One Good Turn

(The Nationalist, 24 November 2000)


One of the most remarkable people I met was a woman by the name of Graziella Jalla. She came from a family of Italian Protestant missionaries (Waldensians) who were from the north of Italy. Her father and her uncle had together performed the huge pioneering task of translating the entire Bible into an African language and, as a by-product, of creating the first grammar and dictionaries in the same language. Graziella, (“a little grace,”) born in Africa in 1898, was the sole surviving child of a large family and was sent to France for her education.

When she was eighteen she also decided to become a missionary and she went to the part of French Indo-China which is now Viet-Nam. After spending some years there she returned to her parents in Africa and began work as a teacher.

One day she heard of a young local woman who had died in childbirth, so, like everyone else, she went to the funeral. All went normally until it came to filling in the grave and then she saw something that shocked her to the core. The new-born baby was being placed, alive, in the grave alongside the mother and was to be buried with her. As the people saw it, the baby had caused the mother’s death and so should die with her. On impulse, Graziella slid down into the grave alongside the corpse and took the baby in her arms. People pulled her up out of the grave and she took the baby home. The people probably thought she was crazy but they saw no reason not to humour her eccentricity.

Graziella looked after the baby girl as if she were her own. She never married but watched the baby grow up to become a young woman, then a mother, and eventually a grandmother. Several decades later Graziella, now elderly, decided to return to Italy to retire in her parents’ home area. But it didn’t turn out well. Everything had changed, she knew nobody and she didn’t even speak Italian very well. She was like a fish out of water. She felt trapped because, on her small pension, there was nothing she could do but stay where she was and live out the rest of her life there, whether happy or unhappy.

In her distress she wrote to her “child” and told her of her predicament. Not very long after she received a reply with an invitation to return to Africa and an airline ticket. Graziella accepted gladly and returned to the school where she had taught for most of her life. She lived there in a small house and was looked after by her adopted family. Nearby were the graves of her parents and uncle and of the early missionaries who had been her lifelong companions. She had come home.