Taking advantage of his visit to Rome in 2018, the journalist Elena Grazini had the opportunity to ask some questions to Father Pedro Opeka, missionary of the Congregation of the Mission in Madagascar:
1- Father Pedro what does it mean today to live in Akamasoa? How many people and families live in Akamasoa?
To live at Akamasoa means to embark on a journey to recover dignity. It means to stand up and become a responsible and respected person. It also means to start a new life based on works, education and discipline. In addition, to live at Akamasoa means to accept to live in the Truth and to embrace the daily fight for justice. Living at Akamasoa is firstly action, not words. Here we never disguise the truth, we try to be straightforward when dealing with problems and not go around the issues; and this is sincerity.
Presently, there are 25 000 people who are benefitting from our social project. Moreover, every year, 30 000 poor people come to Akamasoa for specific helps: food, medicines, and clothing.
2- What are the difficulties and challenges that you encounter in your everyday service to the Poor?
The daily challenges are mostly related to truth itself because a poor person from the streets tends to fabricate lies to seduce you since he feels he needs to lie to get you interested in helping him. Another difficulty is that a poor person tends not to keep his word; he says “yes” without committing himself in the long term. Another difficulty is theft. A poor person, because he has nothing, believes he has the right to steal. Another difficulty we have is that, since the poor people we are helping live such a fragile life, they often fail to understand the responsibility they have towards their families.
At Akamasoa, throughout these 29 years, we have witnessed changes in people, but only over the long term; and after 29 years of efforts, many people still need to change. Another difficulty is to find enough food and school supplies for the 14 000 poor children so that they can attend school. One more difficulty we face is to create jobs for each family to help them to survive.
These difficulties are challenges that we have been embracing in these 29 years and we are still standing with and among the poor people.
3- In your life as a missionary, you have met millions of people … I know it may be very difficult to choose, from among so many people, a single person; but is there a memory or an image from any encounter with a person that you will never forget and it will always remain with you?
I have a lot of memories of people I have encountered. Once we accepted at Akamasoa more than 80 families and each family had five or six children. We welcomed these families with the utmost serenity and spontaneity. I thought to myself, “These families are here; we have to make room for them.” We did this without panicking, with no pressure. And this experience has later become a source of strength for me.
I also have in mind images of children at the garbage dump who were like angels searching for things in the garbage dump. This image of children in the garbage dump, beautiful like angels, will never leave my mind.
In addition, another fond memory I cherish is when we celebrated the 25th year anniversary of Akamasoa: the limitless joy of 30 000 people, proud of their works, proud to have their heads up in front of government representatives and diplomats; proudly displaying their joy of life. The communion that we had on that day with the parents and children; this is yet another memory that will stay with me forever.
We also have memories of sad moments related to the death of children and young mothers who died because of a lack of proper medicines.
4- What words or phrases would you use to describe Akamasoa for those persons who have never seen or hear about Akamasoa?
Joy, brotherhood, work, fight, and, most importantly, the happiness of our children because at Akamasoa we have children who used to live an inhuman life at the landfill and they are now real children.
Of course, I will not fail to mention the Sunday Mass, which is a true celebration for all the people because everyone participates: we all pray, we dance, we sing in communion – it is an expression of gratitude to God for all the people of good will who have helped us.
5- Father Pedro, how do you see the best way to help the poor, the persons in need in the different areas: spiritual, emotional, physical, material?
The best way to help the poor is to respect them, to stand before them as an equal, without any masks, privilege, without any authority other than love and respect. And love will help you persevere in spite of the disappointments and the failures and the lack of honesty that we have to deal with almost every day. I can say that there is no magic formula to help the poor. In each country, culture and civilization, there will always be different gestures, different approaches – but these must all be dictated by love. Moreover, when we are moved by love, we can know that we chose the right path. And the most important thing is to choose the right path; each life is built one step at a time and one day at a time.
Any effort to help and any movement of solidarity must exist only in order to give people courage and to give them the will to continue in spite of difficulty. This is not learned in some humanitarian guidebook. This is something we learn from our hearts, where there is love and the strength of the spirit. A person has a physical, emotional, spiritual identity; you cannot divide that identity between these different parts, the identity has to be considered as a whole: a person. While helping a person out of extreme poverty, we also have to help that person to be responsible and to be happy with their brothers and sisters and to understand that the spirit is what makes a person – the spirit also needs the strength and the grace of God.