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Abide with me in Madagascar

Lutheran church in Antsirabe. Madagascar

The sound of the group singing drifted in from the courtyard during breakfast on my first morning in Antananarivo.  The tune was familiar, but in my early-morning stupor after a long plane journey I couldn’t place it.  Then it came to me.  It was my father’s favorite hymn, Abide with Me, composed in the mid-19th century and an Anglican standard.  I had sung it often during my childhood, usually at school assemblies or compulsory Sunday church attendance.  I remembered the opening lines, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” although the line seemed surreal on a hot sunny morning in the middle of Madagascar’s capital city.  I wondered how this hymn had traveled across two continents and been translated into Malagasy.  

For that cultural exchange, we can credit (or blame depending on your attitude to missionary work) a lesser-known group of 19th century colonizers, the Norwegian Lutherans.  They were young men from the farms and fjords, called to the mission of converting the peoples of southern Africa to Christianity and civilization.  They boarded ships in Bergen and Stavanger, and set off for a long sea trip to an unknown island in the southern Indian Ocean.  The first two missionaries arrived in 1866, and established a Lutheran church at Betafo in the central highlands south of Antananarivo (we’ll use the abbreviation, Tana, from now on).  Others followed and were joined by American Lutheran missionaries.  Some had left young wives on the farm, promising to return when God’s work was done.  Most never did, and entered into accepted, but unsanctified, unions with Malagasy women.  Until the end of the 19th century, Madagascar was a British colony, and the Lutherans competed with other Protestant denominations for souls.  When the French took over in 1896 (in a colony swop for Zanzibar), competition increased as Roman Catholic priests arrived.  Yet Lutheranism continued to thrive, and the missionaries built churches throughout the country.  Today, the Malagasy Lutheran Church claims to have more than 4 million members in Madagascar and other countries.  And they do love to sing.

We were staying at the Norwegian Mission in the Isoraka district, high on one of the city’s hills.  It was originally built to as the administrative center for missionary activities, providing accommodation for missionaries visiting the capital.  Today, its guest houses are open to all, but you won’t find it advertised on the hotel or backpackers’ travel websites.  It was recommended by one of our team members, Luke Freeman, an anthropologist from University College, London, who has worked in Madagascar for almost 25 years and stays here when he’s in Tana.  A group of two-story buildings around a garden, it’s an oasis from the traffic and bustle of the city.  Each building has a memorial plaque to a noted missionary or church leader.  History is even celebrated in the Wi-Fi code.  No boring “guest 123” stuff, but a real name, Andrianarijaona (which is difficult to type, especially if you’re in a hurry).  For those readers not intimately acquainted with the history of the Lutheran church in Madagascar, this is Rakoto Andrianarijaona, whose father and grandfather were both prominent revivalist pastors; in 1960, he became the first native Malagasy to be named leader of the national church.   

For about $18 a night, you get a simple, clean room with bathroom, and a shower (the water was always hot).  The so-called “Norwegian breakfast” (rolls, butter, jam, cheese, ham, tomatoes, cucumbers, juice and coffee) sets you back 8,000 ariary ($2.50); for $2.00 you can get the Malagasy breakfast of rice with leaves (rice and leaves in a broth), juice and coffee.  There’s no bar, of course, but you are within a few minutes’ walk of three excellent, and modestly-priced, French restaurants and a Vietnamese.  It's the best accommodation deal in town.