People & society - In Conversation With

Poverty is not having control over your life: Jorge Anzorena

Updated Feb 13, 2017 09:42pm

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Anzorena (L) accepts the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding in 1994 | rmaf.org.ph
Anzorena (L) accepts the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding in 1994 | rmaf.org.ph

What Father Jorge Anzorena does on his visits across the developing world exactly, is a bit of a mystery for the first-time observer. Upon meeting him, however, one realises that some questions do not need immediate answers and are better left to unravel in their own time.

Anzorena was born in 1930. At 20, he knew he wanted a life dedicated to the service of humanity. Soon afterwards, he joined the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church, founded more than five centuries ago by Ignatius Loyola. At 30, Anzorena moved to Japan, where he has been part of a community of Jesuit priests for the past 56 years.

But his work is not one-dimensional; he is an architect, a teacher and a researcher with a doctorate from the University of Tokyo. Anzorena’s journey across borders started in 1976, as part of a Jesuit mission to understand the ways in which the poor secure and organise land and housing for themselves. The search culminated in the publication of a biannual magazine, SELAVIP, which highlights the self-help efforts of indigenous communities, people’s movements and community-based organisations across Asia, Latin America and Africa. Starting with the region between India and Indonesia, this later extended to other countries across the three continents. The project received the ‘Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding’ in 1994.

Anzorena’s work focuses on one of the most essential and commonly overlooked ingredients of welfare work: mentoring. His role is simple: listening, observing, and imparting the great intangibles of hope, courage and wisdom.

“Poverty is not simply about not having land or money. It is about not having control over your life,” he observes.

The crux of his pursuits is to help people help themselves, whether through technical guidance, organisational advice or life lessons. To the angry sceptic or the drawing room revolutionary, his method may appear passive, since it does not eliminate inequality or any of the root causes of poverty. But Anzorena’s work offers an alternative because it finds the potentials hidden within poor communities, whereby people reclaim dignity and self-esteem through their own initiatives.

The question of ‘where do you find life’ keeps me going.

It is this purpose that has kept Anzorena intimately connected for almost four decades with Karachi’s celebrated Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), its founder, Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, and its pioneers such as Arif Hasan and Perween Rahman. He is also one of the founding members of the Thailand-based Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and has worked extensively with international people’s movements such as Slum Dwellers International.

In a time when pessimism is mistaken for ‘realism’, Anzorena’s simple way of life and his understanding of humanity brings respite to the heart. There is no intellectualising. The Jesuit simply works to ensure that the human spirit remains nourished.

The following are excerpts from a recent interview with him conducted in Lahore.

Rabia Ezdi. You are an Argentine of Spanish descent, living and working in Japan as a Jesuit and a professor of architecture. How did you make these unique choices in life?

Jorge Anzorena. I come from a very traditional family. Five generations ago, [my ancestors] were among 1,700 people who came to Latin America from Basque, which is in the western Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain.

I was born in Buenos Aires, during an economic crisis in the 1930s. My father was a specialist in textile machinery. He got fired after saying no to his boss who was involved in corruption and contraband dealing. This was the end of the good years: we suffered economically. But this was also good for me.

When the war broke out with Paraguay, people got infected with disease. The rich went to the north and their empty houses were rented to the poor — if a house had 20 rooms, each poor family would rent a single room in it. The house which once had one landlord now had 20 families living in it.

When I was 13, I began working with a group of church students trying to educate the young. I went to see the [houses the poor families had rented], came in contact with the people and saw how they lived.

Anzorena gives an acceptance speech after receiving the  Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1994 | rmaf.org.ph
Anzorena gives an acceptance speech after receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1994 | rmaf.org.ph

Ezdi. The Marxist movement was very strong in Latin America at the time. Were you influenced by it?

Anzorena. There were a lot of movements in Mexico and Argentina. For example, there was a housing movement in Mexico, [under which] Enrique Ortiz organised thousands of people to put pressure on the government for housing. There was this man who created a movement in 40 out of 60 provinces in Mexico [for the passage of] a law to prohibit privatisation and to give control of local resources to local communities.

Ezdi. How did you decide to study architecture?

Anzorena. I was in the technical school for three years and had to choose between mechanical engineering, construction and chemical engineering [for further studies]. All these were related with machinery, but I chose architecture because I felt it was more [connected to] people. Then I specialised in earthquake resistant buildings.

Ezdi. What made you join the Jesuits?

Anzorena. I saw a lot of very happy, dedicated young men and women preparing themselves to serve the people — they were all Jesuits. Since I liked working with people, helping the young, I felt [joining them could provide me that opportunity].

‘Kings live in palaces, pigs live in piggeries and youth live on expectations’. When you are young you feel you are the centre of the universe. But then I began to change, to reflect. Jesuit education is very much based in learning philosophy.

Ezdi. What kind of philosophy was that?

Anzorena. It was scholastic philosophy that began in Greek city states. It is a study of the system of being.

As a Jesuit student, I had this very interesting teacher who would say ‘take a problem and look it up in literature’. For example, how would Shakespeare write about solitude? This was something that personally helped me tremendously. There were many things I did not understand in myself.

In my [current] trip to Lahore, I had a meeting with someone who works in sanitation. He has had an accident and got paralysed, but he continues to work. And then there is the lawyer from Multan who is helping people who are poor and need legal services, free of charge. Just by looking at these people, you find the colour of life and it [reflects] inside you. You get inspired. The question of ‘where do you find life’ keeps me going.

Ezdi. Why did you decide to go to Japan and then stay there?

Anzorena. I was very happy in Argentina at the time, living with my family, with [people who spoke] my language. But I was also feeling a little adventurous. Every year, I would ask the Jesuit mission if I could go abroad, but they would tell me to wait.

It is always very exciting to come to Pakistan because there is a lot of energy here.

I taught at a high school for two years after I finished my literature studies and then studied philosophy. Then they sent me abroad. I was 30 years old. I did not know much English [but I] had to go to a different place, to [meet] different people. So [the mission] gave me one month to learn English in America.

In Japan, I went to Tokyo University and studied theology.

Ezdi. You mostly support self-help initiatives around the world. What is it that makes a community want to help itself? What is the turning point?

Anzorena. Many things. Firstly, it makes people feel alive. A woman in Thailand told me how her world became “wider” [by being part of a self-help initiative]. Another example is of Quratulain, a lady who is very good at dealing with girls. She began to develop schools, teaching and training [others to teach].

Ezdi. You first came to Pakistan in 1978 and have been coming here every few years since then. What keeps bringing you back?

Anzorena. It is always very exciting to come to Pakistan because there is a lot of energy here. There are a lot of good people here. If you catch some of their ‘goodness’, you get excited.

I visited a women’s training centre in Hyderabad. They were being trained in stitching. Normally, there is one person speaking for a group, but here, there were 30 talking out of a group of 200 trainees. They were so enthusiastic; everybody wanted to add something to the conversation. I have never seen so much enthusiasm. They don’t get much money, but they see that there has been a difference in their lives [because of the training centre].

Ezdi. How did your relationship with the OPP begin?

Anzorena. I met the architect Yasmeen Lari once or twice before 1980. She was planning a project in Karachi’s Lines Area, behind the cathedral. She told me about the OPP and Akhtar Hameed Khan.

[I believe] everybody has goodness inside them; everybody has certain colours — sometimes of life, sometimes of death, sometimes of fear.

Ezdi. What struck you the most about Akhtar Hameed Khan and his work?

Anzorena. He had a vision about the relationship between the professionals and the people. He would say that people do not accept the professional [advice], and he would suggest changing that into an alternative which satisfied the people. This is what he did in Comilla [now in Bangladesh].

Khan was a civil servant at the time he [worked in Comilla], but he would get to the people’s level [to understand their problems]. If he had a plan, he first wanted to see if people accepted it or not. In Orangi, he spent many months going to the people, sitting with them, having tea with them at tea shops, having a dialogue, trying to understand their problems.

Ezdi. Having spent decades working for social welfare, do you feel that the world today is a more unjust place today than it was in the past?

Anzorena. What do you do if you feel the world is unjust? My mission is to get as much life and goodness from different people as I can. I feel alive [that way]. But if I begin to find the sins and bad things in others, I will see my life and my hope diminishing. And that is not healthy.

The Jesuits say: ‘it is not that things will get better; they will get worse. But what is your reaction?’ My role is not to improve the world. It is just little things: to give hope and support. If I do that, even if very little of it, that is enough for me. I have not been able to change the world or the big picture, but I have been able to help [in my own way].

Ezdi. Does mankind have a common purpose?

Anzorena. People have their traditions and ways. [I believe] everybody has goodness inside them; everybody has certain colours — sometimes of life, sometimes of death, sometimes of fear.

For example, there is a journalist [in Karachi] who has cancer. She knows she has a few months to live. She said, ‘What should I do?’ I asked, ‘Where have you been most happy working?’ It was in Gilgit. So it was now time to do something, which gives her life. People could be much happier this way.


The writer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture, National College of Arts, Lahore.

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Comments (5) Closed



SK Feb 14, 2017 09:25am

I am delighted to see an article on this great personality - a true humanitarian. He is a an effective network in himself - empowering struggling communities across the world by connecting them. My profound gratitude to Ms Ezdi and to Dawn to introduce such personalities to the readers.

TQ Feb 14, 2017 09:32am

Excellent thoughts, hope we all have the same.

Partha M Feb 14, 2017 10:06am

How wonderful! Thanks for the article. Hope among world full of sinners and bloodshed

Imran AB Feb 14, 2017 01:14pm

Great questions by the writer which led to an insight to such a simple but highly motivated and intellectual way of looking at life by making the best out of it.

Oracal Feb 15, 2017 06:12am

The rule is simple give a person help hand