For 46 years the Catholic Order of the Comboni Missionaries hid the illegitimate child of one of its priests. Mykis, half Italian and half Burundian, was considered a threat to the Church and he’s now forced to live in a refugee camp in Kenya. His father, the late Father Giovanni Capaccioni, managed to silence him thanks to the help of his friends inside the congregation. Some are dead, others are still alive.
By Matteo Fraschini Koffi,September 3, 2023
LOMÉ, TOGO – Mykis’ sweet, childish voice betrays his 46 years of age. Nature gifted him with a disarming kindness that makes you care for him almost immediately. His soul is impossible to penetrate because it has no filters. However, behind it lies the dark side of an endemic phenomenon in Africa: the overwhelming existence of children fathered by Catholic priests. Mykis represents the Church’s most forbidden fruit. The secret of secrets. Talking to the son of an Italian Catholic priest is a strange experience, bordering on logic. It's like getting to know another human dimension. Special. Yet, for decades, Mykis was considered a reject by those who should have loved him the most. He currently lives in a hut made of wood and sheet metal inside the Kakuma refugee camp, northwestern Kenya. According to the Comboni congregation, he doesn’t deserve more than that.
His “fault” is that of being born from the sexual abuse of Father Giovanni Capaccioni, who died last year, against a 16-year-old Burundian student who attended the missionary’s parish. Mykis’ skin color, a very light brown, is too risky to show off in a country marred by constant inter-ethnic violence. That’s why he always faced discrimination and abuse that continue to this day. On his back he bears a variety of nicknames such as: mestizo, metisse, halfcast, Chinese, Japanese, European, muzungu (white man). People would call him “Jackie Chan’s son”. Myki’s mother was even accused of sleeping with one of the Chinese workers that were building roads throughout Burundi’s green hills in the countryside. People don't trust him when they see him.
“At school I couldn't even speak Kirundi, the national language”, says the Italian-Burundian refugee with desperate irony, “For them, a white African could not speak it that well! Local authorities would issue my identity documents only on the condition that I did not use them on Burundian territory. Here in Kakuma they wonder how a white man can be a refugee in Africa. They treat me like a spy, they tell me that I don't belong here, that I must leave”. Refugees usually flee a country because they feel their lives threaten. They don’t expect to face the same threats inside the camp where they’re seeking protection. Therefore, isolating himself has been for years Mykis’ only strategy. But only once he did overcome the desire to commit suicide. Making himself known now seems the last resort. A way to rebuild an identity broken at birth by the weakness of an alleged spiritual guide passing through Africa.
Father Giovanni Capaccioni, more commonly known as Father Gianni, arrived in Burundi in the mid-seventies. The country was trying to survive. The horrors of the first Burundian genocide which broke out in 1972 caused between 80,000 and 210,000 victims, mostly of the Hutu ethnic group. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled to neighboring states such as Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was 1976, the Comboni missionary had taken his vows ten years earlier. However, a few weeks in Africa were enough to be tempted by the local, widespread impunity. It was easy to get away with the irreparable.
“My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was the first to speak to me about Father Gianni,” Mykis explains in a tone devoid of anger or resentment. “She told me he was a good person who played football with children and offered everyone sweets and chocolates. My mother, on the other hand, never spoke of him. I couldn’t even mention his name that she would immediately burst into tears. Other priests knew my father’s true identity but they always hid it from me. In fact, for years I thought that he was already dead.”
The Comboni missionary was 36 years old at the time. Originally from Città di Castello, Perugia’s province, he was interested in journalism and photography. Despite some time in Burundi and Benin, the rest of his life was spent in the Comboni community of Cavallino, a small municipality near Lecce, southern Italy. In 2005 he became a Superior and the Archbishop of Lecce, Monsignor Michele Seccia, appointed him head of the diocesan “Migrants Commission”. A role that, many believed, he carried out with great zeal.
The missionary organized various initiatives dedicated to the African culture and the welcoming of migrants, of course. “He had brought Africa to the Salento region”, his parishioners used to say. These statements contrasted with his experience in Burundi from which, apparently, he had been forced to flee at one point. The local authorities once accused him of arms trafficking. “This false accusation was serious”, Father Capaccioni wrote to his son in one of the many e-mails exchanged over the years. “Sale of weapons to the rebels? I've never even had a gun!”
Back in Italy, the Comboni missionary continued his life as if nothing had happened in that distant, African land. Difficult to say if he was aware of the Burundian girl’s pregnancy. The doubt was raised one evening of about fifteen years ago. “After telling my story to some Westerners living in Burundi and willing to help me find him, I was able to call my father for the first time in 2009,” Mykis says in one of his voice messages that I asked him to record on WhatsApp. “At first it was difficult to talk to him, he didn't want to know about me. A nun had given me the number of the parish in Lecce where I believe many people know my story”.
After several attempts, Mykis was finally able to talk to his father quite often. “In the following years we maintained a regular correspondence via e-mail”, continues the Burundian-Italian refugee. “He would send me 150 euros whenever I most needed it. Shortly after, however, he ambushed me”. The Comboni priest closed all communication when Mykis mentioned his legitimate recognition. After a few weeks of silence, however, Father Capaccioni got back in touch with an idea: the choice between the recognition to obtain Italian citizenship and the financing of an agricultural project called ‘Agri-food’. Mykis dreams to promote the bio-cultivation of onions and cereals in Burundi. “Unfortunately, I was desperately in need of money and I was dreaming of launching my own business after years of studies”, he sadly regrets. “I chose the agricultural project. A project that, of course, never took off”.
Once he received the details of Agri-food in a well packaged PDF document, Father Capaccioni was impressed by his son's professionalism. “It would take a few weeks to translate it into Italian – he replied – at least the essential parts”. It was October 2013. Meanwhile, Mykis’ case was being handled by Monsignor Serapio Bambonanire. The "eminenza grigia". A controversial local cleric well connected to the brutal regime of the late Burundian president, Pierre Nkurunziza. “Serapio had always known about my father,” Mykis says. “He told me that Father Capaccioni loved to court young girls”. Entrusted by some members of the Comboni congregation, Serapio offered Mykis a job in his nephew’s company. He couldn’t afford to lose sight of the young man. “But over time he began threatening and insulting me”, Mykis continues. “My salary stopped and his nephew assured me that Serapio used to check my phone every time I left it on the table in the office”.
The reason for such an aggressive intrusion into Mykis’ private life was linked to the involvement of a young European missionary, member of the Jesuit Order. In 2011, both struck up a good, trustworthy relationship in Kakuma. Father X (the missionary has not given me the permission to reveal his name yet) met Father Capaccioni in Rome and convinced him to accept a written correspondence with his son. Subsequently, the Jesuit even gave his availability to find lawyers and speak with his superiors at the Vatican. He would have liked the Combonian missionary to recognize his son before a possible, unexpected death.
Probably aware of the e-mail exchanges between Mykis and Father X, Serapio accused both of recklessness. Of wanting to provoke a dangerous, moral clash between the Comboni Missionaries and the Jesuit Order. Pope John Paul II was apparently aware of Father Capaccioni’s predicament. Reason enough for the late patriarch of the Catholic Church to reject his candidacy as Superior General of the Comboni Missionaries in the world. The role is currently occupied by the Ethiopian, Father Tesfaye Tadesse Gebresilasie. In 2012, Father X was sent to Asia. He then returned to his country of origin, in Europe, where he maintained a correspondence with Mykis for some years.
“Dear Father X”, Mykis once wrote to him. “I learned with indignation that Monsignor Serapio invested himself, body and soul, so that I could be fired from the company where I worked. All my attempts to reach him for a short conversation failed. Even when I call him with an unknown number, he cuts off the call as soon as he recognizes my voice. And then, instead of telling me concretely how he could help me, he contented himself with defaming you and intimidating me. For example, he told me that I deserve to be physically eliminated given the danger I pose to the congregation and the Catholic Church in general. According to him, Father Capaccioni is worth so much to the Church that it would be better for me to disappear”.
The tension was rising. “Dear Mykis, hello”, the Comboni missionary wrote to his son one night in June 2013. “First of all, I would like to say a word to reassure you of my loyalty to you. I never thought of hurting you, never in my life! I just want our situation to be resolved without hurting each other and to mutual satisfaction.” After this fragile preamble he added: “I spoke with Monsignor Serapio because he knows your family well, he also knew me during the difficult moments of the expulsion [from Burundi]. [...] From your writings I see that you are still tied to Father X. I have nothing to tell you, but with him we will reach the total exasperation out of this situation and each of us will have regrets. He doesn't understand what will happen if his ideas were to become true. He doesn't know the Italian Justice system, the difficulties of many young people who, due to the lack of employment, are forced to leave their homeland and go abroad. Unemployment has increased significantly [in Italy].” To conclude, Father Capaccioni tried to put his son’s fate back in the dangerous hands of the Burundian prelate. “My advice to you: go back to Monsignor Serapio with trust and humility, I am sure that we will also resolve the economic side of things. But please, leave Father X alone”.
The years passed, e-mail after e-mail. Mykis worked modest jobs that he could hardly keep due to constant discrimination. He relied above all on the financial help of his father and other benefactors to whom he told his story. Without the assistance of Father X, Mykis’ only friend in this matter, all hopes regarding the “Agri-food” project faded. And the possibility of being recognized by his father melted along with it. Furthermore, Father Capaccioni was now increasingly fragile as he explained to his son in a December 2018 e-mail. “Dear Mykis, I hope your body is healthy now”. Mykis has contracted malaria countless times inside the Kakuma refugee camp. And when the mosquitoes don’t bite, scorpions might do the job. “I sent 150 euros on November 16th and 20th. Did you withdraw that money? [...] And now I’m losing my strength, day by day. My knees and arms joints no longer support me as much”.
Countless were also the justifications given by the Comboni missionary to keep his son hidden and silenced. “I don't even have a passport anymore,” Father Capaccioni kept on lamenting. “What I can do is to continue to give you financial help as I have done so far. In Europe the poor are increasing and the situation has worsened. No jobs, no more free medicine for a variety of illnesses. The European Community makes everything weaker and more difficult”. Mykis regrets not pushing harder for his father’s recognition. A strategic error that Father X tried to point out without however influencing him. On February 18, 2022, at 12:04 pm, Mykis received his father's last e-mail: “It is impossible for me to communicate. Health is at zero. Ciao”.
Less than two months later, on April 13th, the Comboni missionary died without ever recognizing his son. Among the various press releases expressing condolences there was one published by the Lecce’s diocese: “Yesterday morning, the Church of Lecce led by Archbishop Michele Seccia, in celebration with numerous priests, the brothers and sisters of Cavallino, and Father Fabio Baldan, Provincial Superior of the Comboni Missionaries of Italy, together with many faithful friends of the Church, gathered in the Eucharistic celebration of ‘the last journey’ of Father Gianni: the priest, the father, the brother or simply the friend always ready to be close and capable of caressing everyone’s hearts”.
On April 19th, a large group of priests, family members and friends of Father Capaccioni gathered with bowed heads to celebrate “the last farewell” inside the park of Cavallino’s community. The sun was beating hard on the white priests’ sacred vestments. A thick line of tall trees surrounded the community united in prayer. The wooden altar and coffin were covered in bright African fabrics. The mass was ready to begin. “In the name of the Father and of the Son...”, solemnly commenced Monsignor Seccia. His sermon was a long gratitude speech to the deceased Comboni missionary who helped him discover Africa. In January 2000, the Archbishop of Lecce visited another African state, Benin. Beginning in 1996, Father Capaccioni spent three years in a mission opened by San Severo’s diocese (Apulia, southern Italy) in Wansokou, a remote town in the north of the West African country.
After learning of his father’s death by an e-mail from Father Jeremias Martins, the Comboni’s Vicar General, Mykis searched the internet for news. He found and translated an article by Pantaleo Gianfreda entitled: “Let’s build the peace: the message of peace and humanity that the immense and very sweet Father Gianni left us”. Shaken by his death but with a legitimate, timid desire to maybe finally get noticed, the Italian-Burundian refugee left one of his few internet footprints in 46 years: “May the earth be light on him!”, he wrote in the comment section below. “His death was sad news for me and my family in Burundi. It is in the hands of the Almighty Lord without a doubt. I will never forget his advices”. In the end, the Comboni missionary’s son could not but praise his father for all that turned out positive in their lives. Even if it wasn’t much. Moreover, Mykis still did not want to reveal his true identity, especially after reading all those honorary speeches pronounced in his father’s favor. The children of priests are trained from an early age to remain hidden. They don’t want to create embarrassment nor scandal. Therefore, he waited in vain for months. Hoping that Gianfreda, the author of the article, or someone from the Cavallino’s community, would contact him.
That’s when another battle began. After the funeral, always with great respect, Mykis tried to request the help of the Comboni Missionaries to start a procedure for his Italian recognition. “I told them that I would like to attend my father’s funeral and that I was willing to take a DNA test whenever they wanted”, Mykis explains, showing me the e-mail exchanges with the different priests. Some claimed to be unaware of the existence of a son fathered by Capaccioni in Burundi. Others seemed to take it for granted. Father Martins transferred the case to Father Fabio Baldan. Father Baldan then transferred the case “to one of our legal advisers, so as to provide us with an opinion on the matter”. On May 30th a letter arrived written in Italian-legalese that it’d be difficult for almost any Italian to understand. At the top there was the address of a law firm. On the left there was a column with the signature of a lawyer followed by a list of 11 other people, all lawyers, doctors and accountants.
In the one-page PDF document that should have silenced Mykis once and for all, it is stated that according to Italian legislation: “In the absence of any proof, no rights can be claimed by the alleged natural child vis-a-vis the alleged parent”.Among the Comboni Missionary priests involved in this long affair were Father Jean-Paul Pezzi, editor of a blog called Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC); Father Silvio Zanardi, a missionary who returned to Malawi at the age of 82 and had offered Mykis his “hospitality”; Father Elio Boscaini, missionary and journalist of the Comboni magazine, 'Nigrizia'; Father Giovanni Nobili, a missionary who died in 2016 in Uganda where he once met Mykis; and finally, Father Alberto Pelucchi who knew everything since, at least, 2013. All of them physically encountered Father Capaccioni’s son, or were at least aware of his story. And then they decided to abandon him in a refugee camp.
The time had come to contact Mykis’ mother in Burundi: Marie Therese. The light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. For almost twenty years I have been trying to learn about the devastation of the African continent through my work, but nothing could have prepared me for this woman's testimony. “Yes, you should call my mother!”, Mykis told me, anxious about the idea that perhaps a journalist could discover what, as a son, he never knew about his mother. “She doesn't spend much time on WhatsApp. She works in the fields to earn some money. But she’ll tell you what she can. She’s still very traumatized by this story, I think”.
I decided to communicate with Marie Therese only through voice-messages. audio-files filled more with sighs, silences, and soft cries, than with mere words. Her voice was full of suffering, almost monotone, fluid. It has never increased in volume nor has accelerated in pace. With great difficulty she began her audio testimony. In the background the birds’ chirping coming from the forest all around her. A few seconds of silence, a crying sob, and finally a cough to clear her throat: “...[Sir] You are making me...remember a story...[a gentle scream followed by a short cry]...that...left me...a scar... [she tries to compose herself] Even now, if I remember him...please...let me go first...ok, I’ll think, then I’ll tell you [sigh]...[light blows on her chest, as if she needed to recharge her spiritual battery before speaking again] Pardon me..."
I thought Marie Therese didn't have the strength to continue. I thought she was done. Instead, after a few intense seconds of reflection, she did continue: “I didn't come to know Father Capaccioni as a friend, no...Simply put: my father was the guardian of the parish where Father Capaccioni, together with Father Elio...Father Silvio...Father Gianni Nobili, they were all in this parish of Mabayi. My family lived very close to the parish. I was a student…I was a student...”. She struggles to hold back the tears. She sighs regularly. “...My goodness...We were…I was... [continuous efforts to hold back the tears, in the background I can hear the animals around the farm where she works. She stands up and starts walking]. I was among...so....[she composes herself again after 30 long seconds of silence]. I have known quite a few... problems. I was humiliated... Our wasn't a love story but a story of... It’s called 'copinage', isn't it? [long seconds of silence]. He just took me....please...don't make me remember”.
Once again I thought Marie Therese wanted to stop there. I wanted her to stop there. Instead, another voicemail arrived twenty minutes later. Then a video-message. The area from which she was communicating was similar to the place where Father Capaccioni’s funeral was held. Marie Therese is now a wounded lady who seems older than her age. Very dark skin, deep wrinkles, frayed hair, and prescription glasses on her slightly wide nose. Every now and then she covers her eyes with her hand while she tries to tell her story. She admits that even today there are people who are putting pressure on her. However, she prefers not to reveal the details.
“Pardon me”, she starts again, always very cautiously. “[Father Capaccioni] left me with this pregnancy. [I was 16 years old]. We never saw each other again. Never again. He didn't look for me. Well, I don't think so. I tried to live with Mykis...I did my best. I then had other children. For Mykis I have nothing left...for me I have nothing left. [...]”. Marie Therese finds it difficult to name Father Capaccioni. “He mistreated me. He tortured me. I am now a widow. I am a widow. I regret it. I regret it. I sent Mykis to school but he can’t find work...he can’t find work. Not like it happened with my other children. He lives day by day...just as I live day by day. A story [...] of silence. But, pardon me – she concludes once again without naming the Comboni missionary – I have forgiven him. I forgave him in spite of…of myself…of myself”.
In about ten voice-messages, Marie Therese explains how Father Capaccioni used Nicodem, the parish cook, to call her and have her come to his room. “Sometimes Father Capaccioni asked me to translate [from French to Kirundi] the sermon that he would then use for the Sunday mass. So, he used this justification to see me....that’s how he got me [she tries to hold back tears and composes herself]. He used me. I didn't know what to do…I didn't know what to do. He got me pregnant and left. Forever...forever [deep sigh]”.
In her last message I hear that she has taken a child into her arms, perhaps the son of the farm’s owner. The baby must be a few months old and is delicately whining in the background.
“I too had quite a few consequences. [Father Capaccioni] stopped me. I wanted to continue my studies. But at the time...in Burundi...pregnant girls were kicked out of school. In fact, they immediately kicked me out of the school as soon as they found out I was pregnant. [Father Capaccioni] stopped me. I returned home. I tried to look for work but it wasn’t easy since I hadn’t finished my studies...[long and deep seconds of silence. Then, one last big sigh].
“He killed me, you see... – Marie Therese’s dense voice slowly fading – he killed me...he killed me...he killed me”.
Today Mykis has a wife and two daughters aged 8 and 3 who live in Burundi. He, on the other hand, continues to live in the Kakuma camp where these days the temperature reaches 40 degrees under the acacia’s shades. He doesn’t want his family to be a victim of what he experienced. His refugee card has a precise number. He must remember it by heart not to be expelled from the camp. When he has no money he begs. His neighbors help him sometimes. In our first video-call, Mykis ran fast between the huts to reach the first billboard by the nearest tarmac road. White on green it was written above “KAKUMA” and in the middle “REFUGEE”. The word at the bottom, “CAMP” is covered by his head. Right thumb raised towards the sky, pursed lips, half-closed eyes and a funny defiant expression. Proud to be a survivor. He then sent me the selfie.
He chose to live in a refugee camp most of the time because he risks less discrimination by mixing with other Ethiopian, Somali and Sudanese refugees. Many of them have his fair skin. Few trust him when he introduces himself as a Burundian. Mykis had to flee a country marred by two genocides, repeated civil wars, and 400,000 refugees in 2015. A land where only 12 percent is tarmac roads and where 12 million people live in 27,000 square kilometers, an area a little smaller than Maryland State in the US. He was forced to leave a reality where unspeakable human rights violations traumatized entire generations.
“I hope one day to obtain Italian citizenship”, the Italian-Burundian refugee finally told me, “and I’d like to visit my father’s land as well”. The Agri-food project changed, at least in terminology. Now is the "My Kiss Project". A title that in addition to its obvious meaning, gently mocks the man’s name, Mykis. Probably one of the most unique names in the world. Father Capaccioni, however, is one of an unknown number of Italian missionaries who, by abusing their power, have had and abandoned their children in Africa. A phenomenon that seems still too complicated to deal with, especially given the silence around this delicate matter. One day, maybe, we will manage.
For now, dear Mykis Godefroid Nsabimana, I have written your story as promised. In making it public we will face risks and obstacles together. I’m sure other people will join us in our efforts to shed a light where obscurity persists. Let’s see how this small world’s heart pulses. I really hope that the truth will free you from the refugee camp in which the dynamics of life imprisoned you. Needless to say, it’s not your fault.