Sunday morning came bright and early as church services begin very early in Madagascar. The culture here does mostly work off the daylight hours, so getting up earlier in the day is normal as the sun rises before 6am. Believe it or not, the first church services at the Malagasy Lutheran churches begin at 6am, and these services are packed full. Our hosts, Domoina and Dr. Harison, typically attend the Malagasy Lutheran Church in downtown Antsirabe. However, the 6am church service is the most popular service here. The feeling would be that we would have to stand outside and listen to the service if we attended here. Typical attendance on a Sunday morning at this downtown church is 4,000 total after all of their service times.
Our team attended a different Malagasy Lutheran Church in Antsirabe. Dr. Harison met with the pastor on Saturday and made reservations for us to attend at 6am. The pastors reserved seats for us in the front rows. The entire church was full. The estimate is that there were 1,000 people in attendance for the service. There was another service following at 10am, and there are two pastors serving this large congregation. The service followed an order similar to what you would experience in a LCMS church on a Sunday morning. The sermon was in the format of teaching as the pastor had members use their Bibles and help to answer questions during the sermon. The focus of the sermon was on the Power of the Word, an applicable message for us all. A large choir was in the front of the church with 50-60 members. The children of the choir members sat with them throughout the service and even stood with them to sing. It was neat to see church involvement of young members. The voices of the choir were amazing. After the sermon was a long section of announcements. During this time Pastor Matt introduced our MMT group and shared meaningful words with the congregation. Offering involved all of the church members walking up to the front and placing offerings in six different baskets, and each basket supported a different cause, such as church building projects, salaries of the staff, general offering, etc. By this time it was 7:45am. Our MMT group left right after offering. Communion was to occur next which occurs in a progressive style as well. The estimate is that church would have lasted another hour or so with communion and the final portions of the church service. It is neat to see the size, faith, and worship of the Malagasy Lutheran Church. It is thriving and growing.
Following church we took a Sunday afternoon drive to Ambositre. This town is a two hour drive to the south and is famous for its arts and crafts. The drive took us through a canyon that provided new views of the Madagascar landscape with large rocks and more agricultural terraces. Ambositre is more of a touristy town as we ate lunch at a very nice hotel/lodge. We were able to visit a shop where we saw a demonstration for how the carved wood items are crafted, and we shopped at several places.
Sunday evening brought a special barbecue for the Malagasy and American teams that worked together during the week. Domoina's brother, our chef for the week, cooked a feast that included zebu kabobs, chicken, fried shrimp, and several salads. We ate outside the guesthouse under tents, visited, and sang together. The generosity, faith, and love of the Malagasy team really stands out. To conclude the evening songs were sung amongst the group. The final song was "Thank you, Thank you, Jesus for your love." This was sung in Malagasy, French, and English. The children in attendance really enjoyed this song. This celebratory evening is a special way to conclude a week of service, new friendships, and bonds of faith.
Monday morning we packed up to leave Antsirabe and begin a few days of sightseeing and discovering other parts of Madagascar. The drive from Antsirabe to Andasibe took about 7 hours of actual driving time, but we also stopped to shop along the way at a roadside market for handcrafted baskets and then in Tana at a shopping mall and at a market for handcrafted goods. The afternoon drive took us through the mountains towards Andasibe. The effects of deforestation are very prominent in this area as residents continue to burn the forest to create charcoal for cooking. The drive was challenging as there are many semi trucks on the road heading to the ports on the east coast of Madagascar for exports and imports. The roads are full of pot holes, very hilly, and not wide enough for two lane traffic. Our driver, Pastor Tantely, did an amazing job in challenging circumstances to keep us safe in our travels.
Monday night we stayed at a resort in Andasibe where the team stayed in bungalows that had 4 single beds upstairs, a double bed downstairs, and a great balcony overlooking the rainforest. It rained most of the night which had us concerned about our abilities to visit the lemurs in the morning. However, the rains cleared in the morning and the sun came out. Our group headed to Vakona Forest Lodge to see the lemurs. A canoe ride of about two paddles takes visitors across a stream to the island where the lemurs live. We brought bananas with us to share with the lemurs, and they jumped right onto our heads and shoulders to meet us and enjoy the treats. The initial team pictures with our startled expressions really tell the story well. On this island we saw brown lemurs and then black and white lemurs.
We then divided up into different canoes to paddle around and go farther into the rainforest to visit with the ring-tailed lemurs. They jumped right on to our canoes to enjoy the banana treats. The canoe experience really brings the best story of the trip. Each canoe had a Malagasy guide from the preserve paddling while two or three others rode and enjoyed. However, Pastor Matt served as the paddler for his canoe that contained two of our Malagasy team members. Each time Pastor Matt came to a bend, the current would take the canoe off course and into the riverbank. The two Malagasy in the canoe would shriek each time. With the language barrier Pastor Matt would unsuccessfully provide them with directions to get them unstuck. One of the other canoes with a preserve guide did follow Pastor Matt's canoe to assist if needed and provide directions. On the way back to the dock the canoe got caught in a current right near a waterfall that one could hear but not see. Pastor Matt purposely took the boat into the bank to prevent the group going over the waterfall. Lots of laughter about these events filled the rest of the trip as the two Malagasy in the boat told their version and the Americans relived their thoughts and actions. The definition of success that morning was not going over the waterfall.
Throughout the rest of the day we made a couple other stops to see other inhabitants of the Madagascar rainforest. We were able to see Nile crocodiles, colorful chameleons, geckos, snakes, spiders, and more.