A Letter from Dan and Elizabeth Turk, serving in Madagascar
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The last time I shook hands was Friday, March 20. That was the day we inaugurated the fruit center at Mahatsinjo. That evening Madagascar announced its first three cases of COVID-19. In the days that followed, Madagascar instigated a series of drastic steps designed to slow the spread of the disease, including shutting down bus service in the capital city and between cities, shutting down schools and worship services, and calling on people to stay home, wash hands frequently, and maintain a distance of at least one meter from other people. Commercial flights coming into Madagascar were cancelled on March 20.
The day before, on March 19, Elizabeth had left Madagascar to return to the U.S. On that same day, Presbyterian World Mission called on all mission personnel to return to the U.S. Elizabeth had already been preparing to leave because her asthma makes her especially susceptible to COVID-19. She had a bout of ill health earlier in March when a combination of flu and amoebiasis put her in the hospital for about 24 hours. Fortunately, she was soon on the mend. I (Dan) left Madagascar on March 31 on a special flight to Addis Ababa. We are now in Orlando, FL, and have both successfully completed self-imposed quarantine periods to avoid introducing the virus to Elizabeth’s parents, just in case we picked it up en route on a plane or in an airport. Our children, Robert and Frances, are also in Orlando, so we are enjoying the opportunity to spend time with them.
The inauguration of the fruit center at Mahatsinjo, now named “The Mango Palace,” was a joyous celebration. The President of the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar (FJKM), Pastor Irako Andriamahazosoa Ammi, preached; he and Vice-President Zarazaka planted a ‛Keitt’ mango; ribbons were cut; Germain Andrianaivoson and Odilon Ravelonjanahary did a grafting demonstration, and several hundred people shared a good meal. Letters of appreciation and congratulations had been sent by PC(USA), the Outreach Foundation, and the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. The letters were translated and read during the dedication ceremony and were much appreciated. Over 50 students from the FJKM Ravelojaona University rented buses to come to the event. The Director for the Betsiboka region represented the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, and Fisheries. The evening before, Pastor Zarazaka gave a talk about the relationship between the fruit center and evangelism. This was followed by a talk from Professor Andrianifidiniaina Josoa Herman from Mahajanga about how farmers can make money by growing selected mango varieties. His talk fit well with mine, which followed, about the future of fruit trees in Madagascar.
For many people, though, the coronavirus crisis is already proving to be a time of great hardship as food prices go up, people get laid off from work, and the economy nosedives. The millions of Malagasy people who depend on today’s income for tonight’s supper are among those suffering the most. One of the immediate effects is the absence of tourists at what would be the beginning of the tourist season. This will mean lost employment for wildlife guides and hotel workers, and greatly reduced income for national parks and other protected areas. As the economic situation worsens, many people will turn to cutting trees to make charcoal and to growing crops via slash-and-burn agriculture, meaning accelerated loss of native forest.
As we write this, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Madagascar stands at 121. The country has already begun to relax the strict social distancing measures. It remains to be seen what the course of the epidemic will be.
The FJKM is preparing to respond to the crisis by helping to strengthen the country’s efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus. This involves educating people about what needs to be done to protect themselves and why it is important, equipping the FJKM dispensaries so they are better prepared to receive patients; and getting food, water, and sanitation supplies to vulnerable populations. The church is also looking at new ways to keep in touch with members as people can no longer attend church services.
While it is good to be in the U.S. with family, we have very mixed feelings about leaving Madagascar in a time of crisis. It is hard to be here when we know there is such suffering and difficulty there. We are grateful for the technology that allows us to stay connected with our friends and colleagues in Madagascar. Through email, Skype, and phone calls, we are able to continue our work (as much as is allowed with the constraints of lockdowns and social distancing).
Thank you very much to all who prayed for the Fruit Tree Center opening and for our health and travels. We are grateful for God’s provision. Please keep the FJKM, government leaders, and all of Madagascar in your prayers as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Dan & Elizabeth
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