Plastic bottle caps open up future for youth in South Sudan

Officials at Italy’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs had strongly advised them against travelling to South Sudan.

Jan 20, 2023

Some of the recipients of the scholarships funded by the sale of bottle caps


By Cecilia Seppia
Officials at Italy’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs had strongly advised them against travelling to South Sudan. Less than 24 hours before the flight the couple received a phone call from the Ministry advising them not to go, saying “it is dangerous, and we cannot guarantee your safety.” But Marta Genova, a journalist, and her husband Antonino Costa, a photographer, cared so much about this beautiful story. And despite the warning, they loaded their suitcases with equipment, passion, and faith, and took their flight to Juba, South Sudan, so they could document and share their story about the "Open Caps" project through their journalistic efforts.

It all began in a small village of just over a thousand people in the province of Palermo, a place called Villaciambra at the Don Bruno di Bella Oratory of the parish of Maria Santissima del Rosario. During Sunday Mass, Marta and Antonino sat in the Church pews and after the blessing, they heard the parish priest speaking about the collection and sale of these plastic bottle caps with a 'miraculous' consideration. They are used to finance charitable initiatives for poor people in difficult circumstances.

This time they have focused their solidarity and given hope to children in a village near the capital of South Sudan, offering them scholarships at the "Secondary School Bro. Augusto Memorial College.” The institution makes up part of a number of projects sponsored by the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) through its Committee and Service for Charitable Action in the Developing World. Projects also include the construction of the nearby Good Shepherd Peace Centre, where Marta and Antonino stayed during their trip, and the Catholic University of South Sudan.

"Today there is more need than ever to share good news stories, and this is one! We journalists have a duty to show the world the other side of the coin as well,” exclaims Marta as she explains the whole process that turns bottle caps into money used to educate those where illiteracy is rampant, as it is here.

Sustainability offers a future
All the families in and around Villaciambra have become zealous 'hoarders' of bottle caps. They put them aside, involve their children, even the youngest, and once they have filled their bags, they take them to the oratory. The collection point for the bottle caps involving churches in the city of Palermo participating in the initiative is the parish of Santa Lucia, thanks to the support of Claudio Parotti, a Comboni brother who lived in Colombia for many years.

The caps are taken to storage areas using their own cars and vans to a space made available free of charge by a Villaciambra resident and then emptied into “Big Bags” weighing 160-170 kg each. These huge bags are then taken to an area company that recycles the bottle caps and resells the semi-finished product to other companies that use them to produce pipes, utensils, and household accessories. In previous years, the sale of bottle caps has made it possible to raise fairly large sums of money, which have been allocated to promote charitable and solidarity-based activities. Now this solidarity has reached Juba, South Sudan.

Education and moving forward
Despite its independence from the north, proclaimed in 2011, South Sudan is still reeling from a civil war, a social, economic and political crisis, and a worsening humanitarian situation. In many areas, there is no access to drinking water or sanitation, while in others there is no electricity. Roadways are bumpy, at times impassable, and rubbish can be found everywhere. Children are forced to work or carry guns instead of going to school and learning how to build their own freedom and future. "Every time something happens in South Sudan, the first to lose out are young people,” Marta Genova recounts. “The government, perpetually at war with the so-called rebels, suspends lessons at every hint of a crisis, blocking educational or training projects, even those set up by the local Church, thereby halting their only chance of moving forward. With Open Caps, a different way has opened up, allowing 15 boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 20 to study and obtain a diploma, a huge step forward, even if it seems like a drop in the ocean.”

"We met all the students and especially those who had received scholarships. They knew nothing and while we explained what was happening to their lives (through the project), they looked moved and their eyes showed happiness, as they listened to us with amazement. All they knew was that one day Father Mario Pellegrino, a missionary for years in those lands, had taken them off the streets and from the poverty of the villages, but they did not expect that they would be able to also study. They were taken aback and moved to discover that in a faraway city there are people who think about them and want to try to help them. This opened up a broader reflection, also on what they themselves could do one day for their country. Everyone thanked us. One boy in particular had lost his parents, some of his siblings, and yet he was saying all the time how happy he was to be there at school. In a similar situation, in Palermo (but in general also in the other places that adhere to the cap collection project of which there are many in Italy), they do not fully understand the purpose of the initiative, because no one has ever explained it to them.

Letting them know how things are going and showing the result of their actions creates a powerful impression on them and leaves a lasting message that can only do good and motivate them to do more. If you know that those bottle caps will help people who have a name, a face, even if they live on another continent, you will set those bottle caps aside with care, you will take time to bring them to the collection centre, and you will become a key part of the project and do it with joy.”--Vatican News

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