PRAIA, Cape Verde — As a rare rain fell across African islands scourged by drought, Pope John Paul II preached faith, courage and perseverance Friday to a nation without resources whose young people are fleeing abroad.
Thousands of brightly dressed people gathered in the drizzle outside this capital for an open-air papal Mass climaxing John Paul's two-day visit to Cape Verde, the first stop on his eight-day trip to five of Africa's poorest lands.
His voice booming through afternoon mist and across a bay where about 40 flag-decked fishing boats overflowing with worshipers rolled on a gray sea, the Pope appealed for racial harmony.
Earlier in the day, John Paul addressed thousands at a soccer stadium at Mindelo, Cape Verde's second-largest city, on the treeless, moonlike volcanic island of Sao Vicente. He recounted a litany of economic despair that has cost the small island nation more than half its population.
Drought, interspersed with occasional savage storms, has ruined the fragile island soil, he said, and there is hunger and malnutrition.
"The lack of real prospects for the future leads many of your brothers and sisters to a forced emigration to other nations and continents," the Pope said.
About 350,000 people scratch out a living on the nine inhabited islands of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony about 300 miles off the West African coast with the highest concentration of Roman Catholics--about 90% of the population--in Africa. Another 400,000 live in the United States, most of them in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There is also, the Pope noted, a community of Cape Verdeans in Rome.
"Who knows how many here have not already endured the difficult experience of having to abandon their own country?" the Pope asked.
Many times, John Paul said, faith "provides a point of reference and a source of courage to avoid the loss of identity in the delicate phase of cultural and social transplantation."
He appealed to Cape Verdeans who have left to "never forget your native soil and your friends and relatives who live here," and added: "Never forget those who have remained. Be faithful to your roots, to your own culture, to your own faith, and to the healthiness of your traditions and customs."
Cape Verde, a one-party state, is seeking to open its economy and attract foreign investment after a long flirtation with African Marxism. Today, foreign aid and money sent home by Cape Verdeans living abroad are economic mainstays and the No. 1 source of foreign exchange in a country where most people are subsistence farmers and 95% of everything that is consumed must be imported.
Annual income per capita is around $400. Among the most well-off Cape Verdeans are the thousands of emigrants who have returned from the United States and live in retirement on Social Security checks distributed monthly by the U.S. Embassy.
The size of the emigrant community in the United States gives Cape Verde political influence in Washington disproportionate to its size.
U.S. aid, $6 million a year, is the highest per capita in black Africa, officials say. Part of the aid comes as food, which the Cape Verde government sells under an innovative and successful program. The proceeds are used to pay for labor in an ambitious project to terrace eroded hillsides and to plant hundreds of thousands of trees.
Vatican planners say Cape Verde is by far the richest of the five countries John Paul will visit on this sixth papal journey to Africa. Today he travels to the poorest, Guinea-Bissau, on the continent's coast. After stops in Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad, he will return to Rome next Thursday.