Many years ago, thanks to the work of missionaries, the spirituality of unity took root in several Western African.
The first focolarini visited the Ivory Coast, setting out from Fontem in 1970. During a visit to Europe, Bishop Agré of Man met Chiara Lubich and asked her for a focolare house in his diocese. In August 1973, several focolarini, including Marilen Holzauser and Lucio Dal Soglio, were in Man meeting with the Bishop and priest, men and women focolare houses were opened in 1975. These were the first focolares in Africa after those of Cameroon.
Those pioneers established focolares in several points of Man until the diocese gave them two pieces of land, one in a Muslim quarter in Liberville, and another in Doyagouiné 2, on the periphery of the city where a new parish was begun. At the first Mariapolis (Man, 1977) – annual gathering of the Movement that includes peoples of all ages and walks of life – people came from Burkino Faso, Togo and Mali. The spirituality of unity spread. The small Word of Life pamphlet became the way of staying in contact, and it was the first seed of “Focolare Editions” publishing house and of the bi-monthly magazine Nouvelle Cité Afrique.
Many journeys were taken from Man even to visit only a single person. Gradually communities were born in several cities of the Ivory Coast and in other Western African nations: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Lyberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
May of 1992 was a foundational moment in the development of the Focolare Movement in Western Africa. Chiara Lubich was in Nairobi for the inauguration of Maripolis Piero and to meet members of the Movement in Africa. Observing the vastness of the Western African region, she wondered: “How will you ever manage to follow all the members of the Movement in such a vast region?” During that same meeting a new permanent Mariapolis was begun on the African continent, in Man, which was immediately named “Mariapolis Victoria.” It was named after a Ugandan focolarina who died of a viral infection in Italy, on April 8, 1992. On that occasion Chiara wrote: “Victoria is surely doing her part in Heaven so that all of Africa will discover and fulfill God’s marvellouso plan.”
Between 1992 and 2002 both short-term and permanent courses were held for the vocation groups of the Focolare Movement: Gen, Gens, Religious, priests, families and Volunteers. The work activities were increased with carpentry, metalurgy and printing, offering training for local youth. In the mid-90s ongoing child nutrition training was begun with a nutrition centre in the Libereville quarter where the women’s focolare was located.
During that same period the pharmacy fund started, which provided the population with quality medicines at a low cost. It turned out to be the forerunner of an actual medical centre. With the war in 2002 a temporary medical centre was set up by a doctor and nurse with a small stock of medicines for 3500 refugees.
Due to the war, medical assistance was no longer available in the city. A larger and more equipped centre was opened in 2008 and, in 2015, an even larger one was opened. From September 2002 until April 2011 the Ivory Coast experienced an unprecedented socio-political crisis that peaked in war both in 2002 around Man, and again in 2010 around Abidjan.
“Love each other as I have loved you” is the Word of Jesus that inspires the life of a Mariapolis. It is a pact that is sealed by the citizens of the Mariapolis for whom the measure of love is “as I have loved you,” loving to the point of dying for one another. During the war giving one’s life for others was something quite visible and concrete. After the war, there is still the desire to continue living the pact with the same heroism, transforming ordinary moments of everyday life into extraordinary events.