Situated off the east coast of Africa, Madagascar is sometimes called the Big Red Island. It is big indeed, being the fourth-largest island on earth, and its soil is red in color.
A French scientist called Madagascar “the naturalists’ promised land” because of its rich and varied plant and animal life. Some 80 percent of its 10,000 species of flowering plants are found nowhere else on the planet. There are nearly 1,000 types of orchids alone, one of which yields a major export crop—vanilla. The island also abounds with fascinating animal life including ring-tailed lemurs and a variety of chameleons, which have a prehensile tail and feet that grasp like hands. All but a dozen of its 400 species of amphibians and reptiles are unique to this island.
Most attractive to Jehovah’s servants, however, are the people. There are over 14,000,000 inhabitants of Madagascar, making up about 20 ethnic groups. The people of the highlands, in the center of the island, have Asian features, with light-colored skin and straight, black hair. It is believed that they originally came from what is now Indonesia. Those living along the coast reflect an Afro-Arab background. A blending of these features results in people who do not seem to show their age; frequently, parents look as young as their teenage children.
The Malagasy have one of the highest birthrates in the world, and 80 percent of the people make their living from the land. This is taking a heavy toll on the “promised land.” More than half of Madagascar’s once-luxuriant forests have been either wiped out or degraded.
Despite that, Madagascar continues to prosper as a “promised land.” In what way? It is rich in appreciative people in whose hearts the seeds of Kingdom truth will thrive. Many are grateful to hear the good news that “Jehovah himself has become king!” They rejoice that his rulership will do for humankind what no human government could ever do.—Ps. 97:1.
Who are the people that have really helped the inhabitants of this big island to appreciate what Jehovah’s kingship means? Although about 40 percent of the population belong to Christendom’s churches, their missionaries failed to implant the Christian way of life into the hearts of the Malagasy. A native Malagasy once said: “Let me tell you something, monsieur. We Malagasy are merely vaccinated with Christianity. There is not one Malagasy, no, not one, not even among the evolved [Europeanized] people, who would think of building a house without consulting the soothsayer as to the auspicious day to start. The old beliefs are not dead.” Animal sacrifices are still offered on high places and on mountaintops. Ancestor worship is the norm, and witch doctors have a strong hold on the people. Everyday life of an individual seems to be governed more by the dead than by the living.
God’s Personal Name Well-Known
Although having little success in helping people to lead a Christian way of life, Christendom’s missionaries have in a sense made known the name of Jehovah through their translations of the Bible. Already in 1830 the “New Testament” was published, and by 1835 the whole Bible was available in Malagasy, making the Malagasy Bible one of the oldest vernacular translations in Africa. The Protestant version of the Malagasy Bible uses the name Jehovah even in the Christian Greek Scriptures, and the Catholic version uses the form Iaveh in the Hebrew Scriptures. (Ps. 83:16, 18 83:17, 19; Matt. 4:7, 10) As a result, the name Jehovah is frequently used in everyday life. While traveling in a local taxi, you may see such Bible verses as “Jehovah is my Shepherd” displayed in Malagasy. (Ps. 23:1) You may also see a Bible verse with the divine name printed on a piece of material called a lamba, which is worn by women.
Yet, who have helped people here not only to know God’s name but also to recognize Jehovah as the Sovereign of their lives?
Good News Reaches the Big Red Island
In 1925 the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known, began to help people in Madagascar to understand God’s Word. Then in September 1933, the island received a more extensive witness. Two courageous men with missionary zeal, Robert Nisbet and Bert McLuckie, arrived at the coastal town of Toamasina from South Africa via Mauritius. They were preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. Since the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Africa was limited in those days, they endeavored to make known the Kingdom good news to as many people as possible in a short period of time. Robert Nisbet recalls: “Our French literature went out rapidly. We just gave a testimony to the Kingdom, placed literature, and then moved on to other unworked territory.”
After covering Toamasina, Brothers Nisbet and McLuckie headed inland to Tananarive, the capital. Tananarive is the French name for Antananarivo, which means “The Town of a Thousand.” Its name was derived from the fact that King Andrianjaka encircled the city with a camp of a thousand men to protect it when he proclaimed this city the capital of his kingdom in 1607. Bert McLuckie gives his impressions of the capital: “Tananarive was horseshoe in shape, with the railway station at the open end of the curved hill. Inside the ‘horseshoe’ was the main business center, surrounded by the residential area. Literally hundreds of steps on the hillside enabled inhabitants to reach their homes.”
How did people in the capital respond? Robert Nisbet observes: “They readily took French literature, and some subscribed to The Golden Age (now Awake!) in French. Because many asked questions, we returned to a number of them for a further discussion.” Recalling their experiences, Brother Nisbet said: “We were greatly attracted by the very intelligent native people.”
However, the two brothers had a communication problem, since very few people understood English. Nevertheless, they tried to reach as many people as possible until their literature stock was exhausted. Although no group or congregation was established during their month-long visit, they spent 185 hours telling others about Jehovah, placed 214 books and 828 booklets, and obtained 21 subscriptions. Seeds of truth had been sown, but another 22 years would pass before these received enough attention for them to grow and flourish.
Malagasy Embrace the Truth
In October 1955, following the “Triumphant Kingdom” Assembly in Paris, two special pioneers from France arrived in Tananarive via the coastal town of Toamasina. Getting off the train, they stood for a while in front of the station. They looked around and saw the “horseshoe” with thousands of houses perched on the hillside as if they were on shelves on a wall. Adam Lisiak, a former coal miner of Polish descent, said to his partner, Edouard Marlot: “Look, Edouard, this is all our territory!” Edouard responded: “Adam, what are we to do here? People here are educated; we are not. What can we do, Adam?” Yet, they accomplished much good on this island.
At that time Madagascar was a French colony. Since The Watchtower was banned in France and the French territories, they offered the French Awake!, which was available only on a subscription basis. In the first six months, 1,047 subscriptions were obtained. Brother Lisiak used to tell how after they repeatedly used the same copy of Awake! as a sample, the magazine became just a bundle of paper, no longer legible. Still, subscriptions were obtained just by showing this paper bundle.
Brothers Lisiak and Marlot did not waste time. They worked the territory and conducted home Bible studies. Soon a primary school gave the Witnesses free use of its classroom to hold their meetings. The benches were wooden, and everything was meant for young children—not so comfortable for adults. Still, no one complained.
After six months the first Malagasy publisher, Rabehasy Noël, reported field service. Then, other publishers joined in the field activity. At the end of the 1956 service year, a group of eight applied to form the Tananarive Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. (You will observe that in Malagasy usage the given name appears last.)
Among the first in Madagascar to show interest was a young Malagasy woman, Razanaboahangy Narcisse. In 1956, Narcisse noticed two men regularly passing by the shop where she worked. One day, one of the men came into the shop and bought a few slices of ham. After he left, all who worked there had a small tract in Malagasy—Life in a New World. “I was not interested in the message,” says Narcisse. “Yet, my mother, knowing that I was fond of reading, subscribed to the Awake! magazine in French and agreed to a Bible study for me, without even asking me.” Narcisse began to study with the Witnesses, but she hoped that they would leave her alone once they found out that she was not really interested. However, she became more interested than she at first thought. When she studied what the Bible says about the soul and understood that ancestor worship is wrong, she realized that she was learning the truth.
By 1959, Razanaboahangy Narcisse was ready to symbolize her dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. Then she enrolled in the full-time ministry. Later she married Edouard Marlot. As a full-time minister, she set a fine example of perseverance in her service.
Right to the end of his special service in Madagascar, Brother Lisiak’s territory was Antananarivo. He had calls and studies everywhere. To many people he was known as that vazaha (white person) who has no hair. Often householders would just touch their own head, and you could tell that Adam had been there. Rasaona Gervais, a brother in a French-speaking congregation in Antananarivo, recalls: “Brother Adam was very patient but firm. When I was studying, I would ask others to tell him that I was not at home, but Adam would come back again. Right from the beginning, he invited me to attend the meetings, which I did. He was faithful to Jehovah’s organization and taught me to cultivate the same spirit.”
In 1970, Brothers Lisiak and Marlot were reassigned to the nearby French island of Réunion. Brother Lisiak later returned to France, where he died in Marseilles in January 1988. Edouard Marlot is in Réunion with his family.
More Pioneers Help With the Work
Much was being done to keep the Kingdom message before the people of Madagascar. A married couple from France, Antoine and Gilberte Branca, arrived in 1957 and thereafter served in Antananarivo. Gilberte was a graduate of the 24th class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, and later her husband also attended Gilead. After their daughter, Anna, was born in 1961, they stayed right there in their assignment. Simone Berclaz, with whom Gilberte had studied in Switzerland, also moved to Madagascar to assist in the work.
Two more special pioneers, Florent and Henriette Chabot, came to Madagascar from France in 1960 and started serving in Diégo-Suarez (now called Antsiranana), in northern Madagascar. “In those days,” recalls Brother Chabot, “when pioneers left their homes and families for distant countries, many of them thought they would not return before Armageddon and bade their final adieu to their families. That was exactly how we felt.”
One man with whom Brother Chabot studied had his first contact with the truth when he bought some sugar. A Chinese businessman who subscribed to Awake! used its pages to wrap his merchandise. Was the magazine wasted? Ratsimbazafy Charles bought some sugar from the man. It was in a cone made from the last page of one of the magazines. Charles read an advertisement for the book “This Means Everlasting Life” and wrote to the France branch to obtain the book. Meanwhile, Brother Chabot met him, placed the book with him, and started a Bible study. He made rapid progress and began to come to the meetings.
But Charles had to get his family life sorted out. He had separated from his wife and was living with another woman by whom he had children. To be acceptable for Christian baptism, he needed to be properly married. (Heb. 13:4) Although he started the legal process in 1960, it was 1967 before he had all the paperwork completed. At that point, however, the town hall of Diégo-Suarez burned down, and Charles’ personal documents were destroyed. (Eccl. 9:11) He had to do all the work again, but this time it took only a year. The authorities were very much impressed by his determination to conform to godly standards. At last, he was eligible to become a Kingdom publisher and to get baptized! His wife also got baptized. Charles has served as an elder in Diégo-Suarez and in Antananarivo.
Struggling With the Language
In 1961, Laval and Irene Carbonneau, who were in the circuit work in the French-speaking part of Canada, arrived in Madagascar as missionaries. They moved into an apartment on the ground floor of a Malagasy-style house—with a small bedroom, a small dining room, a small kitchen, a small cold-water bathroom, and a small closed-in veranda. “Rats, mice, and cockroaches came free with the house,” recalls Brother Carbonneau. “My wife got to the point where she could recognize one of the rats by his half-bitten tail. Whenever she met him, she would call him ‘Monsieur le Prince’ and ask politely to pass.”
Laval could speak French and his wife was learning it, so they could communicate with the people. But that was not true of Raimo and Veera Kuokkanen, who arrived from Finland at the end of January 1962. It was not difficult to recognize them when they got off the plane. Having left Finland in the cold of winter, they were wearing fur hats and other heavy, warm clothes. Changes would certainly be needed in this tropical heat. Raimo spoke English but not French. Veera spoke neither. Irene Carbonneau used English to teach them French, so Raimo had to translate everything from English into Finnish for his wife. However, as Veera had had all her schooling in Swedish, grammatical points had to be explained in Swedish. Happily, Raimo knew some Swedish too. Sound complicated? It was. But after about two months, the light began to dawn. They began to recognize some words in French. Even after they mastered French, however, they had to learn Malagasy.
A few years later, when his language instructor was no longer available, Brother Kuokkanen found himself interpreting into French for Malcolm Vigo, a visiting zone overseer. Brother Kuokkanen still remembers that when Luke 9:62 was quoted, he did not know the French word for “plow.” When he tried to describe it, the audience opened their eyes wide in amazement because his description did not fit the way plowing is done in Madagascar, where zebu bulls are used. On another occasion when endeavoring to state in French that the brothers in Malawi were holding meetings under a mango tree, he put the whole congregation on the tree. He had to learn to laugh with those who simply could not help laughing.
Another missionary couple, Samuel and Thelma Gilman, arrived from the United States in April 1962. Sam well remembers communication problems he faced. “In order to get established in our new home, we needed a long pipe for use in closets. So Brother Kuokkanen and I went to a corner hardware store to ask for a pipe, six meters [20 feet] long. We used the word from a small dictionary that we carried with us. Imagine the looks on the faces of those in the store when we asked them if they had a pipe—a smoking pipe—six meters long!”
Visits from Headquarters
With the help of overseas ministers, there was further increase in the number of those in Madagascar who were proclaiming that “Jehovah himself has become king.” The 1959 service year saw a peak of 41 publishers. In that year N. H. Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, personally visited Madagascar to encourage the brothers.
Four years later when Milton Henschel, Brother Knorr’s secretary, visited African countries, Madagascar was again on the itinerary. He gave special attention to the missionaries and the special pioneers here. All those present were very much encouraged. Brother Henschel shared with them experiences from his own pioneering days. Before the end of that service year, Madagascar passed the 100-publisher mark.
Following Brother Henschel’s visit, local brothers and sisters were invited to take up service as special pioneers. Being native to the land, they could most effectively spearhead the work of opening up new territories. Andriamoara Félix was one of that group. He started his special-pioneer service in 1965. Since then he has served as a traveling overseer and for many years as a member of the Bethel family in Madagascar. Even after he and his wife, Honorine, had a family, he continued in the full-time ministry. His wife works part-time in the Translation Department at the branch.
Did their zeal for Jehovah’s service benefit their children? Their daughter, Miora, is now married and serves with her husband as a special pioneer. Their son, Timoty, who is still at home, serves as an auxiliary pioneer from time to time.
A Branch Office for Madagascar
When the preaching of the good news in Madagascar got under way on a regular basis in 1955, the work was supervised by the Mauritius branch. From 1959 through 1962, supervision came from the France branch. But starting in 1963, Madagascar had its own branch office. Raimo Kuokkanen was appointed to be the branch servant. Initially, he was able to care for most of the routine work himself.
At first the office was simply a rented house that also served as a missionary home. That house was not ideal, however. After the missionaries moved in, some local people asked if they were not afraid to live in a house that was haunted. Sure enough, strange things did take place in that house. As an example, when a missionary couple saw the handle of their door turning, they opened the door to see who was there, but apparently, there was no one in the hallway. The missionaries learned that a spirit medium had lived in that room. They made a careful search to see if anything had been left behind that the spirits were using as a contact. Firmly nailed to the threshold of their room was a coin. With considerable effort the brother removed it. Then the strange occurrences stopped.
When questioned about the situation, the owner of the house acknowledged: “Yes, it is a haunted house, but I thought because you are missionaries and God’s people, you would have nothing to fear.”
Producing Literature in Malagasy
With the progress of the preaching work, more literature in the Malagasy language was needed. Until 1963 there were only a few tracts, such as Life in a New World and Hell-Fire—Bible Truth or Pagan Scare? There was also the booklet “This Good News of the Kingdom,” which had been published in 1959. The more educated people spoke and read French, so the publishers used literature in that language. Still, there were many people who preferred to read in their native language.
When approval was given to produce The Watchtower in Malagasy, more help was required by the branch. Rasoamalala Louise, a Malagasy sister, translated from French. She did the work in her own home, and she wrote everything out by hand. At the branch, Veera Kuokkanen typed the translated text onto stencils, and brothers operated the mimeograph machine.
The first printing of The Watchtower in Malagasy, released in September 1963, totaled about 600 copies. At that time it was a monthly edition that included only the study articles. The publishers were delighted. They obtained hundreds of subscriptions during the first subscription campaign when the Malagasy edition was used. Within a few months, the branch was mimeographing 3,000 copies every month. Three brothers took turns running the mimeograph machine almost day and night.
One of the brothers remembers: “We needed at least 16 wax stencils for each issue of The Watchtower. For one magazine, we put together eight sheets of paper, printed on both sides. This meant printing over 24,000 sheets of paper to produce 3,000 copies of The Watchtower. We had eight piles or more of printed pages laid out on a table, and we walked around it 3,000 times, gathering the pages one after another. Then the sheets were stapled together. Yes, everything was done manually.”
In time, the Society arranged for the Switzerland branch to print the Malagasy Watchtower. Now it is printed semimonthly in Britain and has a circulation of 26,000 copies. Using it, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Madagascar are able to partake of the same spiritual meal simultaneously with fellow believers all over the world.
Little by little the translation work progressed. Three months after the release of The Watchtower in Malagasy, the local Witnesses also had the Bible study book “Let God Be True” in their native tongue. Upon receiving it, Rakotomaro Justin, a special pioneer who was doing much to help others learn the truth, held the book in his hand for a long time without saying a word. Then he exclaimed: “Oh, how good Jehovah is! He has given this book to us.” Pioneers took cartons of them in order to place the books in the hands of spiritually hungry people.
On the Road With Circuit Overseers
At first there was only one congregation on the whole island. But as new missionary homes were opened and special pioneers were sent to various locations, more were formed. During the 1964 service year, two new congregations were established. To assist the three congregations that were then operating, the branch arranged for them to be visited by a circuit overseer, Laval Carbonneau, along with his wife, Irene. They traveled by rail. It was an adventure—an enjoyable one. On one occasion, for example, they felt something pecking their legs. A goose, traveling under the bench, wanted a little attention.
When the Carbonneaus had to leave Madagascar to care for family responsibilities, Raimo Kuokkanen took over the circuit work. Whenever possible, he and his wife, Veera, traveled by train. Between the coastal cities, passenger boats were used. Sometimes they had to travel in ‘taxi-brousses,’ or ‘bush taxis,’ which had a capacity of 15 people but were always overloaded. Those were trips that lasted from early in the morning until late in the evening. During the rainy season, when the bush taxis could not get through, the Kuokkanens traveled by air. But it was nothing fancy. The local airline had old DC-3 planes, and the runways were simply grass fields. The visits with the various groups were opportunities for a warm interchange of spiritual encouragement.
For a while Brother Kuokkanen served as both the circuit overseer and the district overseer. Also, out of necessity he had to handle circuit and district mail at the branch. But he worked hard to train local brothers. In time, a local special pioneer, Rajaobelina Célestin, qualified to become the first Malagasy circuit overseer.
Hindus Turn to Worship of Jehovah
As the preaching work progressed, all sorts of people were contacted. (1 Tim. 2:4) Missionaries placed many books and magazines with the Asians who had businesses in the capital city. Dirajlal Bagvandjee, a young Hindu known as Dirou, was one of them. When a missionary would come to his shop with magazines, he gladly took them. Then when his uncle died in 1963, Dirou started wondering: ‘Why do people die, and what is the condition of the dead?’ He asked himself why God allowed such a good man to die. He also pondered whether there was any hope of seeing the dead again.
Shortly thereafter, Simone Berclaz met him as she witnessed from house to house. On a return visit, she used the Bible to answer his questions about the condition of the dead and to explain the wonderful hope of the resurrection. (Eccl. 9:5; Acts 24:15) At first he was confused because he was trying to fit it all in with his Hindu belief in transmigration of souls. Such a belief provides no hope of seeing dead loved ones again. Once he sorted everything out, however, Dirou could see how wonderful the Bible hope of the resurrection is.—John 5:28, 29.
After a few weeks of Bible study, Dirou started attending all the meetings. Then opposition arose, especially from his father and friends. Nevertheless, Dirou finally came to the conclusion that “the Bible is logical, truly God’s Word.” The following year he dedicated himself to Jehovah and got baptized.
However, Dirou’s father continued to oppose and sent two Protestant pastors to convince him that he should return to the religion of his parents. When Dirou asked them why they did not teach his father the truth about sin, death, and the ransom, the pastors argued that the fifth commandment instructs a man to honor his father and mother. Dirou asked them whether it would be right for him to obey the fifth commandment—to honor his father’s wishes—and thus disobey God’s first commandment—not to worship any other gods. The pastors could not reply, so they left. Next, they went to the branch office and asked the Witnesses to convince Dirou to return to his father’s religion. “Seeing this hypocrisy made my faith even stronger,” says Dirou.
His father then went to magicians and politicians for help, after which he put an article making false accusations against the Witnesses in a local paper and stopped talking to Dirou. Dirou’s parents had five sons and three daughters, and as a whole the family thought that Dirou’s religion was disrupting their family relationship. Nevertheless, Dirou was convinced that his first obligation was to obey God.—Mark 12:28-31.
In February 1967, Dirou became a special pioneer, and the following year he married Simone. After they were forced to leave Madagascar in June 1970, they served in Kenya for three years and then in India for nearly 20 years. In India he served on the Branch Committee.
But what happened to Dirou’s family? With the passing of time, his father started reading the Bible and Bible publications, his mother became very open to Bible truth, and his brothers and sisters as well as nephews and nieces became baptized Witnesses. Altogether, 16 individuals from his family became worshipers of Jehovah. Some are serving at the branch in Madagascar; others help with international construction projects. The Bagvandjee family is an example of the fine fruit on this spiritually fruitful Big Red Island.
Missionaries Lay a Foundation
The Watch Tower Society continued to send missionaries to help with the preaching of the good news in Madagascar. Among them were Margarita Königer and Gisela Hoffmann, German sisters who came in March 1966. Sister Hoffmann tells her impressions: “Madagascar has a peaceful atmosphere, far away from the busy and hectic life in Europe and America. One of the first things that amazed me were the huge aloe plants. Back home I had cultivated them in a flowerpot, and I was proud when they reached the height of five inches [15 cm]. Yet, here I saw them as high as houses! And returning from our first meeting in the evening, I saw the stars closer than I had ever seen them before. Here we started an uncomplicated life.”
The two sisters quickly realized that the local inhabitants were very warm and hospitable. Sister Königer said: “We found people to be quite cultured. Even old grandmothers out in the villages liked to read the Bible and Bible literature. In order to obtain books, they loved to trade. Children came running behind us to barter rice for Watchtower and Awake! magazines.” These two sisters together with the Brancas opened up the preaching work in Fianarantsoa and strengthened a small group in Ambositra. Both cities are located to the south of Antananarivo.
There were also other courageous missionaries who opened new territories. Hugh Haisley and Thomas Baynes served in Toliara, a coastal city in the southern part of Madagascar. Mary Dolinski from Canada served in Taolanaro with Edouard and Narcisse Marlot.
In 1961, when the first missionaries were sent to Madagascar, there were just over 75 publishers reporting. By 1970, after nearly a decade of disciple making, those missionaries rejoiced to see a peak of 469 publishers—a 525-percent increase! But a dark cloud loomed ahead of them. Already since 1967, no new missionaries had been allowed entry into Madagascar.
At 4:00 p.m. on June 5, 1970, the storm broke. The Security Police went to the branch and told Samuel Gilman that all the missionaries were to report to the Security Police the next day. The missionaries in the capital at the time—Brothers Gilman, Kuokkanen, and Lisiak—appeared before the director of the Security Police. In very few words, they were told that all the missionaries of Jehovah’s Witnesses must leave the country immediately, on the plane that night! “Do not look for the reason because you will never find it, just leave now,” they were told. Some had obtained new three-year visas a few days earlier. When they pointed out that the visas were still valid, the director asked them to present their passports. He then stamped on their visas Annulé (Void), and the brothers were told that they were now in the country illegally.
The missionaries were not able to leave that night. Early Monday morning they went to the consulate or embassy of the country of their origin and asked for help. Nevertheless, by Saturday, June 20, 1970, all 20 missionaries had to leave the country. Most of them went to Kenya. The French citizens left for Réunion, which is French territory. Brothers and sisters from all parts of Madagascar came to bid them farewell. The local Witnesses were crying, and the missionaries were crying. Some of them had been in Madagascar for many years, and it was their home.
While in Madagascar the missionaries had endeavored to teach people to build their faith on God’s Word, to put their confidence in Jehovah, and to appreciate the role of Jesus Christ in God’s purpose. (1 Cor. 3:5-14) Appropriately, at his last meeting before leaving the country, Florent Chabot said: “If you have become followers of the missionaries, after their departure you will not be able to continue as Jehovah’s Witnesses. But if you have become Witnesses of Jehovah, even after the missionaries depart, you will continue to be Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
A ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses was made public on August 8, 1970, in the Official Journal of the Malagasy Republic. What would happen to the Malagasy Witnesses? Upon being asked that question, the Minister of Interior said: “Do not worry. After the missionaries leave, we will take care of them.” He then made a motion with his hands as if to crush something.
Fortunately, though, there was no severe persecution against the local Witnesses. Yet, how did the local brothers and sisters feel when the missionaries were deported? Ravelojaona Rahantamalala, who as a young girl had known the missionaries, said: “As the missionaries had to leave, many local brothers were disheartened. Some no longer wanted to be identified as Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
The year report for the 1971 service year showed a 12-percent decrease in the number of publishers. Apparently, some yielded to fear of man and stopped proclaiming the good news. (Prov. 29:25) However, the majority gave evidence that their faith was strong. And in the third year, Madagascar began to see growth again.
At first, the meetings were held at various locations in the homes of the brothers, with three or four families in attendance. The number attending the meetings gradually increased. In the Manakambahiny area of Antananarivo, Sister Ravelojaona made her home available as a place for meetings. Thanks to Jehovah, even during times of civil unrest, no serious incident occurred. “At least ten congregations were formed from that small Manakambahiny group,” says Sister Ravelojaona. “Jehovah blessed our preaching and disciple-making efforts all through the years of the ban.”
Trained for Oversight
A committee was established to assist with the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses locally and to keep in touch with the Governing Body. Responsibility for the Kingdom preaching work in Madagascar was placed on the shoulders of local Witnesses. During the ban, the brothers used the nickname Ineny, meaning “Mom,” to refer to the Society. Well, immediately after the ban was imposed, Ineny provided needed help. How?
Milton Henschel from the world headquarters visited Madagascar as a zone overseer. He made specific arrangements to care for the spiritual needs of the Malagasy brothers. Two responsible brothers were invited to travel to the world headquarters of Jehovah’s visible organization for training. They benefited greatly, in spite of problems with language, and became better qualified for the work ahead.
Brother Henschel also recommended that a Malagasy special pioneer attend Gilead School. This would equip him to do more in taking the lead in the Kingdom-preaching activity. Andriamasy Théodore, a young man who spoke English and who had helped with translation of correspondence, was selected. Regarding the training that he received at Gilead, he says: “It was an intensive five-month Bible training that built good study habits in me. Working half days in various Bethel departments gave me many opportunities to see how Jehovah’s visible organization operates. Fellowship with anointed brothers and sisters was one of the most rewarding experiences I had at Gilead. I learned much from their generosity, hospitality, and humility.”
After Brother Andriamasy returned from Gilead, he was assigned to the field in order to make good use of what he had learned. The training he had received strengthened his faith and enabled him, in turn, to encourage his Christian brothers during those difficult years. He still serves part-time in various assignments at the branch. Lately, he has been teaching new missionaries the Malagasy language.
Continuing to Serve Despite the Ban
Jehovah’s Witnesses kept a low profile during the ban, but they continued to carry on true worship. Every issue of The Watchtower was translated without fail. (Isa. 65:13) They met in private homes to encourage one another. (Heb. 10:23-25) Circuit overseers visited the congregations; district conventions and circuit assemblies were organized, and even large-scale gatherings were held in the forest. There, away from the city, attendance sometimes reached as many as 1,500. In 1972 an office along with a literature depot was established in a rented apartment. A responsible brother from each of the 11 congregations then existing would pick up literature at the depot. Brother Andriamoara, who took care of the depot for a while, recalls that the brothers carried away cartons of literature openly, in full view of the neighbors.
During the first few years of the ban, the Witnesses were very cautious. Sometimes they felt that they were under police surveillance and were being followed. For that reason most of their witnessing was done informally. When house-to-house calls were made, they went to one house on one block and then a house on another. Instead of carrying their literature in a briefcase, they would use a sack or a basket, so that it appeared that they were going to the market. Yet, for the most part, they were able to conduct Bible studies undisturbed. Brother Rakotojaona, who now serves at the branch with his wife, Lea, recalls that when he started to study in 1972, his study was held without any special effort to conceal it.
Ineny continued to make arrangements for visits by zone overseers. These loving arrangements encouraged the brothers and sisters and helped them to deal constructively with their situation. In 1973, for example, when André Ramseyer visited Madagascar, he realized that the brothers were being overly cautious. Brother Andriamoara recalls how Brother Ramseyer reasoned: “Has anybody been in prison because of being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses? No. Have you had other difficulties? No. So maybe you are too cautious. Is it perhaps exaggerated cautiousness? We should not be fearful.” How helpful that visit was! From then on the local Witnesses preached more openly and boldly. As a result, during the 1974 service year, a new peak of 613 publishers reported, exceeding by 30 percent the previous all-time peak recorded before the ban!
Regaining Legal Status
Toward the end of 1983, the brothers—under the name of a local cultural society—applied for legal recognition of their activity. On February 24, 1984, that recognition was granted, but it did not mean that the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses was lifted. Nevertheless, this new development brought great joy to the brothers. Field service increased, and two outstanding peaks were reached in April—1,708 publishers reported field service and 8,977 attended the Memorial. Thus, the number of publishers had increased 264 percent and the Memorial attendance had risen 606 percent.
Although they had legal recognition as a cultural organization, in 1993 the brothers filed an application for Jehovah’s Witnesses to be legally recognized as a religious association. A few months later, on October 4, 1994, that legal status was granted. What a joy! Now they could openly be known once again as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
More International Help
Even before that, however, in 1987 it became possible for missionaries to return to Madagascar. In September 1991 the Kuokkanens, who had been special pioneers in Helsinki, Finland, arrived back in Madagascar, and Brother Kuokkanen was appointed to be the Branch Committee coordinator. “Madagascar had changed,” says Brother Kuokkanen. “Some of the brothers and sisters we had known earlier were still there, but many had passed away. The majority of the publishers were new in the truth.” There was a lot of office work to handle. Yet, what a joy to see a new publisher peak of 4,005 in August 1991!
Dirajlal Bagvandjee and his wife, Simone, who had been expelled with the others in 1970, were also invited to return to Madagascar. Being a very good negotiator, Brother Bagvandjee helps the branch in obtaining permits, customs papers, and other official documents. Since 1992 he has been serving as a member of the Madagascar Branch Committee. Often, officials are astonished when an Indian, a former Hindu, talks about Jehovah, Jesus Christ, and God’s Kingdom.
The New Branch Complex
Ever since the branch’s establishment in September 1963, facilities in a variety of locations have been used. From 1972 to 1987, an apartment was adequate to provide an office and literature depot. Then a larger house was rented. During those years the members of the Branch Committee, having families to care for, did most of their work at home.
As Bible education expanded in Madagascar, however, facilities better suited to the work were needed. Property was purchased about three miles [5 km] from the Ivato International Airport. Three years later, in April 1993, construction got under way with the help of brothers from overseas. Walter Elkow, a Canadian with much experience in such work, came to oversee this 30-month project. Other international servants followed, and many international volunteers paid their own way to help with the construction for three months or more. At its peak, the crew consisted of 110 international and local workers. On the weekends, the number of volunteers swelled as brothers and sisters from local congregations pitched in to help.
The encouragement was mutual. Although many of the international workers did not speak the local language, these mature brothers and sisters set fine examples in the field ministry. As an example, David Smith, who assisted for about two years as a heavy-equipment mechanic, was not able to speak Malagasy, but he knew that The Watchtower and Awake! in Malagasy could give a good witness. So with a friendly smile, he would stand on the street holding the magazines in one hand while displaying the suggested contribution in the other. He would place as many as 80 magazines in a day.
The fine new branch facilities are truly a gift from Jehovah! When the branch was dedicated on December 7, 1996, 668 old-timers were invited to be present. What a happy event! Then the next day, 7,785 attended a special talk held on an open field that was named Gileada. Why there? This land, about four miles [6 km] away from the branch, had been purchased for the erection of an Assembly Hall. What a sight—a hillside full of brothers and sisters in their best clothes and with colorful umbrellas to protect them from the sun!
Growing Ranks of Full-Time Servants
Since the first Malagasy pioneers started their full-time service in the 1960’s, the ranks of these diligent workers have increased steadily year after year. About 1 out of 6 Kingdom proclaimers in Madagascar is now in the pioneer service. Many young brothers and sisters have made this their career. To strengthen the pioneers, the Pioneer Service School was inaugurated in 1979 in Madagascar, as it had been in other lands. Andriamasy Théodore and Andriamoara Félix, who had been in full-time service for many years, were the instructors. Since that time hundreds of pioneers have benefited from this instructive course.
One of the subjects discussed at length in the school involves showing personal interest in others. Many of the pioneers have really taken that to heart. For example, in 1998 when assigned to a small town called Soanierana-Ivongo on the east coast, Randriamampianina Niaina and his wife, Veroniaina, saw the need for such personal interest. The woman who owned the house where they settled had a son who was disabled as a result of polio. The special pioneers took time to share with the boy the Bible’s precious promises concerning life in God’s new world. The young man gladly studied the Bible with Niaina and Veroniaina. But his family did not approve. The mother even told the special pioneers to tell her son that they no longer had time to study with him. But, of course, they could not do that. The young man’s love for Jehovah and His ways grew rapidly. In eight months he got baptized. At that, the pioneers were ordered to move out of the house.
Did the personal interest shown in this young man cease? Not at all. His wheelchair was in very bad shape—and now it is completely broken. Although a new one had arrived for him, his former church would not give it to him because he had changed his religion. So the brothers in the congregation help the disabled brother to attend the meetings.
In recent years, the Society has been sending temporary special pioneers to unassigned territories in order to give more people the opportunity to benefit from the Kingdom message. In November 1997 two brothers were sent to Mahaditra, a small town in which only one publisher lived. Amazingly, in October of the following year, a congregation of 14 publishers was established. The two temporary special pioneers are no longer temporary but permanent special pioneers in that town.
In June 1996 two others went in to Mahasoabe, a small town that was virgin territory. They were not able to leave the territory after three months, as scheduled—the people begged them to stay. After six months, an isolated group was established, and three months later, the group became a congregation with five publishers and two regular pioneers. The two original “temporary” special pioneers are still with the congregation, taking good care of it. In dozens of unassigned territories, similar results have been repeated.
New Wave of Missionaries
Madagascar is a fruitful field. Upwards of 20,000 home Bible studies are being conducted—more than two per publisher. From the Gilead Extension School in Germany, six missionaries were sent to Madagascar in 1993 to help with the work. They opened a missionary home in Toamasina, the second-largest city in Madagascar, situated on the east coast. Daniel and Hélène Kmita, seasoned missionaries serving in the Seychelles, were reassigned to the Big Red Island. Five regular pioneer couples from the French-speaking part of Canada also volunteered to serve here. Ivan Teyssier, a French missionary who had served in Paraguay for many years, came to help with work in the branch. Dante and Christina Bonetti, who had been in Madagascar as international servants during the branch construction, were invited to return as missionaries. These newcomers have done much to enhance the pioneer spirit among the local publishers. Some have learned Malagasy so well that they have qualified to serve the Malagasy-speaking congregations as circuit overseers.
Traveling to Encourage Congregations
When the circuit work started here in 1963, the circuit overseer had only three congregations to visit in the whole country. Now 17 traveling overseers are serving 253 congregations and groups. Traveling in the rural areas is still not easy. During the rainy season, dirt roads are cut off in many places, and circuit overseers have to walk long distances. To visit some congregations, they may have to walk on muddy paths for days—one way! (Compare 2 Corinthians 11:23-27.) Sometimes brothers from one congregation accompany the circuit overseer to help carry his luggage to the next. While crossing rivers—often without bridges—they wrap everything in a plastic bag to keep it dry and they carry it on the head. During the rainy season, the water may come up to their armpits.
Although their means are limited, the local brothers are very hospitable and do their best to welcome the traveling overseers and their wives. The encouragement is mutual. How satisfying it is to be with brothers and sisters who are endeavoring to do their best to please Jehovah! (Rom. 1:11, 12) And what a privilege it is to strengthen the faith of these dear ones who are precious to Jehovah!
When a Cyclone Hits
Life in this part of the world includes coping with cyclones. Every year there is a season when cyclones hit the islands of the Indian Ocean. The branch closely follows the weather reports and prepares to help the brothers in the affected areas. In 1997 a number of cyclones hit Madagascar, including the notorious Gretelle, which swept across the southeast coast. Two larger towns and many villages were devastated. About 100 of Jehovah’s Witnesses were living in the affected area.
The branch quickly dispatched a small truck and a four-wheel-drive vehicle loaded with relief supplies, tools, and some building materials. A doctor went along with the relief team. To get to some places unapproachable by motor vehicle, the team also used small boats.
It took two days to reach their final destination, Vangaindrano. Relief work started immediately. Food and shelter were provided. The doctor examined every Witness family and provided needed medicines. Non-Witness families also benefited. When most of those on the team returned, two stayed behind for about a month to rebuild the houses of the brothers. The branch office received many letters of appreciation for the help the Society had provided. Even some non-Witnesses declared: “Your religion is truly Christian!”
Jehovah Keeps Making It Grow
The missionaries and those who through them became disciples in Madagascar planted and watered seeds of Kingdom truth. The very first report from Madagascar was sent in by Robert Nisbet and Bert McLuckie in 1933. Twenty-two years later, the work was renewed, and the 1956 service year saw a peak of eight publishers. By the time the missionaries were deported in 1970, there were 469 Kingdom proclaimers in the country. The missionaries were no longer able to help as they had been doing. But “God kept making it grow.”—1 Cor. 3:6.
Those who formerly served in Madagascar and later had opportunity to return there saw evidence that those with whom they had studied Bible truth were producing fruitage of their own. For example, Ramanitra Hélène, who was 15 years old when Irene Carbonneau studied with her, had contracted polio and could not walk properly. In spite of that limitation and the opposition from her family, Hélène insisted on becoming a publisher of the good news. Even after the Carbonneaus went home to Canada, she continued to make progress. When Irene returned for a short visit in 1995, Hélène exclaimed: “All in my family have accepted the truth except my father!”
With Jehovah’s blessing, by 1980 the little one in Madagascar had become a thousand, with a peak of 1,021 proclaimers of God’s Kingdom. (Isa. 60:22) In 1993 the publisher peak exceeded 5,000, and it reached a remarkable all-time peak of over 10,300 in 1999.
What About the Future?
A bright future lies ahead for the Kingdom preaching work in Madagascar. In 1956 seven people attended the first Memorial ever celebrated on this island. The attendance kept growing until an all-time peak of 46,392 attended in 1999. In the same month, there were 10,346 publishers throughout the island. Why, on an average, every publisher brought three interested persons along with him to this most important event!
This Big Red Island continues to be a paradise for all who, moved by love for Jehovah and fellow humans, want to share Bible truth with others. There are tens of thousands of humble people here who want to know more about Jehovah. They are not prominent in the world, nor are they rich materially. Their diet usually consists of just rice, a little meat, and some herbs. In many towns and villages, people have neither electricity nor running water. In the villages, bread is not always available, not to speak of butter and cheese. Still, our dear brothers and sisters thank Jehovah for their daily sustenance and enjoy their simple lives. Rather than being ‘anxious about what they will eat or what they will drink or about their bodies as to what they will wear,’ they endeavor to keep on seeking first the Kingdom and God’s righteousness. (Matt. 6:31-33) They are grateful for the privilege of serving Jehovah, the Universal Sovereign, and they join with the psalmist in saying: “Jehovah himself has become king! Let the earth be joyful. Let the many islands rejoice.”—Ps. 97:1.
A Malagasy proverb advises: “Be like a chameleon—keep one eye on the past and the other on the future.” It is good to keep one eye on the past to learn from previous experiences. But no benefit comes from trying to relive the past. It is the future that is open to us. The best of times lie ahead. Jehovah has set before us life—eternal life—in a global paradise filled with people who truly love one another. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Madagascar are determined to keep their eyes fixed on that goal.
[Full-page picture on page 224]
[Pictures on page 230]
(1) Rabehasy Noël, (2) Robert Nisbet, (3) Bert McLuckie, (4) Adam Lisiak, (5) Edouard Marlot, (6) Narcisse Marlot
[Picture on page 233]
Raimo and Veera Kuokkanen
[Picture on page 235]
Andriamoara Félix, one of the first local special pioneers
[Picture on page 236]
Everything was done manually
[Picture on page 237]
Rasoamalala Louise, a longtime translator
[Picture on page 245]
Andriamasy Théodore teaching Malagasy to new missionaries
[Pictures on page 251]
The completed branch complex and the Branch Committee (left to right): Eleha, Raimo Kuokkanen, Dirajlal Bagvandjee