ROME — People who have seen The Da Vinci Code’s false and negative portrayal of Opus Dei and still need convincing that the organization is actually a profound force for good in the world might do well to take a look at Project Harambee, a charitable program founded by the personal prelature.
The Rome-based project, born in 2002 out of gratitude and celebration for the canonization of Opus Dei’s founder, Saint Josemaría Escrivá, raises funds for proven educational programs in sub-Saharan Africa.
The project’s goal is to help Africans in poverty-stricken areas to help themselves, not only through practical training but by helping Africans develop a new perspective on life that will pull them out of poverty.
“What we want to do is to be protagonists of their own improvement,” explained Linda Corby, Harambee’s international project coordinator. “Africans generally only think of the present and need help to plan ahead; real poverty is about not having a perspective on their lives, and that changes if they plan for the future.”
In just four years, Harambee has funded 24 projects and raised more than $1 million. These projects have included helping set up a training center for young people on the outskirts of Nairobi, enabling 146 students to find jobs. Another, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, allowed 30 seriously disabled children to be cared for in a new center.
Other projects have included helping rural women to find employment and offering vocational training to inmates of a Kenyan prison, forced to live in appalling conditions that can often lead to worse crimes.
“We try to change their lives, to transform their lives,” said Susan Kinyua of the Harambee-sponsored Kianda Foundation in Kenya, which trains women for business. “We try to return those values that are basically African values, like being honest, helping other people who are less fortunate than yourselves, giving them a way to change their own life, to be in control of their own lives.”
Harambee (“all for one” in Kiswahili), is currently raising funds for four educational initiatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Sudan and Madagascar. In these countries, the organization is collaborating on projects run by local Franciscan friars, Canossian sisters and members and cooperators of Opus Dei.
All the initiatives Harambee supports are chosen for their “effectiveness” and that they can provide “concrete answers to real needs,” said Corby. They must also be adequately staffed and already have a minimum of resources.
And, unlike the wild caricature of Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code, there is nothing secretive or elitist about the organization’s work. All its finances and expenditure are detailed on its website (http://www.harambee-africa.org), and its organizers emphasize that Harambee is there to serve all Africans in need.
Although Harambee principally aims to help and serve the wider Catholic and Christian community on the continent, some of the projects Harambee supports are neither Opus Dei-affiliated nor even Catholic.
“We are interested in the dignity and worth of every person, so that means we help not only members of Opus Dei or other Catholics, but anyone in poverty and in need, and we’re open to anyone who wants to help us in our work,” said Corby. “We are assisting Sudanese nuns who are aiding Muslims simply because they’re human beings, victims of a civil war, often refugees with children but without education — it’s a chance to help them.”
The initiative also differs from other charitable organizations dedicated to bringing relief and development to Africa in that it provides not only practical assistance, but also encourages a positive outlook on African culture.
“Harambee is a new concept in that the organization tries to foster solidarity,” said Manuel Fandila Sanchez, spokesman for Opus Dei in Rome. “Its solidarity, in this sense, tries to foster a new perception of Africa around the world, one that not only looks at the negative aspects of Africa — its poverty, wars and disease — but focuses on the best that the continent has to offer.”
As part of this drive, Harambee is running a competition, aimed mainly at Western media but open to all, to see which television documentary producer can create the best reporting on Africa. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in November.
The organization also staged gala events in New York, Madrid, Paris and Rome last month not only to raise funds but also to raise awareness of Africa’s great cultural heritage.
Harambee is funded by a variety of means. Early donors were pilgrims who attended St. Josemaría’s canonization, but now proceeds come mostly from single people, private organizations and foundations. Practical help from professionals is also encouraged, depending on their skills and other factors.
“The best way to help is to donate,” said Corby, “but we also welcome doctors, nurses, teachers and members of other professions who can offer their expertise then, depending on their language ability and the length of time they are able to offer.”
writes from Rome.