The Malta Independent 2 December 2023, Saturday
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Marie Benoit's Diary: Danilo Dolci, civil rights activist and a great humanitarian

Marie Benoît Tuesday, 22 November 2022, 11:21 Last update: about 2 years ago

An 'old'  friend I respect e-mailed: "I read the stuff you write about dinners and vermouths d'honneur and find them amusing.  Sometimes though you should also go to some very weighty (perhaps boring) lecture about the arts or the environment and write about it as if it were a vernissage." Well, so many write about these matters, people who are much more qualified than I am. I really don't think I have anything to add.

However, last week, after watching (only halfway through) a documentary about Danilo Dolci the activist, poet, writer (over 50 books) on RAI 3 and whom I had met in 1968 in Partinico, Sicily, and interviewed I thought I'd meet my friend halfway and write about Dolci. Not a weighty subject but he was a man to be admired.


I approached the Italian Embassy who were most cordial and sent me a link to the documentary but the link never worked for me so I am relying mostly on memory although the internet is full of material about the "Italian Gandhi" as Dolci came to be called.

It all started after a lecture which Danilo Dolci gave and which I attended in London in 1968. It had been organised by the Danilo Dolci Trust (which ceased to exist in 1992) and which was sponsored by some eminent names including Sir Lawrence Olivier, Lord Sainsbury, Rev. Thomas Corbishley, S.J. the English Jesuit and a foremost figure in England's Christian Unity Movement. It raised funds for activities Dolci had undertaken at the Centres he had established in Western Sicily. The Trust contributed an annual sum for the work of the main centre at Partinico and financed so many other projects.

I was young and idealistic and being a lover of Sicily I found his talk very moving and so I wrote to the Trust saying I wanted to interview Dolci on my next trip to Sicily in February. A letter arrived giving me his address in Partinico and telling me that he was an extremely busy man and I would have to make an appointment. Of course there were no phones in Partinico at the time. Not daunted I wrote to Dolci who replied.

I had no idea what the distance from Palermo, where I was staying, to Partinico was.... 30 kilometres I later learnt.

As soon as I arrived with my sister for a short break in February I told 'Zia' Giuseppina that I had an appointment to interview DD. She immediately wrote him off as a communist. Partinico was dangerous country with Mafia everywhere. It was not safe for me to go and what could that communist Danilo Dolci possibly have to say to me but awful things about Sicily. Anyway, seeing my resolve she reluctantly arranged for a friend to drive me there and back. She always did her utmost to please these 'Inglesine,' close friends of her two children, now sadly, both dead.


That drive to Partinico was memorable. By then Dolci had already written several books about his experiences in Sicily and the very moving Inchiesta a Palermo, translated into Poverty in Sicily which I am re-reading. It is the intimate stories and perceptions of a wide range of Sicilians, rural and urban, through voices that are sometimes frightening, but always fascinating and unexpected. How did these people survive such dire poverty? They were so very poor, yet many still went on to have large families although existence was a daily struggle.


When Danilo Dolci, peace worker, organizer, educator, first arrived from northern Italy, in 1952 in Trappeto, a village of peasants and fishermen in western Sicily, there were no streets, just mud and dust, not a single drugstore, not even a sewer. Like other Sicilians, the villagers, seen by many Italians as "bandits," "dirt-eaters," and "savages," had, in effect, been mute for centuries. These villages were evidence of the wasted potential of men without work. In these parts of Sicily one felt people were living outside the boundaries of progress and time. Towns and villages without running water and electricity, impoverished citizens were barely surviving on the edge of starvation.

Soon he was organising protest marches: "Senza lavoro si muore, Senza famiglie unite non si vive, Fuori I mafiosi dagli incarichi publici." Thanks to Dolci they found their voices and let go of their fears. In 1957 there was the sciopero a rovescio a reverse strike in which the jobless protested against their condition by going to work. They started by building a road. He fought illegal fishing with the local fishermen with a collective hunger strike on the beach of San Cataldo.

In Trappeto he had started an orphanage helped by Vincenzina Mangano, the widow of a fisherman who had five children whom Dolci adopted. They were to have five more of their own. Later they moved to Partinico where Dolci lived to the end of his life. He preferred to live in the midst of it all.


As we drove to Partinico that February morning what Keats called "the giant misery of the world" came to mind. It was more than averagely gigantic in Sicily especially in the western end of the island. Villages like Sciara were in the grips of the Mafia and virtually depopulated by murder and emigration. Killing a man made no more impression than killing a goat.


We drove through villages where we only came across women in black from head to toe. I was convinced that even the cats and dogs were female. Most doors displayed black sashes indication that these households were in mourning.


Dolci managed to attract helpers from all over the world. They helped him built schools, improve agricultural practices, start building a much needed dam and so much more.  He also attracted the support of some of the most prominent intellectuals of the day like Ignazio Silone, Jean Piaget, Eric Fromm, Leonardo Sciascia, Carlo Levi and so many others. My age group was reading the Italian novelists at the time even if we hid Alberto Moravia's under a cover of brown paper for fear of confiscation by our parents.

Later I was to study in depth Carlo Levi's Cristo si è fermato a Eboli which gives an account of his exile from 1835-1936 to Grassano and Aliano, remote towns in southern Italy. Levi, a medical doctor, was imprisoned there because of his opposition to Italy's Fascist government at the start of the Ethiopian war in 1935. So remote was the village, so neglected that people there told him: "We're not Christians. Christ stopped short of here. At Eboli." An utterly moving book. It saddens me to think that my grandchildren will never read these books.


Dolci was a convinced anti-fascist and considered one of the most significant figures in the non-violence movement in the world. His enemies were powerful, but it is a sign of his own moral greatness that he has never been deterred from continuing his work despite attacks on it and threats to his own life.

We finally arrived at the Centro Studi and met Danilo Dolci who was so generous with his time and whose reflections and descriptions of the work being done in western Sicily convinced me that there were still good people in the world. I wrote up the interview when I returned to Malta, typing it on my little red Olivetti,  and it was published  in the Sunday Times of Malta for which paper I used to write at the time. It was my hobby. I never kept a copy of the interview. 

Dolci was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize for Peace. He won the Lenin Prize for Peace in 1957 although he was a confirmed anti Communist, and the Gandhi Prize in 1989. Eric Fromm wrote: "If only most of the individuals in the western world were not too blind to see real greatness, Dolci would be even more famous than he actually is."

I really don't think Dolci craved greatness. He was interested in giving a hand to change the world but especially western Sicily. He managed.

He remains someone whose life and work I still admire.


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