(This is the recent article I wrote for AIM’s publication, Heartbeat Africa. It tells of two unique and unreached people groups in Madagascar, and sets the stage for the mission’s upcoming outreaches to them. This was my final draft before the editors made changes. Even though it reads a little different in the magazine, I prefer to post it as it was when it “dripped from my pen” – so to speak.) If you don’t already get AIM’s small magazine, you can sign up for a free subscription here.)
An Island Too Far – The Challenge to Reach Madagascar
We rolled up the legs on our trousers and jumped into the wild, warm surf as our little speedboat tugged against its anchor in the rising tide. Before us was a mesmerizingly beautiful beach, drawing, it seemed, all things toward itself. As our team waded through the water with baggage and provisions atop our heads, stumbling in the thick, powdery sand, we felt like explorers in a new land. There wasn’t a person in sight, or any sign of a settlement; just a perfect line of unspoiled beachfront stretching to our left and right in a gentle arc of pale yellow sand and jewel blue water. But the illusion of being pioneers was not, we knew, accurate. This island was indeed inhabited, and it had a history. It even had a name: Nosy Mitsio. And, as our survey team was soon to discover, it had a sad story to tell.
Madagascar has 3000 miles of coastline, much of it is like that wondrous beach on the peripheral island of Nosy Mitsio: exotic, beautiful, and sparsely populated. Madagascar is a fascinating place. An island 1000 miles long and 350 miles wide, it sits undisturbed off the southeast edge of the African continent. It is both so large and so diverse that some consider it to be a micro-continent in its own right – home to a truly vast array of plants and animals, many of them found nowhere else on Earth.
Historians believe the island was first settled around the same time Jesus was born. And even though Madagascar is only a couple hundred miles from the African mainland, it was, remarkably, first settled from the east, by seafaring Polynesians who crossed the expanse of the Indian Ocean in outrigger canoes, likely originating from present day Borneo. The descendants of these first settlers are the Merina people, Madagascar’s largest ethnic group, who are concentrated in the highlands and hold most of the positions of authority and influence in the society. Their dialect is the official language of Madagascar’s people, broadly known as the “Malagasy.”
Over time, settlers from the African continent arrived along the western coast, and in the north, Arab traders. The French colonized the island in 1883 and the people of Madagascar eventually broke away and gained full independence in 1960 – becoming a nation.
But in the narrative of Madagascar’s history, which includes colorful stories of pirate ships and sunken treasure, as well as cruel tales from the slave trade, the defining element was perhaps the 103-year Merina monarchy – an epoch that ended with the arrival of the French, but had lasting consequences for Malagasy society and, most notably, the condition of the Church.
As the Merina subjugated other people groups in the early 1800’s, they brought with them their culture and ideas, and even the newly translated Bible. Mainline, denominational churches followed the spread of Merina influence. But for some of the other ethnic peoples, the whole of Merina culture was coldly received. And even though many eventually submitted, they maintained a suspicion and distaste for anything Merina that persists to this day; and unfortunately the Church was thrown in with the rest of it.
Madagascar is officially considered to be 40% Christian, but the number of Evangelical Christians is much smaller. And this remaining percent faces tremendous odds in reaching their own people. To Madagascar’s unreached, the existing Church is foreign. It speaks a foreign dialect. It is an establishment of an untrusted people group. And, perhaps most telling of all, it is seemingly powerless in the face of a dark and crushing undercurrent in Malagasy society, the true religion of the island: Animism.
Tuesday is a taboo day, and the Sakalava people in Nosy Be – another small island off the northwest coast – are not entirely sure why. It is a custom handed down to them from generations ago, from their ancestors. This particular taboo is basically a sabbath, a restriction against doing any traditional work like planting rice or fishing. But it does not apply to the activity of receiving visitors, which was fortunate since our team arrived on a Tuesday. We sat with the elders, and many of the other men, women, and children in the village and asked them what it meant to be Sakalava.
The Sakalava are one of the largest people groups in Madagascar. They are found throughout the entire western plain of the country and on some of the smaller islands, nearly a million strong all together. Their ancestry has closer ties with Africa than Asia, and so they are both visibly and culturally distinct from the Merina.
But one common element across Malagasy culture is that Madagascar is a land of kings and queens; and the Sakalava are especially proud of their heritage. From ancient and unquestioned customs, to the misadventures and heroics of a long line of royals, we learned how the Sakalava kings of old set the stage for everything we saw today. What was surprising to learn however, was how these departed kings and queens still had influence over their people today – in very tangible, and sometimes frightening ways.
“Our ancestors were the first to live here,” one old man from the village told us. “We are still doing what they did. They left us three sacred places to go to for healing. We have grown up with this. It is good for us.”
The Malagasy are widely known for their ancestor worship. They believe that the dead are never really departed, and this is especially true of dead royalty. These “spirits” may embody inanimate objects like trees and rocks and lakes to which a person can go and converse with the ancestors. This activity is so closely wed to daily life that it has created a landscape of “sacred sites” all over the island – from prominent natural wonders to small hand-crafted shrines in the center of every village.
The spirits may also embody living people, mediums, whom when possessed will take on the character of the long-dead ancestor and literally interact with the village in real time. But the people caution that they never really know what they will get. When seeking advice from the ancestors, they may instead be ambushed by a fickle, fitful spirit – perhaps a resurrected witch doctor – with ill intent.
At the heart of this type of spirituality is a system of bargaining with intermediaries. For the Sakalava, god is a distant idea, and the idea of a gracious God who intimately cares about them is even farther from their experience. So they must go to the spirits. They bargain with them. They visit the sacred Tamarind tree on the edge of the village, bow before it and place an offering of rum or money in the tangle of its roots. There they make a plea – for something mundane like a new oar for their boat, or for something profound like a child’s life. They make a deal. Make a vow.
“If I get this thing, I will kill a cow here. I will buy fabric and clothe the tree. I will protect this sacred place.”
And it is taboo to not keep a vow. A person may get sick as a result – a kind of retribution from the spirit world. The whole village might even suffer some awful consequence.
One might be tempted to dismiss these traditions as harmless superstition, like throwing salt over one’s shoulder after spilling it. But there is a serious reality beneath the Animism of Madagascar. It is truly spiritual; demonic even.
As our Sakalava host explained, “It is beyond something that you can see.”
But what I could see, in the few moments when our conversations with the Sakalava drew more intimate and inward, was a deep-set uncertainty about life. Amidst the backdrop of a beautiful village in a beautiful setting were a people of downcast eyes. Captive. Bound. Sad.
MAKING A STAND
From the minute we stumbled ashore at Nosy Mitsio and declared it a paradise, we knew that it wasn’t. For the same dark undercurrent we found running through the Sakalava culture was also here. And what at first looked like an uninhabited island, was in fact the cultural birthplace of the Antakarana people – a cousin group to the Sakalava.
The Antakarana have an epic story. They are known as the “people of the rocks” because of the treacherous limestone massif in northern Madagascar to which they fled during the years of the Merina advance. So determined were they to remain separate from the Merina people, they hid in caves for over a year, fought a bloody resistance, and ultimately made a daring escape. Some of the Antakarana stayed behind and accepted the Merina rule, but a group of them, led by the king, secretly maneuvered their tiny canoes through a maze of a mangrove forest and fearlessly burst out into the open sea. They sailed, and they landed here, on this very same J-shaped island where we stood half-wet and awestruck at the tail end of our survey trip.
In their hasty escape, the Antakarana made a dangerous bargain. Before they set out, they summoned the spirits of their ancestors and begged for supernatural protection. And in return, if every single Antakarana made it safely, they vowed to follow the religion of the Arab traders – they and all the Antakarana who followed after them.
The remnant intended to make their last stand on that island. They expected the Merina to continue the pursuit and finish them off. But the Merina never came. So the king chose a special place to honor his vow. In a sandy clearing close to the beach, the people laid down a jumble of large stones – sacred stones from the caves on the mainland – and made an offering of themselves. They became Muslims.
As we traversed the island with Daniel, AIM’s Madagascar Unit Leader, we visited as many of the small villages as could be found. We sat with the sitting King of the Antakarana, in the shadow of those sacred stones which embodied the spirits of past kings, and we were warmly welcomed.
But here, just like among the Sakalava, a spiritual heaviness hung over us. The Antakarana, Muslim in name and half-hearted observances of Islam, were still wholeheartedly Animistic.
One afternoon we set out to climb the highest hill on Nosy Mitsio, and from it we could see nothing but ocean in every direction. It was a picture of utter isolation. Standing there I thought about how an island was something like a human heart separated from its Creator.
“It’s like they’ve gone too far,” Daniel said, in a moment of introspection.
The Antakarana made such an effort to isolate themselves: From the Merina culture, from the mainland peoples, from the world. And it’s like they’ve gone too far, and God cannot be found anymore.
But as Daniel looked out over the island, he imagined the ministry teams that would one day come to this place: TIMO teams that would travel to Madagascar’s distant shores, brave the ocean journey, be tossed and sea-sprayed and awestruck, to make that same beachhead we made – but to stay.
There is no church here. And there can never be a Merina church here. But will there ever be an Antakarana church? Will they ever be free from the dark spiritism of their past?
As I sat and watched Daniel draw maps on scraps of paper and think aloud the possibilities and strategies, I knew the answer was yes. Because there’s no such thing as an island too far – not for TIMO, and certainly not for God.
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” —Isaiah 61:1