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Building a City to Rebuild Humanity

The work of the priest Pedro Opeka among the Malagasy has given dignity to thousands of people who, in solidarity, learn how to fight against hunger and injustice, and to defend nature.

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Pedro Opeka in the Antananarivo trash dump. Photos: Madagascar Foundation
Pedro Opeka in the Antananarivo trash dump. Photos: Madagascar Foundation

When Father Pedro Opeka first stepped foot in the Antananarivo trash dump, he thought he had gone to hell: hundreds of barefoot children rooted through the garbage, and fought over rotten scraps against pigs as hungry as they were. The scene is repeated in any Mexican dump, except that in Madagascar, the Argentine priest succeeded in getting the Malagasy people to confront the misery.

That day he first visited the dump, in 1989, Pedro Pablo Opeka was struck dumb, and thought, “Here I have no right to speak; here I must act.”1 That night he could not sleep thinking about the children sleeping hungry and cold in cardboard shacks in the trash. He begged God to help him think of a solution, and the next day he showed up at the dump and held the first meeting: “I have no money, but if you’re willing to work, we can make progress,” Pedro Opeka told the black men and women who eyed him with suspicion, because the priest was white, like the colonizers who enslaved their people and stole the wealth of Madagascar, the largest island in Africa, an Eden that is still under siege by multinationals.2

What happened after that seems like a miracle that has nothing to do with the divine, and everything to do with organization, collective work and the solidarity that the Malagasy managed to recover, hand in hand with Father Pedro and the association Akamasoa (good fiends, in the Malagasy language) that he founded on January 13, 1990 with a band of young volunteers. First they opened a space for people who lived around the dump; together they built houses on a two-hectare plot of land adjacent to the dump; the settlements multiplied; job were created quarrying granite or in workshops; schools were built (where some ten thousand children now study and eat), along with health centers, athletic fields, streets; they planted gardens and even organized a community police force made up of volunteers who provide security. Over 27 years, 17 neighborhoods were built, three close to the municipal landfill and two in a rural area; they are home to 25 thousand people.

Pedro Opeka

Padre Opeka’s actions have garnered praise around the world, and he has given countless interviews, where he is seen playing with kids who run into him on the street, kicking soccer balls as if he were still 30 years old, surveying the trash dump that they have not succeeded in closing. He was been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, and his nicknames in the media include God’s Bricklayer, the Apostle of the Trash Dump, Mother Teresa of Calcutta in pants. But it is not all about him: without the Malagasy people, none of the ideas would have taken root, and the project would never have endured for so many years.

In Akamasoa, nothing is given away for free, Pedro Opeka insists; everything is earned with pain, discipline, suffering and sweat. “If I give things away, who is going to help me? I don’t want that, because giving things for free spoils people; it takes away their courage, their dignity as human beings. I love the people of Madagascar too much to indulge them.” From the first dialogue he had with the people, the rules were work, send the children to school, and obey the community’s rules.

Pedro Opeka 

Faith, work and dignity

Even since he was young, Pedro Pablo Opeka Marolt wanted to be like Jesus Christ because of his courage in defending the underprivileged, he explains in an interview by email (“I don’t know how I found the time to answer; it’s a miracle,” he adds in the message).

He and his seven brothers and sisters grew up in Argentina, where he parents, Luis Opeka and María Marolt, has sought refuge after fleeing from what is now Slovenia. Adherents of Marshall Tito’s Communist Party had arrested Luis and sentenced him to death for his Christian convictions. He was the only survivor of a massacre that cost thousands of people their lives. He fled from the former Yugoslavia to the Italian border, and in a Red Cross camp he met María Marolt, who was also escaping Communism. In 1947, Argentina received them, and Pedro Pablo was born on June 29, 1948 in San Martín, in the Province of Buenos Aires.

He spent his childhood running around the countryside and playing football; at home he learned to lay bricks, the “love of God,” and the Slovenian language. Pedro Opeka proudly remembers that his parents always kept their word, and that they taught him solidarity, fraternity, faith and joy in unity.

Pedro Opeka Pedro Opeka with neighbors and community members planning improvements to the neighborhood and the construction of new housing.

As a teenager, he could not decide between playing football professionally and entering the seminary—he was determined to follow in Jesus’ footsteps serving the poor. At the age of 17 he joined the Congregation of the Mission of St. Vincent de Paul, near Buenos Aires. He was in the novitiate during the Second Vatican Council, called in 1962 by Pope John XXIII to open the windows of the Church to the fresh air of the Spirit. In Latin America, this was interpreted as the option for the poor, a current of thought that struck a deep chord in Opeka.

In 1968 he went to Europe. He studied philosophy in Slovenia and theology in France. The Vicentians sent Pedro Opeka to be a missionary on the island (the fourth largest in the world), where he stayed for two years. In 1975 he was ordained, and the following year he was back in Madagascar. The first few years he spent in the jungle, in Vangaindrano, 800 kilometers south of the capital (Antananarivo). He would head out to the football field to play with the Malagasy, which struck them as odd, as there was always a barrier between them and the whites, “the colonizers.” The Argentine priest invited two other fathers to work in the rice paddies, which meant wading into the mud. The idea was to show that all work is worthy. They slowly earned the people’s trust.

Pedro Opeka Community dwellers work together to build new houses.

In the jungle, community ties were still strong, and this fascinated Opeka, but water-borne illnesses weakened him and after 15 years he asked to return to Argentina. The Congregation offered him a transfer to Antananarivo to direct the Scholasticate of St. Vincent de Paul, and he accepted. The capital of Madagascar was a challenge for Father Opeka. In the south he had seen so much poverty and death, but he felt that the people managed to hold on to their dignity, their backbone, their spiritual beauty, their inner fortitude. But in the capital lived thousands of people who had left their home villages for a job they never found; they had no option but to live on the streets, in markets and trash dumps. Poverty forced them to live by the law of the jungle.

Father Opeka took five years to learn the Malagasy language. He managed to preach a sermon without reading. “I felt so good looking the people in the eyes. The Malagasy language is very rich in expressions; it deals with reality. People want to hear about real, urgent things. They’ve taught me to go straight to the point when it comes to solving hunger, creating jobs.”

Pedro Opeka People working in the granite quarry to extract building materials.

The Earth, our home

In Mexico it is unlikely that many people know much about Madagascar beyond what they see in movies. It is located 17 thousand kilometers away from Jalisco— a tourist destination beyond the means of all but the very few. From a distance, we have heard about that big island in the Indian Ocean (off the coast of Mozambique), where the main attraction is the natural landscape. The World Wildlife Fund calls it “Treasure Island: new biodiversity in Madagascar,” but that natural wealth is threatened by runaway deforestation (newspaper reports claim it has lost 90% of its original forest cover).

For Pedro Pablo Opeka, the Earth is “our mother, our energy, our cradle, our common home, as Pope Francis calls it. Failing to respect the Earth is like sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. We hurt ourselves. But we don’t realize it because the madness and the shallowness of life today invite us to consume and enjoy everything, even what is unnatural and forbidden. Respect for nature is not optional; it’s a natural and moral obligation if we want to live in harmony with the Earth and the universe. Abusing the Earth is a grave offense. With so much scientific and technological progress, how is it that we don’t know how to respect the Earth? Maybe it’s discernment we’re missing. Man could very well become the most dangerous predator in the universe.”

This is why Akamasoa plants 20 thousand trees a year in deforested areas, and the schools instill love for the Earth with simple gestures such as picking up litter, respecting the flowers and trees in a park, recycling trash, although “awareness is not unanimous in people; we have to struggle for a long time to understand that nature makes us happy”— the words of the priest who, instead of identifying as Argentine or Malagasy, says he is an “Earthling, my home is the planet Earth.”

Pedro Opeka Students at one of the three secondary schools founded by Father Opeka.

For Father Opeka, what the Malagasy have done is not just build their own city, home to 25 thousand residents and counting; they have rebuilt their humanity: “Their dignity was oppressed by so many injustices; that’s why we had to rebuild it while we built the city. In the trash dump they had lost everything and struggled to survive the violence […] it was necessary to get these brothers and sisters back on their feet and revive the divine spark in them that they can live with respect, fraternity, dignity, wiping out hate and envy. These human qualities are lost very quickly, but they take years or decades to recover.”

In Akamasoa the term “dignity” is heard frequently because it represents the most sacred attribute a person has, because it confers the will to struggle in life. Opeka says, “It is the essence of the human person; without it, life is like being in prison. There’s no responsibility, or freedom, or equality. You can recover, but it’s not easy, because something is torn inside, and they’re very deep wounds that have to heal, wounds to the Spirit. Dignity is nourished with truth, love, compassion […] which is why we have to fight to ensure that no one is robbed of their dignity. Without it, there’s no hope for Humanity.”

Pedro Opeka

During the early years of the project he suffered betrayals, robberies, threats, but he was always aware that among the Malagasy were many who had much to forgive, that it is hard to change overnight and overcome so much accumulated pain. Little by little, the change became noticeable: families no longer came by asking for rice, but for work so they could buy their own food. In fact, the first place people come is to the shelters, where they stay for a time; it is only after years of work that they secure a home of their own.

The villages have been built without any support from the government (“the poverty didn’t fall from the sky; rulers sacrificed their people to get rich,” asserts the priest), with the hard work of the people themselves and international donations from associations like Manos Unidas. These donations are used to procure building materials and food for 10 thousand students.

 

Daily life

The alarm clock rings at five in the morning for the Eucharist. At six, Opeka has breakfast and answers mail. At seven he meets with the heads of the villages, the schools, the construction sites, the quarry and the workshops. Later he receives visitors, eats lunch, and at two in the afternoon are the burials. In the afternoon he stops by the job centers, the villages, he sees families who are having problems, he prays, he has supper, greets the security guards, reads a little, and goes to bed at 11 at night.

In the Akamasoa villages, life is a cycle of work, study, play, prayer, “but there might be more joy and simplicity here.” There are currently 20 laws (known here as dinas) that the people themselves drew up and voted on. The rules are no stealing, no insulting your neighbor, work, send the kids to school, no consuming alcohol or drugs. Dozens of meetings have been held, but “a man’s heart is not changed by a law, no matter how good and holy it is. You need a lot of perseverance before they are followed,” explains the Argentine missionary. For this purpose, committees were formed in each village, and commissioners quickly give notice of any complications to neighborly coexistence. The work centers also have people in charge of order so that no worker takes advantage of the common good; this makes it possible to pay wages that allow for a dignified life (a total of three thousand salaries are paid).

“The basis of our organization is honesty, living the truth, being of use and not making use of your brother. Of course we need to refresh people’s memory constantly so that this basis of community life is not forgotten. We have regular meetings with all the committees from the villages and the workshops to talk over serious problems and look for solutions.”

Pedro Opeka Panoramic view of some of the three thousands homes built in the vicinity of the trash dump.

The quarry and construction workers volunteer for the security teams (there are guards day and night). They go out with whistles to make the rounds, to discourage the sale of alcohol and drugs, to talk with young people to change their way of thinking and focus on music or sports. This crusade means struggling against the Madagascar government itself, since “they’re sometimes involved in the black market and also in robberies.” Pedro Opeka insists on fighting this battle, because it’s about the future of the young people of Akamasoa.

In the dozens of interviews about this priest who has accomplished more than entire governments, it is unusual to find information about the history of the Malagasy people and their struggle. There are isolated references to the fact that Madagascar was a refuge for rebels from other countries along the Indian Ocean, that it fended off invasions by European countries until France succeeded in taking over the island in 1895, and that it secured its independence in 1960; that farmers are actively struggling against the dispossession of their lands by multinationals (the report “Accaparement des Terres à Madagascar” links colonization to the food crisis, because the people’s land is being taken away from them, and they have no place to grow crops); or that “they are a deeply subversive culture, a hybrid rebellious culture, created by a population of escaped slaves,” in the opinion of the anarchist anthropologist David R. Graeber, who did fieldwork in Madagascar when he was 28. Much of the achievement can surely be traced back to the community ties that are still alive among the Malagasy. The intriguing thing, Father Pedro Pablo Opeka insists, is that this self-managed project can be repeated anywhere in the world. m.

Pedro Opeka

 


1. He tells this in practically all the interviews available on YouTube.

2. “Large mining and agribusiness concerns have displaced small farmers and herders, jeopardizing many families’ subsistence,” writes Carlos Bajo Erro in the article “David contra Goliat en Madagascar,” published in El País on January 21, 2015.

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