Danilo Dolci: The Gandhi of Sicily

by Joseph Geraci

A Passion for Sicilians: The World Around Danilo Dolci by Jerre Mangione. New York: William Morrow, 1968.

Danilo Dolci has been dubbed the “Gandhi of Sicily.” Since the mid 1950s he has attracted attention as one of the world’s leading social reformers and nonviolent activists. His methods and thought should have attracted considerable attention in America, where the need for both grassroots planning (pianificazione) and local redevelopment is apparent, although he remains relatively unknown.

Danilo Dolci, c. 1955; photographer unknown; courtesy of wikimedia.org

Who is Dolci? This is the question Mangione’s comprehensive book sets out to answer. Thanks to a Fulbright grant, Mangione was able to spend several months of 1965 in Partinico, living near Dolci, and his Center of Studies. Part journal, part travel diary, part biography, it holds surprises. For example, Dolci is not Sicilian, and is barely Italian. “His Italian father had German and Italian parents; his Slav mother had parents who were German and Slav. This makes him half German, one quarter Slav and one quarter Italian.” Indeed, the town of Sezana, where he was born on June 29, 1924, is part of Yugoslavia; at the time “administered” by Italy. He began his intellectual life reading not the literature of rebellion and revolution but the classics, including the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, Confucius and the Tao te Ching. He never read Thoreau and read Gandhi only after a French journalist referred to him as the “Gandhi of Sicily.” His first published book was a book of poetry. He studied architecture for four years in Milan but did not take a degree, stopping short a few weeks before graduation.

In recalling the early period of his life immediately following his decision to drop out of architectural school, Dolci says: “I had spent a year examining nature closely, trying to understand its meaning, and trying at the same time to correlate my observations and my thoughts with my reading. And I saw that the life I would lead as an architect would have little or no relationship with what I felt and thought. For by now I had become convinced that all men are brothers.”

Nature as teacher and the brotherhood of man are two constantly recurring themes in Dolci’s thought. Standing on a hilltop overlooking the Belice River Valley in Western Sicily, the area where he had settled and worked, he exclaims,  “All we need to do is to look around us to see what the earth is saying!” And this view of nature as a source of revelation must lead him to a love of nature that would see its gifts brought out, its resources developed.   He says, “We resolved that these hills will be reforested, that the water, gathered in a lake of the dam, will be used to enrich the valley instead of destroying it.” Cooperation is an important word in Dolci’s vocabulary, just as “siamo in accordo?” (Do we agree?) is his favorite phrase: cooperation with nature, cooperation between people. He explains nonviolent social reform in this way, “We are here to be of service, to join together people of various political beliefs toward one common cause.” Cooperation, organization, and unity of purpose form the essentials of Dolci’s thought.

After abandoning architecture, Dolci went to the northern Italian town of Nomadelfia to work with Don Zeno Saltini in his community orphanage, which had been built by the children themselves on the site of a former fascist prison camp. Don Zeno, “a man of profound intuition and love,” as Dolci describes him, is certainly a major influence, but he leaves no doubt that it is the children who affect him the most. The sight of starving children is what inspires him to make his first fast, his first public act of nonviolence. Looking back on that time, Dolci comments on the orphans: “When they would first arrive some of the children’s faces were monstrous, but as soon as they were treated well the children became beautiful.” And he adds: “I learned that by loving people they become lovable; that the life of a human being can be molded, just as clay can. I began to sense the possibility that life was a science and an art, to sense that human beings could be dealt with as materials of nature. People, like mountains and plains, are themselves landscapes and can become the finest works of art. For the first time I realized how people might be changed for the better.” Through education, Sicilian society can be transformed. He sees his Center of Studies in Partinico as the tool for developing and transforming society, with an emphasis on nonviolence.

During Mangione’s visit Dolci and his followers staged a demonstration and fast in Roccamena, near the headwaters of the Belice River. Mangione’s record of this fast is, like the rest of the book, lucid and discerning. On the first of a ten-day fast, Dolci outlined his views to a crowd assembled in the town’s main square. Into a few short sentences he compressed his chief ideas concerning nonviolence: “We are here to be of service, to join together people of various political beliefs toward one common cause. Ours is a position of reason that emphasizes the distinction between force and truth. By our nonviolent action we shall show that truth has its own strength. Ours is a strategy based on love, not hate, and should result in a chain reaction of discussion and thought. Anyone who is not completely persuaded by our nonviolent action must speak out now. We must know clearly what we must do and why we must do it.”

That Dolci is convinced that nonviolence is the best method, the only one of lasting value, is clear. “We have discovered that economic development must be accompanied by the prospect of peace; and that the effort for peace, in order not to become abstract, must be dedicated to the resolution of specific social and economic problems. More and more people are realizing that in order for humanity to survive and achieve a new kind of world, it is necessary to recognize that there is an indispensable link between economic planning and nonviolence, between  redevelopment work and nonviolent revolution.”

Grassroots planning is central to this project; his phrase is “pianificazione dal basso.” In order to have a truly effective social reform policy you have to build power from the bottom up. His sense of power clearly comes from Gandhi’s belief that political power rests in the hands of the people, and that the consent of the people is necessary to govern. Power is not hierarchical; it does not proceed from the top down. But people must be educated in their own power, in order to lay the foundation on which can be built the structure of a new social order. Through habit or laziness people do not assume the responsibility of power, but that does not mean that power does not reside in the hands of the people. But educating people in their own power must be practical. It must speak the language of the people it is meant for; and it must begin locally. Dolci says, “The people here must come to realize that the reasons for their miserable situation do not lie primarily in the evils of others but in their own confused ideas, in their lack of organization and unity of purpose. To start getting the people to organize is the first step.”

Jerre Mangione’a book gives us a fine introduction to Danilo Dolci and Dolci’s work. But who then is Dolci? Perhaps the answer lies hidden in one of those countless remarks the author has recorded, in this case the remark of a middle-aged Sicilian who met Mangione in a religious procession and said, “Frankly, Danilo Dolci has always been a mystery to us.” Or perhaps the answer lies in Mangione’s own comment:  “The mystery about a Danilo Dolci does not lie so much within the man as in the fact that the world seems to be incapable of producing more like him.”

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in The Catholic Worker, March-April, 1969; p. 3. Courtesy of The Catholic Worker, and the Marquette University Catholic Worker archive.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Joseph Geraci is the director of the Satyagraha Foundation and editor of our website. His last novel is The Path of the Gods (Strand Publishing, London). At the time of writing this he was living fulltime at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi