A young Madagascar girl sat nervously on the side of a humble stage, sporting a white dress, light pink sweater and green sandals - a colorful, seemingly new ensemble perhaps bought with considerable sacrifice by her parents for the occasion.
For more than an hour, Fanomezanjanahary Tsiadino F. Ratsiory alternated between repeating the four paragraphs she’d memorized to herself, looking nervously over her shoulder for a familiar face in the crowd, and joining 5,000 other children who were singing their hearts out as they waited for Pope Francis.
The thing is, on Sunday she wasn’t just another kid: She’d had been tapped to tell the pope, and, through him, the world, about life in Akamasoa, a settlement within the capital city of Antananarivo, where some 28,000 people live in 5,000 homes built by locals under the guidance of Argentine Missionary Priest Pedro Opeka.
“Fanny,” as she introduced herself to the pope, said the children welcomed Pope Francis with “great joy.”
She told Francis she arrived in Akamasoa 6 years ago, with her mother and two younger siblings: “Our life changed, and today, I am happy to study and pray.”
She thanked benefactors from around the world who help Opeka, the brains behind Akamasoa, assist thousands of poor people to live a more dignified life. Those benefactors today represent an estimated 25 percent of the small city’s budget.
“Holy Father, we will strive to put into practice your messages of love and affection,” Fanny said. “Our older boys are worried that they will not be able to finish their studies [because they need] to find work and help their parents.”
Opeka, with hair as white as milk, a beard resembling the one Coca Cola gave to Santa Claus, and a contagious smile that reaches his eyes despite the suffering they’ve seen, has been in Madagascar for over 50 years.
In 1989, he asked to be transferred to Antananarivo because he couldn’t stand the poverty he was witnessing in rural Madagascar. In the big city, he found things were even more appalling - children living in a garbage dump, fighting with pigs and dogs for the food others had tossed away. In the garbage, those who died of hunger couldn’t even get a proper burial.
Fast forward 30 years, and that dump site is now home to some 5,000 brick homes, all with the same construction plans and pointed roofs, but each distinct with windows painted different colors, flowers adorning walls or a papal flag hung for the occasion.
It seems living proof of what Francis told the residents Sunday: “Poverty is not inevitable!”
The scream of the children welcoming the pope was both deafening and exhilarating, to the point that Francis, who walked into the Manantenasoa auditorium in the company of “Pere Pedro,” as Opeka is known here, was visibly taken aback.
His emotion was also evident when the children began singing and dancing to the Spanish Mass song Dios está aquí - “God is Here,” well known among Argentines. What he perhaps didn’t realize is that the children had been singing for almost two hours, clapping and performing perfectly coordinated moves.
During a Sept. 4-10 trip that took the pope to Mozambique and Madagascar and will see him going to Mauritius on Monday, the pontiff of the peripheries did not have many chances to encounter those in the outskirts of the cities he visited. He spent much of his time greeting authorities, bishops and religious.
Yet his outing Sunday to Akamasoa was vintage Francis, including words of support for youth, as well as those doing the Church’s charitable work and laborers. He denounced inequality, oppression and unemployment, while calling upon God to touch the hearts of employers so that they “make every effort to ensure workers receive a just wage and enjoy conditions respectful of their human dignity.”
The comment came as he led a prayer at the top of a quarry that provides jobs to some 700 people.
Beforehand, Francis heard Hanitra Nirina Madeleine Rasoananahary, one of the employees of the quarry, describe the conditions faced by workers.
“We work in the quarry all day,” she said. “We broke the granite for 30 years to meet our daily needs. Our salary is small, but we are happy to have a job.”
“We hope that one day there will be more justice for the poorest,” she added, and said that the papal visit will provide new energy to “get up every morning with courage and strength to work for our children.”
“We thank you, Holy Father, for defending the rights of workers around the world,” she said. “We will never forget your visit to our quarry.”
In effect, Francis’s stop here seemed to encapsulate his vision of a church that reaches out, one that lives on the peripheries.
Ravo Razafindrabe, a midwife at a military hospital who volunteered at the Akamasoa clinic during her training and now attends Mass with Opeka, told journalists traveling with the Pope that poverty is still very much the reality of the country, so Opeka roams the streets offering people the possibility to work building their own homes.
“It’s important, because it’s an example of doing something, giving things to people to help improve their lives,” she said. “It means people in the streets today can have a house tomorrow. It shows Christ’s love in a perfect way.”
“Christ found someone like Pere Pedro to give that to other people,” Razafindrabe said. “You have to fight inequality.”
Nasmine Razanamandimby, 22, is a nurse who grew up in Akamasoa who told reporters they’re “very happy” to welcome the pope. Opeka’s project, she said, helps the social fabric, and the pope’s message be one of “encouragement, that pushes us to move forward.”
Opeka told the pope that where Akamasoa sits today was once a place of exclusion, suffering, violence and death. Yet after 30 years, it’s “an oasis” of hope in which children have regained their dignity, young people have returned to school and parents are once again dreaming of their children’s future.
“We have eradicated extreme poverty in this place thanks to faith, work, school, mutual respect and discipline,” Opeka said. “Here, everyone works.”
“We showed with Akamasoa that poverty is not fate, but was created by a lack of social sensitivity among political leaders who have turned their backs on the people who elected them,” he said.
Monday, Francis travels to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius on the final day of his weeklong, three-nation Africa trip, before heading back to Rome on Tuesday.