Pedro Opeka, the Apostle of Hope
Lives rescued from the rubbish dump
In the introduction to the book published in the French language Combattant de l'esperance (The Warrior of Hope), its author Pedro Opeka recorded the following thoughts: All my life I pondered on the actions of men and women, whom I regarded as exemplary, and at the same time I endeavored to translate these thoughts into actions. That is why the people from the rubbish dump and I don't want to be regarded as heroes, to be admired blessedly by the rest. On the contrary, we wish, that our experience encourages and stimulates towards action. Don't imagine, that you will perform miracles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: as soon as possible begin with yourself, motivate the people, who are closest you to feel for the poor on our planet, so that they will join you in your endeavors. The culture in regard to poverty needs to change in the northern hemisphere. And this is not an impossible dream. Father Pedro Opeka has worked over 20 years in Madagascar. For more than 3 decades it has been regarded as one of the poorest countries in the world, exhibiting the most characteristic examples of catastrophic conditions.
Life's path of Pedro Opeka
He was born in Argentina on 29 June 1948, in the town San Martin, a suburb of Buenos Aires, to Slovenian parents. He trained as builder with his father. When fifteen years old, he decided to become a priest, and entered the Lazarist Seminary. At the age of twenty he spent two years in Slovenia, studying theology. Then he travelled to Madagascar, where he worked as builder in various parishes managed by Lazarists. It was at this time, that he decided to become a missionary. He completed his theological studies at the Catholic Institute in Paris. He used this time to travel in Europe, becoming familiar with poverty of the inhabitants of the old continent.
On 28 September 1975 he entered the priesthood in Buenos Aires, and was appointed the parish priest of the hamlet Vangaindrano in the southeast of Madagascar. In 1989 he was appointed director of the Lazarist Seminary in Antananariv. Apart from this he was not able to stand by and observe the misery of thousands of the homeless in the suburb of the capital, who lived on the street or on the rubbish dump in inhuman conditions. From trust and friendship was born Akamasoa (Good Friends), where more than 23.000 homeless were brought into new life.
In the year 2007 (12 October) Pedro Opeka received the award of the Knight of the Legion of Honour, the highest honour of France. The following year he received the Van Thuan award of the Vatican Foundation of St Mathew, followed by the award of St. Cyril and Methodius, the highest acknowledgement of achievement by the church in Slovenia. A year later he also received the Golden Award for achievement by the Republic of Slovenia.
All these honours have not changed Peter Opeka. He remains simple, modest, and humble, his faith pure and childlike. He is still determined to stand up for people who have been pushed aside and his courage intact, his word crystal clear and immediate, set on all or nothing.
Unassuming and humble Peter Opeka will remain even as a winner of Nobel Prize for peace, something that many individuals and organizations expect, not only in Slovenia but worldwide.
In 2011 RTV Slovenia recorded a documentary film with the title Pedro Opeka, the Good Friend. Its director Jože Možina received popular acclaim and many awards. In 2012 he received the award of the best film director of documentary films at the ITN film festival in Hollywood. He also received an award for the excellence in 2013 in the field of film creation at international film festival in Canada.
The Principles and Achievements of Akamasoa
Father Peter Opeka has now lived more than twenty years among the homeless, all those who had been marginalized, driven onto the edge of society, and abandoned on the streets of Madagascar's capital. The homeless poor, who left the rubbish dump and the streets of Antananariv, now live in the villages of Akamasoa. Their material existence has improved, and they have gained the will to live and hope. Many are still unable to stand on their own feet. Many still fall prey to alcohol and drugs, idleness, prostitution, rape and robbery. Sometimes this still ends in death.
It saddens Peter Opeka most, when parents give up and flee from their responsibility towards the children that they brought into the world. He is also critical of the political leaders, who close their eyes and refuse to see thousands of the poor in their state. In 2006 he decided to write the chronicle of life in Akamasoa for the period of one month. For this he made use of school holidays, since his work is less intensive during this is time. He gave the book published by Mohorjeva družba in 2008 for the author's 60th birthday, the title The Diary of Combat. In his view the fight against poverty is the humanitarian battle for development and peace in the world, and also spiritual battle, which reaches beyond any religious affiliation.
In his battle with poverty he follows certain well-defined guidelines:
listening to the poorest; keeping faith with the promises made; engaging the young people; invigorating the ties with the local culture, and the belief that "It is his spirit that makes the man".
The achievements of Akamasoa, as told by the author of the book The Diary of Combat (Dnevnik spopada, 2011), are impressive. The activity had been in the meantime extended to ten municipalities in other parts of the country. Schools are being built, country roads repaired and isolated villages reconnected. Health facilities/ clinics, churches, etc. are being built and managed. Some of these counties are quite remote, such as the province of Antananarivo, at a distance of 900 km.
More than three quarters of 15,300 persons (2,900 households), who live today in the villages and surrounds of Antananarivo, are children, teenagers, elderly and the disabled. Only a minority are capable of working. A high level of illiteracy among the adults, their lack of occupational skill, competence, training, and structural unemployment are the main impediments, for the parents to assume the responsibility for their numerous families.
In 2000 there were still 900 emergency wooden buildings, roofed with straw or corrugated iron, with an earthen floor. In 2006 there were only thirty. The building of apartments increased to one hundred annually. At present the settlement of buildings covered with tiles or corrugated iron comprises 1,700 single-family homes, and 300 multi-apartment blocs, of mostly 4 apartments.
In 2000 there were 108 classrooms in six schools, and 121 teachers for 8,595 students. Data for 2006 is: 221 classrooms in 9 schools and 271 teachers for 8,750 students. More improvement is required in the quota in the numbers of students for each teacher at the higher level of primary and secondary level. Through the assistance of European Union each student receives daily a meal at each of the seven school canteens.
For the last six years the people have been encouraged to seek employment in the city, returning to their home towns and villages every evening. The number of work places in education has increased 2,2 times, in health 1,3 times and in building 1,5 times.
The number of health workers in the four care institutions in Antananariv and other provinces has also increased considerably. Twenty-six social workers give attention to people requiring help, such as gifts of food, dressing injuries, emergency treatment, financial assistance in cases of great need, providing clothing, blankets, soap, tools, kitchen utensils, etc. Every year 15,000 to 20,000 persons , who come for help from the streets of the capital, are seen and given assistance.
The work of Peter Opeka and his helpers is a legacy that lives on and continues to grow, providing hope and a future to countless people who otherwise would not be able to free themselves from the bondage of poverty and hopelessness.
In his conversation with the author of the book Apostle of Hope, the padre presents his view. He speaks of communism, which "crushes the person and capitalism which undermines a person's roots." His is quite clear about the principles of change:
"With an economy based on solidarity, which treats the individual as the centre of the system and the end in itself. I don't have any formulas. The only thing I know is that here, with just a small amount of money, we gave people education, health care, housing, jobs and meaning, and they changed; they became peaceful. What we have done for 16,000 people could be done for many more. We must strive to share all the time. Nobody should be excluded from human progress, which is glorified to such an extent. What glory can world progress achieve if we are creating more and more and yet an increasing number of people are excluded from it? We have to humanize capitalism, placing man in its centre as the social doctrine that the Church teaches."
J.M. Silveyra, Padre Pedro, Apostle of Hope. The Story of Father Peter Opeka (2012)
Pedro Opeka, Wkipedia, the free encyclopedia
Carole Escavarage and Gregory Rung, Bojevnik upanja. Življenjepis upornika (Mohorjeva družba Celje, 2012)
Pedro Opeka with coll. Michel Prevost, Dnevnik spopada (Mohorjeva družba Celje (2008, rep. 2011)
Translated and edited by Aleksandra Ceferin