who later branded him an enemy of Sicily.
Dolci also captured the words of one of Sicily’s most powerful Mafia bosses of the era, Giuseppe Genco Russo. Playing up his paternal role, the old thug said: “People seek advice about how to vote. They feel it’s a duty to show their gratitude.” Dolci included the interview in a chapter titled “The Parasite Cultures.”
It was his international fame and noisy opposition to injustice that protected Dolci. Unlike so many other Sicilian activists killed for breaking silence, this peaceful rabble-rouser outlived the Mafia of his day. He died in 1997 at the age of seventy-three.
Dolci, Sicilian Lives
Mangione, The World Around Danilo Dolci
McNeish, Fire Under the Ashes