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A letter from Jan Heckler in Madagascar

October 2013

Women and children of Ambaniakondro

Though still dark, we leave Antananarivo to visit a whole community that’s been driven from their homes by superstition and discrimination.  During the women’s pregnancies the Antemoro tribe subjects them to:

•     Drinking poisonous tea 

•     Forcing them to "curse" themselves during labor (asking for death if they’ve been unfaithful) and

•     Having "spells" cast threatening death if they’ve been unfaithful

The Antemoro believe that "if" you are innocent (of even lusting in your heart), you’ll survive even venomous concoctions.  Quite reasonably, however, many leave rather than endure these things.

So, rejected and stigmatized, these women are attempting new lives in their hideaway village, Ambaniakondro ("under the banana tree")—the place to which we are now headed.  The women asked the FJKM, the PC(USA)’s Madagascar partner, to help them establish a church.  Pastor Mamisoa and I are part of FJKM’s response. 

Pastor Mamisoa in Ranumafana

It takes 15 hours to drive to Ranumafana ("Warm Waters"), where we spend the night.  The roads here are bad, but the big reason for stopping is that highway bandits frequent the roads looking for travelers to rob.  So we pull over just before sundown.

We’re off early the next morning and make good headway until about midday, when the roads worsen even more as we approach the women’s remote refuge.  Just as we start seeing signs of the village, Mamisoa suddenly sits up in her seat, tilting her head with a puzzled look on her face.  Then she smiles reassuringly.

Mamisoa and others came here a month ago as part of the first wave of help assisting the women form their church.  Among other things, they taught the villagers hymns. 

The gated pump-well at the ‘center’ of Ambaniakondro

Now as we drive the final few hundred yards, we hear the people singing these hymns to celebrate our arrival.  As Mamisoa gets out of the car, the children run to be near her.  Their unbridled delight is contagious and everyone joins eagerly in sharing this high-spirited reunion.

Over the next two days we aim to lift these villagers up and help affirm them as people and their quest for a church.  Plus, we also pray to positively affect some of their more practical, everyday needs as well.  As these women’s lives in particular have been filled with dirt-level poverty and violent oppression by men—who still come in the night to beat, rape and force sex for money—this will be no easy task. 

Still, the Lord’s Spirit has become more salient as the villagers greet us, and suddenly all things seem possible.  After dropping our bags at the place where we’ll stay, we go immediately to the center of the village to begin our work; first, with prayers and introductions.  Then, with expectant eyes everywhere, Mamisoa and Ny onja (nee-oondsa), a local pastor who’s helping us, begin by explaining our plan.  After questions, we pray again and then break into small groups.  The groups are to identify and order community values. 

Mamisoa and some of the children of Ambaniakondro

Mamisoa and I visit each group in turn.  Our plan is working!  Everyone is participating.  Even the children are involved!

Then, almost immediately, we recognize the gracious handiwork of our Maker.  This is a miracle plain and simple.  I have participated in and facilitated value clarification workshops before, and they easily take days.  The levels of participation, the speed, and the ultimate levels of agreement being achieved here are simply astounding.  We are giddy as we move on, discovering only more of the same. 

We work throughout the day clarifying values and rendering goals.  Finally we reconcile the small groups’ work and, with light fading, we finally all embrace:  

1.     Establishing a church to build their relationship with God

2.     Building a school, and

3.     Establishing small businesses to stimulate economic relief

The Lord’s Spirit is now palpable.  We pray and sing and dance until exhausted and filled with full expectations of the morrow, we finally part from the communal whole to find our dinners and beds.

The people of Ambaniakondro listen as our plan to facilitate their community’s development is explained.

The following day the Lord’s Spirit again buoys our mood and re-engages us with fresh zeal and determination.  Again the small groups perform the more tedious tasks, this time planning how they will achieve their ambitious goals. 

Again everything works miraculously well and we give thanks to God even while walking among groups, listening and encouraging.  The people understand what they are doing and later, after plenary reports and reconciliation, the village has decided to:

  1. Build a single wooden structure to act as both temporary church and school, and 
  2. Start eight new businesses ranging from growing cash crops to making handicrafts with as many microloans.

The Lord raises up our community-minded motivations yet even further, and people come forward offering things to make the plans work.  One donates land for the church-school; another offers a house as a temporary meeting place; Ny onja provides ministers for the church and Pastor Noro (Ny onja’s wife) does likewise for teachers in the school.  And, A Project of Hope, a small, Atlanta-based NGO, is providing a grant to pay for the building’s construction and microloans. 

It has happened!  The women have been uplifted, empowered and affirmed.  Their community will have its church, its school, and its own commerce.  We celebrate one last time over lunch with prayers and hymns of thanksgiving for the miracle that has truly occurred.  The joy in Mamisoa and me lasts for days.  We remain electrified knowing how special a thing it was that we had just witnessed. 

Then just five days later we learn that an arsonist has burned the home and business of the man and woman who donated their land for the church-school.  After giving so much to their neighbors, this couple has now lost everything.  Only the clothing on their backs and Bibles in their hands survive. 

Still, in the fire’s aftermath, even this will not stop what the Lord began.  The church-school will be finished and all the businesses begun by Christmas.  The man and his wife, now staying where Mamisoa and I slept, are going to rebuild.

It is not possible to do the work described above, addressing the root causes of poverty and helping build the capacity of our partner church’s evangelism, without the support of people like you.  I am grateful to those who already participate.  But if you are not already, won’t you please consider how the Lord may be calling you to be a part of our mission in Madagascar?  Thank you.

Jan Heckler

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 121
The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 147
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