Pope in Madagascar insists: “Poverty is not inevitable”

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ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) – Pope Francis insisted Sunday that poverty isn’t inevitable and that the poor deserve the dignity of work as he visited a hilltop rock quarry in Madagascar where hundreds of people toil rather than scavenge in the capital’s biggest dump.

Francis appealed for new development strategies to fight global poverty as he visited the Akamasoa project, or “City of Friendship,” which soars on a hillside above the dump in Antananarivo. The project is the brainchild of an Argentine priest who was so overwhelmed by the abject poverty of Madagascar that he set about creating ways for the poor to earn a living. Over 30 years, the Akamasoa quarry has produced the stones that built the homes, roads, schools and health clinics that now dot the pine-covered hillside.

In greeting the villagers and quarry workers, Francis gave thanks that God had “heard the cry of the poor.”

“Your plea for help – which arose from being homeless, from seeing your children grow up malnourished, from being without work and often regarded with indifference if not disdain – has turned into a song of hope for you and for all those who see you,” Francis told them. “Every corner of these neighborhoods, every school or dispensary, is a song of hope that refutes and silences any suggestion that some things are ‘inevitable.'”

“Let us say it forcefully: Poverty is not inevitable!”

Francis, the first pope from the global south, has long preached about the dignity of work, and the need for all able-bodied adults to be able to earn enough to provide for their families. He has frequently met with workers and the unemployed and used his moral authority to demand political leaders provide job opportunities, especially for young people.

The founder of Akamasoa, the Rev. Pedro Opeka, said the low salaries he can pay the quarry workers are an injustice. But he said they are at least better than what scavengers earn in the dump, and are enough to enable parents to send their children to school.

“Akamasoa is a revolt against poverty, it is a revolt against inevitability,” Opeka told The Associated Press ahead of the pope’s visit. “When we started here it was an inferno, people who were excluded from the society.”

Opeka, a charismatic, bearded figure who is beloved by many in this city, grew up in Francis’ native Buenos Aires and even studied theology at the same seminary where the future pope studied and taught. A member of the Lazarist religious order, he was working as a missionary in Madagascar when he was inspired to create Akamasoa after witnessing the degrading life led by the parents and children who lived off the dump.

The Akamasoa project, which is funded by donors around the world and recognized by the Madagascar government, says it has built some 4,000 homes in more than 20 villages serving some 25,000 people since its foundation in 1989. About 700 people work in the rock quarry, using simple mallets to chop chunks of granite into cobblestones or pebbles, while others work as carpenters or attend training classes. It says 14,000 children have passed through its schools.

Despite Madagascar’s vast and unique natural resources, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. The World Bank says 75% of its 24 million people live on less than $2 a day; only 13% of the population has access to electricity.

In his greeting to the pope, Opeka said much of Madagascar’s poverty is due to indifference, by society at large and its leaders.

“In Akamasoa, we have shown that poverty isn’t inevitable, but was created by the absence of a social sensibility on the part of political leaders who abandoned and turned their back on the people who elected them,” Opeka said. “This place of exclusion today has become a place of communion of brothers and sisters of the whole world.”

Francis said Akamasoa, built up the hill from the dump, was a concrete example of a faith capable of “moving mountains.” He said that faith “made it possible to see opportunity in place of insecurity; to see hope in place of inevitability; to see life in a place that spoke only of death and destruction.”

“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,” Francis said before heading to the rock quarry itself to deliver a prayer for workers.

Susane Razanamahasoa, 65, has worked in the quarry for 20 years, 9.5 hours a day, to provide for her six children. She said the pope’s visit recalled the dedication to the poor of St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake.

“He is an extraordinary man and the fact that he has taken the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi means he is thirsty to live like St. Francis,” she said during a break in her work. “I am so full of joy that he is coming.”

Francis began his day with a Mass on a dusty field in the capital, where the faithful who attended an evening vigil spent a cold, windy night securing spots for the Sunday service.

They roared and waved plastic Madagascar and Holy See flags as Francis looped through the crowd before Mass on his popemobile, kicking up red dust in his wake. Citing local organizers, the Vatican said an estimated 1 million people were in attendance.

In his homily, Francis told the crowd to not work only for their own personal agendas and goals, but for others.

“As we look around us, how many men and women, young people and children are suffering and in utter need!” he said. “This is not part of God’s plan. How urgently Jesus calls us to kill off our self-centeredness, our individualism and our pride!”

Monday, Francis travels to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius on the final day of his weeklong, three-nation Africa trip.

Pope Francis greets worshippers after celebrating a Mass in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Francis is on the second leg of his African visit and will head to Mauritius Monday. (AP Photo/Alexander Joe)
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