Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Laying of the cornerstone for the Women's Centre in Toliara

Happy Thanksgiving! 

The people of the Diocese of Toliara are grateful for the laying of the cornerstone for the women's center!  This is where I expect to be teaching next July, so here's hoping for good progress!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Santa Patrika Cathedral

We've just received photos from Bishop Todd of the Cathedral, which looks almost complete now, and is so beautiful!  There are many carvings in the stone representing Biblical and Malagasy scenes; and look at the way the window grilles represent the ravinala, the travellers' palm!  Enjoy!!

Friday, July 24, 2015

And the work continues...

Jacky reported that three of the local women (Neny Nivo, Soafara & Meza) gathered yesterday and today to continue to work on their cuffs and crocheting.  It is so good that the work can continue without my presence.



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Final Thoughts from Sue

We are now in our final day in Madagascar, having successfully FLOWN from Toliara to Antananarivo (Tana) yesterday lunchtime.  We had been too exhausted, from our work with the crafts and bookkeeping, to write on Saturday or Sunday and then yesterday was a travelling day (although Simon also worked with the bookkeeping staff yesterday morning before our flight). 

It was a gratifying and emotional end to the classes with women, who have achieved so much in working together, teaching each other and discussing how to make this cottage industry work.  They have many good ideas, and came from very different areas around the Diocese of Toliara with differing craft skills.  It was good to begin to get to know these women more individually than I was able to last year when there was a much bigger group.  We were presented by them with a small wall-hanging of a Malagasy scene and a lamba (traditional cloth) with the words “Malagasy People work hard” on it!  They clapped when I wore it!  Meza, wife of the guard at Santa Lioka, Ankilifaly, gave us each us three strands of beads made from local seeds and nuts.

It will be interesting to see in a year’s time what progress has been made and what products the people are making and selling.  It is expected that the Women’s Centre will be built and dedicated by next summer.  We very much hope to be able to attend it’s opening ceremony. 

This year I feel much more as if I belong here, even though my skin is the wrong colour and I have a poor grasp of the language.  My grasp of Malagasy made some slow but sure progress, and the people are always delighted when we try to use it. 

Simon and I have been very pleased to have organized our own transportation, hotels and itinerary this year (with a small amount of help from Patsy).  I could not have imagined doing this before we came last year. 

One of the places we wanted to see in Tana was Le Village, which is a family-owned business, employing 30 plus Malagasy to make museum-quality replicas of ships.  Our driver had not heard of it before (despite living in Tana) but after asking at the wrong ship-makers got us to the right address.  We spent a wonderful couple of hours watching the people make the tiny pieces and construct the ships, and then looking around the sale-room (or should that be sail-room?!)  We were tempted by many of them including a replica of La Licorne (Tin-Tin’s ship) but it didn’t have sails on it because there aren’t any on it in the book, so settled on La Victorieuse, a 17th century Portuguese pirate ship which was found off the north-east coast of Madagascar near Isle Sainte-Marie.  It should reach us by air and sea in November. 

Choosing a ship

Today we were driven 25 km (15 miles) to the Lemur Park.  The traffic jams in Tana meant this took 1 hour 50 minutes!  Thankfully the return was in slightly better traffic conditions and only took 1 hour 10 minutes.  This is a large park with no cages (apart from the one for new arrivals to check their health and allow them to acclimatize), so the lemurs are free to roam.  We saw several varieties and had a relaxing visit. 

Now we are back at the guest house waiting for our flight to Paris at 1 a.m. tomorrow morning, then onward to Chicago and home.  It will be good to drink tap water without needing to filter it, to be able to brush our teeth without finding filtered or bottled water first, to have a warm shower without running out of hot water, and to eat salad and fruit without first rinsing th
em in a bleach solution!   

And finally, some of today’s lemurs…

Crowned Sifaka and 6 week old baby

Upside-down Coquerel Sifaka

Black and White Ruffed lemurs (mother & father)


We’re relaxing at Manga Guesthouse in Antananarivo, having returned from a visit to a Lemur Park, and having said affectionate farewells to our driver, Jocelyn.   Yesterday and today feel like the decompression part of our trip.  Our work in Toliara, our engagement with the people there, consciousness of the intense material poverty, and the question marks over whether Air Madagascar would run our internal flight (roughly) as scheduled, are falling behind us.   First-world concerns – seat changes (to a row of two with a window) on Air France, contacting our regular taxi service for O’Hare to Northfield – are occupying more of our attention.

We are conscious of a welter of feelings as we prepare to leave Madagascar.  We care about the Malagasy people we have got to know.  In several cases, we have now seen them in various settings – at home, in Sue’s workshops or the diocesan office and at churches.  They have become individuals with circumstances and histories, and we want to know what happens next.  So we are sad to leave them, and hope to see them again.   We worked hard during our trip (and in Sue’s case for many months beforehand).  Sue taught 12-17 ladies, mornings and afternoons for 7 days.   My work on the accounts was more time-consuming than I expected, requiring full-length office days.  We accomplished everything we had planned, and head homewards with a sense of having achieved something valuable.  And lastly – in the interests of full disclosure -- we are feeling pleased with ourselves for having been able to organize large parts of our travels in Madagascar for ourselves, independently of the shepherding by Todd and Patsy that was much needed last year.



Here’s a tip if you make a mission trip to Madagascar:  if you approach the end of your trip thinking that your luggage will comfortably accommodate your stuff, and the souvenirs you have purchased, then you are wrong.  You have failed to take account of the wonderful generosity of the Malagasy people. 

We have been showered with farewell gifts.   At the conclusion of Sue’s workshops, one of the ladies presented Sue, myself, and Jackie Lowe, with beautiful bead necklaces.  Sue was a given a lamba (large cloth) and a wall-hanging of baobabs.  On our final morning in Toliara, our translator, Zafy, brought his wife and Tantely and son Christophère to say farewell, and brought us (and Matthew) foot-high wooden statuettes.  They must have spent several days’ income on them. 

To be sure, we have given of ourselves on our trips, but the generosity goes in both directions.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Re-sealable bags

Yesterday, I realised why many of the Ziploc bags had slits in their sides.  The ladies had cut holes to get at the contents, not knowing that the tops pull open and can be re-sealed.  When I thought about it, it was obvious they wouldn't know.  I have so much to learn about life here!

Patsy told me that when they built the row of pit latrines here, they had to explain to the people how to use them!

Apparently the pit is blocked in some way, and they are having to build a new one

Friday, July 17, 2015


This morning's reading was from Hebrews 6:13-14

When God was making his promise to Abraham, you see, he had nobody else greater than himself by whom he could swear, and so he swore by himself, with the words, ‘I will most surely bless you, and multiply you very greatly.’

[Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Hebrews for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 64). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.]

The words, ‘I will most surely bless you, and multiply you very greatly’  jumped out at me.  The words seemed to me to be a promise for the women I have been working with, indicating that God will bless them in their endeavours.  As they teach others the numbers of people involved in this projectwill increase, helping to get more of them out of their abject poverty.  God will be with them and bless them.

I have been blessed to be with them and help train their skills and equip them to make better products.

The crafts we have been working on are different from the ones sold here in all the tourist shops, so they should be able to find a market in Madagascar as well as abroad.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Encouragement for the Exhausted!

I woke up this morning feeling tired and lacking in enthusiasm to continue with teaching, and wanting to cut corners and not teach everything.

In morning devotions, I am reading from the letter to the Hebrews and this morning reached chapter  6:11 & 12

"I want to encourage each one of you to show the same energetic enthusiasm for the task of bringing your hope to its full, assured goal. You mustn’t become lazy."

I know this is really addressing the point of not giving up the goal of living out the Christian life to the full, but in this case that part of my Christian life is to train the women here as much as I can in the remaining short time - even if I am tired.

Tom Wright's commentary on this passage goes on to say:

Most of us will recognize the picture and its challenge. Most of us have started projects and got bogged down: learning a new language, trying to lose weight, painting a picture, reading a long and difficult book. Or even, we might add, starting a business, opening a shop or building a house.

Often we discover, some way into such projects, that we really aren’t cut out for such things, and then it may be better to put it aside rather than carry on and make things worse. But often, not least when something is really worthwhile, there are several distinct phases to the process: the initial burst of enthusiasm and the excitement of something quite new, the gradual seeping away of energy as we reach the hard grind of carrying on, and then the days, and perhaps the weeks and even years, when we get out of bed without enthusiasm, without desire to work on the project, wishing we could have some other novelty to excite us, but realizing that there is a goal ahead which will make it all worthwhile if only we can put one foot in front of another until we get there.

[Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Hebrews for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 61-62). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. ]

So today, I will strive to put one foot in front of the other, and keep my thoughts coherent and press on to the goal of teaching as much as I can in the remaining time.

Lucia & Workshops

Many of you may remember Lucia from last year's visit - she is the young woman (maybe 21 years old) who came to Patsy last year asking for employment to keep her out of prostitution.  She was the first woman Patsy employed on a fairly regular basis to make cards and beads, and thus right in at the start of the developing cottage industry.  This year she is looking much healthier and happier and has been baptised in the local Assemblies of God Church.  She meets weekly with Elizabeth (catechist) and Antsa (evangelist) to pray.

Yesterday, she joined the ever-growing craft workshops, which now have 4 more women than last week, and a young boy (around 10 years old). The young boy and his mother had travelled by taxi-brousse from Betioky (a bit over 100 miles away by road).  They had left at 7am and arrived at midnight, and come to class at 8:30 a.m. the next day!

The women are enjoying the classes so much and are so keen to learn that we added an extra day of class.

Lucia mastered the 16 strand Kumihimo braid within a few seconds (totally skipping the 8 strand version which the other women had learned first) and then nearly completed one of the embroidered cuff bracelets.   Today she started teaching two other women, and has taken the working diagram for another complicated braid home with her to work on.  She is a delight to have in class.

Lucia is on the right in white cardigan, Nivo next to her is wearing a winter coat and scarf all through each day of class  (and, if you could see me, I am wearing a sleeveless dress!)

Two of the other women are working on bead embroidery on pretty fabric.  This was not planned, but I was trying to dream up something to keep them occupied, and this seemed like the right thing to do.  So I showed them some photos of some of my work last year, and they are excited to be embellishing this mini-journal cover.  Other women are working on larger journal covers using a recycled lamba (traditional cloth) and denim.  Another group is creating their own-design embroidered bracelets.  Some are crocheting with plastic bags, and the young boy is working impeccable braids.

All in all, quite amazing!

When the wildcat brews coffee

The Malagasy have a phrase for “dawn” that literally means “when the wild cat washes itself”.  On our visit in 2014, attending morning devotions at 6am was rewarding not only spiritually but also visually with a beautiful dawn over the hills to the east of Toliara.  
This visit, Todd and Patsy’s continuing recovery from typhoid (thankfully now pretty much complete) has led to these devotions being deferred to 6:30am.   (What decadence!)    By half an hour after dawn the sun may not be fully risen, but the golden glow in the eastern sky has turned into blueness.

What does the wild cat do half an hour after dawn?   Brew coffee?  Deal with emails?  Help get the kids to school?   I must admit to being a tad hazy about the morning behaviors of wildcats.
Anyhow, while the wildcat is brewing coffee, or whatever,  I have been pondering some of the Psalms from 130 onwards.  I’ve currently reached 136.   Although I’m reading them only in English, I’d hazard a guess that the Hebrew word underlying one the major themes of these Psalms is heseth.   (YMMV on transliterations of Hebrew, but let’s agree on “heseth” for now.)   “Heseth” gets translated into English in a variety of different ways.   “Steadfast love” and “faithfulness” are some of the English expressions used.   The basic idea is of always being there for someone, even when that someone is being a pain in the backside, or simply doesn’t want to know.   I happen to be one of those men (I’ve read that there are lots of us) who aren’t into using the word “love” very often.   But I can relate to the idea of God being consistently there for us, any day of the week. 


Creative Prayer Class

At the start of each afternoon session, I am leading a short prayer exercise akin to what  Rev. Lisa Senuta is teaching in the Creative Prayer Classes at St James the Less.  Each exercise is also tied in with what we have read in the morning Bible Teaching.  These all seem to be well received.  One day the Malagasy women were so busy meditating using breathing-related prayers that they had to be asked twice to stop meditating and open their eyes!

Dinner for Five = $50

We've just had a wonderful dinner out at a new local restaurant at the beach.  We all had entrees (two of which were lobsters brought fresh to the restaurant five minutes earlier)  and dessert, two of us sampled the local rum, three had complimentary rums, and then there were some interesting fruit juices.  Total cost $50  (not each - between the group!)

Maybe we'll go back tomorrow night!!!  Jeannette (Todd and Patsy's housekeeper) is in the workshop so the alternative is cooking or reheating food ourselves.  I think I know which choice we'll make, as we are all pretty tired after a long day's work.

Simon's comments:

Depends on the exchange rate. It may have been only $45. Fantastic location and food. There was a gorgeous sunset during the pre-prandial drinks. I sure hope Sue's prediction of where we'll eat tomorrow evening is correct!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Chameleon & tortoises

We were very excited to see this chameleon change from grey (on the bark) to green (when it moved to the leafy area).

Baby tortoises (pyxis on the left, and radiated on the right)

Possibly not such a useless wombat

I’ve been working to streamline the various categories used in keeping the books of the day-to-day workings of the Diocese of Toliara and of its capital projects and cyclone relief operations.   The Wombat is finding his experience as one-time Treasurer at St James the Less invaluable, both in terms of familiarity with bookkeeping software and also in terms of working with bookkeepers.   That task is now pretty much complete. 
There are still bookkeeping improvements to be made.  Nevertheless, what I’ve been able to do will probably help when the External Auditor visits.   I’m still sure that my work is not as important as what Sue is doing with the handcrafts.  However, as Bishop Todd pointed out the other day, potential overseas partners or major donors tend to demand to know that they are working with an organization that can account for how money gets used.
Furrily yours,
The GUW (Greater Useless Wombat – see earlier post)

Trip to the Arboretum

This morning, Simon, Jackie and I had the opportunity to go to the Arboretum.  We took two pousse pousse from the far side of the cattle market for about 30 minutes each way.  It is a very refreshing way to travel, with a shade over your head, and the breeze from morning.  Trucks passing by are not so good, as they cover you in a lot of dust!

Pousse-pousse repairs with a white stone from the roadside

And dealing with a flat tyre
Glad they had a pump under the seat!

Simon and Jackie at the Arboretum (we made it!)
Interesting spider!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside...

Todd, Patsy, Simon and I had a wonderful Sabbath day of rest today (postponed from Sunday, which is obviously  a work day).  We drove north up the coast for about an hour, on a road which has been much improved since last year, to a small German-owned hotel at Ifaty, where we ate lunch, followed by swimming in the sea, and the infinity pool.  Blissful!

Starter- avocado, tomato & Camembert

Rev Patsy & Bishop Todd McGregor - relaxing

Malagasy native bird

Sunday Afternoon Paper Beads

The ladies gather on many Sunday afternoons to make paper beads, and Jackie and Sue were invited to join them.  It was a hive of industry!

Why the Cathedral Complex has a wall round it!

The neighbouring piece of land belongs to the Roman Catholic Diocese, but has never been built upon.  For the last few days it has been losing its grass...

Building of the Cathedral Tower

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Confirmation Service

Thankfully Bishop Todd was well enough to conduct a Service of Baptism for 2 babies, and 2 adults and Confirmation of 17 adults, today.  This was held in the Education Building of the Cathedral Complex, which is where services happen until the Cathedral is completed.

The Confirmation Candidates

Baptism of one of the babies - look carefully at the "Font"!

Confirmand & Certificate

Simon and I muddled along in the congregation trying to find our place in the Malagasy prayer book!  When we got the right page we were able to follow Bishop Todd’s reading, but the Archdeacon, Venerable Theodore, was way too fast for us.  It was exhausting simply trying to keep up with him!  I as reduced to following the words with my finger to keep us in place.  Singing hymns was much easier as the music is played quite slowly.  It is much easier to participate with a hymn book!!

This afternoon, Patsy, Jackie and I joined the ladies for paper bead making; Bishop Todd conducted a marriage preparation service for Evangelist Antsa, whom we met last year; and Simon is buried deep in the complexities of the book-keeping system.  I think I have the more fun job.  Grin!!

Now I'm off to make a celebratory chocolate bread and butter pudding!  Now there’s a reason to come to Madagascar!

Third Day of Class

This went really well.  The women are proving to be very adept at making things. 

Christie, Soliaulanne & Zafy working on braiding
Zafy trying out chain stitches
Today was the chance for the second group to have a go at Kumihimo (Japanese braiding) on foam disks. 

I have never seen anyone work so fast as the ladies who have travelled from Fort Dauphin (on the south-east coast.  Toliara is on the south-west coast).  

They are from an area where the people weave with raffia and straw, and they really took to braiding  (as did Zafy, our translator, who has now been caught twice doing “women’s work” – his words!!  Once working samples of chain stitch and split stitch.  He worked the basic Kumihimo braid so quickly, that I am teaching him one of the flat braids too).
How to store your embroidery threads !