About two months ago, life here in Madagascar became the “new normal” for me. “New normal” is a term that our missionary friends like to use to describe the point in time when the chaos of a new language, culture and climate becomes, well…normal. For most of our stay here, whenever I heard this term, I resisted it. Life was anything but normal. But it was only a matter of time – slowly, I became very used to the sights, sound and smells.
It hit me when I was driving to a restaurant on a date night with Rachel. We were having a great conversation and as we spoke, my driving was on autopilot – not Tesla autopilot, but Madagascar Mark autopilot. In near darkness, we sped around ox carts, navigated through crowds of pedestrians less than a foot away, patiently waited while guys pulling carts loaded with cooking oil and sheet metal made U-turns in the middle of the street. We drove through intersections that would completely confound many North Americans (the person / animal on the left always has the right of way here). And through it all, I didn’t really notice any of it, because I was lost in conversation. Then, suddenly I blurted out, “Rachel, this is crazy! Look where we are! And it seems so normal!” I used to get really stressed out driving here in Madagascar. Like I would drive to go buy food and I would be tense the entire time, fists clenched on the wheels, eyes wide, muttering to myself…me against the city of Mahajanga and I was determined to make it home without hitting any people or animals.
It is really amazing to see how normal things have become here. The early morning rooster crows that used to annoy me? Hardly notice them now. Driving around a corner and seeing nothing but a sea of goats trotting down the dirt road towards me? Normal. Feeling like I need a sweatshirt when the temperature drops below 80° F / 27°C? Normal. It’s normal to hear music blasting all night long. It’s normal to see ants and geckos all over our house. (Though I still go on rampages of ant mass destruction) It’s normal to get stopped by the police because they hope to find a problem with your paperwork and get a bribe. I don’t even bother killing cockroaches in the house anymore unless they’re longer than 2 inches. Waking up to the sensation of many tiny legs scuttling across the area covered by your bathing suit and shrieking in horror as you swat away a sizeable centipede? Horrifying – but still within the range of normal here. Yes, I have achieved the new normal in Madagascar…just in time to pack up and return to North America!
Is it a good thing to become completely used to the reality of Madagascar? I’m not so sure. Sometimes I worry that I have become too desensitized to the poverty I see around me. It was striking at first – but now it seems normal. Still heartbreaking, but normal. The thing is, I don’t want it to be normal, because that can slowly turn into acceptable. It’s true, many people here seem to be at peace with the way they live, and they seem to get along OK. But desperation always lingers nearby…will there be food for tomorrow, or even today? It’s the same with health care. Rachel has written beautiful blogs about how unacceptable it is for mothers and babies to die of preventable causes. But it’s normal here for mothers to die in childbirth. As a result, grief and devastation due to the loss of a family member are very normal. It’s normal for people, even young adults, to be missing many of their molars here due to lack of preventative dental care and resulting tooth decay. It seems normal to me, until my friend in his early twenties opens his mouth and I’m shocked, as I’m hit by the realization of what it must be like to never be able to properly chew food at such a young age.
It can be very frustrating to experience heartbreaking poverty and recognize that there is no easy or quick solution to end it. That’s why much of the world would rather not take a close look at poverty. Corruption and injustice that is woven into the fabric of a nation is extremely difficult to remove. But history has shown that change happens when people make a decision to not accept a negative outcome, even if it is considered by many to be normal. I’m encouraged by the work of the Sarobidy Maternity Center and Eden Reforestation Projects. Both of these organizations are managed here in Madagascar by close friends who do not accept the devastating effects of poverty and who are doing something about it. They are providing jobs and maternity care, and they are literally saving lives and lifting people out of poverty. Rachel and I are so grateful for the opportunity to help these organizations to grow and extend their reach. In addition to addressing the physical poverty, we are keenly aware of the spiritual emptiness that exists here and around the world. The same principle applies – just because much of the world lives in darkness and despair, we can’t accept it – we want to share the love, forgiveness and hope found in Jesus Christ with others.
We leave Madagascar today and it is hard to say goodbye. I’m glad that life here finally became normal for me. Normal, but not always acceptable. Rachel and I are excited to continue to be a part of the work here. And we hope that you are taking moments to pause and consider the reality of life for those living in places like Madagascar, where there is no social safety net. If you are curious to learn more about how you can make a difference, please contact us and we would love to share more about how you can get involved.