Père PEDRO OPEKA, FOUNDER OF THE ASSOCIATION AKAMASOA IN MADAGASCAR
Having passed 27 years with the most disadvantaged people in Madagascar and having rescued thousands of street children and children from Antananarivo’s rubbish dumps, Fr Pedro says that he hopes that one day food, education and health will be longer be privileges but a right everyone enjoys.
What is your assessment of the situation in Madagascar 40 years after you first arrived there?
Poverty there has increased threefold. When I first went there in 1970, poverty affected 30% of the population. Today the World Bank says that 92% of Malagasies earn less than US$2 per day, the poverty line in Europe and America. You can’t survive in Madagascar on less than $2 a day. Diesel, petrol, medication and building materials are all more expensive than in Mauritius or France.
After so many years, what still drives you to carry on?
The children, the thousands of innocent children, especially when I become a bit fed up with all the falsehoods and disappointments. You can help them to become fully-fledged citizens. That’s what they become. Amongst the children whom I found in the rubbish dumps 27 years ago, some have become doctors, managers, lecturers and teachers. They are the ones taking over now. God gave me enough time to first of all train my teammates, some 500 of them, who in turn have trained 13,000 youngsters that we’ve brought off the streets and the rubbish dumps. With the poor, we’ve built a town for the poor, a town which is clean, planted with trees and flowers and with sports areas, where all basic needs are met such as water and electricity supplies. We’ve also got three cemeteries because we accompany the poorest of the poor until the very end.
How can business companies help?
They can give a part of their profits or their wealth. When I travel nowadays, I don’t seek clothing but financial help to be straightaway able to provide work on my return to Madagascar. It’s through work that people are going to have money, become self-sufficient and educate their children, take care of them, have enough to eat. Work is the driver that can break the vicious circle of poverty. I’ve said to my Malagasy brothers, “If all this is to hand out aid, I’m leaving today. I love you too much to hand out aid.”
Has international recognition for your work helped?
Of course. It’s difficult to interfere with us nowadays. Back in time, when Madagascar was a dictatorship, Mme Mitterrand came to visit us and that gave us very strong moral support. Nowadays when politicians come to visit us and they see people standing on their own two feet, when they see children singing and have new-found pride, enjoying life, they too are won over. They tell me to carry on. I don’t think I have any adversaries or enemies other than poverty and indifference.
How do you view the future?
There’s enough food to feed everyone but we throw away millions of tons of foodstuff because food has become a source of speculation. I hope that one day the UN will really run the world and that food, education and healthcare will no longer be a privilege but each child’s right. I hope one day, after my time perhaps, mankind will realise that the children of Mauritius, of Madagascar, India, China and America have the same worth and the right to a decent future. It’s the least we can do. Justice has to be anchored one day in the heart of every human being. For the moment, everything’s competitive.
What would you like your heritage to be?
Brotherhood and sharing. The person who during his time on earth has never felt that he’s part of the brotherhood of man will have failed in life. And someone who hasn’t shared has missed out on happiness because you can only achieve happiness if you share it with other people.
“LENDING OTHERS A HAND”
Born on 29 June 1948 in San Martín, a district capital in the province of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Pedro Pablo Opeka is a Lazarist priest. “For every child in Argentina, football is the overriding passion. At the same time, I was always very drawn to the Word of God, the gospel and the person of Jesus, the friend of the poor. The experience I had in the Andes Mountains with the Mapuche Indians made me to decide to enter the priesthood to lend a hand to the poor.” When he was 22, having completed the first part of his training in Slovenia, from where his parents originated, he asked to go to Madagascar as he wanted to work with his hands, being a bricklayer and son of a bricklayer. “I worked there for two years just like anyone else. I was captivated by the country and told myself I’d go back there once I was a priest.” Which is what he did in 1976, a year after his ordination. “After 15 years, I fell ill, worn out by seeing so many children die, so many mothers die during childbirth. I wanted to leave.” His community therefore asked him to become director of training for future Malagasy priests in Antananarivo. “I went for treatment in Europe and, a week after my return, I was already in the rubbish dump with thousands of children who fought for the garbage with pigs and dogs. I was speechless. Words were not enough. I had to act.” That’s how the Association Akamasoa was born. Starting with nothing, it now has 18 villages, has touched almost 300,000 individuals, built 2,600 houses and flats as well as 324 classrooms in some 30 new schools. Co-author of two books with Abbé Pierre, Fr Pedro was also amongst those nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.