Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Augustine and Anselm in southern Madagascar

This morning, we held the first of two philosophy sessions.   I was teaching mainly about the relation between faith and reason, as seen by Augustine (around 400AD) and Anselm (Bishop of Canterbury around 1100AD).  Both Augustine and Anselm wrote large amounts of sophisticated philosophy, as well as theology.  In the last couple of years, I had read some Anselm with one of the professors at Loyola, and with one of my fellow graduate students.  Last semester, I had taken a course of Augustine's philosophy from the professor with whom I had been reading Anselm.

One reason for using  Augustine's and Anselm's ideas is that they are way cool !  The range of issues they wrote about, and the novel ideas they came up with, and the way they positively valued responding to objections to their ideas, were all outstanding.   A second reason was that I was able to obtain their writings in both English and French (the language of secondary and higher education in Madagascar).

Several nationalities were present at the session -- Bishop Todd being American, Derek Waller (a 3-year missionary with his wife Jane whom Sue and I knew at university in the 1970s) being British, and the rest being Malagasy clergy, seminarians, and a student evangelist.  Assistant Bishop Samitiana did the heavy lifting of translating between English and Malagasy, for the benefit of those with limited or no English, or to translate questions from Malagasy into English so that I could try to answer them.  Sometimes, I and the other participants spoke in French, temporarily sparing Bishop Samitiana the need to translate.

This was my first ever experience of trying to teach philosophy.  So hey, let's make it a tri-lingual debut!

One major theme of Augustine, taken up also by Anselm, is "faith seeking understanding" -- the idea that Christians should tackle difficult questions relating to what we believe, with the aim of arriving (as best each of us is able) at an understanding of (say) how Jesus could be both human and divine, how the one God can exist as the three Persons of the Trinity, why God allows so much suffering, etc.   We did not tackle those huge questions themselves, but we looked, for example, at the advice Anselm gave in the early sections of his On the Incarnation of the Word

Here's the Cliff notes version of Anselm's advice:
Anselm points out that if our faith is second-hand, based merely on the testimony of others -- whether in Scripture or from listening to other Christians -- then we will lack experiential knowledge of God.  We will then not have enough grasp of the God about whom we are trying to think, and will likely get hopelessly lost if we try to tackle difficult issues.  So, whereas the quality of our moral or spiritual lives don't really affect our ability to do (say) mathematics, it is important to seek to lead consistent Christian lives if we wish to get our heads around (say) the Trinity.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Wonderful Days in Toliara!

Days for Girls trainings have been going really well. We are training over
30 women how to go out and teach others about women's health and hygiene and the use of DfG kits.  They came with notebooks and pens ready to take notes, and have been practising role play very hard, before going out today to do their first real-live presentation in the neighbouring village.  I was so proud of them.  Three years hard work on my part has finally come to fruition!

I hope you will all be able to see the two videos I posted on the People Reaching People website .

Simon has had two very good sessions with the Diocesan Accountant, working on
various aspects of the bookkeeping, budget, and keeping track of donations
made for designated projects.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Day 2 - post 3: Cabbage stuffed with strawberry coulis

After our visit to Ambohimanga we stopped for lunch at the nearby “Relais du Rova”.  The first two words in that name are French (“Inn of the”) while the third is Malagasy (“Palace”).  

Elaborate napkin folding at Relais du Rova

We invited Jocelin to eat with us, but he preferred to go off to the drivers’ table somewhere round the back.  Like many Malagasy restaurants, the Relais provides a meal for drivers who bring their clients there, by way of paying the drivers a commission.  We’ve sometimes wondered how the food that restaurants give drivers compares with that offered to clients.  On this occasion, it seems he had the same Malagasy pork dish as I had, though he chose beans for his vegetable while I was curious to try cassava leaves.

But, you may be wondering, what about the “cabbage stuffed with strawberry coulis”?

How could I resist such a choice from the dessert menu?  This dessert turned out to be profiteroles containing small scoops of ice-cream, accompanied by slices of strawberry at the side.   The joys of English(?) menus in foreign lands!   “Choux farci” is French for stuffed choux pastry – and thus an alternative way of saying “profiteroles”, while “chou” is the French for cabbage.  Thus profiteroles with strawberries at the side had metamorphosed into cabbage stuffed with strawberry coulis.

So today’s blog posts have given you your language lessons:  “Ambohi” = “forest” (that one was new to us, but explains why so many Malagasy place names start with “Ambo”), “manga” = “blue”, “rova” = “palace” -- and “stuffed cabbage” = profiteroles (well, sometimes).   You cannot deny that reading “Babbs among the baobabs” is an educational experience! 

When we get back we will play you the CD from the Malagasy musicians who entertained us during lunch.  They also spoke excellent English. 

Valiha - Malagasy Composers and Musicians

And instrument builder!  A 48-
stringed instrument in the shape of Madagascar

Day 2 - post 2: Ambohimanga

The rain did indeed stop and the sun came out!  Jocelin drove us via the scenic, rural route to avoid the traffic jams to Ambohimanga, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a fortified hilltop where the kings and queens from the Merina people, who unified Madagascar in the 18th century and ruled over it until being on the losing side of the Franco-Malagasy War in the 1890s, maintained a residence.

The French colonial authorities did not treat Ambohimanga kindly, as it was a potent symbol of the Malagasy nation of which they had taken control.  When one considers that the area of Madagascar slightly exceeds that of France itself, one gets one insight into the enormous audacity of European colonial ventures.

In addition to rebuilt parts of the residence, and a number of medicinal trees – still used for that purpose throughout Madagascar – you can see part of the dry moat around the hilltop, and an impressive brick-built gateway.  The inward side of the gateway used to be closed by rolling across it a 10 ft diameter flat stone that still rests at one side of the gateway.

The hilltop used to give views of forest (Ambohi-) that extended as far as the eye could see until they looked blue (–manga) towards the horizon.  Nowadays, the view is still impressive but consists of villages and lowland rice fields ringed by hills that look as if they should be covered in forest but no longer are (a distressingly all too typical sight in Madagascar).  In the distance one can make out the distinctive outline of the (former) Queens’ Palace on the highest hill in Antananarivo, and the tall buildings in the centre.

Traditional Malagasy culture and religion involves a major role for ancestors.  Royalty also played a partly-religious role.  The air near the royal residence was perfumed by incense being burned by two groups of visitors seeking the blessing of the long-departed royalty.  A fire extinguisher hung on a nearby tree, just in case!

Small black incense burners by royal tombs

Day 2 - Post 1: No power, no shower!

Once again we woke up to discover that Jirama had cut off power.  At 07:11, we heard the remote for the heating beep and realized we had power again, and thus no water at all.  So I quickly ran the shower to see if I could get hot water, but it kept running colder.  Just as I was plucking up courage to have a really cold shower it turned hot! Hurrah!  I hurriedly shampooed my hair and rinsed it off.  Thankfully I absent-mindedly didn’t apply conditioner and only a little shower gel came out of the guesthouse’s dispenser, because the power went off again! 

Much hilarity, as we recalled the last time, I encountered this situation!  Then I was 33 weeks’ pregnant and in a  room on the top floor of a little hotel in Porlock, Devon and had applied liberal quantities of shower gel!   Simon had to go down to reception and get a bucket of water for me.  This time the drip from the shower was adequate (but a very slow process)! 

We’ll see what the rest of the day holds for us!  We are supposed to be going out sightseeing.  Will it stop raining????

Friday, July 13, 2018

Mada Again! More bags than ever!

Suitcases ready to go - in our garage
Thank you to Charlie Ash for driving us to O'Hare airport and shifting all those bags on to luggage carts for us. 

Simon and bags at O'Hare airport.  
 Air France turned out not to have many staff working, so we just made it to the gate in time!  Thankfully we had uneventful flights to Antananarivo, arriving with all our baggage at Manga Guesthouse in record time – just before midnight rather than around 01:30 – and we even got a new SIM card for our Malagasy cell phone and local currency from the ATM.  We then re-packed the rolling duffels for their onward journey to Toliara, and went to bed for the first time in too many hours!  Hurrah!  It was cold in the room as it was only 11 C (about 52F) outside and no heating in the room (and one of the windows doesn’t close fully!)

The plan was to get up at 8am for a warm shower and breakfast.  We have to enjoy the warm showers here before moving to Todd and Patsy’s home where there are only cold showers (but at least the room is warmer!).  However, I struggled to get water to do more than trickle out of the shower (either hot or cold) before pulling on a fleece over my nightie and going to ask the reception staff what trick I was missing  to get this shower arrangement to work.  The answer in French and Malagasy was “shower cut” which completely confused me - until I was shown that the electric switch didn’t turn on the light! Jirama (local energy company) had cut the power, so there was also no water being pumped.  No showers, no wash, no flushing the toilet.  Thanks be to God for “Wet Wipes”!

Of course, no power also meant no internet access.

Jocelin, our driver for the day, turned up early and we were able to get the 6 rolling duffels across Tana to the offices of the taxi-brousse services.  From where they will set off to Toliara on Saturday morning, arriving in Toliara on Sunday.  This is much more economical than taking the bags on Air Madagascar with us on Sunday.

At Alain's office ready to leave Toliara
On the way we had travelled through the seemingly permanent traffic-jam seeing the usual zebu grazing at the road side, laundry being done,  brick making and tossing and this year, a lot of tyres being rolled along the side of the road to be repaired / replaced.

Brick tossing!

Tyre rolling!

Next we tried calling the woman who sometimes sells PUL (polyurethane laminate fabric), which is the waterproofing layer in the Days for Girls kits.  Sadly she is still not stocking it, but thinks she might get some next month.  Jocelin was not knowledgeable enough about fabric shops, so we decided to give up on that part of the plan for today.

Instead we went to our next meeting at Blue Ventures, who are a not-for-profit based on the west coast.  As well as their work trying to protect the world’s third largest coral reef which is off the coast near Toliara, they do a lot of community health programmes.   They contacted the Toliara Days for Girls’ enterprise around this time last year, so it was very good to meet Nick and Njaka face-to-face and have a conversation instead of lengthy emails.  We had a very good talk, and now understand each other’s positions much better.  Nick was also able to tell me more about the health work of SEED Madagascar in Fort Dauphin so this might make our upcoming meeting with them later in the month more fruitful.  We were planning to visit SEED because of their work teaching local women to embroider and sell their products.  Now we know we also need to talk with them about their sexual and reproductive health programme for middle-schools.

Blue Ventures Team

We stopped for a very good lunch in a shopping mall 
Look at that plate decoration! The restaurant name is written on the side

– and drove back the scenic route through the rice fields to avoid the permanent traffic jam on the RN4.

Then we sat in the outdoor garden room while it rained outside, enjoyed a beautiful sunset, and begged a room heater to take the chill off our bedroom!  Thanks be to God!!


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Babbs visit to Mada 2018

Simon and Sue Babbs are returning to the Diocese of Toliara, Madagascar for 4 weeks this summer. We will get to see Glen and Betsy Tracy’s landscaping first-hand!

For the first part of the trip we will stay at the Cathedral complex in Toliara town, and then we will  travel, with Rev Patsy McGregor and SAMS missionary, Jacky Lowe, to the south east of the island to the parish of Fort Dauphin, visiting at least 9 different Churches and villages. We worked in  the Diocese with Jacky in 2015, so it will be nice to meet up with her again. 

Simon, Jacky and Sue at St Philip's, Ambohitsabo

Our plan is that Simon will once again work with the Diocesan bookkeeper on their accounting system, and also discuss philosophy with some of the clergy and evangelists; Sue will be continuing her work with the Days for Girls Enterprise in Toliara, and will deliver several hundred kits, which have been made by the Northbrook team to the women and girls.

Days for Girls kits being made in Northbrook

We will also have the opportunity to meet with Rev Derek and Jane Waller, who are missionaries from England.  We had lost touch with Jane after leaving university, so it will be quite fascinating to meet up with her 40 years on in Toliara!

We invite your prayers for our health and safety; for successful communications with the Malagasy people despite our not speaking the language and for us to bring the love of Christ to all whom we meet.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

United Nations report on hunger in southern Madagascar

I invite you to read an article that appeared on the BBC website this week, prompted by a UN report on southern Madagascar, where 1.5 million face hunger. The provinces highlighted in the map a little way down the BBC article are almost (perhaps exactly) the Diocese of Toliara.

You may recall me writing about my visit to the town of Betioky where, a few weeks earlier, five children in the church Sunday School had died of starvation.  Rev Noely had spent much of the week prior to my visit organizing famine relief given by the Diocese.

The BBC article can be found at:

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

And for anyone who is remotely interested in the donations we received and how we spent them, here are the details...

Many thanks to all who gave time, talents and money to make this visit the success that it was!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

In honor of Remamy

I had hoped to meet Remamy during this visit to Madagascar.  However, he died during the visit, apparently from heart problems exacerbated by trying to deal with kidney stones.  So, instead, I attended his funeral.

Why, you might ask, would I attend the funeral of a Malagasy man whom I had never met?

Remamy was an important figure.   I first encountered him while reading Rev Patsy McGregor’s book “Tamana – at home in Africa”.  The book tells of what it meant for her to give up the relative comfort of running a retreat center in Kenya and return to Madagascar, the 11th poorest country in the world, and live in Ankilifaly, one of the poorer parts of town in Toliara.  She and Todd were returning to Madagascar at the invitation of the Anglican Church in Madagascar for Todd to become the bishop of a newly-created diocese.  Until they moved to their present location, Todd and Patsy’s home was a tiny upstairs apartment in Ankilifaly that they nicknamed “The Box”.  Sue and I visited it in 2014.  It is minuscule; the phrase “you couldn’t swing a cat in it” is almost literally true. 

Two views from "the Box"

The Box overlooks St Lioka’s (St Luke's) church, and also the latrines at the end of the backyard of the home occupied by Remamy and his family.  Remamy was the local shaman.  In Madagascar, a shaman is responsible for the rites of the traditional Malagasy religion.  A major part of this role consists of blessing people at all the major rites of passage of life and death.  In Madagascar at least, the role of shamans is therefore quite different from that of witch doctors, the latter often being involved in invoking curses.

Rev Patsy mentored Remamy’s daughter, Nolavy, who had become a Christian.  Nolavy is a talented young woman, and desired to study to be an Evangelist and to go to Kenya to take a theological degree before returning to Madagascar.

 Nolavy, Remamy's daughter

Nolavy came to Rev Patsy in great distress because her father had forbade her to study to be an Evangelist.  He wanted her to go to Antananarivo instead and to get a job there and send back money for the extended family.  Nolavy’s and Patsy’s prayers were answered within days, when Remamy visited the McGregors to announce that he was ceding spiritual authority over Nolavy to Bishop Todd, and she could study to be an Evangelist.  When I read of this incident, I was so struck by what a remarkably generous and gracious act it was for someone of Remamy’s background that I decided I would like to meet him and to tell him that I honored him for it.

Shortly before our visit to Madagascar this year, Remamy had a dream of leading his wife into a church packed with people.  He invited Bruce and Shay Mason (friends from our 2015 visit, whose 2016 visit slightly preceded ours) to visit him and his family at his home.  There, Remamy invited them to pray for his back pains, and to help him forgive others for various hurts.  Remamy promptly felt much better, and surprised all those present by declaring that he now wished to become a Christian.  This was a remarkable step; after all, it is not often that a leader in one religion converts to quite different faith.  Moreover, it would have massive mundane consequences for Remamy and his extended family; as a Christian he would no longer be able to conduct shamanic rites, and would therefore no longer derive the income with which he supported his extended family, including nearly twenty who ate at his table each day.
(A fuller account of Remamy’s conversion can be found at Bruce and Shay’s blog:

About ten days later, Remamy was admitted to a local hospital with kidney stones.  Each evening he would discuss with his wife, with Nolavy and her Kenyan husband Victor, and others, how to reallocate responsibilities for the extended family, and prayed with them as a Christian.  A few days later, he died.

His funeral was held at St Lioka’s.  This must have been a seismic event in the local community – the shaman had become a Christian and the rite of passage for his death was a Christian service.  Hundreds attended, roughly half of them Christian, and half adherents of traditional Malagasy religion, overflowing the building into the courtyard outside.  Bishop Todd preached, drawing on the Jewish Passover tradition to speak of the sweetness and bitterness of life, recounting his relationship with Remamy, and noting that in his last days Remamy’s dream was of bringing others into the Christian church.
St Lioka's, Ankilifaly

After the service, Remamy’s coffin was strapped to the top of a minibus crammed with close relatives and, accompanied by a rented taxi-brousse (long-distance bus) jam-packed with further relatives, was driven away so that his body could be interred in the family mausoleum some fifty miles away.

The coffin atop a minibus

The rented taxi-brousse

Tippy Taps Continue...

Parish of Amboasary, near Fort Dauphin (on the south east coast) 

Gasthé Alphonse (economic development coordinator) has just emailed me to say that he has taught the members of this new parish to build a Tippy Tap (way to wash hands without touching the water supply with your hands). 

It is so wonderful to see that the work we started is continuing after we left Toliara. 

May this lead to more clean hands and less disease!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Days for Girls presentation today

Three of the women all participated in giving their own presentation to the youth of the Diocese this morning on use of Days for Girls kits.  Apparently it was a huge hit.   They trained about 80 women and one of the presenters was proud to inform them all that she was using hers today.  So proud of them, and thrilled that the work is going forward so quickly.  Such good progress!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Re-entry gratitude!

So thankful for:

  • being able to rinse my toothbrush under running water
  • sleeping in my own bed (the last room we slept in had 2 beds - the choice of mattresses was between a rock and a hard place!  The "rock" was new and still covered in its plastic wrapping under the sheet.)
  • lights that are bright enough to see the laptop's keyboard of an evening
  • great pressure in the shower - and plenty of warm water
  • being re-united with our cat, even if she did wake me at 6:30 a.m. diving under the bedcovers for warmth!
  • clothes that don't smell of woodsmoke
  • not needing to spray myself with mosquito repellent
  • Face Book and seeing that the women turned up to work, and made 26 liners and 20 shields today

So proud!!

Today was the women's first day of work in the Women's Center.  6 of them are working as a team.  They made 26 liners and 20 shields! Well done all!  I am so proud of you


Thursday, August 18, 2016

This is Africa!

Tuesday morning - no electricity, anywhere in town
Wednesday morning - no internet, because no electricity at the internet provider in Toliara
Wednesday afternoon - no water, because Jirama had cut it off
Thursday lunchtime - no water again

Jirama is the provider of electricity (jiro) and water (rano).

May they get this all sorted out "hainga kaingana" (quickly)!

"Hainga kaingana" is my favourite Malagasy word of the trip, as it seems so descriptive, and I just envisage lots of kangaroos bouncing along when I call the women to come to class "hainga kaingana".

The antonym "mora mora" also sounds like the action of doing things slowly.

Days for Girls at the Cathedral Complex, Toliara

The classes went well at the Cathedral Complex here in Toliara. The women learned how to make the kits as a team really well - some drawing and cutting the fabric, some using the sewing machines, some turning and pressing the liners and shields; and then rotating jobs so that they all got a turn at doing each step.  This week, I taught the local ladies how to make the bags too.

We have appointed an assistant coordinator for the Women's Center - Chretienne.

Chretienne at work
 It will be her job to open and close the Center each day (Monday through Friday), hand out supplies to the workers, supervise and teach them, record how many items were made and by whom, and calculate what they should be paid.

Note Chretienne's finger cotts, which she made for herself to keep her work clean

This afternoon, the Women's Committee, Rev. Patsy and I will meet to discuss who will be the first 6 women to be trained to make the Days for Girls kits.  Gasthe, Economic Development Coordinator, will not be able to be present as his grandmother has just died and the family is in the mourning period.  There was a test on Monday and Tuesday mornings when the applicants each had to make a liner and a shield.

Most of the applicants for the first 6 posts
Tantely's shield and liner
Tantely's husband, Zafy's shield and liner