On Sunday, Sue attended the baptism service at Ankilifaly. A key motivation was to honor Antsa, whose work at Mitsinjo was instrumental in several of the baptism candidates. We all felt that was important to do. As Sue was especially keen to do so, Matthew and I were left free to accompany Patsy to preach and celebrate Holy Communion “under a tree beside the ocean” at a new congregation formed just 10 months ago at the village of Ankilibe. I was keen to do this partly out of a desire for as wide a range of experiences as possible. In addition, the idea of villagers gathering under a tree and singing without accompaniment formed another part of the Africa of my imagination.
It turned out that the congregation had moved its gathering place to a sandy open space on the landward side of the village. They had fenced an area of about 15 feet by maybe 40 feet, partly with reeds woven into a wooden framework, and partly with sheeting made mainly of opened-out rice sacks. A few of the congregation were seated on benches or chairs, but most were sitting on the sand. There were about 80 present – not bad for such a new church in a small village where witchcraft is prevalent!
Matthew and I were offered chairs in the “chancel” area of the fenced enclosure, alongside Patsy and the two lay people who would lead the service with her. As we would not have any role in leading the service, it felt appropriate to decline the honor and sit on the sand with our backs supported by the fence, among the congregation. This then turned out to have various benefits. Not only were Matthew and I well shaded by the fence, but also we were sitting directly across from the entrance to the fenced area. Through the entrance we could see the huts and palm trees of the village and the ocean beyond. Periodically a villager with a bale of firewood, a foraging pig, or a sail of an outrigger-canoe fishing boat crossed the field of view.
Part way through the service a jetliner flew fairly low overhead. This was a doubly strange experience. Firstly, there was the contrast between the world of jet travel and that of the villagers, for whom an airline ticket would cost several years’ total income. Secondly, there was the contrast for Matthew and I between the sanitized and homogenized experience of much affluent tourism, and the opportunities we were having to encounter – albeit briefly and relatively safely – something of the lives of the Malagasy. Each of these considerations made us both feel immensely fortunate.
Since Patsy’s last visit to that church about 2 months ago, they had learned several more hymns and songs. Patsy was thrilled at their progress. In addition, it meant that she and Matthew would not need to play the guitars they had brought just in case. This was a relief for Patsy, as it was one fewer responsibility for her. Everything was in Malagasy. Patsy periodically whispered to us the need to stand or kneel in case we were not getting the gist of our whereabouts in the service. Matthew and I found that the speed of the hymns and songs was sufficiently below that of ordinary Malagasy speech that we could follow the words in the hymnbook and even join in the singing. Some of the villagers had the book, but many did not or even were illiterate, and were singing what they had memorized over recent weeks. The singing was just like African singing one has heard on videos or whatever. That – and the joy on people’s faces as they sang – were wonderful. And to be able to actually join in was a fantastic experience.
At the end of the service, the announcements included explaining who Matthew and I were, and about the various workshops Sue, Matthew and I will be involved in. I figured Patsy must have been speaking about Matthew’s voice projection and expressive reading workshop when Patsy mimed someone reading in a monotone mumble. My burst of laughter set the villagers laughing too.
At this stage, Matthew and I distributed to each person one of the greetings cards from StJtheL we had brought with us. These were received with delight. So thanks, 8 o’clockers, for all your pasting efforts to affix pictures from Northfield on those cards.
As we drove back, Patsy explained that one of the two laypeople helping lead the service came from a village some 75 minutes’ walk away. He had usually arrived at the morning service in his home village seriously drunk. He had now turned his life around, been confirmed, and was now attending weekly training sessions on leading worship. Patsy said Todd urges every newly-confirmed Christian to see him/herself as a new church worker in some capacity or another to put their newly-affirmed commitment into practice.