The anti-poverty project Pope Francis will visit in Madagascar

Vincentian Father Pedro Opeka greets children who are housed in his Akamasoa "Community of Good Friends" in Madagascar Aug. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Baz Ratner, Reuters)

During his sojourn in Madagascar on Sept. 8, Pope Francis will drive six miles from the center of Antananarivo, the capital city of this country of 27 million people, to visit the cooperative association Akamasoa. This amazing venture was started 30 years ago by the Rev. Pedro Pablo Opeka, 71, an Argentine missionary priest, to combat extreme poverty.

Though they were both born and ordained priests in Buenos Aires, the two men only met in May 2018 when Father Opeka visited Pope Francis at the Vatican and told his inspiring story.

Advertisement

On the eve of the papal visit, America interviewed Father Opeka via email about Madagascar, the Malagasy people, the social and political situation in one of the world’s poorest countries and his work there.

He began by recalling how this island off the southeast coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean “captivated” him when he first arrived there on Oct. 26, 1970. “I was 22 years old, and I wanted to know close up the Malagasy people.... I wished to go [to Madagascar] later on as a missionary of the community of St. Vincent de Paul, who in 1648 sent his first priests to evangelize ‘the red island,’” he said.

Though they were both born and ordained priests in Buenos Aires, the two men only met in May 2018 when Father Opeka visited Pope Francis at the Vatican and told his inspiring story.

Father Opeka described Madagascar as “a precious island, with much natural riches and a very happy and welcoming people that live solidarity and mutual help with great respect.”

“From the beginning, the wisdom of its ancestors surprised me as well as the richness of its culture, and in its proverbs the presence of the Creator God is always present,” he said. “The Malagasy people are very religious, and one grows attached to them very quickly.”

He said much has changed since he first arrived. “When I came to this island it was an extraordinary discovery to live in the midst of a people that have an immense enthusiasm to live, to exist, to share. They had respect for persons and for goods, there was almost no delinquency, no robbery or violence.”

Looking back, Father Opeka notes that after the island gained independence in 1960, its socioeconomic and political situation began to deteriorate, while its population continued to increase. “From year to year, we were sinking into poverty without there being any reaction on the part of those governing. All those who took power ended up defrauding the people.”

“When I came to this island it was an extraordinary discovery to live in the midst of a people that have an immense enthusiasm to live, to exist, to share.”

“The greatest loss was of the [spirit of] solidarity and mutual help that existed when I came to this island,” he said. “Today, sadly, each one fends for him/herself as best they can. The common good falls into oblivion.”

Since Jan. 19 of this year, however, Father Opeka began to see a glimmer of hope for the nation because “a young president has come to power who seeks to change and to bring peace and social justice to his people.”

In this context, he believes “the visit of Pope Francis is very important because he can give great encouragement to the nation and to the new president, Andry Rajoelina, who has begun decidedly to attack the corruption and the whole class of favoritisms that impede the country’s economic growth.”

“The new president is Catholic and does not hide his faith,” Father Opeka added. “And for many years now he has come to celebrate Christmas with the poor families of Akamasoa.”

Asked to describe the situation in Madagascar today, Father Opeka noted that according to the World Bank, 92 percent of the population today live below the poverty line. “One sees the poverty in the streets, the city is abandoned, nobody cares or fixes anything,” he said. “Malnutrition is a very grave problem for many children born in the interior of the country, in places far from all progress. Human rights are not respected. Money can do and buy everything. The lies and corruption gain at all levels of national life.”

“The visit of Pope Francis is very important because he can give great encouragement to the nation and to the new president.”

Insecurity and access to health care are major challenges. Education is a grave concern, too, in a country where 50 percent of the population is under the age of 18. “At least 30 percent of children do not attend school, especially in the interior of the country where there are no roads, no communication and no presence of the state that can make people respect the laws and the rights of the child,” Father Opeka said.

Responding to a question about the role of the Catholic Church on the island, Father Opeka said, “The church has played an important role in the history of Madagascar. It was the cradle of the education of children in the whole national territory. Indeed, the missionary presence was very important because it brought education, health, dignity.”

“The force of the Gospel was what kept the hope of the poorest,” he said. “Without the presence of the church, Madagascar would be very much poorer.”

Ever since independence, he said, “the bishops have always raised their voice to defend justice and the rights of the poor and those who are forgotten from all progress.” Nonetheless, he recognized that the church, too, needs “to renew itself” and not allow itself to sleep after having “won some battles against poverty.”

“The force of the Gospel was what kept the hope of the poorest. Without the presence of the church, Madagascar would be very much poorer.”

“The struggle for justice and peace are permanent ones,” Father Opeka said.

“One cannot overlook the great ecumenical movement of the churches in Madagascar that have defended the poor,” he added. “There has been much evangelical solidarity among the Christian churches.”

Following his priestly ordination in 1975, Father Opeka, the son of refugees, was sent to work in a rural parish in southeast Madagascar, where he saw great poverty. Yet it was only when his religious superiors assigned him to head the local seminary in Antananarivo in 1989 that he had an experience that changed his life. It happened when he saw people, including many children, scavenging for food, competing against wild dogs and pigs, in one of the city’s garbage dumps. Deeply disturbed, he prayed that night to God to show him a way to help the children. The next day he decided to talk with some of the local people in a shanty hut and convinced them to work with him to change their situation and give their sons and daughters a future. He then borrowed $1,000 from local missions and established a project called “Akamasoa,” which means “good and faithful friends.”

Father Opeka’s Slovenian-born father had taught him to build houses, and he shared this skill with the local people as part of the Akamasoa project. Pope Francis will see the results: They have built over 3,000 brick homes in 18 villages (they call it “a city”) for some 4,000 families. Ten thousand children are now educated in the 37 schools they constructed over the past 30 years. The Akamasoa project also includes building clinics, creating jobs and providing food and clothing in “welcome centers” to almost one million people. Contributions arrive from all over the world, including Argentina and Slovenia.

The Akamasoa project includes building clinics, creating jobs and providing food and clothing in “welcome centers” to almost one million people.

Though Akamasoa is now almost 75 percent self-financing, Father Opeka insists that “it is not money that has built our city of Akamasoa. It was love, faith, perseverance and the fraternity that we are living day by day helping each other. Among the poor, you do not have theoretical strategies. You only have heart, comprehension and long-term commitment.” He emphasized that “this was the fruit of the strength of living the Gospel in a practical way every day.”

“We built a city with all the necessary buildings and households,” Father Opeka said, “but only God knows the scaffolds that we had to build around each person or family so that they could remain on their feet and not fall again into drugs, alcohol or prostitution.” Alluding to the fact that some 10,000 people attend the open-air Sunday Mass he celebrates in Akamasoa, Father Opeka said, “the strength of the Sunday Eucharist has united us in the most difficult and dramatic moments to follow this struggle that has no end.”

The dynamic, gray-bearded Father Opeka refuses to speak of success. “We only say that we took the right direction. Those who before begged on the streets are now working and living dignified lives. The children and young people who previously scrounged among the rubbish to survive are now in schools and lyceums. Those who lived in a generalized anarchy are today living in community and mutually respecting each other. They have encountered the self-esteem that permits them to progress. Peace has been established in our zones when before there was much violence and insults that resulted in fights without end.”

“It is not money that has built our city of Akamasoa. It was love, faith, perseverance and the fraternity that we are living day by day.”

He recounted all this to Pope Francis when he was received at the Vatican in May 2018 and then invited the pope to visit Akamasoa. Looking forward to that visit, Father Opeka said, “the presence of Pope Francis in the city that we have built with the poor will be a strength and enormous encouragement for all that we have worked for over 30 years.... The fact that he will walk on our streets that were in former times places of death, of fights, of hate, of envy is a confirmation that Jesus was with us from when we first began and also today.”

Father Opeka went on to affirm that “the Malagasy people have great respect for the Holy Father Francis. They know he is an open pastor and defends the poor, and he desires a poor church that is open to the poor.... He is much loved by the Malagasy people [and] also by those who do not share our faith.”

“The people hope for a new spirit in the whole country, and for the new rulers who have come to power that they may full their promises to eradicate poverty,” he said.

Father Opeka hopes Francis will also emphasize the need for all the local churches “to be converted” and “allow ourselves to be penetrated by the Gospel.”

“We often settle ourselves in comfort in the system,” he said, “and we sleep and allow the word of God and the faith to sleep when they should call on all rulers to get rid of the injustice, the exclusion and the extreme poverty that causes suffering to the abandoned people of Madagascar.”

Asked what he personally thinks of Pope Francis, Father Opeka responded: “He is a prophet for our time.”

“[Francis] goes before us and invites us to conquer and reject all that is mundane, such as careerism, appearances, the thirst of triumphalism and privileges,” Father Opeka said. “He instigates us to be humble and more sincere with ourselves, with the church and to be more brothers among everyone, so that we may be true witnesses of the love of God for all the persons in the country in which we live.”

Father Opeka concluded: “Pope Francis is a pastor in a class of his own, from whom we expect much and who is able to make the young people love the Gospel because of his authenticity and his courage.”

J Cosgrove
1 week 3 days ago

Poverty is slowly disappearing from the world as people are allowed to reach their potential. This example in Madagascar is amazing and hopefully will add to their self confidence and expand as they are free to make their own way. See http://bit.ly/2lZJwMZ for more details.

Nora Bolcon
6 days 15 hours ago

Yes and No - It depends what the place is doing to combat poverty and its symptoms.

From the Hunger Project:

World Population
◦7.7 billion

World Hunger Facts

– Today there are 821.6 million people who are chronically undernourished. This is more than the 785 million in 2015, although still down from about 950 million in 2005. For more information on the rising rate of global undernutrition, see our response to the 2019 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report.

– 99% of the world’s undernourished people live in developing countries.

– Where is hunger the worst?

– Asia: 513.9 million*

– Sub-Saharan Africa: 239.1 million*

– Latin America: 34.7 million*

Aiming at the very heart of hunger, The Hunger Project is currently committed to work in Bangladesh, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, India, Ghana, Malawi, Mexico, Mozambique, Peru, Senegal andUganda.

*Indicates an increase from 2017 to 2018.

Women and Children

– Women and girls make up 60 percent of the world’s hungry.

– Globally, about one in five births (19%) take place without the assistance of a skilled birth attendant. Inadequate care during pregnancy and delivery was largely responsible for the annual deaths of an estimated 303,000 mothers and 2.5 million newborns in 2017.

– There are about 20 million low birthweight infants born each year, 96.5% of them in developing countries.

– Nearly half of all deaths in children under 5 are attributable to under-nutrition. This translates into the unnecessary loss of about 3 million young lives a year.

– Globally, the number of children under 5 who suffer from stunting is down to 149 million. In 2018, Africa and Asia accounted for more than nine out of ten of all stunted children in the world.

The Hunger Project firmly believes that empowering women to be key change agents is an essential element to achieving the end of hunger and poverty. Wherever we work, our programs aim to support women and build their capacity.

HIV/AIDS and other Diseases

– 37.9 million people are living with HIV/AIDS.

– 74.9 million [58.3 million–98.1 million] people have become infected with HIV since the start of the epidemic.

– The vast majority of people living with HIV are located in low- and middle- income countries, with an estimated 25.6 million [23.2 million-28.2 million] living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

– Since 2010, new HIV infections among children have declined by 41%, from 280,000 [190,000-430,000] in 2010 to 160,000 [110,000-260,000] in 2018.

Launched in 2003, The Hunger Project’s HIV/AIDS and Gender Inequality Campaign works at the grassroots level to provide education about preventative and treatment measures. Read more about our work here.

Poverty

– 736 million people, almost 1 in 10 people in the world, live under $1.90 a day, and over half of the extreme poor (413 million) live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

– Nearly 328 million children are living in extreme poverty.

Rural Hunger Project partners have access to income-generating workshops, empowering their self-reliance. Our Microfinance Program in Africa provides access to credit, adequate training and instilling in our partners the importance of saving.

Agriculture

– 75 percent of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihood.

– 50 percent of hungry people are farming families.

In each region in which we work, The Hunger Project provides tools and training to increase farming production at the local level. In Africa, our epicenter partners run community farms where they implement new techniques while producing food for the epicenter food bank.

Water and sanitation

– Globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces, and 785 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service.

– By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.

– As of 2017, 55% of the global population lacked safely managed sanitation services.

– Each year, some 297,000 children under 5 die due to diarrhea. Poor sanitation and contaminated water are also linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid.

– In countries experiencing conflict or unrest, children are 4 times less likely to use basic water services, and 2 times less likely to use basic sanitation services than children in other countries.

– There are big gaps in service between urban and rural areas. Two out of three people with safely managed drinking water and three out of five people with safely managed sanitation services live in urban areas. Of the 161 million people using untreated surface water (from lakes, rivers or irrigation channels), 150 million live in rural areas.

The Hunger Project works with communities to develop new water resources, ensure clean water and improved sanitation, and implement water conservation techniques.

Tim Donovan
1 week 1 day ago

When I read about the work of Father Opeka based on Jesus' call to love one another, and the Lord's special concern for the poor, disabled, and ill, I was reminded of he mission of St. Teresa of Kolkatta. Mother Teresa once said "Love cannot remain by itself -it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action, and that action is service." Mother Teresa began as a teacher in India, but when she encounered he dyong and desperately poor people on the streets of Calcutta, she heard a "call within a call" and decided to start a n ew order of nuns who would join her in being devoted to serving human beings in need at all stages of life. Not long before her death in 1997, I was fortunate along with my Mom to see Mother Teresa. As was her character, she visited a very impoverished city in suburban Philadelphia. My Mom and me saw Mother as she stepped out of a van to visit the Gift of Mary hospice for women with AIDS administered by her order, the Missionaries of Charities . God bless Father Opeka for his Christ-like work to improve the lives of the people in hos city of work.

Nora Bolcon
6 days 15 hours ago

Sexism and sexual discrimination are among the leading causes of poverty worldwide and no one knows this fact better than the Roman Catholic Hierarchy because it is one of the largest and most powerful charities in the world.

Yet, no entity is more sexist and teaches misogyny and sexual discrimination to the secular or religious world more potently than the Roman Catholic Church. This makes us, the Roman Catholic Church, one of the largest producers of poverty around the world, and after creating and supporting that poverty, we in turn beg constantly for global funds to help alleviate it.

This leads us back to our Pope's own words "Change the world, don’t just gripe about it!"

Pope Francis, I and many others have been begging you to change the rules treating men and women differently under the laws of our Church constantly, so that men and women are treated the same and with same human dignity, and that mandates all same sacraments and opportunities. All we hear back form you is that changing rules, even when they have no foundation in scripture, and no fully proven foundation in early church history, can still ever be changed! Stop griping and lying about what you can't do "ordain women priests and bishops immediately" when in fact, as Pope, everyone knows you can change this law and literally ordain women priests and bishops today or tomorrow, if you wished.

And here we see a pivotal way in which our church promoted sexism overseas as they did not help women obtain birth control when industrialized nations had it and therefore the women could go to school and work : "Looking back, Father Opeka notes that after the island gained independence in 1960, its socioeconomic and political situation began to deteriorate, while its population continued to increase. “From year to year, we were sinking into poverty without there being any reaction on the part of those governing. ” Our church has constantly warned and criticized poor nations governments to not give out birth control and has even stood in the way of the poorest women gaining free birth control from governments and other charities. These nations, many of them in South America and Asia are still some of the poorest nations and largely due to extreme overpopulation.

Pope Francis, You need to face the fact that you are the problem and stop blaming other things first since those other entities are largely following your example of vicious, abusive, and uncaring sexism, and they too are describing their misogyny as Christian despite how reprehensible such a suggestion may be in truth.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
3 days 23 hours ago

Akamasoa is a path to liberation. Long live the Reverend Pedro Opeka.

Megan Palmer
2 days 6 hours ago

It's easy for me to say, but equality will flow out of holiness. Equality has arrived at meaning, 'I am as comfortable now as I would like to be' with or without reference to others, and that is why inequality now is worse than ever. Against poverty is for relationship and service in any language.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Pope Francis.]

Advertisement

The latest from america

Ciaran Freeman spent last summer, after his year as an O’Hare fellow at America Media, combing through movies about Catholic schools and ranking them. The findings were published here. Since then, readers have written in to let Mr. Freeman know what films he overlooked in his top-10 ranking.
Our readersSeptember 13, 2019
I had never truly experienced what representation in media felt like until I watched Hulu’s “Ramy.”
Mansur ShaheenSeptember 13, 2019
Photo: AP/America
Published in 1953, the children’s book can act a parable for coming to grips with climate change.
Christopher PramukSeptember 13, 2019