Madagascar was everything and nothing I thought it would be all at the same time. I spent most of my time riding bikes and familiarizing myself with the area. We rode up and down cobblestone roads, red dirt staining my polished shoes, black pants, and white shirts. I thought Madagascar would have animals of all kinds roaming freely, but all I saw were cows, chickens, and dogs. There were no packs of dogs. In fact, all of the animals were mangy and run-down, yet nothing was quite as mangy and run-down as my spirit.
My first few months on Madagascar hold the record as the hardest months of my life. I felt like a large piece of flesh Thomas, my new companion, had to carry around everywhere he went. At times, I was treated that way as well. I was a mute, an outcast. I didn’t speak Malagasy and had to mock sounds that I would hear; “Manna-woo-na” seemed to mean “Hello, how are you?” I questioned my purpose, wondered why I was in Antsirabe, and wanted to go back to Réunion. I felt like Jack Shephard from Lost. No matter what I read, saw, or experienced it was like the island was calling me back. I had to go back.
President, who usually decided exactly where each missionary was assigned, assured me that he would send me back one day. However, after seven months of riding upstream in poo-filled flood water, crossing murky rivers, and accepting blood-sucking fleas as friends, I realized that I may never actually go back. So, I decided to embrace my fate. Madagascar was going to be my home for the next year. I was moved to Antananarivo, the land of a thousand hands and capital of Madagascar. I lived in Alarobia, which translates to Wednesday, and life felt like I was trapped in Wednesday for two months straight.The beauty of countryside living was gone. Antsirabe was full of waterfalls, rice patty fields, and chameleons. My time in Alarobia helped me realize how much I loved living in the rural parts of Madagascar. My life became more about the people and less about nature. It was in Alarobia that I was able to remotely speak like a native. Sounds were beginning to become words and “Manna-woo-na” looked more like “Manao ahoana.” I was getting the language and making friends. My new companions helped me feel at home, and I was really starting to like my life on Madagascar. I had been humbled by the people and their circumstances. For some reason, when everyone is very poor, life doesn’t seem as hard and God is always present.
May 2011I’ve had it with Madagascar. The better part of May was spent in bed. I was sure I was dying. I had an awful fever and no one seemed to know what it was. Late one night, while sweating my brains into my pillow, I had a dream. I dreamt that Death came to visit me. I saw a dark-hooded figure come down the hallway and stand by the bedroom door. There was a large banging on the shed outside that sounded like a thousand rain drops bouncing off the roof. Death stood over my bed, holding a large ax. Nature had come to reclaim me. The next morning, Cryer, my companion, told me that he heard a slow breathing noise in between our beds. I recounted to dream. He heard the rain too, but it hadn’t rained that night. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t, but I was close to dying that night.
August 2011Late one Sunday night at the end of August, I got a phone call. It was President. We were riding back to Wednesday in a taxi cab that sounded like a rhinoceros in heat. There are no rhinoceroses in Madagascar. I plugged my ear and listened very carefully.
“Cassel, Manao ahoana,” he said with his South African accent. “I just wanted to call and thank you for all of the hard work you have done here on Mada. I know it hasn’t been easy, but we are grateful for your sacrifice.”
“Thanks,” I said, receiving a flush of flashbacks that mimic President promising to send me back to Réunion.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say hello to you at the conference this last weekend.”
He should be, I thought. He was so kind to everyone but treated me the way that Dumbledore treated Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix.
“It’s all right, you were busy,” I said nonchalantly.
“Anyways, that’s not why I’m calling.” I listened as hard as I could. “Cassel, you’re going back to Réunion.”
I was in shock. He had caught me off guard, and I couldn’t believe my ears.
“I’m sorry President, what did you say?”
“You’re going back to La Réunion, so start packing because we’re leaving Tuesday morning.”
I wouldn’t spend another Wednesday in Alarobia. This time, saying good bye was a little easier to say because I was finally going back! Seven months and a thousand promises later, I was going back. I was the happiest I had ever been. I didn’t know any of the other missionaries on Réunion now, but I didn’t care. Thirty pounds lighter than when I started on Madagascar, I got on a plane and was so overjoyed that tears formed in my eyes as I watched the eastern coast of Madagascar vanish away.
October 2011Réunion was my home and I was more prepared than ever to face the people. I started speaking French again as if I had been speaking the language the entire time that I was on Madagascar. After a few months, I noticed that my attitude on Madagascar had blinded me to what the island was teaching me. Every morning there I had escaped to a small, brick back-house wherein I prayed to find the strength to survive. Madagascar taught me how to be kind, to respect all living conditions, and how to fall in love with a people so very different from my American lifestyle. I had been inspired by the exotic beauty of the island and touched by the wildlife it sustained. I even literally got to touch a lemur or two! I felt pain when my new friends lost their homes to a fire, leaving them to sleep in a Red Cross or UNICEF tent.
I have forgotten most of their language, and I can’t remember where most of them live, but I know why I suffered. I’ve seen infants die, families torn apart, and a community burn to the ground, yet Malagasies continue living. They look up to God every day because they realize that life is precious and that they need Him to survive. La Reunion and Madagascar molded me and taught me to be a better person, because I served others before myself. I learned that life isn’t so much about what we have as what we do with what we are given.