(Vatican Radio) Despite being the smallest country in the Southern hemisphere, Swaziland makes up for its lack of size with a rich ancestral culture, the friendliness of its people and a stunning landscape of mountains, valleys, forests, plains and wildlife reserves.
The Kingdom of Swaziland represents one of the few remaining Executive Monarchies in Africa, and the current King Mswati III is well respected by his subjects.
But endemic poverty and a tragically high Aids infection rate undermine development and wellbeing, and the Catholic Church – with its health and education projects – struggles to meet the challenges posed by a generation of orphans and soaring unemployment.
To shine the light on work of the Catholic Church in Swaziland and on the aspirations of its people, we spoke to the Bishop of Manzini, the only diocese in the country which counts approximately 60.000 Catholics.
His name is José Luis Ponce de Leon, he hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina, but was appointed to his Swazi diocese in January 2014.
Listen to the interview:
Bishop Ponce de Leon explains that his tiny nation borders two big countries: South African and Mozambique.
He explains that when international businesses boycotted the apartheid regime in South Africa, many foreign companies operated from Swaziland bringing much needed economic activity and development; but today they have moved out of the country and into its richer neighbor and this has created a problem for Swaziland.
“Hand in hand with that came the spread of Aids which did away with my generation” he says.
He says that a year ago, during a meeting with the bishops of Southern Africa, the Swazi diocese presented a book entitled “30 years of Catholic answers to Aids in Southern Africa”. He says that the director of the Aids Office for the Swazi Government participated in the presentation of the volume and, on that occasion said: “To be a man in Swaziland at my age and to be still alive is a miracle”.
Bishop Ponce de Leon says that Swaziland has the highest percentage of HIV positive people in the world. He says this is because it has spread for many years and because the Swazi Government (like the South African Government) took so long to accept anti-retroviral therapy as something that could make a difference.
But today – he says – the Government is offering it for free and “that is making a change, in fact it seems to be working well”.
Ponce de Leon says that although there is only one diocese (and one bishop!) in the country, the Catholic Church runs a number of social projects, including one of the best hospitals in the country, 7 clinics, 60 schools – of which 47 are primary schools. Caritas also runs a refugee camp which exists thanks to an agreement between the government and the UN.
Today, he says, it hosts people from the Great Lakes region: “it always strikes me to see whole families, father and mother and children who have come by foot from places like Rwanda, Congo, Burundi and Ethiopia…”
These people, he says, are given short term assistance and schooling for the children and are encouraged to settle down in the country permanently in one way or another.
“It is interesting to see the 9 o’clock Mass in the Cathedral, which is in English, you can really see the diversity of people from all over the continent” he says.
It is a beautiful country but unfortunately – the bishop says: “2/3rds of the population is considered poor and that is our tragedy”.
Ponce de Leon explains how every year the diocese gives grants to poor students for education and he expresses satisfaction for the fact that this year all donations were requested for secondary school education which bodes well for the future of the country.