True to his reputation as “pope of the poor,” Pope Francis yesterday began a visit to Madagascar, one of the world’s most impoverished nations.
Arriving from Mozambique, where he pleaded for understanding and the renunciation of violence in a country riven by 16 years of civil war and now hit by extremist attacks, the Argentine pontiff’s first port of call yesterday was to be a Mass and prayer vigil with at least 12,000 young scouts.
Tafika Fanomenza, 39, who is helping to coordinate the scores of volunteers involved in the preparations, as well as in the pontiff’s security, expressed hope that Francis’ visit would help bring about change in Madagascar.
More than half of young people on the world’s fifth-largest island are out of work, even if many boast good qualifications. In a population of 25 million, nine out of 10 people live on less than US$2 per day.
Political instability has done nothing to help the development of an economy largely dependent on agriculture, and the export of vanilla and cocoa in particular.
Liberal-leaning Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina, elected to a second term last year mainly on promises of jobs and housing, was to meet for one-on-one talks with Francis.
Today is to mark the high point of Francis’ visit, with a huge Mass in the capital expected to be attended by about 800,000 pilgrims. Many had already started setting up tents on the outskirts of the city on Friday, armed with posters of the Argentine pontiff.
Prospere Ralitason, a 70-year-old farm worker, arrived with about 5,000 fellow pilgrims from the central-eastern town of Ambatondrazaka, 200km away.
“We are tired, but it’s worth making all these sacrifices to see the pope with our own eyes and receive his blessing,” he told reporters, impatient to set out on the final two-hour hike to attend the Mass.
“We spent 65,000 ariary [US$17.53] and brought 3kg of rice to make the trip to Antananarivo,” said 40-year-old Jean-Claude Rabemanatrika, another pilgrim and farm worker. “There are five of us at home and we don’t have enough money, so we had to choose just one family member to make the trip.”
“We’ve provided toilet, showers, a sick bay and somewhere to cook for our 5,000 guests,” said 35-year-old Marino Andriamasy, who is in charge of the makeshift site where the pilgrims are staying.
The last pope to visit was John Paul II 30 years ago.
“I was a lieutenant when I helped with the security of John Paul II in 1989. Today I am a divisional general and overseeing security for Francis’ visit to Madagascar,” Samuel Rakotomalala said.
About 700 police officers are to be deployed at the site, which is also equipped with 200 surveillance cameras and the 12,000 young scouts would also help out.
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