Madagascar is a large island (1,000 miles long and 300 miles across) 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
No one knows the origins of the indigenous people, although it seems fairly certain that Malagasy culture has Malayo-Polynesian roots.
Many of the people have light brown skin, straight black hair and Polynesian features, while others have a more distinctly Negroid look. What unites them is a common language — Malagasy — and an amazingly gentle, smiling, forbearing temperament that makes them a delight to be with.
Among the earliest missionaries to Madagascar were two young Welshmen sent by the London Missionary Society — David Jones and Thomas Bevan.
They set off in February 1819 with their brides to settle in the region of Imerina (where no one had ever seen a white woman before). Within 6 weeks of arrival Mr and Mrs Bevan and their new-born daughter, and Mrs Jones and her new-born daughter, had all died at the port town of Tamatave.
Undaunted, David Jones decided to stay and was soon joined by another young Welshman, David Griffiths. Between them, they provided the Malagasy with the Bible in their own language.
By 1826 their New Testament translation was completed and the Old Testament was progressing well. The remarkable story is told in Triumph in death by F. Graeme Smith (Evangelical Press).
Today, say the statisticians, nearly half the Malagasy have ‘traditional beliefs’. These beliefs are not concise, but embrace the veneration of dead ancestors, even to the extent of exhuming them from time to time, dressing them in new clothes, and parading them around at special festivals!
As far as Christianity is concerned, the four so-called ‘mother’ churches are the Lutheran, Reformed, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. But the actual beliefs and practices of individual churches in these denominations depend on the local leaders.
The impression I get is that church attendance is higher than in the UK. On a recent visit to Madagascar, driving through the capital one Sunday, I saw a queue of several hundred people, all immaculately dressed and many holding Bibles, waiting for the doors of their church to open.
Recent political developments are significant for the progress of the gospel in Madagascar.
December 2001 to May 2002 had been a period of political unrest, with the outgoing president, Ratsiraka, reluctant to leave office.
The new president, Marc Ravalomanana — more businessman than politician — was endorsed by a huge electoral majority. He is a professing Christian, and certainly many Malagasy believers think his wife is born again. He is keen to see the gospel preached and the English language taught.
On my recent visit, Ravalomanana presided over a ceremony to mark the distribution (which he had initiated) of tens of thousands of copies of Luke’s Gospel to 30 towns.
The UGBM (Union des Groupes Bibliques de Madagascar), established in 1971, has a reformed doctrinal basis and is the Malagasy equivalent of our UCCF (University and Colleges Christian Fellowship).
It works in various universities and high schools in Madagascar preaching the gospel, and teaching and encouraging existing Christians.
It has three full-time paid workers and also supports Christian literature work. Over the years it has seen hundreds of conversions.
Since the presidential election, UGBM find themselves in an ‘open-door’ situation nearly everywhere. They are inundated with requests to visit schools and universities, including invitations to speak to the academic staff.
To help meet this need, they have launched a part-time, volunteer leadership programme to train established Christians in preaching and teaching. I attended a leadership class that one young man had walked 9 hours to attend.
At the moment there are 60 Christians on training courses being held in Antananarivo, Mahajanga, Fianarantsoa and Antsirabe.
Christian workers in Madagascar face many difficulties. Christianity is thought of as a European religion and many are keen to cling to the old superstitions.
The state of the roads makes transport difficult, especially in the rainy season. Boat trips in primitive or ill-maintained vessels can prove hazardous.
Despite these difficulties, UGBM work in many remote areas, leading camps, teaching in schools, and distributing Bible study material.
Who can tell what impact this work in the schools and universities of Madagascar will have on the future of such a needy country