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Father Pedro and Antananarivo’s street children

A man perhaps destined to become Madagascar’s first Catholic saint

By Richard Cowper in Antananarivo

For even a partially-sceptical French or Malagasy Catholic, God seems to be alive and well on a dark-red sandstone hill high above Madgascar’s capital city in this highly religious country.

Every Sunday morning at 7am in a gigantic factory-style warehouse overlooking Antananarivo,  thousands of the city’s poor gather in gaily-caparisoned “lambas” (Malagasy sarongs) with their children to pray and pay their respects to Madagascar’s most well-known  religious figure: Father  “Pere  Pedro” – a man seemingly destined  one day to follow Mother Theresa into official sainthood.

Guided by this charismatic and evangelical 60-year old Argentinian priest we watched as more than  5,000 women and  children, with the odd scattering of  men, sang, danced and chanted their  way through a three-hour mass  which was one third football match, one third pop concert and one third church service.

The congregation, until recently part of a great army of children, women and prostitutes sleeping, working and begging on the streets of Antananarivo, is now mostly housed in bright newly- constructed dwellings in four separate villages funded by the extraordinary priest who challenges any foreign or local visitor to “wake up , cough up and act to end the exploitation of Madagascar’s poor and  deal with the malnourishment and array of tropical diseases that so deeply affects  their health.

The new “city of God on the hill”, home to more than three times the number who attend his Sunday mass, is not yet heaven on earth. For on arrival in advance of the heavily choreographed service-spectacular, which starts promptly at 8.30am, two Malagasy gendarmes in their old-style French police hats were to be seen handcuffing  three  teenagers together before  frog-marching them off to the lock-up.

According to Mme Marie Odette, the organisation’s  executive president,  the inhabitants, sometimes still plagued by drink, drugs and an obscure desire for street independence, are closely monitored and obliged to sign a contract with the organisation to pledge themselves to strictly obey the rules and regulations of Father edro’s singular set of communities.

One rule however yet to be put on the Catholic organisation’s  must-do list  - and one which many development experts say is vital if Madagascar is to reverse the downward spiral of poverty - is a commitment  to curb the population explosion in a country where super-size families, often with as many as a dozen children, can make nonsense of attempts to boost per capita incomes. Father Pedro, like so many of his Catholic brethren elsewhere, seems yet to be convinced of the vital necessity of pushing hard for family-planning and contraception,
Says Mrs Boda Ranjeva, the country’s first female surgeon and the American Peace Corps’  health guru: “He’s fantastic, but family-planning is the key to the future for Madagascar. Without it we are lost. I do believe he’s beginning to get the point. I do hope so,” she says in a country heading for a population of over 20m and where over 60% of the people are under 16.

Less than an hour after the Sunday police-snatch Father Pedro’s church bells, hung from a skeleton stand-alone watchtower,  were rung and the bearded  white-robed Argentine priest , swept into the giant warehouse like a pop-star, his hands held aloft and his eyes twinkling, to the acclaim and obvious delight of  his swaying “mothers and their little children”.
Over 200 minutes, and more than a dozen songs and dances later, he was still talking, praying and gently haranguing his congregation, most of whom were sweating in the morning heat, fanning their babies to keep them cool. Only Madagascar’s President, who spoke earlier this week non-stop for over five hours, could so easily get away with speaking for quite so long.

In this the world’s fourth poorest country, where about a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line, Father Pedro has  successfully made a difference to the abandoned women, babies and children who once lived on the streets of the country’s  capital city.

Though for some the service can have something of the air of an exclusive sect meeting to confirm the chosen few, Father Pedro seems to have hardly any detractors  and his highly ambitious series of projects under the title of Akamsoa – God’s paradise - is widely acclaimed.

Over 17,000 women, children and babies are believed to have been housed in his four villages in 3,000 dwellings. In addition his “family” has access to nine schools, a hospital and several health posts, as well as work in nearby quarries run by the organisation.

Father Pedro, with his great shock of curly hair, hardly greying yet,  has lived in Madagascar for 28 years and is fluent in Malagasy, using his skills as an orator to make jokes, raise money, change attitudes while giving the poorest of the poor new hope.

No-one seems to know the precise details of his organisation’s budget but the list of foreign donors queuing at the door to help a man with a record of such proven success in a very difficult field is a long one.

According to Pastor Jean William Razafimatratra, an inner-city Protestant priest, whose FJKM Reformist church is at the very centre of the capital’s red-light district, it is not simply a religious battle for souls, but a life-and-death struggle to find a way forward for the more than the 10,000  homeless, mostly children and women abandoned by their husbands, still living on the streets of Tana, as the city is known to its inhabitants.

“Nearly all of these people are liable to sell off the mosquito nets almost as soon as they are given to them, and with few exceptions most  are destined to contract malaria,”, says Pastor William, who has little but praise for Father Pedro’s “mighty efforts”.  In particular he fears that failure to get to grips with the street problem may in the future prejudice the country’s efforts to completely eradicate malaria by the year 2015.

Previous mayors, including the country’s current President, appear to have made little headway in tackling the issue. Says Father William, who attempts to look after 30 destitute families in the city-centre, Andry Rajoelina, the present Mayor, once tried to haul people off the streets by loading them onto a great blue lorry at night and forcing them to sweep the streets. But this tough approach was a one-off effort that has since been abandoned.

Now it seems that only Father Pedro with his “new age” villages and tight personal contracts has a solution which works. But even he can be powerless to combat the economic opportunity-cost of street life which means that sometimes it may be more rational and lucrative to beg on the streets than to work in the paddy fields.

Until  there is a deeper transformation in society and the economy thousands of poverty-stricken peasants from the countryside will continue to make their way to the capital each year in search of the economic opportunities and there will always be the magnetic allure offered by prostitution and begging on streets they believe must surely be paved with gold.

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