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The 25th anniversary of the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel is also being commemorated at the Meeting of the Administrative Council of this Papal Institution which began on 10 February 2009.

Present in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, for the cultural and solidarity events that culminated in solemn Mass on Sunday, 15 February, were Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, Mons. Karel Kasteel, Secretary of the Dicastery and Observer of the Holy See, the Prelates who are Council Members, other Bishops, diplomats and important representatives of Burkinan civil society.

Celebrations for the occasion are also taking place in other countries of the Sahel. It is not only a question of thanksgiving, rightly due for the work that the Foundation has carried out, but it is also an important stage if the direct beneficiaries and populations of Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal are to feel increasingly that this Institution is theirs.

The Foundation came into being after Pope John Paul II’s first visit to Africa. In May 1980, in Ouagadougou, he said: “from this place… I launch a solemn appeal to the whole world. I… raise my suppliant voice… I become here the voice of those who have no voice, the voice of the innocent” (Homily at Mass in Ouagadougou, 10 May 1980, n. 7; L’Osservatore Romano, English edition [ORE], 2 June 1980, p. 15).

With his Chirograph of 22 February 1984, the Supreme Pontiff decided to give “a more organic, permanent and effective form to the Church’s aid intended for Sahel in a spirit of charity, authentic human promotion and collaboration” (John Paul II, Letter establishing the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel; ORE, p. 1, 20 March 1984).

John Paul II therefore established this Foundation, also considered an exemplary way to put ecclesial communion into practice, and entrusted its activity to the Bishops of the nine countries that form the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.

As well as the General Secretariat in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the Pope established that the management of the Foundation’s funds and its legal headquarters should remain at the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which regularly reports to the Supreme Pontiff. Lastly, in response to his appeal from Ouagadougou, the Pope designated the money received from the faithful in Germany for the countries of the Sahel as the Foundation’s capital. In recent years, the Italian Bishops’ Conference has also contributed considerable sums for the immediate implementation of projects.

The John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel is actively involved in the management and protection of natural resources, in the fight against drought and desertification, in rural development and in combating poverty with the active involvement of the local population. Therefore it is involved in the formation of animators (middle management), health-care workers and civil engineers, plumbers, mechanics, farmers, livestock breeders and foresters (technical management).

The Foundation’s openness to the different religions of the Sahel’s inhabitants is a valuable feature which has enabled it to become a vehicle for inter-religious dialogue.

In 2008 alone it funded 208 projects in the nine countries of the Sahel for a total value of more than two million US dollars. These are exemplary initiatives that change the life of entire villages by involving the local communities, as can be noted from the following examples.

Thirty-nine percent of the world’s illiterate people are concentrated in Africa and 52% of them are girls and women. The Foundation responds to this by creating community schools such as the one in Wamina, 550 kms from Bamako, Mali. With the support of the Foundation, where there were only mud benches there are now arriving school desks and books, and it has become possible to train teachers. Educational networks are thus created which involve the families and the community, transforming the educational system into a school of life at the service of both children and adults.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), pork accounts for 38% of the world’s meat production. In southern Senegal (Casamance), not only pig farms are widespread but also the diseases that affect these animals. The Foundation is helping the “GIE Gedeon” Association to create a model farm. Far from the inhabited areas, it complies with rigorous hygiene standards in order to keep the animals clean and healthy. Breeders learn how to breed pure livestock and to produce high quality food; they have succeeded in making a profit of almost US$ 2,000 a year.

In Cape Verde the main challenge is soil erosion on a vast scale. In the region of São Felipe on the island of Fogo, the Foundation has funded the building of four dikes, that have made it possible to reduce the phenomenon of erosion. These also permit the use of the recovered water to restore agriculture and sheep-farming areas that had previously been encroached upon by desertification. One result has been the immediate spread of vegetation, an important way to prevent the extinction of certain animal species. In Campanas, the Foundation funded the planting of a whole forest of fruit trees, eucalyptus and acacia which has been useful to combat hunger and to produce firewood, a highly precious and sought-after commodity.

In Burkina Faso the Foundation contributes to training farmers in techniques that will save their plantations from drought: the zaï, which teaches them to make holes filled with manure in which young plants are seeded and the water they need is retained; the half-moon, a semi-circle of six metres that holds rain water, and makes animal fodder grow; very small dams for retaining rain water; the elimination of the desert with the “Bofix Exafuze” diffusion system that causes vegetation to grow on dunes. In addition, the Foundation promotes the creation of cereal banks, indispensable for preserving bio-diversity and for the dissemination of valuable crops such as shea butter or the Arzintiga, the tree of paradise, that produces oil, leguminous fruits and edible flowers, and the production of an especially pure honey, free from the residue of pesticides.

In Niger, at Dakoro, 650 kms from Niamey, the Foundation supports “Sahel Care” which is active in 15 villages where 18,350 trees have been planted and nursery gardens created for the reforestation of the area. Agricultural production is increasing and hunger decreasing, forestry techniques that protect the environment are spreading, composting is being introduced as well as horticulture, possible today thanks to the restoration of the water-tables.

In Mauritania on the outskirts of Nouakchott, in the neighbourhoods inhabited exclusively by the poor and the marginalized, with the Foundation’s help a professional training centre for women has been established, equipped with a nursery school. There, mothers can leave their children in order not only to learn a profession but also to gain knowledge in literacy and home economics that will enable them to improve the life, hygiene and nourishment of their children. Their excellent craftwork is highly valued by tourists an the income it generates helps women to undertake an activity at the conclusion of their training.

In Guinea-Bissau the Foundation supports the fight against malnutrition, particularly dangerous for newborn infants and pregnant women, by means of the production of multi-vitamin products from local fruit and the circulation of natural medicine, an age-old tradition in this country.

In the Diocese of Moundou, Chad, 50% of the population is comprised of children under 14 years of age, often destined to increase the number of the unemployed in the city suburbs. To get them off the street, the Foundation is funding a farm-school in Bengoh, where water for agriculture is available thanks to a modern pump that functions with solar panels.

In The Gambia in the Diocese of Banjul, since 1996 the communication between parishes and sustainable development have been entrusted to radio programmes. With the Foundation’s help it is possible to renew the equipment to assure far-reaching educational broadcasts for young people, women and farmers.

These are only a few of the projects implemented by the Foundation for the benefit of one of the planet’s poorest regions. It is a cause of joy that in addition to the material help, its beneficiaries appreciate the spiritual closeness of the universal Pastor of the Church through the privileged instrument of the Papal Institution. With this aim, the Foundation intends to continue to make effective progress in the years to come.

Paul Josef Cardinal Cordes
President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum,
Legal Representative of the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel

L'Osservatore Romano, English edition [ORE], 25 February 2009, p. 11