I thought you might be interested to have a bit of a report on my recent visit to Madagascar. As you probably know, this huge island (about 1100 miles long and some 400 miles wide) is reckoned to have split off from Asia centuries ago, although it is now relatively close to Africa. Having been separated from both Africa and Asia for many centuries its flora and fauna are often unique – wonderful butterflies, birds, trees and animals. One quite common bird was a vivid red with green wings. There was also a large butterfly which flew on the air streams like a bird of prey, but it was low and in the garden.
Islam is growing apace through establishing schools and medical facilities in quite backward areas of great poverty, but they refuse to treat any patient who is not a Muslim and young people cannot pass an exam unless they become Muslims. Sadly many of the Christian missionaries and church leaders are quite ignorant of Islam, so I was asked to give 15 hours of teaching on Islam and Christian witness among Muslims plus several hours of questions. The folk there were very excited by what I taught and I very much enjoyed getting to know some lovely people. This was quite hard work, but happily I managed fine.
The Malagasy peoples are related to Malays and there were one or two words which obviously related to the Malay background, but I could not follow anything that was said or written – disappointing! But my background with Malays helped enormously in relating to their culture, patterns of communication and sense of humour.
I had been invited by a great Korean couple who had been at All Nations some ten years ago. He is a doctor and has developed a team of about twenty people, four of them Koreans and the rest all Malagasy. They do major expeditions to remote villages both in the far north and the far south of the island. Some of the villages are still rubbing sticks together as their means of making fire. There is generally no medical work of any sort in many of these villages. The roads are so awful that it takes them about three full days of driving in their land cruiser to get to these villages. Even in Antananarivo, the capital, the roads outside the very centre of the city are dreadful – I had difficulty even walking in the dark on them with ruts a foot deep and the rest of the roads totally uneven and pitted with holes. Jonathan’s pictures of some of his patients when visiting these villages were appalling – even worse than Elizabeth’s father’s pictures from China.
My hosts had a nice house about five minutes’ walk from their guest house where I stayed. Each day they came over and we had breakfast together. Lunch was eaten with the whole of their team together, so breakfast was quite Korean and lunch very Malagasy (huge quantities of rice and some lentil beans or a small fish). In the evening I ate at their house and again it was Korean style. But once we went to a wonderful Thai restaurant for a delicious seafood meal and once on the Sunday we had lunch at the railway station’s very nice restaurant – the narrow gauge railway only has one train a week going south and one coming back each week!
It was the rainy season, so at about 5 p.m. each day the rain came down – sometimes just a drizzle, but sometimes a real tropical downpour. The days were hot and sunny, but not humid. So it was like a really hot summer’s day here in England. So I enjoyed wearing my nice summer short-sleeve shirts each day!
After the four days of teaching and answering questions the Lees took me for a two days’ outing to the rain forest. It was a six-hour drive with bad roads, but for me it was an opportunity too of seeing a bit of the countryside and life outside the capital. On the way we had a gorgeous picnic lunch in the rain forest with a rushing mountain river flowing and lots of beautiful butterflies floating round us all the time. Beautiful. That night we had dinner and stayed at a very pleasant hotel where I had a little one-room thatched cottage which was even en suite, so that was luxury. We also visited a large island where they have moved lots of lemurs – they don’t like water, so won’t cross over the water and leave the island. We saw two of the 70 different varieties of lemur. They are very gregarious and crowd round you as soon as they see you. They jump onto your shoulders and even onto the head. They then groom you, scratching through your hair to see if there are any insects there! Then they love to lick your head as a further sign of love! I made a point of a good shampoo that night before going to bed! We also went to a large area where they have lots of huge crocodiles. As usual with crocodiles they were nearly all asleep, so that was not so interesting. But again it was good to walk round in the rain forest and admire the wonderful baobab trees and other vegetation.
On the Sunday we drove to the other side of Antananarivo where I preached in a local church. Until then I had only driven through non-central parts of the city with the fearful roads, crowds of people selling fruit and veg etc on the pavements and evident poverty everywhere. But the very heart of the city (2,500,000 people) is very pleasant with old-colonial buildings, a couple of wide avenues without potholes or ruts and less people selling things on the pavements. The railway station’s imposing old building stands in splendour at the end of that central square.
After church we went up a hill which is topped by an old palace and a large church full of worshippers. At the beginning of the 19th century there had been a mass movement to Christ with strong churches developing. Then a strongly anti-Christian queen came to power and she persecuted the church violently. Hundreds were martyred, including 14 who were thrown down a steep cliff next to the palace and church. This is now known as Martyrs Cliff. It has a wonderful view over the city and beyond too. It is a bit of a tourist attraction – not that there are many tourists in Antananarivo!
Sadly the Malagasy people revere their ancestors and they have a tradition that the ancestors used to burn the forest. So it is customary now (and I saw this) for people just to burn the forest as a mark of ancestral respect. They don’t even use it for the wood, so there is no financial gain. But this is reducing the habitat for the amazing unique flora and fauna. They have begun to develop National Parks to preserve flora and fauna, but there is need for much more. Crocodiles are also being hunted and are in danger of becoming a bit rare – which one can understand as people bathe in the rivers where the crocodiles live.