I did it again. It’s a new village, no one knows me; I let my local, dark-skinned, Malagasy teammates get out of the car before me . . . and it still takes me less than a minute to draw a crowd of about 50 of my new best friends. Only I find out as I approach the crowd and an older man starts yelling at me that we are not best friends. We’re not even on the level of Facebook friends.
I didn’t catch the first part of what he was saying. But as I walked up, I began to hear him. “Bonjour vazaha! Bonjour! What took you so long? Don’t you care about us? We all know you’re the only one who can save us. After all, you vazaha rule this world. You’re God’s righthand man.”
To which I responded, “Uh . . . how’s that, sir?”
From where we were standing it’s a bit of a surreal scene. We’re in an open field that sits higher up, so you can see a long way off, all the way to the waiting ocean, probably about 20k away. And as far as you can see, where there should be fields full of corn, cassava, and lentils . . . there is nothing. Absolutely nothing except sand and red, dead, land. The only living plants hanging on are the sparse trees and the cactus, and even they are beginning to wilt. It’s been over two years since even one drop of rain has fallen in these areas. Its a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Yet, from where we are standing, we can also see maybe around a thousand people milling around for market day. But what are they doing at market when there are no crops? In this growing desert, people have two options for survival: they are eating the fruit of the cactus they can find or family members making money in other towns are sending them money to buy imported products at market like rice and drinks. And so, as people slowly starve, scraping by on what is left and the cash their family can pull together, local sellers of imported goods and foreign companies make a little extra cash. Win, win.
But back to the old man. “You know, we pray to God,” he tells me. “But we know that you vazaha are his favorite children. And look! We pray for deliverance from this drought and famine and what happens? You visit us and bring us food!” As he says this he motions to the tracks of the dozens of white Land Cruisers and Hilux, just like the one I drove into town, delivering USAid-funded food to the surrounding villages. He’s not wrong. From his perspective, they prayed and people that look like me sent food.
“But, O princely one . . .” I say, which is how they refer to respected older men here, (I tried to see if Tessa would call me that but it hasn’t stuck yet) “It’s true that I am a vazaha and that my country has sent food to you. But we are both humans made to be God’s representatives. We are from the same ancestor . . . Adam.”
Let me pause and explain: vazaha is the word or title referring to foreigners, usually of European descent and usually those with light skin. That’s even easier to recognize because while there are local people of Arabic or Indo-Pakestani origin, they are not called vazaha. And, spoiler alert, being vazaha is one of the hardest parts of cross-cultural communication for anyone who is one here in Madagascar.
The old man wasn’t having it. “God did not make us the same. We have a saying here: vazaha Njanahary hita maso (foreigners are gods the eye can see). You are white and we are black. You are clean and we are dirty. He has blessed you with possessions and power. So we say we pray to God, but we pray to you vazaha. Because you are seated at the right-hand of God. So have mercy on us vazaha.”
I’m a missionary. I went on to share with the old man how there actually is a Man seated at the right-hand of God. He’s not white, but He is a foreigner, named Jesus, and He is God’s only perfect human representative. I told him, if there is anything different between us, it is that me, and the dark-skinned, Malagasy brothers with me, are covered in the blood of that Man, Jesus. His is the king of the world, and we serve him.
But I was haunted by his words as we got back into the Hilux and drove away. Not because I have never heard anything like that working here before. Oh no, much the contrary . . .
- Vazaha are more powerful than Malagasy, immune to magic and Malagasy rules of society.
- Vazaha are angels from heaven, which is why they’re so white.
- Vazaha eat children. If a child does something bad they will be taken by a vazaha.
- Vazaha do not have blood.
- The Malagasy parable that says, “Biby ty vazaha” (vazaha are more creature than they are human).
These are just a few of the things I have heard said about me in particular, much less other vazaha. What exactly it means to be vazaha from a Malagasy perspective could fill up books. But recently, a profound irony dawned on me: during this time of COVID crisis and now, driving through the middle of drought-riddled fields, everyone was coming to me, and other vazaha, for help, not because I know the King of Creation, but because they do look at me as a kind of god.
I’m pretty sure that’s not what my pastors and seminary professors had in mind when they sent us here.
Can you believe it? I’m a missionary! My job is literally to help people turn away from false gods and lead them toward the God of gods and King of kings. . . Jesus. And here I was, inadvertently helping feed a mixed-up system of idol worship. Because, here in one of the world’s poorest countries exploited by world powers, I have so much influence, so much authority, so much power comparatively, that I’m viewed as a demi-god. And let me tell you–as someone who knows myself pretty well–that scares the stuffing out of me. Because while I do try, I often do not resemble the GodMan, Jesus. Often I do behave more like a white, capricious god from a land of abundance. Sometimes I do act as if I’m the one who’s supposed to save people here from all the troubles they bring to me. Sometimes I do act as if I’m the only one who knows Jesus here.
Lord have mercy.
When we pulled into the circle of huts, there was another white truck already there. A local agency was handing out food. The strange things was, as soon as we got there the NGO workers quickly wrapped things up and took off. We found out later that they are selling the aide in every village, so that the NGO workers are making a little extra off of every family they give to. These people who already have nothing are even exploited through food relief. It was only because a white American showed up that the food was suddenly given out with no further extortion. The workers were afraid that a USAid employee had actually shown up in that God-forsaken place to observe the distribution. Thankfully, they don’t know had badly they’re underestimating an American’s need for things like A/C!
We found our way to the small, wood hut where our friend was waiting. One of my long time friends, Manoely, is from this town, and had spent the last few days on his own out here delivering a little bit of food and sharing God’s good news in, as he put it, “afo be faharoe” (the second hell). I can tell he’s more emaciated than when we left him. Still, his smile and infectious laugh light up the little hut as he tells us what happening and connects with his sister who is hosting us.
I should have known it was coming. I’ve been here long enough to know better. As our team of four sits and chats with Manoely, his sister enters the hut with two sodas. “We don’t have much. But here’s a little something to quench your thirst. We would gladly give you some cold water, but all the well-water here has gone salty.”
Manuely elbows me, “She was going to give you some beer! That’s what the other pastors ask for here.” We all laugh.
This is Malagasy custom. Guests are always treated with the highest honor. But as we ask, we discover they bought the sodas at market for about a week’s wages. We debated giving the drinks back to them, but Manoely informed us that to do so would shame his sister. So we drank our very expensive soda. And while we did, large bowels of rice and bowls of quickly-cooked sheep meat were placed before us. The food that had just been given by God’s righthand representatives to their starving, third-world subjects had quickly been converted into an offering.
And so I sat there; my white, very human, very privileged self; eating relief rice and drinking soda bought with hard-earned money, preparing to get in my truck and quickly leave this village in the red, dead dust as I relax in the A/C. As I sat there, watching an emaciated, Malagasy brother and sister serve us their only sustenance as they laughed and leaned into one another, I just couldn’t help from thinking, “So who are the better gods, really? Which of us is really representing God?”