Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Few of My Favorite Things

I firmly believe in the beauty and importance of the little joys and moments in life. Here are some of my “favorite things” in Madagascar.

  • The children who live across the fence from me strike a pose or dance each time they see me. (Imagine Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”). When I, too, strike a pose, they squeal in excitement.
  • Keyssi, Mama Jeannette’s two-year-old granddaughter, likes to dance naked in the yard. She may only be two, but that little girl can shake.
  • One of the neighborhood girls chases me down the street and yells good morning whether it is the morning, afternoon, or evening.
  • When we eat white beans (and rice, of course) at lunch
  • When Keyssi pretends to be a cow and crawls over my lap mooing and pretending to eat my hands
  • Josey, Mama Jeannette’s four-year-old grandson, spent an entire morning running around, swinging his hips from side to side and singing, “Bella soa Morgheny!” (Translation: Morghen is beautiful).
  • Each time I clearly hear and understand which hymn we will sing in church and turn to the correct page before the native Malagasy speaker sitting next to me. (Madagascar has certainly changed me, but my competitive nature remains).
  • When my friend, Ravo, invites me to go to church with her family and then eat lunch at their home on Sunday afternoons
  • When Mama Jeannette’s fourteen-year-old grandson, Rayan, challenged me to an arm-wrestling contest
  • The morning devotional which welcomes each new day at SALFA - the Lutheran clinic where I work. Doctors, patients, and families sit in the waiting room, sing, pray, and listen to a short sermon before beginning their work or treatment. It is such an incredibly beautiful way to start a day.
  • When I see a particularly cute baby while administering vaccines at the clinic
  • The overwhelming love and joy of the students and teachers at the Toliara Lutheran School for the Blind.
  • When Mama Jeannette complimented my laundry skills. I had no idea how to wash my laundry by hand when I first arrived. My amateur abilities used to inspire giggles, so Mama Jeannette’s compliment meant a great deal.
  • When I understand parts of the sermon.
  • When my students ask me about an English phrase they have heard, like what it means to be ‘a big cheese’ or ‘to bite someone’s head off.’
  • Moonlight dance parties in the yard with Mama Jeannette’s grandchildren

I pray your day is filled with small and beautiful moments.

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7

I finished writing on the blackboard and turned toward my students - a group of teachers at the Toliara Lutheran School for the Blind. Normally full of energy and smiles, they sat quietly today. They lacked their usual spark, and I knew I could not continue with my lesson. Learning how to discuss daily routines would not keep them awake or engaged. We needed some spunk. I turned back to the blackboard and began to write the lyrics to “Jesus Loves Me.” The mood immediately changed. As soon as I wrote the title of the song on the board, one of the teachers asked me to translate a Bible verse for him. I told him I could bring my English Bible to the next class, and the teachers nearly burst with excitement. We continued to translate and sing “Jesus Loves Me.” The room filled with joy.
I have witnessed that same joy at the Lutheran School for the Blind several times. The school overflows with genuine joy. Students singing hymns have left me with goosebumps. The laughter and abundant love of the teachers warms my heart each time I teach a lesson. I end each class period in prayer, and the teachers eagerly bow their heads. Those teachers and students have shown me time and again what it means to rejoice in the Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

I slipped on my sandals and wandered into the moonlit yard to look for water. Though our water spicket stops running during the day, the water normally flows in the evening. As I left my room, I noticed two of Mama Jeannette’s granddaughters at a nearby table, and I walked over. Kaissey, who is only two, lay uncomfortably on top of the table. Her head burned with a strong fever. Esperance, Kaissey’s twelve-year-old half-sister, stood over Kaissey. Esperance stroked Kaissey’s arms and whispered sweet rhythms. She knew just what to do. With love and care that reminded me of my own mother, she cooled Kaissey with a wet cloth and soothed her to sleep. Though Esperance is not yet a teenager, I watch her care for Mama Jeannette’s younger grandchildren with incredible gentleness and wisdom. She wakes before six each morning to go to the market, prepare breakfast, and ready the children for preschool. After cleaning and cooking all day, she bathes the children and takes them to bed. The same kindness she shows the children has often brightened my day. Her sweet smile and demeanor constantly remind me of God’s love and presence.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

I perched on the edge of a white lawn chair beside the hospital bed. I fanned a large hat near Rico’s face in an effort to cool him down. Suffering from Typhoid and parasites and under the influence of strong medicines, he lay only half-conscious. Every now and then he would mutter short phrases in either English or Malagasy. I tried to calm my worries. Unfamiliar with the illnesses plaguing my friend, I did not know what to expect. I had been visiting Rico every day, but I had seen little progress. In the midst of this concern, I witnessed incredible faith and reliance on God. Each day I visited Rico, I watched him and his family turn to the Lord. When Rico tossed about uncomfortably, his mother would remind him that Jesus was with him. Jesus would give him strength and rest. At other times, Rico’s mother and other family members would stand over Rico’s bed and pray. They nearly whispered, but I could hear power in their words. Though Rico remained in the hospital for nearly a week, a sense of peace never left his family. Every time I visited,  they would tell me how Rico was doing. Sometimes he had improved during the night. Sometimes he hadn’t. Yet, they told each piece of news with voices calmed by the assurance of Christ.
(Rico has since returned home and continued to recover. He will still take some time off from work, but he is excited to return to teaching ).

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Mama Jeannette’s words were simple yet beautiful. “Jesus will not leave me.” We sat on the pews of an outdoor church awaiting the start of the service. She had just told me some of her life story - a story which has included a great deal of struggle and strife. Yet, she continues to walk through each day trusting in the Lord. She said that even in her darkest moments, she knew God’s promise. He will not leave her. He will walk with her. I sat quietly, listening to the details of her story and admiring the beauty of her faith.

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Our connected, beautiful, and fragile world

I opened the Facebook message from my country coordinator, Pastor Kirsten. Her message was short.
Climate change and Vezo.
A link to a CNN news story followed. I decided to wait to open the link. I claimed I should use my limited time with wifi to catch up on other business. Perhaps I knew the story would hit too close to home.

I live with Madame Jeannette, a Malagasy woman of the Vezo tribe. Vezo identify themselves as fisherpeople. They know the sea, and they know fish. Mama Jeannette proudly claims her Vezo roots. She speaks Vezo dialect, and she happily exclaims each time a pop artist on the television sings in Vezo dialect, too. She instructs me in the way of Vezo. We will wear white to the funeral; that is what Vezo do. We will wear our lamba hoany like this. That is the Vezo way. Even at dinner Mama Jeannette’s Vezo pride shines through. Oh, I will eat that fish. It has many dangerous small bones, but the Vezo, they know how to eat it. The volunteer before me returned to the U.S. with the title of a Vezo-American. I have been reassured. You are learning the Vezo way. You will be Vezo-American, too. I would be honored.

Some weeks after Pastor Kirsten sent the link, I watched the video and read the accompanying news article. My heart broke. The report tells the story of a Vezo family - a family who makes their living from the sea. However, climate change challenges their livelihood. The beautiful and sustaining coral which borders the southern tip of Madagascar is suffocating under rising temperatures. The featured Vezo family is struggling to survive. Dead coral means no fish. No fish means no money and no food.
As I watched the video, I felt a connection to the Vezo family. I could understand the dialect they spoke behind the subtitles. Their manner of living - even the pots and bowls they use - are familiar. The fish caught by the family could sit in the market near my house. I may eat it for dinner.

Yet, as I watched the clip, I could not deny the other half of my identity. I am American, too. I am a citizen of the United States, a nation which produced over ¼ of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions over the last 150 years. I own a car and rarely carpool. I drive because it will “just be easier.” I struggle to decide which electronic device to charge first. My laptop is dead, but so is my phone. I overconsume. The Vezo woman featured in the story, Lydia, has only ridden in a car once.  In the article, Lydia says she feels as if the dying coral is a curse sent from abroad - from places like America. American - the other half of my identity.

The Vezo are not the only people facing poverty and starvation as a result of climate change. Madagascar and many southern African countries currently face an extreme drought attributed to climate change. Food shortages abound. In the United States, we often talk about the consequences of climate change. It is one thing to talk about melting polar ice caps. It is another thing to recognize that our poor environmental choices contribute to starvation.

I encourage you to watch the video on Vezo and climate change. I have included the link below. I also encourage you to reflect on your daily choices. What can you do to reduce your consumption of fossil fuels? How can you limit your impact on the dying coral? Yes, the Vezo hold a special place in my heart. However, they are your brothers and sisters, too; we are all connected. We occupy this connected, beautiful, fragile, and aching world together.

When the coral disappears, so will they
Story by John D Sutter, CNN

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Mandroso (Mahn-drew-sue) - used as an invitation - come in, take part, join us
Avia - (Ah-vee-ah) - used as a command - come here

I attempted to stay in the shadows cast by the small stores. The sun burned brightly in Toliara as I walked through the streets. I had only arrived a week earlier, and I wanted to explore my new home. I listened to the conversations and sounds around me while my eyes danced between the road, the sites, and the people around me. A middle-aged woman appeared from a small side street and turned just in front of me. She strolled at nearly my pace, and I decided to say hello. Upon my greeting, she turned around and smiled. We continued down the street and chatted in Malagasy. She showed incredible patience with my language blunders. Soon, she invited me to her home. Mandroso. I followed her down a small path which wound through small homes, huts, and fences. Upon reaching her house, she introduced me to her husband before inviting me inside. She offered me a seat, and she ran off to fetch her daughter. They both returned, and we discussed our families, my work, and the daughter’s studies. Still a new student of the Malagasy language, I could not hold a long conversation. Once we reached a silence, the woman thanked me for coming to her home. She asked her daughter to accompany me back to the main road, and I soon continued my walk home.

Mama Jeannette and I stepped into a sliver of shade to wait with the other women. The church service had just ended, but the director was not yet ready to lead us to our next location. Already past noon, some of the women had bought a small snack from a nearby  vendor. They peeled the skin from beles - a popular food similar to a sweet potato. As I stepped into the shade, one woman invited me to join in the small meal. Mandroso. I agreed, and she returned to the bele vendor. She bought a small potato and handed it to me. I split the potato and handed half to Mama Jeanette. Between bites, all of the women continued to chat.

I jumped into a pair of shorts and threw my sunscreen into my backpack before rushing out of my bedroom door. I apologized to the man and woman standing in Mama Jeannette’s yard; I did not expect them to come so early. They reassured me there was no need to apologize and told me to get on the back of the man’s motorbike. He was the soccer team’s manager, and he would take me to the correct soccer field. I had never met the man, and I had only met the young woman once. I couldn’t even remember her name. Yet, I climbed on the back of the bike and accepted the invitation. My friend had arranged the whole situation. With very few questions answered, we took off down the road. As we zoomed along and dodged potholes, I giggled to myself. I was riding on the back of a motorbike of a man I had just met and heading to some sort of soccer gathering. In honesty, I did not know if I would sit and watch a game, find myself in the starting line up, or simply practice with the team. I did not know if I would understand any of the language spoken. I did not know if my shorts would make me feel extremely out of place. Yet, why would I turn down the chance to engage with a women’s soccer league? Mandroso. Come into this.

The sun had just set as I stepped into Mama Jeannette’s yard. I had barely closed the gate when I heard a cry.
I looked up to find Josey (one of Mama Jeannette’s grandsons) yelling my name. Three other grandchildren soon echoed his call.
It was a loving command, but a command nonetheless. I rolled my bike towards them, and we continued to chase each other for some time. When I wandered too far from the game of tag, I would hear the command.
Avia! Morgheny! Avia!
I had no choice but to follow the call. I would run to Josey or the other grandchildren and induce a fit of giggles.

A few weeks ago, my oldest brother sent me an email. At the end of the email he asked me a question: Am I doing and learning all I came to do and learn in Madagascar? In truth, I found myself a bit a shocked by the question. I had no true answer. When I boarded a plane to Madagascar almost four months ago, I had very little idea what was ahead of me. I could not entirely anticipate what I would do or what I would learn. I continue to wake each morning unsure of what the day will bring. There is a beauty in the mystery of each day and this year as a whole. God called me to Madagascar with a warm and loving, yet stern voice. Mandroso, Morghen! Come into this! I did not know what the year would bring, but I could not decline the invitation. Some days the abundant questions make me hesitant to follow the call, but God persists. Avia, Morghen! Come, Morghen! I want you here. I step forward, sometimes with hesitation, but God always walks beside me. He invites me into the mystery - into questions, into challenges, into joys, into love, and into a beautiful mystery.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sweet Jesus Loves Me

I could hear the pousse-pousse driver chuckle. I suppose we were not his typical customers. Mama Jeannette and I sat side-by-side in the cart pulled behind his bike. Mama Jeannette, a small Malagasy woman with a large presence, sat gracefully and comfortably beside me. I happily crouched to fit under the roof of the cart. Mama Jeannette and I had attended church in the morning and then visited a sick member of the women’s association. Now, the pousse-pousse driver led us home.

During our visit to the sick woman, Mama Jeannette and I had crammed into a small bedroom with the other members of the association. Some women sat on the floor. Others stood in corners. Mama Jeannette and I shared a chair; she had to wrap her arm around my shoulders to keep me from falling off. The group of women prayed, and then, we sang. I joined in as I could - flipping through the pages of my hymnal. The other women have known each hymn by heart for years. Then, the association asked the woman which song she would like to hear. Number 469. I turned to the correct page and sang the Malagasy words printed in my hymnal, but the English version played through my mind and warmed my heart.

Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

While riding home in the pousse, I asked Mama Jeannette if she knew the song Jesus Loves Me. She asked me to sing it, and I quietly sang the tune I know so well. She recognized the song and started to join in as she could. We continued down the road - sharing a pousse, sharing in song, sharing in faith. Mama Jeannette sang in English when she knew the words, and I occasionally jumped in for the Malagasy chorus. I imagine we were the most memorable ride of the day for our pousse-pousse driver. Two seemingly very different women cuddled together and singing a hymn in Malagasy, English, and sometimes both.

I, too, will remember that ride. Mama Jeannette and I shared parts of our faith. We listened to the each other’s lyrics and sang the words we could. Mama Jeannette could not sing in only English, and I could not sing in exclusively Malagasy. However, we could still sing together. We could still praise God while sitting side-by-side in the back of a pousse.

Malagasy Hymn 469:

Verse 1
Jeso o, Mpitita anay!
Maminay ny teninao,
Osa ny fanahinay,
Fa mahery Hianao

Mamy, ry Jeso!
Mamy, ry Jeso!
Mamy, ry Jeso!
Ny fitiavanao.

Oh, Jesus our lover!
Your words are sweet to us.
Our spirits are weak,
But You are strong.

Sweet are you, Jesus!
Sweet are you, Jesus!
Sweet are you, Jesus,

And Your love.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Welcome to the Family

I gazed out the window of the forest-green 20-passenger van. The landscape slowly shifted from the mountainous highlands of central Madagascar to the tropical flatlands of the western coast. I occasionally chatted with my fellow passengers.  After three weeks of intense Malagasy language studies, I could hold brief conversations. I spoke with one student returning to campus for a new semester, another young woman venturing home, and another traveler seeking a vacation on the shore. Between conversations and sight gazing, I drifted in and out of sleep. However, as the day progressed, I kept my eyes focused on the road markers outside the window. I tracked the kilometers to Toliara.  After three days of travel, I could sense the excitement building in my body. Late in the afternoon, the dark green bus pulled into a hustling station. I leaped out of the large sliding door and landed in Toliara, Madagascar - my new home.
I largely ignored the bustle of the station and searched for Rico. My host mother, Jeannette, had to preach out-of-town and would not return to Toliara for a few days. However, she had arranged for Rico to help me find my way. Rico and I found each other quickly. We watched the workers unload my luggage from the roof of the van while we introduced ourselves. He welcomed me to Toliara and into a larger Malagasy family.
We are happy you are here, sister.
I have never experienced such a welcome. Rico spent much of the next few days with me. He works as tour guide in the warmer months, and he showed me many of the sights of Toliara. He noted the markets, the common meeting grounds, the post office, and the sea gardens. As an English teacher, Rico also acted as my translator. (Without him, I would not have known when the president of the synod asked me to come to the front of the congregation). He also helped me translate some of my Malagasy study materials from Official Malagasy into the dialect of Toliara. He showed me true brotherly and Christ-like love.
The incredible welcome continued when Madame Jeannette (Mama Jeannette) returned from her travels. Unfortunately, her brother passed during my first few days in Toliara. We met in a time of grief and pain; yet, she offered nothing but love. Our second night together, I joined her and her family at a service for her brother. I greeted her and turned to take my seat with the other visitors, but Mama Jeannette stopped me.
You are family. Sit with us in front.

Traditionally, family members sit on a mat towards the front of the service. Amidst the grieving and condolences, Mama Jeannette created room on the mat for me. She created room for genuine hospitality, love, and welcome. Since that service, I have been further invited into Mama Jeannette’s family and the larger family of Madagascar. The people of Madagascar have welcomed me as a friend, daughter, and sister in Christ. They have already shown me abounding love, and I hope to extend similar care and compassion throughout the year.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The riches of Madagascar

I perched on the edge of my seat - attempting to soak in each word, note, and movement. Surrounded by my fellow YAGMs, employees of the cultural center, Norwegian nurses, and an array of others, I found myself entranced by the sites and sounds before me. The cultural center had invited us to an evening of Malagasy music, dance, and hospitality. The emcee started his next introduction.
"We are rich in Madagascar..."
The words caught my attention. Days earlier, I had wound through the mountains of central Madagascar. Through the windows of a large van, I had witnessed the intense beauty of the Madagascar landscape. I had also glimpsed the poverty which plagues many Malagasy. I will certainly encounter and struggle with poverty's prevalence and power throughout my year. The emcee, too, knows the trials of Madagascar, but his words reverberated with incredible truth. He continued.
"We are rich in culture, in dance, in music..."
Though I landed in Madagascar only one week ago, I have been honored to share in some of the cultural riches of the Malagasy people. The island of Madagascar sits situated between continental Africa and Asia. Eighteen different tribal regions comprise the large island (two-times the size of Arizona). The African, Asian, and tribal influences have combined to produce entrancing arts. At the cultural event, I heard the sweet strumming of a valiha - a traditional Malagasy instrument made of bamboo (seen in the picture at the end of this post). I attempted to capture each movement of Malagasy performers as they demonstrated dances from various parts and tribes of the island. Astonishingly smooth voices spilled into the room. Though I could not understand most of the lyrics, the sounds cast spells - warming my heart. The other YAGMS and I attempted to take part as best as we could. We learned a dance commonly performed at family celebrations, and some of us even participated in a short percussion lesson. After music and dance, we joined in fellowship over some Malagasy food.
Tea, coffee, Norweigan carrot cake, fried bananas, and other Malagasy treats adorned the table. I tried my first piece of koba - a common treat often sold by street vendors. (Find the recipe here)! Cake in hand and three days of Malagasy language class behind me, I did my best to complement the Malagasy performers. I also chatted with Mamia - our host and teacher at the cultural center. With a warm and large smile, she moved around the table - ensuring that each guest enjoyed the food and experience. Mamia demonstrated one of the greatest riches I have yet to find in Madagascar - overwhelming hospitality.
The extent of Malagasy hospitality astonishes me. Over the last week, we have received cake, enjoyed homemade cinnamon rolls, sipped on countless cups of coffee, and experiences boundless offerings of hospitality. Malagasy give, and Malagasy welcome.
Some may think I journeyed to a land of poverty - that I came to Madagascar to give to those who lack. I suggest a correction. Certainly I hope to offer the few gifts I have - gifts of time, listening, stories, presence and love. However, I have already received far more than I could ever give. I also know I have only glimpsed the bountiful treasures of Madagascar - riches of culture, hospitality, and natural beauty. Yes, many Malagasy get by with little money, resources, or material goods. However, this is a land and people of abundance. In so many ways, we are rich in Madagascar.