“Father Pedro… When we thought we would only attend its very singular mass surrounded by more than 7000 Malagasies, among whom 2/3 were children, we actually had the privilege to meet this man of faith and have lunch with him.
Only seven years separate him from his elder Father Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis, who followed the same Lazarian education in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Called for the first time in Madagascar when he was 20 years old, the young Pedro Opeka promises to come back once ordained. Two years later, Father Pedro is back. Deeply moved by Madagascar, its culture, its people abandoned by the elite, outraged by the misery most live in, Father Pedro has only one mission: give to the poor tools to gain back their dignity and a control on their lives, without ever assisting or infantilizing them. Infuriated by the living conditions of those that surviving in the garbage dump of Andralanitra, only ten kilometers away from the center of Antananarivo, he creates in 1989, the NGO Akamasoa or ‘Good Friends’ in English. From then on, starts his unrestrained fight to raise awareness within the international community on the Malagasy cause, and extreme misery in general. Year after year, he gathers funding to transform the garbage dump into a home for education and professional trainings for the needy. More than a quarter of century later, there are now 18 villages replacing what used to be a slum and more than 500 000 Malagasies have or still are benefiting from the NGO’s help. However, if the work done is out if this world, Father Pedro gives all credit to Jesus. To him, he is just an instrument of God and the strength, determination and charisma he deploys are due to his undying faith in Him.
His motto? Forgive, Forget, go forward. Father Pedro, now 69 years old, opens up about the struggles and horrors he still witnesses today, even in the villages he initiated, “I try to give an education and tools, what they do with them is out of my reach…” After Church, when taking us to the place we were to have lunch, he suddenly stopped, bounced out of the car and grabbed one of the young men standing in the middle of the street. Part of the people there gathered around the priest and the drunk young man. During the whole time of the exchange, the young man didn’t dare balk in front of the priest. When he got back in the car, he told us that this young man was born in this village, with all the tools and possibilities to make something of his life, but despite all of this, he still fell into drugs. When the drunk boy told him “I’m part of this village, this is my home”, Father Pedro answered, “you might live here, but the spirit of Akamasoa doesn’t live in you anymore”. To him, one of the many causes related to this kind of failure is the influence of outsiders, people that don’t live in the village and that are trying to bring young people into their nets to sell them drugs and alcohol, two plagues he ardently fights against.
As long as the children of Akamasoa value him and surround him like they do today, he knows that the hardness he sometimes demonstrates is reasonable. The day they will start to be afraid of him, he will probably consider stepping down.
Our intimate meeting starts in a living room of the village, surrounded by delivery boxes of his newly published book Insurgez-Vous ! and is punctuated by encounters with some of Father Pedro’s “Angels”, most of them being young girls, each having stories more moving and terrible than the one before. “Yes, these children are happy now, but I have to tell the truth about what they have been through” said Father Pedro, gazing at his protégés. The stories of fate and success of many of these Angels left the room overwhelmed with emotion. His biggest pride and joy is to see these children dragging themselves out of the terrible life they seemed to be predestined. His wide blue eyes say a lot about the admiration he has for these children. Despite the persisting acts of violence, the priest can count on a growing army of people of good will. “Here we don’t even try to Christianize anyone, we only try to humanize as much as we can. I couldn’t care less if they converted without having first a conversion of heart.” In his book, he talks about the necessity of interfaith cooperation and the equal value of an action against evil in the name of human kind with the one of a believer in the name of Jesus, Allah etc. “May we reach out, atheists and believers […]”
Among the 500 people surrounding and working with him every day, 80% of them are women. Without them, nothing could be possible, and Father Pedro holds to his heart a committed plea for women and their sense of responsibilities in a society sometimes missing structure. During mass, he made the whole assembly of 7000 worshippers, applaud and cheer for two nurses, also raised in Akamasoa, who have decided to give their help to the poorest in faraway villages. “Back there, they are nothing, not even as women and nor as human beings”, for Father Pedro, their courage makes them the real heroes. This mass was a wave a hope to itself: the ardor, the colors, the joy and the symphony of voices resonating in the stadium. Father Pedro’s figure is an authority in a place where might makes right. We can’t help but fear for the legacy that will stay after him. How can anyone replace him when he’s built this place with his own heart and faith? To this question, Father Pedro answers with confidence, because he knows things will be in safe hands.
We have left Akamasoa, with a lump in our throats and our eyes reddened from all the emotion and intensity of our exchanges. We will remember a man, a grandfather for many, a priest for others, but also people, women, men, children, hungry for life and dignity and willing to make a difference in a world where indifference tends to be given too much space.
“Change is in the hands of patience and good will””