By BISHOP GERALD F. KICANAS
Hunger and abject poverty tear at the heart. Inequality stirs anger.
In September I visited Johannesburg, South Africa and Madagascar for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). I walked away from that experience with two strong feelings: sadness and gratitude.
The sadness arose from seeing human beings, brothers and sisters, living in abominable conditions in countries where there is a wealth of resources. The gratitude came in seeing the work of CRS and the local churches striving to make people’s lives better.
In South Africa huge inequality still exists despite the end of apartheid in 1994. You leave a section of the city of Johannesburg that is walled and gated with well -paved streets and luxurious homes and then cross into Alex, a desperate township, adjacent to the wealth but teeming, poor, and congested.
Yet amid all the squalor there is light. Father Ronald Cairns, O.M.I, who has served St. Vincent Church in Alex for more than 30 years told us he finds hope in seeing the people’s faith and hearing their singing at Mass each Sunday. It lifts the spirit. The people have so little but there is joy in them despite the inequalities they live with every day.
His parish runs a pre-school, a home for elderly, a shelter for AIDS patients, and has plans to open a community center. The center will be in a building the government took during apartheid: it is in terrible condition, but I have no doubt Father Cairns will restore it to use.
We met with CRS staff and its partners to talk about the heroic efforts to assist people with HIV/AIDS. South Africa has had one of the highest instances of HIV in the world along with neighboring Swaziland.
CRS was the first organization to manage an U.S.-sponsored AIDS medication program in South Africa and later trained its partners in the Church to manage the program. Now the U.S. government plans to turn the program over to the South African government. There is great concern about that decision.
The majority of my time was spent in Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world. The country is stunning in its variety and beauty but 80 percent of the people live on less than two dollars a day. We visited some of the most remote and intensely impoverished areas of the country. In Madagascar, CRS is involved with providing food, safe water, peace building and job or other training to sustain themselves and their families.
We visited Antananarivo, affectionately called Tana, the capital, Berenty in the southeast, Farafagana in the east central area, and Diego in the north.
At Tana, we met with the CRS staff that works under incredibly difficult circumstances. We also met with some of the partners with whom CRS works.
In Berenty, a city in the south of the island, we stayed at a small game preserve boasting a large lemur population. Lemurs are only found in Madagascar. There are several types of lemur, but all can fly from one tree to another, swing from branches and race along the ground. If you can picture this, one lemur species runs sideways – they were delightful to watch. All night we heard them jumping on the roofs of the buildings and scampering down to the ground. It made for interesting sleeping – nothing like sleeping under our desert skies.
I did see some familiar vegetation – prickly pear, yucca, and several other varieties of cacti – in Berenty , but nothing like our own amazing saguaros.
We flew to Berenty in a small plane operated by the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF), an organization that helps missionaries and non-government groups with travel in areas where the roads are nearly impassible. The two pilots, Josh and Patrick, are young men with a deep faith and an intense desire to be of service. They led us in a prayer before the plane took off. We said another prayer (very needed) as we landed on a grassy dirt runway in the middle of nowhere.
At Mass in a small mission chapel we saw two inspiring liturgical customs that take place in Catholic churches in Madagascar.
During the offertory, each person comes forward to drop their donation in a basket as the community sings a song about the abundant blessings of God. At the sign of peace everyone joins hands and sways singing, “We are one in Christ, one family. There is no division in God.” They sing with all their hearts.
While in the south, we had a chance to visit CRS sites teaching sustainable and effective goat raising and vegetable gardening. They also have a program to educate mothers about newborn nutrition.
In Madagascar, people eat rice for breakfast, lunch and supper. While rice fills a hungry stomach, it does not contain much nutrition and as a result people tend to be malnourished.
CRS also runs a micro financing program that teaches people basic personal economics: how to save and how to borrow money with interest to build up resources for their families. You could see the pride in people who have been able to build some savings.
From Berenty we flew to Farafangana, another marvelous, but intensely poor place. After celebrating Mass in the Cathedral we went into the rural area where, thanks to CRS, families have access to clean, safe water. CRS has also taught people how to build and use latrines. At first the people were hesitant because there is a long-standing social belief that human waste should not be contained in a structure like an outhouse. CRS was able to convince a “king,” an elder chosen by the commune as its wisdom figure, that good sanitation involves proper disposal of human waste. It has made a big difference.
We met with four “kings” from surrounding communities. A king wears a kind of stole and a four -pointed hat. Kings do not speak but only listen to others, relying on a spokesperson to convey information. In our case, the spokesperson thanked us for visiting and gave us gifts that included a huge bag of rice and a live chicken. If anyone wants the chicken let me know.
Our final stop in Madagascar was Diego, a resort town bordering the Indian Ocean and the strait that separates Madagascar and Mozambique. Diego is more developed than the other places we visited yet still very poor. In Diego we had a chance to meet with 16 of the 22 bishops in Madagascar. At that time they were working with 35,000 young people attending a youth gathering. Some of the young people had to travel more than six days over terrible roads to get to Diego.
The visit with the bishops was an opportunity to hear their opinions of CRS in their area. The bishops expressed uneasiness about the political future of their country – their current leader came after a coup that sent the former leader into exile – and about a peaceful resolution of this situation.
This visit revealed the suffering of so many people around the world, but also highlighted the great good being done by so many to bring about true improvements.