On the 22nd of February, The Times of Malta reported the following news entitled ‘Pilgrimage to pray for rain in Gozo’:
“Gozo Bishop Mario Grech next Sunday will lead a pilgrimage to pray for rain. The pilgrimage will be held in Qala, Gozo in the afternoon, starting from the parish church and proceeding down to the old church of the Assumption, also in Qala. A statue of the redeemer will be carried in procession. The Gozo Curia said the pilgrimage is being held following the concerns of many farmers who were seeing their fields parched owing to a shortage of rain”.
The article did not go unnoticed. It was circulated far and wide on social media. What followed were a barrage of comments, largely ridiculing this initiative. Amongst these was the following picture circulated on Facebook:
Notwithstanding the discursive use of images like these and the historical weight they carry, not least in exoticising and perpetually reconstructing the ‘other’ in global North imaginaries, I must admit I initially found it funny. The comments, at least some, were entertaining, suggesting the bishop make use of rain sticks during the pilgrimage. Leaving stereotypes, misinformation and colonizing discourse aside, I feel that this incident and the ensuing reactions open a space for reflection on the subtext of this discussion, which, I feel has a (not so) subtle yet insidious and perhaps classist dimension to it.
While there is a scientific explanation to what is happening, that is climate change (and we have been warned about that for a very long time- echoes of the biblical Noah?), it is interesting to look at the reactions towards the Bishop of Gozo and his response to the farmers’ plea for whom the loss or damage to their livelihoods caused by the lack of rain is very real. Farmers invest time and money, and are dependent on rain in this dry island to make sure they have enough yield to at least break even. But the realities of the few remaining farms have, and continue to be (re)cast as distant realities, not only geographically (bizarrely on the few kilometres that separate us) but also ontologically.
What is troubling is that instead of showing concern towards our rural communities, grossly neglected by previous and present administrations, the mocking of the bishop’s initiative, whether one is a believer or not, is not limited to ridiculing the ritual itself. It is also a mocking of the farmers’ own plight, their expression of faith and how they want to exercise it. Whether the prayers can realistically make it rain are not the issue here. The real concern is how farmers are persistently (re)framed in our imaginaries and how they are persistently positioned within a fixed space, often unknown to the majority, of marginality and even simplicity or ignorance by the middle class intelligentsia. Farmers in Malta are regularly looked down upon, those who are uneducated, lack knowledge, those who do not know, as it seems even what they should or should not believe in and how they should articulate it. Their expression of faith and their demands are reframed and firmly repositioned within this discourse of lack, and hence something to make fun of and ridicule. And one would perhaps not be extreme in describing this as classism that has deep historical roots in our society.
It is interesting, though, that if this had to happen somewhere else, for example in some Latin American, African or Asian country while travelling, many of those commenting, including academics would have been enthralled by such practices- possibly exoticised and othered, though not demonized or ridiculed. But elements of Maltese society have always had a way of turning critically inward, embarrassed by our own while openly exalting certain ‘outside’ practices, at least some of them. But when this happens in our own country, many are desperate to insist there is no place for that which is faith-based, spiritual. Maybe this is because there is a lot of unresolved resentment towards the Roman Catholic Church in Malta, and maybe it is time to talk directly about that, as opposed to taking it out on those, who, out of sheer despair, or simply because they believe, seek to resolve to such means.
Interestingly, the Muslim community has joined in and will also be praying for rain. Of course, there are other questions which this pilgrimage should raise such as, how are we (as a country) preparing to adapt to climate change, the consequences of which, we too are now facing? Are we resilient enough to be able to cope? Is our country and government taking the necessary measures to protect our rural communities, also to preserve and conserve local heritage? Or is it ok for our rural communities and traditions to die out? We can always import food from Sicily and the south of Italy anyway, as we already do. But surely, staving off our own traditions and failure to protect the livelihoods of those who work the land is not the route we want to take.
Ridicule aside, though, some criticism did raise interesting points such as inviting rural communities to get better organized and lobby Government ‘rather than waste time praying’. I personally hope that the pilgrimage goes well and may people find the space to express their faith and hope. I also hope that this can mobilize people to look at food security and sovereignty issues within our local context seriously and address the political dimensions. These include the use of land and how it is often traded cheaply to the god of real estate, rather than exploring innovative green ways to generate income and revive communities. Church leaders like others have a role to play in discourse and debate and may this pilgrimage also inspire some justice work in this direction. Maybe a Church Commission about Food Justice? But even before that, do we need to seriously reflect critically on our constructions of farming and rurality and the class concerns in which they are wrapped?