Throughout my time in Mahajanga, I have had a song from my childhood running through my head every day as I walk to class. It is a song from the original Winnie-the-Pooh film, and because it is the rainy season here, the lyrics are all-too relevant: “And the rain rain rain came down down down.” My host family told me that this year, they have experienced even more rain than usual. I will admit to being a little frightened one of my first nights in Mahajanga when I woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of a big storm; the rain, thunder, and lightening that frequently illuminated my room lasted for hours. Normally, I love listening to storms and, being a native of the Pacific Northwest, listening to the rain at night is soothing and familiar. Laying in my bed that night, however, I started thinking about cyclones and the potential problem of me being stuck in the mosquito-net tent I had so thoroughly tucked all around me. I half-jokingly told our director the next day that I was a little scared of cyclones, and now I am the designated receiver of all daily weather updates: no cyclones forecasted here today! Since then, I have come to appreciate the rain again, and the stormy nights are back to being soothing and the rain back to causing a little feeling of being home.
For Malagasy people, rain is perceived as a blessing. We first learned this after visiting a Sakalava doany–a sacred prayer site of the coastal Sakalava people. As with many of our scheduled and unscheduled activities here, the visit started out dry but a downpour commenced shortly after our arrival. The member of one of the royal Sakalava families who received us said that to them, the rain signified that our meeting there was blessed. We were welcomed warmly and invited to come back again. Another such blessed occasion was our last night in Mahajanga. We had a party with all the host families during one of the more torrential rains, and the evening was filled with much dancing, singing, and laughter. At the end of the night, my host family and I darted to the car, laughing as we all got soaked. I will not forget the car ride home making one last tour of the city by night: by the market and the Grand Baobab, along the waterfront and the port, eventually making our way home, all the while singing together the Shania Twain song playing on the radio.
During this blessed stay in Mahajanga, we started the academic program, explored much of the city, interviewed many important members of the community, and practiced both French and Malagasy a lot. Staying with a host family for me was the highlight. It felt like time flew during these two weeks together and I was sad to say goodbye after forming a connection with this family.
The emblem of Mahajanga is a giant baobab tree located right off the boardwalk and, conveniently, not even a two minutes walk from my host family’s home. The tree is over 400 years old and its size and grandeur demand attention. The intricate trunk and root system is unlike anything I have ever seen in my life; it looks as though 50 trees all grew together, twisting around one another into a single unit.
On one of my last mornings in Mahajanga, I left earlier than usual to walk along the boardwalk before class and I stayed for a while to admire the baobab and reflect on my time there. As I gazed at this sturdy, impressive tree, I was reminded of the theme for this church year in my home congregation, “Rooted and Grounded in Love” (Ephesians 3:17). As I thought about this theme in relation to my experiences here thus far, I realized how appropriate it is. Along with many other people I have met, my host family is a perfect example of people living in this faithful way. They have been so hospitable and loving to me, and their commitment to their faith is evident in all that they do. I joked with my Dad that I traveled entirely across the world and I somehow still ended up in a “Pastor’s kid” household. I would frequently hear my host father reading scripture out loud or singing familiar hymns in Malagasy all around the house-including the song my Dad’s family in the united States commonly sings together before meals. When I went to church with him, he translated much of the two-and-a-half-hour-long service from Malagsy to French for me, and he belted the hymns from his favorite spot in the back of the packed sanctuary. On particularly lucky occasions, I would listen from my bedroom to both my host parents singing prayers together in the other room in perfect, uniquely Malagasy harmony.
The morning of my departure, we packed all my things and I thought we were going to take advantage of the pause in the rain and all get in the car too. Instead, they ushered me back inside and sat me down so that they could pray for me together before I left. Their prayers were in Malagasy so I didn’t know most of the words, but I understood. The rain started again. After their spoken prayers, they sang the song I had cherished listening to from my room, and tears formed underneath my shut eyelids as I thought about these people and their loving hearts that have touched mine in such a short period of time. After the song, they asked me to pray in English. Like me, I don’t think they knew all the words, but they somehow understood.
They drove me to our place of departure, and we exchanged our final goodbyes huddled under an umbrella. They wished me safe travels and a future return. Standing there in the rain between them, I truly felt blessed.