September 12 2017 09:00 | Bischoefliches Priesterseminar Borromaeum, Kardinal-von-Galen-Saal
Speech of Paola Germano
Like it or not, Europe and Africa are two worlds connected by geography, history, and languages: this envisions a shared future, in which the human community grows and strengthens itself through mutual encounter and it does not wither in closure. This is true in building any human community, be it political, social, or religious. Today, Europe remains the world that holds the hopes of the African people, certainly we must find new answers to the issue of migration, rethinking integration as the reconstruction of a human fabric is possible in our countries. Since February 2016, thanks to the launch of the humanitarian corridors, the Community of Sant’Egidio has allowed the arrival of about 900 Syrian people from Lebanon, women, children, ill men, elderly people, they all went through the “journey of hope” on a scheduled flight instead of deathly boats. They flew above the sea instead of crossing it risking their own lives. Next October the first group out of 500 refugees from the Horn of Africa is scheduled to arrive. This program, realized together with the Waldesian Church and the Federation of Evangelical Churches, and with the Italian Ministries of Internal and Foreign Affairs, is a diffused and community model of migrant hospitality. My friend Daniela Pompei is going to speak extensively about this proposal in Panel 18.
Public international debate about migration is focusing today on strengthening cooperation and relationships with African countries, bringing them into an effective policy to make citizens fond of their own countries again. People say “let us help them in their countries”, through adequate social interventions and a policy that allows young people to work in their own country. This is the underlying theme of a decades-long work of Sant’Egidio: helping Africa become the center, a Euro-African message of hope for younger generations feeling ‘peripheral’ in the era of globalization, and wanting to reach the center. Africa is not a far reality to the Community of Sant’Egidio, it is instead a home that we feel our own and very close to us, where thousands of our brothers and sisters live, pray, and struggle. Today in Africa, the name of Sant’Egidio is know because of peace and solidarity with the population of the continent. Experience has taught us that, through a virtuous process of attention, through training and empowerment of African people, it is possible to support the patriotism of men and women who love their country, who are willing to work for an African Renaissance. In the 31 African countries where the Community of Sant’Egidio is present, men and women of faith do not live for themselves, they live for others, for the poorer. The communities are entirely made up of African members and managed by African supervisors, they promote many events and projects to fight poverty and support the weakest population groups in many ways: the commitment to the pursuit of Peace, the closeness to the poorer, the fight to abolish death penalty. They are committed to solidarity for nothing in return. They are friends with the prisoners, people suffering from AIDS, elderly people, while coordinating the Schools of Peace for the children, places of education to life and peace. Africa is mostly a continent of children, but in a land where people fight every day for survival, there is no time for them. Many African countries are cutting back on education and less and less children have access to school. Sant’Egidio works to create places where there is room and time for them, gathering in the schools of peace more than 40,000 children in the whole Africa: allowing these children to study means providing them with a future. In the meantime, long-distance adoptions, generously supported by many European families, provide a community of children with not only food, but also support for medical treatments and school enrollment fees. Still, many African children have a face but they do not have a name, at least not officially. It has been estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa one out of two children is not registered in the civil registry, and in some countries the situation is even worse. Just to give an example, in Malawi, an extremely rural country made of about 18 million people, it is estimated that less than 1 million people are registered at birth. To society and institutions these children do not exist. Since 2008 Sant’Egidio has launched the BRAVO! Program, a campaign for birth registration to give children a name, an ID, access to school, official recognition as citizens of their own countries. Without registration children, ‘invisible’ to the eye of the State, risk becoming victims of trafficking, slavery, sexual abuse, premature weddings, and child labor. Almost 4 million children – and also adults- have been registered. Added value of this program consists in training registry professionals, restoration or improvement of the archives, raising awareness amongst the citizens on a national scale toward a change of view regarding children rights. This work has been carried on in direct and ongoing collaboration with the countries in which the program operates: Malawi, Mozambique, Burkina Faso. It is coming to an end right now a Bravo campaign in one of the most rural and populous districts in Malawi, where in the villages in one month 100,000 children have been registered. Numbers show how well-informed families understand the importance of registering their children and will not miss the opportunity that is given to them.
Africa today also expresses a large demand of health. We live in a globalized and interdependent world, still in many African countries, access to medical treatment for the population remains a dream. The strengthening of each health system represents today a priority in the agenda for the development of poorer countries, so much that it has been established by the United Nations as one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for the near future. At the end of the ’90s it was already emerging the challenge of a world divided by many economic and social gaps to which the dramatic phenomenon of the pandemic of HIV/AIDS was adding. A different fate was expecting those who got sick in Europe from those in Africa: patients in developed countries were offered treatments that substantially reduced mortality. Just a few hours of flight from Europe instead, people were dying of dehydration, desperate, abandoned, because of a disease that somewhere else we had learnt to contain. To African HIV-positive people was in fact denied treatment and they were only offered advice on health education and preventive actions, despite 95% of infections happening in the south of the world. A steadfast initiative was needed, as Christians we could not resign ourselves to injustice and illness. We had to start and prove that it was possible, and accessible, beyond prejudice and complexity, not only AIDS treatment, but also the entirety of measures and factors that could contribute to make it effective: education to patient health, nutritional support, advanced diagnostics, personnel training, immediate treatment. In this framework in 2002 in Mozambique Sant’Egidio launched DREAM (Disease Relief through Excellent and Advanced Means), a program of prevention and treatment for AIDS and malnutrition in the beginning, which today extends not only to infectious diseases, but also to chronic illnesses and prevention of tumors, offering full treatment for free with a level of excellence in scientific and technological aspects. Today DREAM is in eleven African countries, with numerous health centers and molecular biology laboratories spread out both cities and rural areas of Africa. The program take scare of 350,000 HIV-positive people, and it has been estimated that the program has brought relief to 2,500,000 people through extensive food aid and health education. A large health program that started from the right to healthcare especially for the poorer and has become an opportunity, a chance of development, an occasion for a decisive turn in many fields: from healthcare to education, from human rights to a new female empowerment, from a work culture to a civil society. The work so far has led the program to be recognized by the World Health Organization and several International Agencies, as a model experience, best practices, which, in addition to delivering 100.000 healthy children from mothers suffering from AIDS, has trained tens of thousands of people, allowing the countries where it operates in to have today a qualified medical staff able to confront diseases. If universal access to HIV treatment is today a goal shared by every African country and international organization, it is thanks to the tenacity of some pioneers, including Sant’Egidio and DREAM, one of the main players and propulsive factors in the radical transformation of the entire public healthcare system of many of the countries which it operates in, both regarding equipment, and trained and employed human resources.
Two factors contributed to the success of the program: the importance of a true partnership with the governments of the countries that are involved, with shared decisions and long-term commitments; and the vision of a program of development instead of emergency. A choice was made to confront with the governments and health ministries of several countries, in intense and sometimes difficult debates to reshape together and to equip African health systems challenging AIDS and more. The method of Sant’Egidio is alliance, not aggressively against someone, not in the culture of the enemy, but remembering instead John XXIII, looking for what unites and not what divides.
In the sign of development it was certainly fundamental the introduction of computer technology for the management of health centers. The need to compensate for the lack of skilled labor, to conduct ongoing personnel training, to realize a management of health centers of excellence, and to optimize communications, has led to the creation of a first-rate automated information system, rarely available even in Europe. In time, this has allowed the Program to be managed first-hand by enthusiastic African people, proud of their ability to govern not only numerous treatment centers, but also sophisticated molecular biology laboratories built by DREAM in several countries and in constant connection to numerous European specialists, who, free of charge, give access to high-level medical consultations even in conditions of extreme poverty or lack of diagnostic means. This current practice undoubtedly represents a potentiality development factor and it promotes an ongoing training of African clinicians, which is necessary in countries where there are few medical doctors and specializations are rare. The support of a network of scientific collaborations through outstanding European centers has in the meanwhile made Europe a reference hub for many African countries, contributing to the effort of capacity building that our continent, through excellence programs such as DREAM, can implement. Worlds have grown closer creating a true community of care, enrichment, and mutual education, not only for African doctor but European ones too. An interchange that has had the merit to bring many European health professionals back to the continent as it had not happened in a while.
Investing in the youth is not a waste of money. It may not have immediate results, but in the long-run results come plenty and successfully. Training may require long-serving patience, but it has a multiplying effect and development outcome on African societies.
DREAM is a new word on Africa, not only regarding its health and scientific aspects, but even more in the human profile that characterizes it. The Community of Sant’Egidio holds always at the centre the value of each human life, thus the choice of making a treatment program that has the ill person at the core, the real man and woman, with both their health and human needs. It has been fundamental to listen at first, and then to permanently bring patients into education and treating processes, breaking the isolation and the stigma that come with the disease, creating a true welcoming community of care and human promotion.
Years ago, the association “I DREAM” was born, gathering now thousands of patients, mostly women in treatment. Testimonials undergo a long training and they then carry out peer health education, going beyond basic notions about the HIV virus and bringing in many other aspects of life: nutrition, home and personal hygiene, prevention of infectious pathologies, and much more. Many female patients, once they have recovered, become mothers to many sick children that come to the centers. During these years their role has become increasingly public and many of them now take part to television and radio debates or are interviewed by newspapers. So women go from being the main victims of AIDS to becoming protagonists of the liberation from the disease and their work translates into richness for the countries they live in. It is well know how in the African family the role of women is decisive for health and survival of the family in a context where women are often the head of the family. The lack of men is due to widowhood, migration, and wars. Women have to take charge of the house and education of children with little or no financial support. Although disadvantaged by the weight of tradition and social roles, by many sufferings and violence, the African woman holds up the informal economy, manages the family and the general economy of her country. Friendship, solidarity, support to many sick women through DREAM has brought redemption and contagious fertility to society. So much violence against women and so much abuse are an attack to life and future, they make the life of a country barren. Investing in women in Africa is not a matter of “ideology” or feminism, it is a matter of changing a culture through the power of the Gospel. DREAM’s testimonials are women convinced that the life they have regained is a gift meant to be spent for others, that it cannot be selfishly kept for oneself; they have received life and they want to give it again, a life as full as they had never know before. Their invisible hands silently build Africa, they shape the foundations of society today, and with the power of the Gospel they produce a flow of humanity that is a liberating power for many African women.
Since the beginning DREAM intended to treat free of charge every sick person in need, without distinction, in the belief that treatment is a fundamental human right, other than an important step in the prevention of HIV infection. This choice exposed us throughout the years to the criticism of being a financially unsustainable program. It cannot be denied that the commitment to universal access to treatment is an enormous financial burden, but as economists have shown, this solution reveals to be the less expensive in time. Chancellor Merkel has rightly spoken about the need for a large Marshall Plan for Africa in order to save lives, avoid suffering, promoting the development of Africa. Corruption is often an obstacle and obstructs the development of entire countries. Making interventions completely free of charge becomes a cultural proposal in a time of confusion and disorientation to recreate a human way of living together. Actually giving treatment for free has a highly criticized and challenged Christian value, it starts virtuous mechanisms and has a fallout on civil society generating great cultural change. As Pope Francis reminds us ‘Gratuitousness is a revolutionary act that facilitates social development’.
“Monetization” of social life, reason why everything is for sale (i.e. school promotions, medical treatments), fosters also in Africa the growth of a competitive mindset whose pressure on the lives of individuals is very heavy. Everyone needs to focus on their own success. In this framework , there is the disregard for useless elderly and the poor, the sick, the prisoners, and the weakest, that poisons societies making them often violent and inhumane.
The African population is growing at unprecedented rates. Certainly, elder population is growing too, thanks to the improvement of health and more longevity. This demographic change is not met by answers by the governments through adequate national policies, a new phenomenon Africa is structurally and culturally unprepared for.
Where a public welfare system does not exist yet, the elderly are often alone in the face of life difficulties. In the African continent the crisis of the elderly is starting to be seen even where the elderly have so far benefitted of assistance and protection from their close relatives, their clan, the local community. Today in these areas too it is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve such relationships when the amount of elderly is growing and at the same time, because of emigration and urbanization, traditional structures that used to take care of their assistance are undergoing radical changes. Unfortunately, there are frequent cases of isolation, abandonment, and accusations of witchcraft against them. In large sectors of society it is still strong the prejudice according to which those who are older practice witchcraft and they live longer “stealing” life from the younger ones. A belief strengthened by the high mortality among young adults, caused by the spreading of AIDS and other diseases. Prejudice against those who are older translates to violent attitude, to the point of killing, mostly by hand of the youngest.
Friendship with the youth of the Community that go to visit them breaks such isolation and it is at the same time real help to get water, food, medicines, finding a house, but also help against loneliness. But above all, the connection that grows between young and elderly transforms both of them, diversity of condition becomes mutual attraction. For the elderly, who feel, in meeting the young, they are not put aside, instead they are looked for by people that have no other motive than an act of friendship. For the younger, who discover in a pleasant surprise how it is possible to live beautiful moments of friendship with them, where the condition of diversity of the elder is not scary anymore, instead it becomes a chance for more sensitivity in the relationship, becoming tenderness. This friendship then becomes attractive to others, it is contagious, hostile neighbors start to get close to the elderly, they offer to help them, so a change in the village is created, in the neighborhood, a new sympathy towards the elderly. The relationship between the young and the elderly takes on the value of a social beam: a precious fabric, a resource for family and social life, an element of deep cohesion that stitches back together the relationship among generations and promotes a new culture of respect and solidarity towards the elderly. I would like to quote an excerpt from a consideration of Andrea Riccardi about this topic: “ A society that is not able to make room for its own elderly loses sense of itself, it loses its human face. It is a society where the value of everybody’s life is trampled on… and the only society with a human face is the one with the face of the young and the elder together”.
In Africa those who know well the poor meet the prison. But ending up in prison in Africa is like being sentenced to death. Lack of treatment and food, overcrowding, complete abandonment and isolation make this places as tombs for many. Communities of Sant’Egidio go several times a month to the prisons distributing food aid, medicine, clothes and blankets, providing legal aid, and more. The visit allows to know the most urgent needs of the prisoners and to identify eventual violations of their rights, but also communication with the outside of the prison, promoting contact with the family and promoting a way in for good-willed people and the outside world through several initiatives. This contact often changes the attitude of the prison staff itself towards the inmates. Friendship with the detainees heals many wounds, and opens out to social reconciliation, establishes spaces of humanity, helps others to look to the detainees with a different eye, it creates a network of protection around them. Some of them have been in prison for years for stealing food, soap, a chicken, three napkins. Because of this small thefts they often go through very long sentences. Those who cannot pay to extinguish their punishment remain longer in prison. So the doors of the prison stay closed to the poor, even when their time is done. But sometimes the doors open, thanks to the work of the Community to redeem the prisoners. In fact, 4 euros are enough to give freedom back to a man.
Friendship is the way of Sant’Egidio of living faith as lay people in a complex world with a thirst for future. Friendship with a weak elder person develops the ingenuity to find resources to support them, friendship with a refugees opens up the curiosity towards their culture and broadens my horizons. Friendship opens the door to new world. Through friendship, Christians are able to live their sense of responsibility towards the poor, towards man and women of other religions, as well as peoples.
An ancient knowledge that has to be rediscovered to build a shared future in our communities.
Friendship, working together becomes the tool to recreate a social fabric and to learn to live together, for peace. Living for others is a shelter from violence, divisions, fear, the self-reference of our time. Last year, during the meeting “Men and Religions”, the Orthodox Archbishop of Albania Anastasius said “the opposite of peace is not war, it is selfishness”. To eradicate the roots of war, violence, the power of money, corruption, we need to unravel the many selfish knots of life. That who changes a person, a neighborhood, who makes an elder and a poor persons happy, saves the whole world! Africa expresses today a large demand for future and a different life. It is hungry of good news and it is rich of resources non only from the ground but mostly human. Europe should look today to the African continent with a “new”, proactive and positive outlook, in order to bulid bridges that bring closer instead of walls that draw apart, with tangible and long-lasting interventions. It is a big challenge, we have to work hard together in a global collaboration. Mutual dependence in not cause of mistrust but chance for unity of comprehension, useful to the development and a shared future, the opportunity to build a culture of living together.