DANILO DOLCI, who arrived in London on Tuesday for a lecture tour, looks rather like a typical Italian businessman. Quite tall, not slim. and with a steadily receding hair-line, he dresses unostentatiously and gestures frequently as he talks. But then you notice that he does not wear a tie. And that the eyes behind the rimless glasses are penetratingly wise and humorous.
What is immediately attractive is his transparent honesty and single-mindedness. Sitting in a small crowded Italian restaurant near the British Museum, and talking of his plans for the future, it was obvious that, basically, his philosophy is of the simplest and the most effective kind.
He has combined his idealism with an earthy practicality that has made his work succeed under almost impossible circumstances. He has faced initial Government inactivity, threats from the Mafia, and the almost invincible fatalism of the Sicilian people themselves, and has conquered the complexity of these problems through his own essential simplicity.
From the bottom
Briefly, he wants to free the people of Sicily from the legacy of violence and poverty that has been their lot for centuries. And he wants the people who live on the land, and work the land, to share in the produce of the land. A theory like this proclaimed anywhere else, would almost certainly involve hard words, political factionalism and personal anger. But Dolci is as matter-of-fact as it is possible to be: he does not exaggerate the difficulties facing him, and he is frank about his needs.
Like Gandhi, Dolci believes that if you want to reform the world it is no use starting at the top. If Western Sicily is to be redeemed it must be done dal basso, from the bottom up. At the same time he is against relief work that involves only the provision of food and clothing, for he holds that this not only fails to supply a permanent solution, but degrades the recipient.
He first became interested in social work soon after studying architecture, and first of all worked with Don Zelto Saltini, a Catholic priest who runs a Christian settlement for destitute families at Nomadellia, near Modena. But then he remembered Trappeto, a wretchedly poor Sicilian coastal village where his father had once been stationmaster, and decided to devote the rest of his life to the people of that area. Borrowing money for his first house for poor children, called Bore° di Dio, he slowly began to draw the attention of the Italian people and Government to the fact that here, on their doorstep, was an island the size of Switzerland with social problems that had not been tackled in a thousand years.
Since 1952 Dolci has set up five "pilot centres" in villages throughout the area, partly to convince the Government and partly to convince the people themselves that there is an answer to the island's destitution. He and his helpers concentrate on personal work, realising that the really big projects, like the long-awaited dam on the River lato, cannot even he started without active Government assistance.
His research groups have two functions: they take immediate steps on a personal, practical level, to show villagers what can be done with sufficient initiative and, at the same time, evaluate the long-term needs of the region and act as a vocal pressure group to persuade the Government to adopt their recommendations.
Dolci's hunger strike last year in protest against Government inactivity on the River lato dam project brought him to the notice of the world more effectively than anything else. It was not a mere publicity gesture, however, and he insists that he would not take such a course again until—as happened then—all normal means of pressing his case had been used without success. Nor did he consider his fast as a "personal" gesture: it was only an example of the spirit behind his movement.
His wife, Vincenzina, did not try to dissuade him, partly, perhaps as he remarks jokingly, because like all Sicilian wives, she is molt() prudence, but essentially because they both work together in complete confidence and trust. They have ten children—Vincenzina, the widow of a local fisherman who was killed by bandits, had five children when he married her—but, as he says, "We make no distinction, and I hope that you won't either." Many other children whose parents are in prison or dead are also taken into the family for varying periods.
He belongs to no political party. but his proposals for agrarian reform have not endeared him to Sicily's absentee landlord aristocracy, and he is occasionally described as a Communist. There are other people, of course, who describe him as a saint. Both these descriptions amuse rather than worry him. When he is challenged for having received the Lenin Peace Prize, he replies with equanimity that be did not ask for it, but that it had been given to him. His convictions, which are humanitarian rather than political, have been constant for many years; he first went to jail as a conscientious objector when he was 18. He sees the whole problem in Sicily as providing an unprecedented opportunity for the Sicilian people to establish a new relationship with the Italian state. At the moment, the relationship is one of antagonism, and without an education of the type he is advocating, there seems to be little possibility of any change.
Basically he considers his work as work for peace through education. The people are to be educated out of apathy and demoralisation, and into a constructive and open approach to life. Peace will then develop from a basically healthy social order.
The difficulties with which he is faced do not dismay him. For a start there is the Mafia, the secret organisation whose moral code he describes as "pre-Mosaic". Strength is their creed and violence their language. When someone is murdered in Sicily, it is immediately assumed that he has done something wrong. Might is right and in an atmosphere where only the strongest can hope to survive, cooperative movements such as Dolci advocates are in trouble from the moment they come into existence But the Mafia is more than just a secret society. It is an ingrained part of Sicilian life and reaches an intensity which explodes periodically into violence and bloodshed. That is why in some areas one unexplained murder a week is nothing out of the ordinary. The Sicilians, Dolci thinks, owe more to the Arab than to the Christian tradition, and Sicily has always been to some extent culturally and emotionally independent of Italy.
Nobody, except the tourists, ever comes to Sicily, and as generation succeeds generation the suspicion of anything new, the gap between the peasants on the one hand and the politicians, the police and the clergy on the other, and the insidious influence of the Mafia, gets worse. not better. It is this vicious circle that Dolci is trying to break, and the measure of his success so far is that he has done so much with the small resources at his disposal.
His relationship with the Church in Sicily has not been particularly fruitful. Baptised a Catholic, he has gradually come to believe that his position was not compatible with the Church as he saw it, and now describes himself as a "nonconfessional" but nevertheless religious man. He has an obvious admiration for Pope John, whom he compares to the ideal kind of rural parish priest, with a deep and intimate concern for his people, and is confident that his reign will do immense good.
While he is not in direct conflict with the Church in Sicily, whose clergy, he says, are too influenced by local tradition to see the need for change, he finds it impossible to talk of collaboration. At the same time, he remains a firm friend of Don Zelto Saltini, who initiated him into social work, and has particularly warm praise for the work being done by a Dutch priest who is one of his
colleagues on the island. And the sponsors of the Danilo Dolci Trust in England include Professor
, Count Michael de la Beil Brogan,
and Fr. Thomas Corbishley, S.J.
It is abundantly clear that his mission is more than just an attempt to relieve the material hardships of the Sicilian people. Together with material progress must come education and selfrespect, as well as the true spirit of co-operation and brotherly love. Asked whether he thought that his work was in the essential Christian tradition, he replied simply Spero --I hope so.