ROSARIO, Argentina – According to Argentine missionary priest Pedro Opeka, poverty is not fate, but the result of a lack of social sensitivity among political leaders who turned their backs on their own people. Back in the early twentieth century, Pope Francis’s homeland was known as the “granary of the world,” with a gross national product that represented half of all Latin America.

Yet decades of economic mismanagement has led to large-scale poverty in Argentina, which now has having over 4,500 slums and illegal settlements throughout the country. Around 35 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, with 50 percent of children under the age of 18 being poor.

Faced with this reality, Gaston Vigo, a young lay Catholic man in his 30s, launched Akamasoa Argentina, Mas Humanidad.

Akamasoa is the name for the city built by Opeka that today is home to some 30,000 people in Antananarivo, Madagascar, where the missionary priest has served for half a century.

The city he built has over 5,000 homes in addition to schools, hospitals, playgrounds and even a small stadium where he says Mass for thousands of people every Sunday.

Vigo visited him back in 2018 to try to understand his method. He’d been working with CONIN, an Argentine NGO that is trying to battle chronic malnutrition in Argentina.

“I went to Madagascar with the dream of asking Pedro for us to bring the concept of Akamasoa to Argentina, arguing that this work was needed here, with it’s pillar of helping without assisting,” Vigo told Crux over the phone. “Akamasoa is about helping the poor stand up so they don’t live on their knees.”

“Akamasoa Argentina was born from internal feelings, from the pain caused by knowing that there is a lot of people who are being left behind,” he said. “I often say that Argentina is not something we inherited from our parents, but something we are going to loan to our children. But what are we leaving them with? A country where 134,000 people died of hunger in the past 70 years? A country where 60 percent of children are poor? A country where 50 percent of them don’t finish high school?”

Vigo spent some time living in Akamasoa in Madagascar where he says he became “humbler” because he was shocked by the transformation of the urban dump where the “city of friendship” was built, transforming “a hell of hunger into an oasis of hope.”

When he returned to Argentina, he met with the foundation Mas Humanidad (More Humanity) that was running three CONIN centers fighting malnutrition in young children while providing workshops and seminars for adults, with a concept similar to his: Doing everything possible to help others overcome poverty.

“I joined forces with this organization, that already had the structure, the human resources and the same vocation to serve others,” Vigo said. This was the birth of Akamasoa Argentina, Mas Humanidad, an organization that today helps 600 people by trying to generate the same oasis of hope that he found in Madagascar.

“How could we not try to do this in Argentina, that once upon a time was a beacon for Latin America?” Vigo said.

The crisis generated by the coronavirus has changed the way Akamasoa Argentina works, going out to the people instead of having people come to their centers, and asking donors to give money instead of food, to reduce movement. But they are working full steam ahead, helping the 195 children under 5 who are malnourished and will have long-lasting consequences if they don’t receive help now.

Vigo and Opeka have remained close, in almost permanent contact through WhatsApp. The layman updates the priest on the progress made in the small region of Lima, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where the project is based, with the first homes already built by the families themselves, much like it is done in Madagascar.

“Pedro has a way of leading that is incredible, very humble, very human, telling us that we need to find our own identity and that even though there are things that we can replicate, we also have to find our own solutions to the complex problems that arise almost daily,” Vigo said.

“But we have the joy of having a North, of knowing that if we need them, we can call them, and they’ve also drawn a path for us, which is why we chose to keep the name, so that we know where we are headed, that city of 29,000 people divided in 22 neighborhoods that help lift half a million people from extreme poverty,” he said. “We’re headed that way, with humility but also with the certainty that we can make it happen.”

Last year, Pope Francis visited Akamasoa during his pastoral visit to Africa. The pontiff said that the Madagascan city illustrates a “living faith” translated into concrete actions capable of “moving mountains.”

“A faith that made it possible to see opportunity in place of insecurity; to see hope in place of inevitability; to see life in a place that spoke only of death and destruction,” Francis said.

Vigo says he is moved by that same faith, and Akamasoa Argentina is not just helping families overcome child malnutrition but also helping them finish school, learn trades, look for formal employment and build their own neighborhood with bricks and mortar, instead of the metal planks and plastic bags common in Argentinian slums.

“The biggest satisfaction we could have five years from now is having built a community of friends, the meaning of Akamasoa in Malagasy,” he said. “We want to break the trap of assistance that perpetuates the misery in which the poor live.”

Vigo said he dreams with of a day “in which government aid is no longer the way to help poor people, but that instead, we provide them with education, employment, nutrition and dignity.”

Akamasoa Argentina, he said, is not a project with a deadline, but a cause – ending extreme poverty. He doesn’t define Akamasoa as an NGO, but a solidarity movement that – “God willing” – will inspire others.

“We need people passionate about giving dignity to others, who understand that we cannot be happy among the unhappy,” Vigo said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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