We are in Pikine, a Dakar suburb, Senegal. Father Armel Duteil, is the one telling the story. He is an 80-year-old Spiritan missionary. French by origin, he spent much of his life in Africa – Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast and finally Senegal. Many missionaries do not believe in emigration as the answer to Africa’s poverty. The solutions are to be found there. With imagination, goodwill, and collaboration of all, one does not always need to flee for a peaceful, happy and dignified life.
When I arrived at Pikine, there were three problems. For most people, the parish Caritas was an organization to distribute money, food, clothes or medicine. The purpose of Caritas, for them, was to help Christians. The parish, the members of Caritas, like Christians in general, were centred on themselves and little involved in the neighbourhoods and civil society.
Our first step was to make people understand that Caritas was not a church’s activity to help Christians, but Christians were to help every needy person and family, Christian as well as Muslim. The second was to stop counting on donations from outside, which create dependency, begging, and lead people to seek solutions from inside. Relying on our own strengths first and seeking to act on our own with our small means and projects, was the third step.
It was therefore necessary to review the composition of Caritas. We moved from a small team of generous people who used to gather only by themselves without any impact on the parish and Christian life, to the CEBs (Communautés Ecclésiales de Base in French) the grassroots Christian communities. Each CEB would choose a delegate in charge of a parish Caritas and the same would do each of the various parish groups and movements (scouts, choirs, servers and readers of mass, Catholic women, youth groups, etc.).
At the meeting of the parish Caritas, the delegates bring the problems from the grassroots and the concrete cases that really need help. In the other direction, they bring directly from Caritas into their groups, the reflection and the proposals for actions.
The parish receives many requests for help of all kinds: food, clothes, medicine, housing, work, etc. They are passed on to CEBs where people are known to be in real need or not and where they know what to do to help them effectively. If ever the needs were too great, for example for an expensive surgical operation, the parish would collaborate or send the issue to the diocesan Caritas. However, each time the CEB must do something first: Christians thus learn to welcome, support and help each other in their neighbourhood.
In this way, each CEB had a call to start even a small community project, such as cultivating a vegetable garden, raising chickens, goats or ducks and all that is possible in a courtyard or on a terrace, in town. The parish supports the production projects – animal husbandry, gardening, crafts, etc. -, but the business ones only for groups of poor women or widows. The parish also tries to find work for the needy or to provide them with the means for a living activity, which allows them to support themselves.
Alongside material support, Caritas provides moral support. It helped widows, for example, to come together so they can get to know, advise, and help each other. Caritas supported them to start activities and launched a reflection, at the parish level, on customs concerning widows. In most ethnic groups, widows suffer from injustice: often they are abandoned, frequently chased away with their children from their husband’s house, sometimes subject to numerous interdictions.
These experiences pushed the parish to work at the formation level. To make people understand first that we have to help everyone, because Jesus Christ said, you are the salt of the earth (not only of the parish), you are the light of the world (not only of the Church), you are the leaven in the dough, therefore immerse in the neighbourhood and in society and not just in the parish.
At this level, Caritas works in conjunction with the Justice and Peace, and Ecology reflection committees. It also promotes concrete actions such as the neighbourhood cleaning, tree planting at home, having trashcans and washing them when they are emptied, not throwing dirty water in the street and garbage in the gutters, which clogs them and leads to flooding in the rainy season.
This work has come to involve the Pastoral Youth Coordination of the Parish, the SOPPI JIKKO association, which helps people abandon drugs, and civic training on Decentralization, which is the basis of the parish’s action in civil society and collaboration with municipalities.
To conclude, Caritas encourages and supports, together with the Association of Catholic Women, technical training in dyeing and the manufacture of artisanal soap and, in connection with the Pencum Mariama group, sewing and meal projects especially when religious and civil festivals approach.