ROME – A quick internet search for Madagascar, Mozambique and Mauritius would lead travelers to believe they’ve found three gems, with paradise-like beaches that stretch on forever, avenues of sprawling Baobab trees, crystal blue lagoons, rainforests, unique wildlife and incredibly welcoming people.
In fact, that’s all true. Search deeper, however, and you’ll find the other side of the coin – poverty that “surpasses reason,” corruption, jihadism, political and social instability, financial scandal, civil war and harsh weather that scientists believe will become steadily more extreme.
Arguably, those are the real reasons Pope Francis has decided to visit “the three M’s” of the Indian Ocean Sept. 4-10, stopping in each country’s capital – Maputo, Antananarivo and Port Luis – as well as a special “city” Akamasoa, dubbed “the city of friendship” and home to 18 villages and 30,000 people, located in what used to be a garbage dump in Madagascar’s capital.
Though every one of these countries is unique, all three badly need peace, which is why the official themes for each include the word.
Mozambique, seeking peace and reconciliation – again
Francis’s return to sub-Saharan Africa begins in Mozambique, a nation which, according to the United Nations, ranks among the world’s poorest and least developed despite being rich in natural resources. Locals hope Francis’s visit inspires “Hope, Peace and Reconciliation,” as the country is still feeling the effects of a bloody civil war from 1977 to 1992.
In Mozambique, Francis will meet President Filipe Nyusi just five weeks before voters go to the polls. Nyusi is running for reelection against the two main opposition leaders, one of whom is the leader of a former militia group.
Ossufo Momade, leader of the National Resistance party (RENAMO), and Nyusi signed a peace accord Aug. 1. Several members of the international community, including the European Union, have warned that if the election is not conducted properly, it could reignite conflict.
“The bloody civil war … is far from over,” said Erika Dahl-Bredine, an American who lives in Lesotho, coordinating Catholic Relief Services (CRS) aid. “In the last couple of days there’s been a lot of internal conflict within RENAMO suggesting that they don’t consider the peace deal valid.”
Father Ignacio Jussa, a Jesuit from Mozambique, told Crux that Mozambique “has the privilege of receiving popes in times when reconciliation becomes an imperative.”
St. John Paul II visited Maputo in 1988 “when the civil war was ending,” Jussa said, and Francis will arrive “a month after the government and Renamo signed a peace agreement.”
Mozambique’s civil war began in 1977 and officially concluded in October 1992 in Rome, with an accord to end a conflict that claimed a million lives and left four million displaced. Negotiations took place in the headquarters of the Community of Sant Egidio, a lay movement founded in Italy by Andrea Riccardi.
Jussa believes the papal visit will “energize” Catholics because Francis’s voice “unites, builds communion between different social classes in a country like Mozambique.”
Of the 29 million inhabitants, a majority are Christian but there are significant minorities who follow Islam and African traditional religions.
In recent months there’s been an uptick of Jihadist attacks, most of them in northern Cabo Delgado province, where an intensifying insurgency pits a little-understood network of militants- some of whom profess allegiance to ISIS- against local security forces.
Dahl-Bredine believes the underlining reason behind the conflict is poverty. Even though there’s been an uptick in exploitation of natural resources in the region, she said, it hasn’t translated into any improvement in life for inhabitants.
The country is also still reeling from catastrophic Cyclone Idai, which caused devastation in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. It killed at least 1,300 people in March and affected three million, destroying crops that people relied on for survival. In Mozambique the situation was so dire that rescuers had to let some people die to save others.
“The country took enormous steps backwards, and there’s going to be a very long process of rebuilding,” the CRS agent said. “His visit comes at a difficult time, and some have questioned it.”
In fact, Francis’s looming arrival in Mozambique has drawn some criticism, including from local observers who see it as a partisan photo op for Nyusi.
“But [Francis] says the Church shouldn’t be afraid to get its hands dirty,” she noted. “And that might be why he’s coming at a time of political turmoil and conflict, to bring a forceful message to the country’s leaders about their obligations.”
Jussa said he hopes the world sees the “many positive things” about Mozambique, and Africa as a whole, such as “the virtues of ordinary people [and] the way they share different aspects of social life. The way they believe in God and manifest their faith; the way African people receive their brothers and sister from America, Asia, Europe with kindness and the virtue of hospitality.”
Madagascar, where poverty “escapes reason”
On Sept. 6, Francis will travel to Madagascar, an island nation some 250 miles off the coast of East Africa. It’s the world’s fourth-largest island, and its rich, unique fauna and flora include the lemur and many other one-of-a-kind species that flourish nowhere else.
The country is also on the United Nations’s list of most underdeveloped nations, and it’s here that Francis will encounter a fellow Argentinian, Father Pedro Opeka, a missionary priest who’s been in Madagascar for the past 50 years.
Often called “God’s Mason” and “the apostle of garbage,” Opeka has received France’s Legion of Honor and several papal awards. Speaking with Crux, he said that the 30,000 people living in Akamasoa, the capital city, are getting ready by “praying in every neighborhood” and by preparing a song in Spanish that children will sing to the pope.
“When the people of Akamasoa found out about the papal visit, they exploded in screams of joy and happiness,” the priest said. “Our population realizes that it’s a special grace to welcome the pope in this place where, in other times, there was so much violence, poverty, suffering, dramas and deaths of innocent people.”
“This visit will be an incredible ray of light for our people who fight every day to prepare a better future for their children,” he said.
Opeka believes that the papal visit will be a reminder for the people he serves of the fact that they are part of the universal human family, and “loved within the Church,” despite the fact that “they’re so poor and have long been forgotten by many.”
Francis will visit Akamasoa on Sunday, Sept. 8, after celebrating Mass on the diocesan grounds of Soamandrakizay.
Asked if he had any advice for his fellow Argentine, the missionary said the pontiff knows what to say, due to the extensive work he did in the slums of Buenos Aires, when Francis was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
“I’m sure he’s going to tell them to always have faith in the God of Love, to have hope and love towards their children, and to continue fighting,” Opeka said. “He’ll probably tell those in government to be honest, sensible, audacious and faster to help their forgotten countrymen, forgotten and excluded, living in extreme poverty.”
James Hazen is an American who’s been living in Madagascar for the past six years as the representative of CRS, the United States bishops’ foreign aid agency. He told Crux that since he’s been there, some things such as deforestation have gotten worse due to slash-and-burn agriculture.
“When you have a political and economic crisis, people look to survive, and sometimes the forest is a way to do so,” he said. With slash and burn agriculture, “the soil loses its properties and, after a few years, people cut more trees and grow crops there. We’re working on helping people restore the soil to prevent further deforestation.”
The Malagasi people, he said, are very excited to have a world leader such as Francis visit them.
“Somebody is looking out for them, coming all this way, when sometimes they feel forgotten, in the middle of nowhere,” Hazen said. “A lot of people think of Madagascar in terms of lemurs and Boababs trees, but people here realize that he’s coming to meet with them, not the lemurs.”
Mauritius and hidden inequality
On the morning of Sept. 9 the pope will fly to Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, for an eight-hour visit before returning to Rome. Also an island country, it’s some 1,200 miles off the southeast coast of Africa.
With a much smaller population –1.2 million, half of whom are Hindu, a third Christian and 17 percent Muslim – Mauritius is highly ranked in terms of economic and political freedom.
“Mauritius is a beautiful island, with very warm and friendly people, even if we’re lacking natural resources … we are rich through the diversity of our people,” Patricia Adèle Félicité, an official of Caritas Mauritius told Crux. “As a small island we have the opportunity to take care of each other.”
This multiculturalism is rooted in centuries of occupation, with the island nation being possessed at one time or another by the Dutch, the French, and the British. The Hindu presence in the islands dates from the British era, when the English brought hundreds of thousands of people from India as cheap, slave-like labor. Until abolition in 1835, slaves came from Mozambique, which saw an estimated one million people sold during the slave-trading years.
The island is so small, Félicité noted, that “sometimes it’s not even on the map.” This makes the population “even more grateful,” she said, for Francis’s decision to come as a “Pilgrim of Peace.”
In an interview with Vatican media ahead of the trip, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the island’s “multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural composition” offers a prime example of what Francis calls the culture of encounter, and will be something the pontiff will emphasize.
The main pillars of the economy are manufacturing, financial services, tourism, and information and communications technology. Mauritius provides free universal health care, free education up to the high school level and free public transportation for students, senior citizens, and the disabled.
Officially, per-capita income averages $20,000, but most estimates put the real number closer to $5,000. The difference reflects the fact that the island’s main business, in all honesty, is acting as a tax haven for wealthy depositors from abroad.
However, Mauritius hardly qualifies as rich. It’s a teardrop in the Indian Ocean, with its share of tin-roofed hovels and illiteracy. According to Félicité, ten percent of the population lives in poverty and 30 percent of primary-level students drop out every year.
In addition, she said, the country is officially bi-lingual, with people learning English and French. However, there are many who only speak the local language, Creole, spoken by the descendants of African slaves.
The Catholic Church has made a “very rich contribution” in the development of the country, Félicité said, particularly in education and social development.
Francis is expected to say Mass, meet civil authorities and visit the shrine of Père Bienheureux Laval, a French missionary 150 years ago. Known as the “Apostle of Mauritius” due to his tireless work in aiding the poor and ill and educating former slaves, he remains a very popular figure today.
Regardless of the pope’s official focus, some believe merely attending the papal events will be life-altering.
“The impact will be human and spiritual,” Opeka said. “What Pope Francis says reaches your guts, it moves you and makes you react.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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