A Discussion with Abbé Ambroise Tiné, Secretary General of Caritas Senegal

With: Ambroise Tiné Berkley Center Profile

March 4, 2015

Background: In March 2015, Lauren Herzog of WFDD met with Abbé Ambroise Tiné, the secretary general of Caritas Senegal, to discuss the organization’s work. He describes how Catholic teachings influence Caritas’ work in Senegal and provides an overview of its activities in several areas, including education, water and sanitation, food security, and migration. Abbé Tiné specifically highlights the role that Caritas Senegal plays in education, including the construction of schools and a sponsorship program. He also reflects on the history, traditions, and culture that contribute to interreligious harmony in Senegal.
Caritas Senegal is a Catholic structure. How does faith influence the work?

We believe—drawing upon the Church’s doctrine and the social teachings of the Catholic Church—that all human beings on all the continents are children of God and that they are brothers and sisters in God. We believe that as long as this principle does not live in the heart of people, and especially in the heart of politicians, social transformation will be difficult. This will be the case as long as we don’t believe that we are brothers and sisters in humanity. That is what we believe, and it is the basis for our socioeconomic engagement.

We believe in the universal destination of goods. The goods of the earth are destined for all, whether these are material goods, resources of the earth, or even human resources. For example, in the context of your work, you share your convictions and your knowledge, which will help transform a vision of development and of the engagement of faith organizations. You have realized that God gave you knowledge, destined for everyone.

The goods of the Earth are also the knowledge and the know-how that are intended for everyone. You must not create boundaries to prevent these goods from circulating in society and contributing to the happiness and progress of the people. That’s why we also believe that it is necessary to ensure human mobility so that human beings move to share what they have, what they know, and what they are able to do.

This is the base on which we build our actions at Caritas Senegal. Here in Senegal we believe that our actions should not be based on discrimination, whether ethnic, political, regional, or spatial. This is fundamental.

What does Caritas do here in Senegal?

We advocate so that our convictions are shared with the populations, who are the first actors in their development. If the populations don’t share these principles, values, and convictions, it is not worth acting. So, it is necessary for us to share our convictions with the populations and with the decision-makers who shape the destiny of the populations, whether it is members of the government, parliamentarians, or mayors. And it is through advocacy that we arrive at this end.

Advocacy is fundamental, and if we don’t advocate at the level of the decision-makers, our convictions won’t be passed on, and the decision-makers will make decisions in their own way, perhaps to the detriment of the population.

How do you develop your projects?

We develop concrete projects to respond to social demand, notably linked to education. We contribute to the construction of schools, classrooms worthy of human beings, so that the children are not studying in temporary structures. Huts and other types of temporary shelters are disrespectful to human dignity. That is why we defend, politically and concretely, the dignity of children and their rights. We act as such in building schools so that such temporary shelters disappear. That shows the correlations between our convictions and our actions. This is what Jesus Christ wanted: consistency between what you believe and what you do on a daily basis. If there is not that consistency, it’s better to avoid demagogy.

In the field of education, we do all we can so that children can have access to a quality education. It is not enough to take children en masse to school because the World Bank said that we must reach 80 percent enrollment in 2015. We advocate so that children who enter school can benefit from a quality education and pedagogy. This seems to me a determining factor for sustainable development.

How do you assure that the children have quality education and pedagogy?

The Catholic education system is organized so that teaching teams are well monitored during the preparation of courses, their content, and their presence in schools.

We have a sponsorship network that allows students to have access to quality education and to quality teaching tools. It is not possible to have quality education if the students are sharing one book between three, five, or 10 of them. We also advocate on behalf of teachers. For the 2015 Caritas Day, the message was based on this teaching: “You must earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.” We tell teachers, “You don’t have the right to go on strike all the time, because it is on the back of taxpayers that you live. It is the factory worker, who works everyday, whose taxes are taken out of his salary to pay you. So, if you are not capable of teaching his children, to give them quality education, you are putting bread on your own table unjustly.”

Do you work on food security?

We are located in the Sahel, a zone highly exposed to climate variability, with repeated droughts, floods, etc. So, what do we do? We work to sensitize the population so that they can understand what is happening to their environment. Why are there sandstorms? Why are their heat waves?

It is not the work of the devil, and it is useless to throw salt to make it disappear [a superstitious belief]. This is a scientifically explainable phenomenon. It is Caritas’ role to explain that what is happening is related to climate change, to climate variability, so that the people can adopt other behaviors, other reactions that permit them to safeguard what they have in their environment, to protect it and to live with dignity in their environment, which is generous in Africa. We communicate to achieve a behavior change.

What are your activities and projects that promote food security?

We help with the regeneration of plant species that existed before in the environment. We protect the soil. Soil protection is important because a lot of soil has been washed out by water and wind erosion. We must protect the soil so that it remains productive and so that the population can live off it. We look for quality seeds and quality inputs because we cannot give farmers seeds that will not produce, when they work three months to cultivate them—quality seeds that produce a lot and quality fertilizer, not fertilizer that poisons them. We also participate in the conservation and the transformation of what the farmers produce. But since one cannot produce anything without land or water, we work a lot for access to quality land, and to secure water for domestic consumption and for production. We work a lot on that; it is one of the strengths of Caritas.

We also work for the diversification of crops because it is a very important subject. For a long time we were victims of the peanut cultivation, which was oriented towards export, and we did not understand the consequences on food security. Today, people understand that they must diversify their production to have access not only to staple crops, but also to what is necessary to be well-nourished, and also to compete on the agricultural market. Today, Senegal exports a lot of mangos, green beans, oranges, bananas, etc. Caritas helps out in these areas, as well. This is what we do for food security.

Does Caritas intervene in the case of catastrophes?

There is a lot of malnutrition; a lot of people are threatened by food insecurity and malnutrition. We develop projects during emergencies, so that people, victims of malnutrition, can have food to eat, primarily children and women. In giving them food to eat, we are developing their capacity to be resilient. We do not want to only respond to an emergency and not think about resilience; otherwise, people will not be autonomous and cannot support themselves adequately. This constitutes an action that we do regularly.

What do you do regarding hygiene and sanitation?

Caritas fights hard against the lack of hygiene, against unsanitary conditions that threaten health and human lives. From this point of view, we do a lot of communication in all our projects, to achieve behavior changes regarding hygiene, sanitation, and cleanliness. Health is paramount. Without health, there is no development, especially since health was given to us by God. When God created man, he gave him good health, he placed him in a beautiful garden, Eden, a beautiful environment. That is what we are seeking to preserve. We must preserve the populations from all that could negatively affect health.

We have new communication approaches, focusing on behavior change. The majority of difficulties related to sanitation in rural areas are usually due to ignorance and not a lack of resources. To combat this ignorance, we are bringing populations, beneficiaries of our actions, knowledge to understand that they are adopting negative attitudes to their health, their economic and social development. In addition, we provide them with latrines, adapted to their means and environmental context.

You have mentioned that you work in the field of migration and development. What are your interventions?

In Dakar, we have a welcome point for refugees and migrants because Senegal is a transit country. It is a matter of respect for human dignity. Someone who is displaced because their country is experiencing social or political conflict—every country in the world should be able to welcome them so that they could live in good conditions of security and development. Someone who is hungry because they could not work their land must be able to find another land that could help them to live well, if they are unable to improve their homeland.

We respect human dignity and the human right to mobility, and anyone arriving in Senegal, the country of Teranga (hospitality), is welcomed. You have never heard that Senegal has expelled migrants or foreigners, because we believe that we are all brothers and sisters. We are one human family. All of this is part of Senegalese culture, and religion and the religious organizations also need to protect that and continue to adopt this universal culture that we have inherited from our ancestors. We are all brothers and sisters and we must blend these cultures, exchange knowledge, expertise, and life skills, so that a life together can be possible.

Therefore, migrants are welcome in Senegal, whether they come to establish themselves here or are in transit. When they are hungry we give them food, when they are thirsty we give them drink, when they are naked we find them clothes. When they are in prison, we visit them; we find them lawyers so that they can be defended. When they seek refugee status, we will also work with the UNHCR so that they could benefit. The most important is that their human dignity is respected. This is a question of justice. Do you know how we define justice in the social teachings of the Church? “Justice consists in giving everyone what they deserve.”

What is your approach to communication and behavior change?

Communication is at the base of behavior change. We go into the communities, into the neighborhoods, with leaders that are trained by us, and we discuss with people to establish new types of behavior regarding the environment, social life, etc. We have communications through the media, especially through community radio, but also on national radio. Important Caritas events appear on television, we participate in debates, and we’ve appeared on the show Foi et actualité (Faith and Current Events) many times on the national television (RTS1). It is important for us to advocate at this level. With the happenings in our country, it is important for our country that we discuss what inspires our faith to enlighten others.

The Senegalese population is very young. How does Caritas Senegal see youth? What are your youth engagement activities?

First, we see the youth as human beings who have rights and obligations, which is very important. Youth have a right to a quality education, as I have said, and to vocational training so that in the future they can find work at home or in the world, but most importantly at home. This is how we see youth, a large potential for sustainable development. We don’t see youth as the future of our world. They are not the future, the youths are the world, and they are the actual actors of their own growth, development, and their own fulfillment.

In teaching, when one has something to do with children, we say youth-focused pedagogy, which is to say that everything is child-centered, but our policies also focus on the youth, their priorities. For example, in the rural areas, where there is a large exodus, we do everything we can to help youth remain where they are from, to work the land and to take advantage of the potentials of their community.

God was generous with Africa. There is everything in Africa, absolutely everything: gold, uranium, diamonds, water, wood, oil, and what I call the most important input in human life—intelligence. This is the biggest input, not the money from the World Bank. We should tell the World Bank: “The money that you give, that is not the biggest input. The most important input is human intelligence, which God gave us, that permits us to produce the knowledge and expertise and to eventually modify the laws in function of the nature so that we could all live with dignity and together.” This intelligence is poorly used, sometimes poorly formed, and Caritas works hard on that level: to format human intelligence so that it can contribute truly to the development of man in the world, which comes from God. God created us in his image, intelligent and full of love.

It is often said that Senegal is a model for peaceful interreligious relations. In your opinion, what contributes to this reputation?

Why does this social equilibrium exist in Senegal? To the point that Muslims, Christians, animists, or practitioners of traditional religious beliefs have a good life together? Why? My belief is that we are this way because of our ancestors who always believed that humans are the same everywhere. We were taught that if a stranger arrives the first thing is to give him water, without asking if he is white, black, Japanese, Jewish, Serer, or Wolof. He is a stranger, sent by God: “Give him water, ask him to sit, permit him to tell you why he is here.” This is what we have learned from our ancestors and I pray that God preserves this. This is why we offered you coffee this morning. When someone arrives at our house, we don’t know where she came from, maybe she traveled thousands of kilometers. The first human reaction is to offer them water.


We also learned from our ancestors that human life is sacred, blood is as sacred; we do not have the right to shed it. Senegalese by nature, are not violent, and if they shed blood, they must ask God for forgiveness, make sacrifices to pacify the relationship between the two, but also between him and the rest of society. He must also make peace between God and himself because the acts of an individual affect all of society, not only the family but all of society. To avoid attracting misfortune for having shed human blood, we make sacrifices in order to reconcile with God, as Christ made sacrifices to reconcile humanity with God. This is very important here.

Christianity and Islam have divided people when they should unite them, since they both speak about love, that we are from the same father, etc. Today, if Senegalese people began to divide themselves between Muslims and Christian, that would mean we were losing our core values, ancestral and traditional. What saves us still today is that we have “nursed from the same breast, the breast of animism.” That is what saves us. It is neither the breast of Christianity nor the breast of Islam. It is this traditional milk that saves us still. For example, when you watch the wrestling matches, lamb, you do not know who is Muslim or who is Christian. We have nursed from the same breast, we were nourished from the same milk that created a great balance between us which we enjoy presently and that we must conserve. Christianity and Islam must reinforce this. One.

Secondly, our religious leaders are very respectful of the human, whether Muslim or Christian. They are highly respected forces of contre-pouvoir. This permits us to maintain the social equilibrium. If you attack Muslims, Christians will stand up for them, and if you attack the Christians, the Muslims will stand up for them, because they all see themselves as Senegalese who enjoy the same rights. This is what permits us to preserve this oasis of peace that is Senegal, for such a long-term!

Caritas has a sponsorship program. Does it only support Catholic children, Catholic schools or does the program support all school age children?

In the principles of Caritas Senegal, there is no discrimination. Practically, 80 percent of children in Catholic schools are Muslim. We do proselytize, but we do share the values of Christianity that are universal values that the world likes. Muslims enroll their children in Catholic schools because they know that the schools instill values and that will permit them to live and grow as good humans on this earth. The sponsorship concerns all children, primarily the poorest children, whether they are in private Catholic school or public.

We also build public schools. I spoke earlier about the temporary shelters used as schools. The state told us, “Construct schools and we will provide teachers.” We have built many schools this year. We are currently constructing schools on the Saloum islands. We are also constructing public high schools, because it is the Senegalese who we are interested in.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

What I would like to add is that what you are doing is very encouraging because the work of WFDD is fantastic. Citizens of the world must perceive religion and its actors in another manner. We are not fascist. We are not fundamentalists, we are not extremists, but we fight for human rights and the protection of human dignity. This fight is based on our faith and our beliefs and that are widely shared in the world. God knows that the trade unions were born in the church, as were the global social forums.

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