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Death of a Legend

A letter from Dan Turk serving in Madagascar

April 22, 2015

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Dear Friends,

I had last ridden a motorcycle in 1995 and thought that my motorcycle days were over.  That changed on Saturday, February 28, 2015, when Daniel Rakotoarinala said, “There’s some sad news: Dadamonjy has also died.”

Dadamonjy was a living legend who lived at Ambohimitombo in the heart of Zafimaniry country at the western edge of Madagascar’s rainforest. Ambohimitombo is 50 km SE of Ambositra at the end of a road often best described as a muddy mess. The Zafimaniry people are famous for their woodcarving and received recognition from UNESCO in 2003 for their woodcarving heritage.  Dadamonjy was probably the foremost cultural ambassador of the Zafimaniry people, at the forefront of efforts to keep Zafimaniry knowledge and traditions alive.  In 2009 he proudly went to Algeria to represent Madagascar at a cultural festival.

Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana

Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana

At the time of his death Dadamonjy was also president of the local forest protection organization, coach of the youth soccer team, and advisor to the mayor.  He and his wife had held many leadership positions over the years at the FJKM church at Ambohimitombo.  The FJKM, which is the Malagasy acronym for the Church of Jesus in Madagascar, is PC(USA)’s partner church in Madagascar.  Many FJKM churches, like the one at Ambohimitombo, do not have pastors, so lay leaders play very important roles in the life of the congregations.

Over 80 years old, Dadamonjy could out-hike fit men 50 years his junior.  Just a few months prior he had led 100 Sunday school children to a church event at Faliarivo, a day’s hike south of Ambohimitombo.  At that meeting it was decided that the FJKM Synod would help Dadamonjy and his wife celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on Easter.

The news of Dadamonjy’s death came in Ambositra when I was on my way back from a trip to Ranomafana.  On the Wednesday before, I had just left Antananarivo when a call came with the information that Dadamonjy’s wife, Maman’i Zana, had died that morning.  Passing south through Ambositra, I had left an envelope with Rakoto at the FJKM Development Department as a means of conveying condolences.  Rakoto said he did not expect anyone from the FJKM church in Ambositra to go to the funeral scheduled for Friday because there had been a lot of rain and the road was in very bad shape.

The FJKM church at Ambohimitombo

The FJKM church at Ambohimitombo

I first met Dadamonjy in 1998 when he and his good friend Randrianirina came to a fruit tree and environmental education training that I did in Ambositra.  My work mostly involves growing fruit trees and native Malagasy trees: fruit trees for food and income, native trees for environmental education.  At the end of that training Elizabeth, Robert, and I drove to Ambohimitombo to visit the FJKM’s community pharmacy there.  Elizabeth works with community health efforts in many parts of Madagascar.  It was on that trip that we saw for the first time the traditional wooden houses with bamboo roofs and sculpted window shutters that characterize Zafimaniry villages.  The forest on many hills had already been cut for slash-and-burn agriculture, which is how the people grow their food.  On the way we occasionally caught glimpses of young men carrying five-gallon jugs of moonshine.  Moonshine was and remains the backbone of the Zafimaniry economy.  But now young women also carry the five-gallon jugs.  After the training, Dadamonjy and his wife began planting native trees and fruit trees on a hill just outside Ambohimitombo.  They named the place “Maharetanihoela,” which means “Have Patience.”  At the top of the hill is a little shelter that Maman’i Zana would climb up into to get out of the rain and from where she could see out over the beautiful Zafimaniry rainforest.

A few years after that first visit the PC(USA) helped start an environmental education project in Zafimaniry country that helped schools plant gardens, grow fruit trees, and plant native trees on school grounds.  Four of the 18 schools that took part in the project did not have classrooms because the school buildings had been destroyed by cyclones years before.  So we collaborated with the parents to help build classrooms: the parents provided the wood and labor, the project provided the roofing material.  In 2001 my colleagues and I introduced blueberries to Zafimaniry country, which have promise as an economic alternative to moonshine.  For the past 17 years I have been to Ambohimitombo about once a year.  Each time Dadamonjy and Randrianirina were our hosts, introducing us to people and customs, guiding us on slippery trails.  My colleagues and I ate many a meal at Maman’i Zana’s little restaurant where the sign said, “We have cooked rice and hot coffee.”

Many who have visited Zafimaniry country have had unforgettable experiences. One visit we took to Zafimaniry country with visitors from The Outreach Foundation took an unexpected turn.  Shortly after arriving in Ambohimitombo, one of the PC(USA) pastors slipped and broke his hip.  God opened many doors and the pastor was successfully evacuated back to the U.S.  If you were to ask the U.S. visitors, they would say that their time in Zafimaniry was unforgettable not only because of the accident, but also because of the haunting beauty of the people and the surroundings.

Moonshine market at Ambohimitombo

Moonshine market at Ambohimitombo

When I arrived in Ambositra on Saturday, February 28, 2015, Daniel shared that the funeral for both Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana was to be held the next day, Sunday, with both to be put in the family tomb at the same time that afternoon.  It was inconceivable to me to be in Ambositra at the time of Dadamonjy’s death and not go to the funeral.  Daniel, who had been a P.E. student of Dadamonjy’s at the FJKM school in Ambositra many years before, felt the same way.  So after sharing the news, he began trying to find a vehicle that could get to Ambohimitombo with the many people from Ambositra he knew would want to go.  He first contacted the owner of a vehicle that could transport 20 people or so.  But it was not available and there were no other four-wheel drive vehicles available.  Without other options, we borrowed the FJKM Synod President’s motorcycle.

So for the third time in my life, I called my wife to tell her that I would not be home that evening as planned. (The other two times were medical emergencies: the first time, I drove to a town four hours away to fetch a colleague who had had a motorcycle accident to get him to hospital in Antananarivo, where he eventually recovered; the second time, I went with a father to provide help for his teenage son who he had heard was gravely ill—at 1:00 the next morning as we drove into the village the singing from the wake let the father know that his son had died.)

Even in the best of times I find it hard to go to Ambohimitombo.  In the dry season the going is slow but the road is passable.  In the rainy season it is sometimes impossible to get through, and there is always the chance that if you make it to Ambohimitombo you will get stuck on the way back.  But it is not only the roads that make the trip hard.  Ambohimitombo is a place at the edge of the world, where people live on the margins of reasonable existence, where malnutrition is commonplace, child mortality high, and where life is a constant struggle.  If it weren’t for moonshine, life would be much harder still.  The hardship of life is in stark contrast to the beauty of the forested landscape, the richness of the culture, and the hospitality of the people.  It is a place where one wants to help, to improve lives, and to protect the forest, but deep-rooted traditions and the remoteness of Zafimaniry country make positive change difficult.

The wake

The wake

Daniel and I left at about 1:30, I driving and Daniel on the back.  He was wearing flip-flops because of a recent foot injury.  Daniel had to get off many times, and I fell once in the mud, but we arrived without incident three hours later, shortly before the evening rain.  The flag in the town square was at half-mast, the mood sober.  We went right away to join the wake, to sit with relatives, to express sympathy.  The bodies were wrapped in cloth, in frames of poles that would serve to carry the caskets to the church and tomb the next afternoon.  Dadamonjy’s medals were pinned on the cloth over his casket, along with a photo of him and his wife.  Dadamonjy’s Chevalier de l’Ordre National award was on the wall. The medals and award were in recognition for his service to community and country.

That evening we and the other guests shared stories about Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana.  Daniel shared about the time in 1998 when he and Hery Ramambasoa, the son of the second FJKM president, had hiked for a week across Zafimaniry country, from north to south, with Dadamonjy and Randrianirina guiding the way.  Hery had heard about Zafimaniry country and wanted to see it for himself.  Touched by the precarious nature of life there, after that trip Hery found money to help put in a gravity-fed water system at Andepontany, a remote Zafimaniry village far from any road.  Elizabeth and I got invited to go to the inauguration in 2001, taking over three hours to do the “two-hour” hike from Ambohimitombo with Robert and Frances.  One of the few guests who had arrived from Ambositra for the funeral and who was sharing meals with us remembered carrying Robert on his shoulders for part of that hike.  Unfortunately, we learned, a recent cyclone had caused a landslide that had taken out a 7m portion of the pipe leading to the water reservoir, so Andepontany currently does not have safe drinking water.  Daniel asked people from Andepontany to get an assessment of the damage done in order to be able to see about the possibility of helping to get it repaired.

We learned that Maman’i Zana had been sick for a week before she died.  Dadamonjy had been sick for about 24 hours.

We spoke with Hanta, Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana’s daughter, who teaches 4th and 5th grades at the nearby village of Ambohipo. She is teaching in one of the classrooms built with help from the PC(USA).  She said the wood is about rotten, but the roofing is still good.  She said the parents have already gotten together the wood needed to rebuild the classroom.

In the church

In the church

The next day, Sunday morning, I got up early to go with Randrianirina to see his blueberries, which are growing reasonably well.  Afterward I went alone to Maharetanihoela.  Later that morning it had been arranged to have a special worship service in a makeshift structure outside the house where the bodies lay.  All the FJKM churches from across Zafimaniry country cancelled their normal worship services that morning to hold a joint worship service at Ambohimitombo.  There were six sermons and the service lasted for over three hours.  While it was going on, people on the other side of the house were lined up to express their sympathy with envelopes of money, rice, and burial cloths.  Meanwhile moonshine was being sold in Ambohimitombo’s Sunday moonshine market.

After the worship service the bodies were brought out of the house and the mayor read a statement about Dadamonjy’s eventful life.  Then the men and women of the church carried Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana, respectively, to the church where a two-hour worship service was held.  At the end the soccer players carried the bodies from the church to a nearby hillside, where the tomb had been dug years before.  In front of the tomb, cloths were adjusted and tied. Then the wrapped bodies were carried into the tomb.

Daniel and I spent the night so as not to ride back to Ambositra during the time of the evening rains.  Fortunately it did not rain much that night.  The next morning we said goodbye to Hanta and Ndrema, two of Dadamonjy’s children, before heading out.

On the way to Ambohimitombo, Daniel and I had come upon a motorcycle with a broken chain. On the way back we passed a motorcycle that had run out of gas.  Then it was our turn: the rear wheel wobbled, signaling a busted bearing.  Fortunately we were just 100 meters past one of only two towns between Ambohimitombo and Ambositra big enough to have a motorcycle mechanic and parts. The young mechanic had us back on the road in less than an hour.  God is good.

It is good to reflect on lives well spent and the web of relations that add meaning to our own existence.  Although they did not have much in terms of material possessions, Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana led very rich lives, dedicated to God, family, and the people around them.  The faces of the young soccer players at the funeral bore testimony to the tremendous influence that Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana had and will continue to have on the lives of countless people of many generations. It was a privilege knowing them.

Thank you very much for your support.  With it, we have been able to meet people like Dadamonjy and Maman’i Zana and minister to people in Zafimaniry country and many other places in Madagascar.  Please continue to minister alongside us by praying and providing financial support. Without support, our ministries in Madagascar would not be possible.


The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 160

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