Before I went to Madagascar I drew a spider diagram. I wanted to think myself into the situation of the missionary team in Mandritsara. I wanted the talks I’d prepared to scratch where they were itching. And I knew that unless I tried to mentally immerse myself into their world the applications would simply fly around in the conceptual world and never really land.
I’ve never really been in a foreign missionary situation and so it was a useful exercise. I’m pretty sure I missed some fairly obvious things out. But as I spent time in Mandritsara I tweaked the diagram and I think my applications became more pertinent to their situation. At least I hope so!
I came home with lots to think over. To be honest, more than they probably did. I found the whole experience of living among the missionary team in a missionary situation hugely challenging. It was the personal sacrifices of the missionaries that most unnerved me. I don’t think that being involved in ministry in Balham comes cost-free. There are sacrifices. But they’re not in the same league. I came away thinking that missionary life in Madagascar is hard. Four features contributed to that.
1. The sense of isolation
You just can’t help feeling that the real action is happening somewhere else. After all, Mandritsara is the middle of nowhere. Could you find it on a map? No one’s heard of it. It’s not a strategic location from which intelligent students will graduate or a place in which exciting young professionals congregate. It takes almost three whole days to get to. There can’t be many places in the world that remote! And so you feel isolated. You know you’re living a real life. But it feels as though you’re biding time until you get back to where the action is. The sense of isolation is not helped by the ability to get onto Facebook. I couldn’t be bothered to update my status or check on anyone elses’. I was enjoying the enforced break. And the download speeds here are shocking. But some of the team go online and use it to keep up with real friends, not just Facebook ones! But that makes you acutely aware that in a parallel universe people are living their lives in a very different way and place to you; your family especially. The missionary team gets on with serving Christ where they are. But they have to remember that they’re using the life that God has given them in a hugely significant way. They may not be at all the Christian conferences that are happening over here. They may not be up to speed on the latest developments in ministry training and church planting and so on. They are isolated from the UK Christian scene. But the Lord will reward them for their faithfulness to His cause.
2. The paucity of education
There isn’t a dinner party that I go to where we don’t end up talking about schools and education. (Were there too many negatives in there?) I think it’s fair to say that I now have a new perspective. I’ll still whinge about education provision in south London. But I’ll caveat it a little better than I have in the past! One of the most heartwarming things about the tour of the town was visiting the Good News School. It’s linked with the Hospital. And it’s top of the Mandritsara League tables. OK, they don’t exist. But it’s quickly established itself as the best education establishment. But this is rural Africa and so you can fill in the bits I’m not saying. But it was wonderful. There was one older primary school aged kid who knew the capital city of every country I could think of. There’s real and substantive education going on. And many of the kids have aspirations to continue their secondary school education in the capital city. It’s clear that the school is helping kids to think beyond the possibilities of being a subsistence farmer. The missionary kids get to go to the best school in Mandritsara, which is terrific. They’re not home schooled, which is great. But they’re the only white faces in the class. They’re learning in a language that’s not theirs. And though the teaching standards are better than anywhere else in town they’re unlikely to be as high as those in the schools around us in Balham. These kids are bearing the cost of their parents’ decision to serve Christ in Madagscar. And that plays on the minds of the families.
3. The frustrations of living
There are things about life in the UK that I no longer take for granted. Things like tarmac roads, hot running water, cold running water, internet access, uninterrupted electrical supplies, tasty food and Radio 4. You ought never to hear me complain about cold wet days ever again. I found the 37 degree heat unrelenting. I haven’t come back with a tan because the fans were inside. My shower was a barrel and a bucket. I didn’t sleep properly all the time I was there. It was just too hot. There are some treats about being there; the sunsets, blue sky, the space, the time, the fruit, the simplicity of living and the companionship of the Malagasy people. It wasn’t all bad. But it’s hot, it’s dusty and it’s dirty. It’s not busy. This is Africa. But it is hard. Life is easier inside the hospital compound than outside, for sure. But nevertheless many of the things that we simply take for granted aren’t available. You can’t go out for a meal in a local restaurant. There aren’t any. It’s dark at six and so the evenings are long (though it is light at 5am). Life is undeniably simply but it’s not easier.
4. The absence of entertainment
One of my old ministry apprentices used to warn us often of the dangers of entertainment. He had a point. He’d love Mandritsara. I didn’t. If I stayed there any longer than the week I was there, I’d get bored. There’s nothing to do. I’m exaggerating to make a point. But there’s not a whole load to do. The team work hard in the hospital. They drop and pick up the kids from school. They eat meals together and meet to study God’s word together. That’s all terrific. But you can’t go swimming. There’s no adventure playground. The nearest Pizza Express is miles away. And the only sporting facility (if you can call it that) is the footy pitch in town. I guess, if you were so minded, you could go mountain biking. You could read a lot. And some of the guys chew up DVD box sets for fun. But they were desperate to get to Ille Ste Marie, just for a break. And that brought home to me how demanding life in the compound is.
And so, it makes you wonder why they put up with it all. Why don’t they just come home? On balance, life is easier here. It’s because of their gospel convictions. They’re utterly persuaded that the Malagasy people will be lost without Christ. And they’re right. And it’s that unshakeable belief that drives their sacrifice. And I’m determined not to let the challenge of their example pass too quickly.