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    Finding Strength to Hold the Fishing Rod

    Plough’s Coretta Thomson speaks with the founder of Akamasoa Argentina about their mission to eradicate poverty and restore dignity.

    By Gastón Vigo Gasparotti and Coretta Thomson

    April 22, 2023

    Available languages: Español

    • Bruce Hollenbach

      Those Jesuits had it right. What are you going to do with everything you have received? If we don't hear their question, someday we can expect to hear from Jesus, What DID you do with everything you received? I hope we will not have to answer, Well I built bigger barns to hold it all.

    Coretta: Akamasoa Argentina is just starting out, but your vision is to help people build their homes and neighborhoods and, in the process, learn new social and technical skills that will break the cycle of poverty. How did this start?

    Gastón: I have done humanitarian work for years here in Argentina, but I always found myself worrying what would happen with this or that child. We managed to address this boy’s malnutrition and send him to school, but what is his home like? Will he be able to find a job that pays a living wage? 

    Then I heard about Pedro Opeka, an Argentinian priest who had been working in Madagascar.  In 1989 he founded Akamasoa, which means “the good and faithful friends” in Malagasy. The turning point for him came when he saw children in the slums near the garbage dump fighting with animals over food. “If I just keep talking,” he said, “I have no shame. I have to do something concrete for these children and families. I need to start working on the three pillars that have guided my life: work, education and discipline.” This seemed utopian, because these trash heaps were the size of football fields.

    But the communities he started building grew, until Akamasoa became a city of thirty thousand people. Yes, it’s a real city, with hospitals, shopping centers, homes, hotels, and cemeteries. It is a project that works to improve the whole of life, from the beginning to the end. And there is one clear rule: you have to work for your bread. When I heard about Pedro Okepa’s work, I decided to travel to Madagascar to work at his side and bring back his approach to address poverty here in Argentina.

    Could you tell us more about your approach to aid work?

    I believe every human being is my brother or my sister. When I want to help someone who is in poverty, I should not care about ideology, nationality, and religious belief. I have to help him because he is a human being who is suffering.

    Later, of course we can tell him about what will give him a good life. Since the Argentinian urban poor aren’t usually people of faith, I always say that much of what we do is the result of providence. But I believe that God is helping us in some ways. For example, this week we were short of funds to finish the four houses we were going to hand over the keys for in a few weeks. And I went to Mass on Sunday and said, “God, I don’t have any more resources.” The money showed up, and we are going to finish the houses in time. God always hears our prayers. Two plus two is four, but two plus two plus God is any number.

    two workers building a roof on a house

    Photos courtesy of Akamasoa Argentina.

    In Akamasoa Argentina, we often remind each other of the golden rule. How would I want people to treat me if I had been born in poverty? You would probably want consideration, mercy, and accompaniment. We will walk with you through every stage of life, because Akamasoa means “good friends,” and friends walk with each other always. The best part of having good friends is that the joys are multiplied and sorrows are shared. 

    Often, international humanitarian organizations and even religious organizations misunderstand charity. They help more to help themselves than to help others, and this ends up making the people they serve dependent, poorer, and more excluded. Rather, we need to raise up free people who can live from their own efforts. It’s not even giving him the fishing rod; it’s giving him the strength to hold up the fishing rod.

    In some of the NGOs where I worked before, many employees actually did very little for the cause they were supposedly championing. My organization is run by just seven employees and several thousand volunteers who come from all sectors of society. When someone comes to Akamasoa, I tell them, brother, you know what you can do. So get to it! There are architects, engineers, lawyers, and housewives. If I die tomorrow I don’t want people to say, “Where do we go from here?” No, they already know where they’re headed. 

    You’ve already alluded to your past life. Could you tell us more about how you got into this work?

    I was born in the Argentinian province of Santa Fe. When I was a child, my dad would return home exhausted at night, take off his tie, and talk to me worriedly about Argentina. He spoke to me with pride of the country his father’s generation had built, those six million immigrants who came to Argentina with nothing and made our country the envy of the world. In thirty years, we went from being a country with 84 percent illiteracy to being the first country in the world to eradicate illiteracy. It went from being a place with rampant malnutrition to a country more industrialized than Britain, with a poverty rate of just 2 percent. But today, 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. This pained my father intensely.

    My parents always sought long-term solutions. If anyone rang our doorbell, my mother would say, “Fine, give him a sandwich, but it’s even better if you let him in and we’ll teach him math and reading, and ask him how school’s going.” So I ended up living in constant contact with people who were less fortunate than myself.

    a row of colorful houses

    I went to a private Jesuit school whose tagline was to live for others. They always asked us: What are you going to do with everything you’ve received? Will you stand there navel-gazing, or are you going to work with your gaze towards others? After college, I ended up quitting my secure job in the family business, and went to work with malnourished children.

    However, this work didn’t sit well with me either. If Mateo isn’t fed properly in his first year of life, and doesn’t receive proper care and social stimulation, he will not be able to thrive in primary education. And if he doesn’t finish elementary school, he won’t be able to get a good job, and without a good job he won’t be able to make his own living. When I saw this reality I asked myself, “What do I do with this?” And that’s when I heard of Pedro Opeka’s work. I said, well, he built a city on a trash heap in Madagascar, the fifth poorest country on the planet. So don’t tell me it can’t be done in Argentina.

    What have you learned from your work?

    Over time, I’ve realized that instead of asking why, I need to ask what: For what purpose did I go through something difficult? And you see life in a different light.

    So will I be someone who did something to make the world a better place, starting within me and in the square meter around me? Fatalism is not good council. People say, “That’s the way it is, get used to it, it’s your lot in life.” No! I’m not going to accept that.

    Pedro Okepa also taught me some lessons. I remember going to him one day and saying, “We buried eight people today. So how will you manage to spend the rest of your life burying these people?” Because a three-month stint like that is one thing; fifty years is another. Well, it turns out that Pedro has buried about five thousand people. And he has had to get up again after five thousand blows like this.

    a boy playing in his room

    Another time I was upset about how the work was – or rather wasn’t – progressing. He told me: “In life, you have to forgive, forget, and move on.” One day, he told me they had just finished a neighborhood and a man burned a house, the fire spread, and over one hundred and fifty homes burned down. It broke their hearts to see their work going up in flames. The next day, he went to survey the damage. And he said to the people: “We have two options: we break down and cry and abandon the work, or we start rebuilding.”

    Another time, one of his long-term coworkers ran off with the salaries of thousands of employees. So he told everyone that their salary was gone, but their only option was to forgive, forget, and move on. That there is no reason to harbor bitterness and recount forever what this person did to me.

    Is your goal just to help these families in this particular shantytown, or is it larger than that?

    Argentina today is a tragedy, and the pain and trauma run deep. We entered the twentieth century as an advanced country, but we started the twenty-first with the worst recession in our history. Inflation is still at 50 percent. So now 50 percent of our population is below the poverty line, including 70 percent of our children. We have five thousand slums, home to four million families who live without access to adequate drinking water or waste management, electricity, or education. Half of our children don’t finish secondary school, so more and more people are falling through the cracks.

    Our government has tried to alleviate poverty through cash bonuses. But solving poverty by handing out money is like trying to get an education by photocopying your friend’s diploma. It’s absurd. Of course, there are times to give folks a hand. But that is different from endless handouts. If I believe in someone, I’ll tell them, OK, I’ll help you get through a tough time, but that’s so you can then earn your own living. This is how Akamasoa works, and I’d like to leave my country better than I found it. We will build schools, we will build health centers. But it will take time. Many volunteers get impatient and eventually stop coming, because they don’t see progress. In life, the process and transformation are what is important.

    Support Akamasoa’s work via HelpArgentina.

    This Zoom interview was conducted in Spanish on October 28, 2022, and has been translated by Coretta Thomson and edited for length and clarity.

    Contributed By VigoGastonGasparotti Gastón Vigo Gasparotti

    Gastón Vigo Gasparotti is the founder of Akamasoa Argentina.

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    Contributed By CorettaThomson Coretta Thomson

    Coretta Thomson is an editor for Plough and oversees its Spanish-language publications.

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