Madagascar, where poverty “escapes reason”

Fr Pedro Opeka celebrating the 25th anniversary of Akamasoa. (Credit: Courtesy of Akamasoa.)

On September 6, the Head of the Catholic Church will travel to Madagascar, an island nation some 250 miles off the coast of East Africa. It’s the world’s fourth-largest island, and its rich, unique fauna and flora include the lemur and many other one-of-a-kind species that flourish nowhere else.

The country is also on the United Nations’s list of most underdeveloped nations, and it’s here that Pope Francis will encounter a fellow Argentinian, Father Pedro Opeka, a missionary priest who’s been in Madagascar for the past 50 years.

Often called “God’s Mason” and “the apostle of garbage,” Opeka has received France’s Legion of Honor and several papal awards. Speaking with Crux, he said that the 30,000 people living in Akamasoa, the capital city, are getting ready by “praying in every neighborhood” and by preparing a song in Spanish that children will sing to the Pope.

Joy and happiness

“When the people of Akamasoa found out about the papal visit, they exploded in screams of joy and happiness,” the priest said. “Our population realizes that it’s a special grace to welcome the Pope in this place where, in other times, there was so much violence, poverty, suffering, dramas and deaths of innocent people.”

“This visit will be an incredible ray of light for our people who fight every day to prepare a better future for their children,” he said.

Opeka believes that the papal visit will be a reminder for the people he serves of the fact that they are part of the universal human family, and “loved within the Church,” despite the fact that “they’re so poor and have long been forgotten by many.”

Pope Francis will visit Akamasoa on Sunday, September 8, after celebrating Mass on the diocesan grounds of Soamandrakizay.

Asked if he had any advice for his fellow Argentine, the missionary said the Pontiff knows what to say, due to the extensive work he did in the slums of Buenos Aires, when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Faith in the God of love

“I’m sure he’s going to tell them to always have faith in the God of Love, to have hope and love towards their children, and to continue fighting,” Opeka said. “He’ll probably tell those in government to be honest, sensible, audacious and faster to help their forgotten countrymen, forgotten and excluded, living in extreme poverty.”

James Hazen is an American who’s been living in Madagascar for the past six years as the representative of CRS, the United States bishops’ foreign aid agency. He told Crux that since he’s been there, some things such as deforestation have gotten worse due to slash-and-burn agriculture.

“When you have a political and economic crisis, people look to survive, and sometimes the forest is a way to do so,” he said. With slash and burn agriculture, “the soil loses its properties and, after a few years, people cut more trees and grow crops there. We’re working on helping people restore the soil to prevent further deforestation.”

The Malagasi people, he said, are very excited to have a world leader such as Francis visit them.

“Somebody is looking out for them, coming all this way, when sometimes they feel forgotten, in the middle of nowhere,” Hazen said. “A lot of people think of Madagascar in terms of lemurs and Boababs trees, but people here realize that he’s coming to meet with them, not the lemurs.”