ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — Thirty years ago, an Argentine-Slovenian Vincentian missionary was unable to remain indifferent to the misery of thousands of homeless people in the capital of Madagascar.
As he encountered the city’s poor living in squalor on the streets or in garbage dumps in Antananarivo, Vincentian Father Pedro Opeka befriended them and founded Akamasoa (literally “good friends”), an association that aims to lift them out of poverty and into a life of dignity.
So effective has the Akamasoa “City of Friendship” Association been that it is currently helping 25,000 people, and in 30 years has lifted out of poverty over half a million people in Madagascar — the poorest country in the world not suffering from conflict.
The organization has managed this not by giving the poor simple handouts but working with them to build structures — schools, work places, dispensaries — so they could rebuild their lives and provide a future for their children.
Beginning with brick houses, Father Opeka’s organization went on to build schools and then created whole villages.
Each village has a dispensary, schools and places to work such as a quarry and opportunities for brick laying, carpentry, agriculture, and art and crafts. It has also enrolled 14,000 children at school and says that every Sunday, 8,000 people come to Mass.
The same number of Akamasoa youngsters gave an exuberant and joyful welcome today, not only to Pope Francis, but also Father Opeka — indicative of the great affection and appreciation the Madagascan poor have for him.
The children, dressed in brightly colored clothes, sang volubly from the heart, clapping and chanting together in well-choreographed and synchronized dances. A loud cheer erupted when Father Opeka entered the center, called “City of Friendship.”
“We are so excited to welcome you this Sunday, a day celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary,” Father Opeka said in his greeting.
Akamasoa, he told the Holy Father, is where “God expressed his will, through the power of the Gospel, to restore the dignity of poor families and estranged children.”
“In the past it was a place of rejection, suffering, violence and death,” he continued, but 30 years on, it is a “blessing of God,” a “wonderful place of hope where children discover their inner values, young people return to school,” and parents prepare the “future for their children.”
He told those present, who included the Madagascan president, that poverty is not inevitable but was “created because of lack of concern” by politicians who had “forgotten and turned their backs on the people who voted for them.”
Now, what was once a place of exclusion, has become a “place of brotherhood from all over the world” where people “celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday,” he said.
The Pope’s visit, he said, had helped them to “redouble” their courage to continue the battle against poverty and “fight back against all injustice against children, women and the elderly.”
A 13-year-old boy, Fanomezanjanahary Tsiadino Ratsiory, spoke on behalf of the children telling the Pope they welcomed him with “great happiness.”
Explaining how he came with his family to Akamasoa six years ago with his mother and younger sister and brother, he said: “We children and young people will keep the faith, even if the temptation of an easy life is always present around us.” The Pope’s visit, he said, encouraged them and made them “very happy.”
Nasmine Razanamandimby, a 22-year-old nurse raised in Akamasoa, said the Pope’s visit, on the organization’s 30th anniversary, “pushes us to move forward” and helps to “keep us going.”
Never Stop Fighting Poverty
In his address, the Pope recalled that he taught Father Opeka as a theology student in Argentina in 1967-68. “But he didn't want to study, he wanted to work!” he said, drawing laughter from the children.
He gave thanks to the Lord who “heard the cry of the poor” and created Akamasoa, adding: “Let us say it forcefully: poverty is not inevitable!”
Recalling the verse from the Letter of St. James — “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” — the Pope said the “City of Friendship” replaced “insecurity” with “opportunity.” And it has done this, he added, through faith and the “values of hard work, discipline, honesty, self-respect and respect for others.
“God’s dream is not only for our personal development, but essentially for the development of the community,” the Pope said, adding “there is no worse form of slavery, as Father Pedro reminded us, than to live only for ourselves.”
Francis urged the young people to “never stop fighting the baneful effects of poverty” and never “yield to the temptation of settling for an easy life or withdrawing into yourselves.” Allow the gifts the Lord has given “to flourish in your midst,” the Pope said, and ask Him to “help you be generous in the service of your brothers and sisters.”
In this way, he said, Akamasoa will become a “full flower” that witnesses to God’s love for present and future generations.
“Let us pray that throughout Madagascar and everywhere in the world this ray of light will spread, so that we can enact models of development that support the fight against poverty and social exclusion, on the basis of trust, education, hard work and commitment,” the Pope said.
“For these are always indispensable for the dignity of the human person.”
The Pope afterwards recited a prayer for workers at the Mahatazana Quarry in Antananarivo, run by Akamasoa.
Tomorrow, the last full day of his six-day visit to southern Africa, will be spent in Mauritius where he will celebrate Mass, visit a shrine in honor of Blessed Père Laval who helped rehabilitate former slaves, and address the island nation’s leaders.
He will then return to Antananarivo on Monday evening before flying back to Rome on Tuesday.