On Sunday, Wendy Bellmore (a SAMS bridger to the Diocese) and I accompanied Bishop Todd as he drove to Betioky. It’s further from Toliara than I had thought – 95 miles by road. Roughly a third of that distance route is on the Route Nationale 7, the rest on Route 10.
So no problem: all on interstates, yes? Maybe a stop at a Starbucks on the way? Well, no.
Long-time readers of this blog may recall that RN 7 is the road from Antananarivo to Toliara. Although paved, it is replete with potholes, ox-carts, cyclists, people, and anything else that wanders along it. Thus, RN7 holds its own challenges. But those challenges pale into insignificance when compared with RN 10. Other than for a half-mile or so on a steep slope, RN 10 has never been paved. The only sign that it is a Route Nationale consists of classic French-style kilometer markers. Fifty-five years of post-colonial wear and tear has obliterated the text and distance numbers on almost all of them. They are still useful however – they distinguish the intended route from alternative tracks that successive drivers have created as they avoid potholes, deep ruts, washouts, and so forth, and also from tracks that occasionally branch off to goodness knows where. A few stretches have been rebuilt, and we bowled along at 50mph. But at almost the next moment, we were forced to crawl along in first gear. Some of the ruts were amazing. What, in the rainy season, is probably a near-impassable sandy squish bakes in the dry season into a single sandstone block of multiple ruts nigh a foot deep. Four-wheel drive and a high wheelbase are de rigueur.
So the average speed one can make from Toliara to Betioky is about 20mph, and the 95-mile drive takes 5 hours. We left at 4am. At least there was no risk of being late for the church service – it would wait for the Bishop to arrive, whenever that was.
When dawn had broken, the splendors of the landscape emerged. In places, flat grassy plains dotted with trees stretched to the horizon. In others, steep slopes rose to the flat-topped rim of a geological basin that Todd says covers a vast area of southern Madagascar. We descended a steep rocky valley and eventually crossed the floodplain of the Onilahy river that eventually reaches the sea near Toliara and which is sufficiently major to flow even in the dry season.
Villages were few, and composed mostly of wattle-and-daub huts or even mere interlaced sticks and roofed with thatch. Despite the sparse habitation, a distressing proportion of the trees along the route had been heavily exploited for charcoal-making.
Just after 9am, we arrived in Betioky. While it occupies one of the higher levels in the Malagasy structure of local government, it seemed as poor as most of the villages we had passed through. Some boys had been deputed to look out for Bishop Todd’s vehicle, and they guided us to the plot of land where the church is worshipping while it awaits proper legal title and constructs a church building. While the church (i.e., the body of people) has only existed for three years, over 140 people greeted us, all lined up singing to welcome the bishop. A cactus was quickly uprooted to widen the gap to let the vehicle in. We clambered out and, in accordance with Malagasy custom, said “salama” and shook hands with everyone(!)
At the moment, the church’s plot of land contains a couple of thatched wattle-and-daub huts. Toilet facilities consist of “go behind that bush over there, and watch what you tread in”. A picturesque collection of bits of tarp, and rice or cement sacks, had been set up to provide a worship area slightly shielded from wind and sun. Some more pieces of tarp and sacking had been rigged to shade the altar, which was an old table covered with a white cloth adorned with a cross. A small area in front of the altar had a floor, as long as you understand the term “floor” to embrace a frayed reed mat and a large piece of sacking turned upside down to conceal the text (from glimpses when the wind turned over the edge, I think it had been a massive cement sack). Seating consisted of a few single-plank benches, and a handful of plastic chairs for the service leaders and honored visitors (in this case Wendy and I who accompanied Todd). Maybe half the congregation sat on the ground.
The service, in its ramshackle improvised setting, was presided over by Bishop Todd arrayed in cope, mitre, pectoral cross, and with his bishop’s staff – the whole nine yards. You may think this might have looked incongruous, even silly, but it did not. A bishop’s vestments have roots that stretch back over 1200 years in documented sources, and presumably centuries longer. They helped symbolize that the Christians of Betioky are just as much a part of the one Christian Church spanning time and place as any other Christians.
No fewer than 30 of the congregation, ranging in age from teenagers to one elderly grandmother, were to be confirmed in their recently acquired Christian faith. One teenager fainted onto the Bishop while being confirmed. We learned that he has been suffering from some nasty tropical fever, and while responding to medication (which he’s lucky to get in southern Madagascar) was still far from well.
The final hymn was “Andriamanitra he mahagaga”. For those of us (including me) whose Malagasy isn’t quite yet up to that, that phrase is the first line of the hymn “How great Thou art”. At St James the Less, we recently learned the Malagasy refrain to that hymn, and I joined in with gusto. Being able to join in with Malagasy a cappella singing is tremendous fun.
During the announcements after the service, I was given a chance to speak. I thanked the congregation for their welcome, and told them what a pleasure it was to join them in worship and in praying for the confirmation candidates. I explained that shortly before coming to Madagascar we had heard at St James the Less of the hunger in Betioky (5 children in the Sunday School had died of starvation), that this had touched peoples’ hearts, and that money had been given to the Diocese of Toliara for famine relief. I said that I would tell others of the Betioky Christians’ joy in the Gospel.
I must admit that news of the famine had caused me considerable trepidation in going to Betioky. Would I see matchstick limbs and distended bellies? I did not. I suppose the famine was not of that severity, though five deaths in a congregation numbering around 150 is a scary toll. There is chronic malnutrition in southern Madagascar at the best of times, let alone amid the diminished rainfall associated with El Nino. Rev Noely – the priest whose district covers several churches, both in the poorest part of Toliara and in Betioky and newly planted churches further south - had spent much of the last several days in relief work. Madagascar’s problems receive negligible coverage in the world’s media. If they were widely reported, more might be done to address them.
Personal considerations pale in the face of such matters. That said, were it not for the relief efforts, I would have felt acutely embarrassed that the congregation treated the three visitors to lunch, along with Rev Noely, Evangelist Zefa and the Catechist who lead services when Noely is elsewhere, and (perhaps because he is learning English) the fiancé of one of Ev. Zefa’s daughters. Lunch consisted of rice and chicken that had been cooked over an open fire in front of the huts, and served at a table shaded by a tree. Water and pineapple Fanta were available to drink.
After lunch, a group of local men helped lash Rev Noely’s motorbike securely into the load area of Bishop Todd’s truck and, after many more handshakes, we set off for the 5-hour drive back to Toliara. Rev Noely leads the Diocese of Toliara’s Finance Committee, and I have recently become Treasurer of People Reaching People (http://www.peoplereaching.org/), the international support and fundraising group for the Diocese. The journey provided an opportunity for us to discuss financial controls for economic development projects scattered around the Diocese, and how PRP functions. The conversation involved an interesting linguistic triangle. Rev Noely discussed various issues in French (that being our only common language). I then translated both questions and answers into English so Bishop Todd could confirm my understanding and offer comments. The Bishop reiterated his comments in Malagasy for Rev Noely.
The homeward journey treated us to glorious rays of the sun shining through gaps in cloud, followed by a fabulous sunset. We arrived in Toliara without mishap about two hours after nightfall, returned Rev Noely to his family, and arrived at the Diocesan complex at 8pm, a mere 16 hours after leaving that morning. For 13 of those 16 hours, Bishop Todd was either driving on appalling roads or leading a service in considerable heat – you’ve got to hand it to the guy!
(Photos on this blog article care of Wendy)