Emmaus International

Albert Tévoedjré, from Benin, is a politician and activist, committed to fighting for universal access to a dignified life. In 1978, he published “La Pauvreté, richesse des peoples” (Poverty, our greatest asset), which was the starting point for his long friendship with Abbé Pierre.

You had a long friendship with Abbé Pierre. When did you meet him for the first time?

I first became aware of Abbé Pierre in 1952, when he came to Dakar. In 1954, I was a student in Toulouse and I heard his radio appeal live. At that time, I didn’t know him personally, but I was deeply affected by this brave appeal made by a young priest. Abbé Pierre was an exceptionally gifted communicator.
In 1978, I published my book “La Pauvreté, richesse des peoples”, which talked a lot about Abbé Pierre. He made contact with me via a friend of his, another priest from Montbelieard, to invite me to the 1984 Emmaus World Assembly. I was very moved by his determination to help me after my book was published.

What struck you most about Abbé Pierre? Was it his personality or his vision?

What struck me most was his political vision, based on the idea that we should prioritise those who are suffering most, the idea of “sharing the crisis”. I tried to adopt these principles in my own activism. I developed the idea of “minimum social goods” which I transferred over to Benin, believing that we should do our utmost to ensure that everyone at least has access to water, food, education and housing. Each person’s fundamental rights should be respected.  Abbé Pierre said that “there comes a time when someone has to say no,” and that’s what I’ve tried to do. It was his strength, his commitment, and his ability to say no that inspired me.
I was also very moved by his faith. Abbé Pierre wanted to put the Gospel into practice. I think it’s important we don’t desecrate Abbé Pierre. These days, we tend to overlook the fact that he was, first and foremost, a man of faith. I want to pay homage to his personal and spiritual commitment, because it was this that fuelled his activism.

Did he inspire you in your own activism?

Abbé Pierre encouraged me to enter into politics. He said: “You need to be where the decisions are being made!” He supported me in creating my own political party, “Our Common Cause”, or when I was a candidate in the presidential elections, sometimes even contributing out of his own pocket
I’ve always been a committed Christian activist, believing that development happens through solidarity, and that we can only achieve peace through allowing for grassroots development. My ideas were strengthened and galvanised by meeting with Abbé Pierre. 

abbe pierre albert tevoedjre

How did he view the African continent, and how did he think it could be supported in its development?

He didn’t view it in any particular way. He was a citizen of the world, with a truly universal vision, and that’s what struck me. He didn’t look at things in a paternalistic way at all. What was important for him was giving everyone the chance to be fulfilled, and showing that people should be accepted as they are, that humans should once again be put first, even if some consider them to be “rubbish” that should be banished from society. I was therefore very honoured to receive a universal citizenship passport from Emmaus International in 2013. 

You helped to restart Emmaus in Africa. Where did the desire to do that come from?

Development in the African continent is all topsy-turvy. Emmaus is a movement that focuses on those who are suffering most. In Africa we see these people every day. It’s an economic model that respects both humans and the environment. These are solid starting points to work from.

In 1990 you fought for a return to democracy in Benin, with the support of Emmaus and certain civil society groups. Why was it important for Emmaus to be involved in this campaign?

It’s important to be involved in putting humans first again. Development is not possible while turning away from ‘the other’, while denying the existence of ‘the other’. It’s important to notice those suffering most.
That’s why we launched the campaign ‘for democratic reform in Benin’. We looked for allies who shared our ideas, gathering a critical mass of support that allowed democracy to triumph. Abbé Pierre was personally committed to this struggle, taking risks and meeting political leaders.

Emmaus International follows “in the footsteps of Abbé Pierre”, tackling the causes of poverty through political lobbying. You’ve taken on political responsibility but are also an activist – what do you think of this method of fighting poverty?

One of the ways of fighting against poverty is through setting an example, and that’s what Abbé Pierre did throughout his whole life. Abbé Pierre was always selected as a favourite of the French population in opinion polls. Emmaus is the name given to a great multitude of people who choose to follow in the footsteps of Abbé Pierre. It’s important to know how to climb on the back of those who have inspired us to be able to go even further.

It’s over 28 years now since Emmaus restarted in Africa. Do you think Emmaus has helped populations to become more aware of their rights? What are the opportunities and challenges for Emmaus in Africa?

I think that the arrival of drinking water to lake Nokoué through a programme carried out by Emmaus International has been a great success. It has had a ripple effect, as though a new economy has been set in motion. The population not only has access to drinking water and sanitation, but has also learnt that they have the ability to solve their problems themselves and the means to develop.