Like I said, it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a production trip that I can talk about publicly, but the opportunity finally came last month as I led an OFM team of 3 to Madagascar, and some of the small islands off the northwest coast.
Madagascar is amazing, there is no place like it in the world. It’s nicknamed “the 8th continent”, and for good reason… it’s not like Africa! There are no indigenous lions, giraffe, elephants, or anything predatory. In fact 80% of the wildlife and plant species here are ONLY found here! 99 species of lemurs, 6 of the 8 species of giant baobab, giant chameleons. Even the people are different: austronesian descent, rice farmers, houses elevated off the ground. Even their language is different. The whole trip was more like a scene out of Survivor: Borneo than Survivor: Africa.
Our mission was to produce a documentary about 2 people groups, the Sakalava and the Antakarana, who are among the least reached in Madagascar. Both groups are steeped in ancestor worship and possession, and we studied much about the great spiritual darkness and oppression of this place before we set foot there.
The Sakalava are well known for their possession ceremonies, where the spirits of their royal ancestors literally and physically possess the people they have chosen as mediums. And possession by those spirits would be considered the good kind of possession. There are much darker spirits that are seeking people to possess as well.
The Antakarana have a strong tie to their ancestors as well. 200 years ago there were 18 kings of Madagascar, and the Merina king decided he wanted to be king over all. He sought to rule the other tribes, and he pursued the Antakarana to near extinction. For over a year the people hid in massive caves in the coastal cliffs until one day their secret location was betrayed. Forced to flee to a neighboring island, the king of the Antakarana made a vow that if he and his people made it safely across the ocean to this island, then he and his people would follow the religion of the prophet (Muhammed) forever. Today that vow is still honored, on a superficial level at least.
Our time with the Sakalava was highlighted by an overnight stay in a coastal village, where we slept in their beds and ate fish and rice with them and entertained ourselves with singing and clapping under a magnificent starlit sky.
Then we headed, via boat and bus, to the mainland capital of the Antakarana, to see their caves and meet their king and collect the necessary permission to visit their sacred island, the cultural heart of the people. The caves were immense and bat-filled, and I was struck by the great difficulty it would take for a community to live inside of them for a year. I also ate some bat for lunch, a local delicacy, which tasted not a little like a greasy tire.
With permission granted to visit their sacred island, we headed back across the open ocean in a tiny speedboat. It was just the 3 of us, AIM’s unit leader for Madagascar, the boat captain, a cook, a translator, and some food.
It was the most “David Livingstone” experience of my life. Heading to a tiny island that our mission organization has never set eyes on in its 110 year history, and quite possibly no mission organization has ever set eyes on. Meeting people who are so cut off from the other islands that they’ve met very few, if any, foreigners.
But the people there were kind enough, and especially the “prince” of the island, to let us stay in a simple banda on the most beautiful stretch of beach I have ever seen. Turquoise blue sea, powder soft sand. Anywhere else in the world and this beach would be full of high dollar hotels or beachfront homes. But here we were, with a beautiful beach to ourselves and surrounded by small villages of 20 to 50 people each.
Contrasting with the beautiful scenery was the spiritual darkness of a place that has never heard the name of Jesus. And contrasting with the beautiful scenery was a growing pain in my throat that was making it increasingly more and more difficult to eat or drink anything. By the end of our trip I was sure I had a fishbone stuck in my throat, and tried all their local remedies: spoonfuls of honey, swallowing rice balls whole. Nothing helped, and each day it got worse. If I wasn’t so far from a hospital, or any kind of health clinic, I would have found a way to get there.
By the time we had to leave this island, a wind had kicked up and the seas grew choppy. We had a 3 hour boat ride ahead of us, and a flight to catch later that day, so we had to press on, even though our boat was not large enough to be able to handle the waves very well. Minutes into the ride we were soaked and shivering. We’d crest one wave and come crashing down in the trough and get splashed over the sides by the next wave. We just prayed our camera gear stayed dry, and we had wrapped them in garbage bags in preparation.
About an hour into this, OFM’s short-termer videographer, Tana, who was sitting across the boat from me, gasped and pointed behind me. I spun around in time to see the fin of a whale, much larger than our ship, smack the water and disappear beneath the waves. This was only about 20 feet from where I was sitting. A couple seconds later the whale appeared just behind our boat, surfacing just briefly and then slipping into the choppy waves.
If only we’d had a camera out at the time!
We eventually dried out and warmed up, made our flight back to the mainland, and crashed in a hotel that night. As soon as I got within cell phone range I called a GI doctor in Kenya to see me as soon as possible. That night in the hotel we realized how tired we were, and how little sleep we’d been getting over the past 12 days. Up at sunrise (5am), walk all day in the sun, bucket showers, mosquitos, and not very restful nights in bed, between the cockroaches the size of mice and the rats the size of small dogs that seemed to be quite comfortable cohabiting with us. The unit leader woke up the last morning with a wound on his finger from a rat bite!
I got back to Kenya the day before Robbie’s 13th birthday, and not a moment too soon. If our trip would have been 1 day longer I would have had to seek emergency medical attention in Antananarivo, the capital city. I had been planning on a 4-day, father-son climb of Mt Kenya that weekend, but had to cancel it because I was too exhausted and weak from the trip and from not eating or drinking much over the previous 4 days.
The next day, Robbie’s birthday, I found myself getting a chest x-ray to rule out a fishbone in the throat, and a scheduled endoscopy. The culprit: not a fishbone, not a bat bone, but the pills I’d been taking to prevent malaria. A pill had dissolved in my throat and given me an ulcer, which was probably made much worse by the local fishbone remedies, and by continuing to take those pills. Once I stopped that, everything cleared up and today, a week later, my throat feels fine. Praise God!
All in all, we’re calling it the most extreme OFM trip ever, from the variety of wildlife to the variety of modes of transportation to the David Livingstone moments. I’m so privileged to have gotten to lead the OFM team there, and to be producing this documentary so the Church will know these people and how to love them like Jesus does.
And I still owe Robbie that trip to Mt Kenya…