By Marta Petrosillo
“In some areas the Malagasies live in miserable conditions, despite the oil, gold and diamonds.” Bishop Rosario Vella, speaking to Aid to the Church in Need says that the Church in Madagascar is suffering- “It is a poor Church for poor people.” The Bishop, who is from Sicily, is the first Salesian Bishop to lead a diocese in Madagascar. He has lived there since 1981 and in 2007 he has been Bishop of Ambanja in the north of the country.
On 17 March 2009 a military coup d’état brought the former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina to power as President of the Transition Authority, a de facto government which does not have international recognition. Since then, Madagascar has come though critical times. Elections planned for the beginning of this year, 2013, were postponed several times and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that there may be another transitional government. The Malagasy people are tired of the uncertainty and the economic restrictions, and by now they have lost all hope.
“We are living in a state of economic, juridical, political, social and above all moral chaos,” says Bishop Vella. “The multinationals are plundering the wealth of the island, and the many –far too many – political parties look only for their own advantage, while the people are paid very little.” Basic rights such as education and health care are not guaranteed by the State. Only 15% of the population have access to basic health care. Infants still die in the villages from illnesses that are perfectly curable. “You can understand the poverty of a family that lives in a house of straw, but it is not acceptable that they cannot care for their children for want of money or a nearby hospital. This is misery, not poverty.”
Education: A priority
Even in the remotest villages in the heart of the forest, the Church has built schools and dispensaries which accept people of all religions. In the north of the country, and in the coastal regions, the percentage of Catholics is minimal, between 2 and 15%. “But our doors are open to all,” says Bishop Vella, as he recalls the laudable work of so many priests and religious, male and female, who walk sometimes up to a hundred kilometers to visit isolated communities.
The trauma of the present situation is leading to the abandonment of traditional Malagasy values of family, solidarity, and respect for the person. “Instead we now find a thirst for power, the search for quick profit, licentiousness and relativism.” The absence of reference points has tragic consequences for the training of young people. ”Parents are unable to educate their children, and the teachers are facing so much adversity that they cannot carry out their duty to the full. Fortunately, and we can say this with heads held high, the Catholic Church does an enormous amount in this field. For these young people, our schools represent their only hope of salvation.”
Education is one of the priorities of the Catholic Church. “We are seriously concerned about the future of the young people of Madagascar. It is essential to guarantee them the right to school and education.” Often in the villages there is only a primary school and, if they want to continue their studies, young people of 11 or 12 are obliged to leave home. They find themselves alone, far from home and with very little money at their disposal, and they are exposed to many dangers. To protect them, the diocese of Ambanja has set up “villages” where the students can live, in the care of a family or of some priests or religious. “Since we started this initiative,” says the Bishop, “the number of young people who keep up their studies has increased significantly. It is easier not to get lost or run the risk of being exploited, when there is someone to act as guide. Otherwise, once the money runs out, they are in danger of getting involved in criminal activity, and the girls in prostitution.”
Prostitution is widespread in Madagascar, and is some areas there is also sex-tourism. Often the parents sell their teenage daughters out of economic need.