Stuck in the River

A Letter from Dan and Elizabeth Turk, serving in Madagascar

September, 2019

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We were really stuck, and it looked like it would take a miracle for us to get out before morning. It was 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 24, three days before Elizabeth and I were to leave Madagascar to begin four months of interpretation assignment in the U.S. My colleagues Rolland Razafiarison and Germain Andrianaivoson and I had just finished attending the consecration celebration of Pastor Niaina Raoelison at his main church at Sahavoara, five hours northwest of the capital, Antananarivo. I knew we would have to cross a river to get to Sahavoara from Mahatsinjo, but I wasn’t aware that we would have to cross twice and drive down the middle of the river for over 50 meters.

Pastoral consecrations are very big events in the life of the PC(USA)’s partner church in Madagascar, the Fiangonan’i Jesoa Kristy eto Madagasikara (FJKM). After graduating from seminary, most pastors get sent to remote rural areas where they serve an average of over six congregations. Some serve as many as 14. The local churches organize a consecration service for their pastor after about three years.

Niaina and his wife, Harifidy, also a pastor, have been very helpful in the setting up and operation of FJKM’s Fruit Center at Mahatsinjo along National Road #4. Rolland, Germain and I spent many nights in the pastors’ house in Mahatsinjo before the Fruit Center building got finished in May 2017. We continue to eat meals there when we travel from the capital to work at the Fruit Center. Pastor Niaina serves eight churches in the area, while Pastor Harifidy serves three, including the church at Mahatsinjo.

As one of the Fruit Center’s purposes is to help people gain food and income from growing fruit trees, especially mangoes, it is important that we develop relationships with people in the countryside around Mahatsinjo. A good place to start is with the FJKM churches near the Fruit Center. Germain and I had planned to go to Sahavoara once before, but it was in the rainy season, and two people had recently drowned trying to cross the river. So we decided to wait for the dry season.

As always, we combined many activities for our trip. This trip’s priorities included preparing for trainings that will be taking place later this year to help low-income farmers begin growing and grafting selected mango varieties and preparing for planting more mango varieties at the Fruit Center. Our 4-wheel drive Toyota was loaded with furniture, equipment, and trees: four tables, a bunk bed, two mattresses, a two-wheeled wheelbarrow, 20 spades, 10 baskets, some irrigation equipment, over 40 grafted mango trees, a tahina palm, two moringa trees for planting at the Fruit Center and 19 native trees to plant in Sahavoara. At Mahatsinjo, we picked up six grafted mango trees, two canistels, two jaboticabas and two bismarckia palms to add to the trees going to Sahavoara.

Getting to Sahavoara, we were told, would not be a problem. We left Mahatsinjo at 2:30 p.m. on Friday. The walkers left earlier, led by a joyful band with trombones, trumpets and drums; many danced on their way out of town for the five km walk, carrying some of the gifts for the pastor, including a sofa and chairs. We took some of the older people, 37 trees, and the eggs and cake for Saturday’s celebration. Most of the walkers left their belongings to come later by truck. We made the trip without problem, driving through the foot-high water without getting stuck. But the truck, which left Mahatsinjo later that afternoon, was not as fortunate.

The truck got stuck fast in the river, unable to move despite the efforts of over 20 people. So that evening, we went back to pick up the people with small children and get the generator. We went back a second time to get people’s bags, and almost got stuck ourselves crossing the river. We finally got to bed in a teacher’s house after midnight.

Early Saturday morning, my colleagues and I walked around Sahavoara. It is a fairly typical small town in mid-western Madagascar — it lacks electricity, but water flows by gravity in a pipe from a stream in the hills near the town to several outdoor spigots. There are many cattle and quite a few cattle carts. Some carts have solid wood wheels with wooden axles, others have spoked metal wheels, while others have rubber tires. To help avoid theft, cattle are kept at night under the eaves of the houses. The town’s major economic activity is growing rice in paddies, with all of the labor done by hand or oxen. Trees are used for firewood, house construction and for making ox carts. We were told that people are now getting interested in growing trees, but we did not see much evidence that many trees have been planted. Most of the town’s older eucalyptus trees were cut down some years ago to build the town’s only school, a public primary school. The barren hills surrounding the town are evidence of the deforestation that threatens much of Madagascar’s unique biodiversity.

The consecration celebration on Saturday lasted three-and-a-half hours. The church was packed with many visitors from Pastor Niaina’s other churches as well as other pastors, the FJKM synod president and family members. The service was followed by a meal; we left shortly after it was over. We made it through the first river crossing and into the river a second time to drive upstream but got stuck trying to get around the truck. The problem wasn’t so much the water but rather the deep sand. I called Elizabeth to give her the news that I was likely not coming home that night. She and friends started praying. The people who volunteered advice came up with some creative solutions, and about 15 people came along to lend a hand. So by rocking and pushing, we got out. We headed to the Fruit Center to get our stuff and got home to Antananarivo just past midnight.

God is good. It was wonderful to be a part of Pastor Niaina’s consecration and to arrive home safely. On the way back, Germain voiced what I think was on all of our minds: next time we go to Sahavoara, we should walk. We learned later that the truck finally got out of the river on Sunday afternoon.

Thank you very much for your support of our ministry in Madagascar that enables us to continue serving. Please know that your involvement in mission in Madagascar is making a difference in the lives of people there and in the FJKM church.

Please consider coming to the Madagascar Mission Network meeting that will take place near Orlando, FL, October 10-12, 2019. For more information, please click here.

Peace in Christ,

Dan & Elizabeth


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