One of the guys we played basketball with in Nosy Be was Birkoff. His actual name is Frederic, and goes by Freddy, but for the white people that come visit, he tells them to call him “Birkoff.” He got the name from a French TV series/movie, “La Femme Nikita.” In the TV series there is a computer geek named Seymour Birkhoff. Freddy wanted to be a computer programmer, therefore, Birkoff (with a different spelling).
Birkoff is a pretty smart guy and spoke English perfectly, and now works off and on as a dive assistant in Nosy Be so he’s one of the guys that we got to know well on our first summer in Nosy Be. He’s very crazy. When I arrived at my first church service at the local church in Tana, behold, there was Birkoff. I was amazed to see him there, as was he to see me. Apparently he had since moved to Tana to try to go to school and live with his father. He had spent some time trying to find the Nazarene church and this was the first Sunday that he had found it, an amazing coincidence, or providence.
It was nice to have a friend there for my first couple of months. We hung out a lot around the church, managed to fix the basketball hoop, and played a lot of basketball. We hung out quite a bit during the year, during the off and on times that he was in Tana. He had a troubled relationship with his father so he ended up back in Nosy Be for much of the year.
Fortunately, at the beginning of November, I got the opportunity to go up to Nosy Be at a time that Pastor Dave would also be going. I got to visit Birkoff and his family, and visit the others I had met there the year before.
November is quite possibly the warmest month in Nosy Be. It’s getting to be summer by then, and is before the rainy season starts. So it is just pure heat with no rain for relief. Flying into Nosy Be was so beautiful, it was right about sunset, the sky and water reflecting a palette of colors. We also circled the island before landing, giving a great reintroduction.
Birkoff and his mother were waiting for me at the airport. I stayed with Birkoff at his modest two room house with his mother and sister. They treated me so well, preparing great local food for dinner, giving me a bed to sleep on, it was wonderful. His house, of course, did not have plumbing, so I took bucket showers with water from the well, and took care of other duties at a hole, covered by a thatch hut. On a couple of occasions we showered at this half-built abandon building, that somehow, had warm running water. I didn’t ask any questions about the nature or ownership of the building.
Being in Madagascar, was often a practice of being opportunistic. If an opportunity came up to do something, I usually went ahead with it. That’s how I ended up on a swimming club, hiking through barren grasslands, spending 20 hours on a bus, or two days on a lorry. Most often, it was best to only partially know what was going on, and enjoy the journey; as long as I didn’t get in trouble.
On Sunday morning after arriving I went to the church. I surprised everyone by showing up. I saw Patricia, Patrick, Claude, and Faed. It was great to see everyone. I walked home with Patrick and Patricia and talked with them for awhile before having lunch.
Patricia and Patrick are great people. Patricia lives pretty well, but her husband works a fishing boat and is gone for long periods of time. Patricia speaks English so she is easy to visit with. How she came to know English is amazing. At one time Pastor Dave had never heard her speak English and neither had her husband, until he came home from a trip to find her able to speak English. Amazed, he asked, how did you learn? Jesus taught me, she replied. That’s the story she’s stuck with and nobody has any evidence to the contrary. She asked Jesus, and she received.
Patrick was another very smart kid, did well in school for what he had. Unfortunately for the previous year he had often been sick with malaria, and had gotten a whole year behind in school. Graduating from high school is surprisingly tough there. He is also one of few Christians in Nosy Be, and I don’t think he had any friends who are Christian. It always seemed to me like he may have been a little lonely.
After visiting with them, Birkoff and I took a taxi to the beach at Ambatoloaka that I was dying to visit. Taxi’s were always a fun experience, especially in Nosy Be. The taxi’s are typically ancient Renault 4L‘s or Citroen‘s that are cast-offs from other countries. They run primarily on modified sheet metal, ingenuity, faith, and a water bottle of diesel held by the driver’s feet. In Tana, they are always out of gas and the first part of any taxi ride is a trip to the gas station (oddly, this particular characteristic of taxi’s in Tana was featured on The Amazing Race).
In Tana, there are more regulations on taxis (including they all be painted beige), particularly on the number of riders in the taxi. On our first trip to Nosy Be, we became accustomed to packing the whole of our 7 person team in one taxi. When we arrived in Tana, we found that this didn’t fly, and would have to split up in two taxis.
On this particular trip in Nosy Be, I rode a packed taxi of 11 people (7 adults, 4 kids), my personal best. We made it to the beach, luckily making it through the police check points (police check point = location for bribe payment/creative negotiating). We hung out on the beach, saw where Birkoff’s mom worked, then went home to bed.
Monday morning I went back to Ambonara to visit the neighborhood that we had stayed in. It was great, all the kids were still there and I had a lot of fun hanging out with them again and talking with them. Many were now learning French and English in school so I could talk with them a little bit. Madame, Babo, Yasmine, Vola, Emilio, they were all there. I felt so happy to be back. I went back again and played with them on Saturday.
Later in the day I walked down to the basketball court. When I got there many of the same guys from the summer before were there playing. They were also surprised to see me. I had a good time hanging out with them. They still played the same crazy basketball, missing most of their shots. But, when they did make a shot, there was a lot of trash talk and posturing. Patrick also showed up at the court so I got more time to talk with him.
Each night we had dinner at about 9:30. After getting up around 6:00, and walking around in the heat all day, I could not stay up til 9:30. I always ended up falling asleep, then waking up when it was time for dinner. Something to know about living near the equator, the sun sets between 5:30 and 7:00 year round. With very little to do once it gets dark, besides read or write next to a candle (the power was always going out), it was hard to stay up too late. M/car is an 11 hour time difference from the Pacific Time Zone, so when my body adjusted, it adjusted to waking up without an alarm at 6.
Tuesday I just hung around with Birkoff most of the day hanging out with his girlfriend, or at his uncle’s house. In the evening we went back to the basketball court and played basketball with the guys again. It was fun to play and hang out with the guys that we had made such good relationships with the year before.
I went to the beach again Wednesday and Thursday, one of my most favorite places to be, and again on Saturday. I felt good to hang out at the beach, walk around, and enjoy the warm water. I explored different areas around the beach, just walking and hanging out. Thursday night was the youth meeting at the church, so I went to that. I saw a lot of the same youth from the year before, and all the kids from Ambonara showed up as well. Everyone shared how things had been going, and David shared and preached.
Friday I stayed in town, and played some basketball in the afternoon. The guys that showed up at the court this day were much different from the guys that we had played with before. These guys were really good, and it was much harder work to keep up with them.
Sunday was my last full day in Nosy Be. I went to church again, helped lead the children, and watched as David led the annual meeting. With the kids, we played Boom-chicka-boom and Little Malagasy, some of the games we had taught them. During the church service, Patrick was made a full member and leader along with Patricia and Mama. I got to talk with Patrick several times during the week and really enjoyed it, I hope he is doing well.
While there in Nosy Be, I acquired some kind of sickness. I had a stomach ache most of day Wednesday and felt just drained the whole day. Sitting in the water on the beach felt nice, but it was just so hard to escape the heat, it may have just been some heat stroke. Later in the week, starting Saturday night, I got a terrible, pounding headache. All day Sunday I was just miserable, and could hardly function. I got some aspirin, but it barely helped. I ended up being exhausted for the next week until I got over it. I’ve never been sure what it was, but after getting malaria later on, perhaps it was that, or maybe a stomach issue from some bad water.
Overall, I loved my trip back to Nosy Be, it’s one of my most favorite places on earth. I loved the opportunity to talk with Patrick and Patricia, to hang out with the kids again, to visit the beautiful beach, and to get the opportunity to live with a Malagasy family for a week. It was great, Nosy Be will always hold a special place in my heart.
In May of 2005, I swam in the Madagascar National Swimming Championships against current and former Olympians. A great and unique experience. There’s a little story as to how I got there.
Sports have always been my way to fit in. No matter where I am at or what the situation, I have often found my place through sports. In Madagascar, it turned out to be no different.
As I mentioned during my first trip, a large part of our ministry was playing basketball. It gave us the opportunity to get to know people and make friends. In Tana it was no different. During July/August/September, in between W&W teams and the start of teaching, I played what sometimes seemed like endless amounts of basketball, volleyball, and table tennis. It was great fun but tough at times. The previous December I had torn my ACL so I was still in the recovery period from the surgery (only 7-8 months out). Some days it didn’t feel so good and I was still wearing a bulky brace. Playing those games, though, gave me the opportunity to hang out and get to know some of the young adults and teens of the church and gave me a chance to fit in. Michael, Draza, Valeria, Patrice, Felena, Pastor Richand, Mbola, Ari.
Sometime in October, as I was driving from the compound to do some shopping, I came across Felana on her way out. So she got in and I gave her a ride. I asked where she was going, and she said that she was going to a school to ask about learning to swim. It sounded interesting and not wanting to miss such a vital cultural experience, I offered to go along (I’m not sure if she thought this was a good idea). We went to ESCA: Ecole Secondaire Catholique Antanimena. I waited while she inquired about the swim lessons and tried my best to follow along in French. When she was done, looking for a way to get more exercise, I began asking the director about coming down to swim for exercise. The coach then began telling me about their swim club. Not really knowing what this was, I thought, sure that would be great. The fee was only about 12 dollars for the school year and would give me a chance to get in shape while my knee healed.
A couple weeks later I showed up ready to swim. I had no idea what I was getting into. When I heard “club,” I was thinking, a group of people swimming around for fun. This was not a “club” but a high school swim team, that I, a 22-year-old, had joined. The first day I nearly drowned. These kids swam hard, year round, for who knows how many years, and I was nowhere near their level. I had swam on a park & rec swim team in middle school and that was the extent of my competitive swimming experience. The workouts with this team, were intense, and non-stop. The first week I was choking, swallowing a lot of water, cramping; it was no good. The kids on the team must’ve thought I was nuts. Keep in mind, I’m a 6’2″ Caucasian in an African country with an average male height of probably 5’4″. I stuck out.
While the first few weeks were tough, I eventually powered through and slowly began to keep up on the workouts. At the end of one day’s workout we did 25m sprints for some speed work and practice. It was then that I beat everyone in the short sprints, thus justifying my place on the team, and earning respect from my teammates. I fit in much easier and was a part of the team.
We would swim anywhere from 4,000-6,500 meters a day (2.49 – 4.04 miles) often swimming for 2 1/2 hours. It was a lot of work, but I loved it and got into great shape. It was probably great for my knee recovery, giving me some low impact exercise.
The team also competed in some competitions. My first competition was in December, on a cold and rainy day. I didn’t know what to expect and the coaches eased me into it. I swam the 50m freestyle and butterfly and was also on the 4×50 and 10×50 relays (yes, ten). I took first in the freestyle and something else in the other races. It was fun and gave me the feel of competition.
We had a few other races throughout the year. I ended up participating in about 3 competitions. I never knew exactly what was going on, there may have been more races that I missed while I was out of town, but I remember going to at least three. I eventually worked up to where I was competing in the 50 and 100m freestyles and butterflys, as well at the 4×50 freestyle relay, and the 4×50 medley relay. I was usually able to place in the top 3 in my events, sometimes winning (of course, I may have been competing against high schoolers).
The best time I had swimming was probably in February and March. At that time, I had finally gotten in shape, got used to and was now leading the workouts, and I was at my healthiest, finally over all the bronchitis, sinus infection, and malaria. I was swimming hard, 4-5 times a week, the weather was warm, it was great. I probably would’ve posted some great times during that month, but maybe because of the timing of my out of town trips, there were no competitions. I also became semi-famous. Felana told me once that she had heard some people talking about the swimming “vizaha.”
In April and May, the weather got colder, and I got a little sick again, and I found myself unable to keep up with a lot of workouts, so my performance declined some, but I still went as hard as possible in the championships to come. On April 9th and 10th, the regional (like a county) championships of Analamanga were held. For two days, teams from all over the Tana area competed in their races, from 5/6 year olds up to “masters” divisions of people in their 20s and 30s. It was a lot of fun, and a tough couple days of racing.
One the first day of competition, I made my way down to Youth Sports Academy in Ampefiloha. I had no idea where I was going. I got off the bus when I thought I was in the area and walked around a bit not seeing anything that looked like it would have a pool. After asking around in a couple businesses, I finally found the center and the pool. Despite all my wanderings, I will still the first from my team there.
The first day, I had very few events. Mostly I sat, and waited (you do a lot of this in M/car). Finally at 5:30 I swam the 200m freestyle. I then waited to swim the 4x100m free a couple hours later. By the time we swam that race, it was dark, and the pool did not have lights, except for one nearby street light. Being dark, I couldn’t see the wall coming and when I made by flip turn, I flipped early, and barely got the wall with my toes. The judges saw it different, and our team, despite coming in 3rd was disqualified.
The second day was a full day of swimming. In the morning I swam the 100 free, taking 1st, the 100 fly, and the 4x50free. In the afternoon, I swam more, swimming the 50 fly, 50 free, and the freestyle leg of the 4×50 medley. I placed in the top three in the 50m,100m, and 200m freestyle. The weather was nice those days and some of my friends even came to watch, so I really enjoyed the experience.
My main competition and what prevented me from coming in first were two brothers, about my same age, 20 or 21. They swam for the team from the Youth Sports Academy of Tana and had been swimming competitively for more than a decade, I hadn’t even been going for 10 months. They were the only ones I could never beat.
After another month of swimming and lagging behind in my workouts, on May 12-17th, I had the opportunity to go on the big out of town trip to the National Championships. Earlier in the year I had attended a benefit dinner put on by our swim club, that raised funds for this trip. I met the rest of my team at ESCA and we loaded up in vans for the long road trip to Toamasina. We got there late, ate a quick dinner at a Chinese restaurant then went to bed.
Our first full day, Friday, we did not have competition, but was a practice and workout day. We had two time slots, one in the morning and one in the evening for practice. Before this time we only swam in 25m pools. This was the first time that we were swimming in a 50m pool. So we used this time to warm up, and get used to the length of the longer pool. Otherwise, we spent a lot of time resting and watching TV at the hotel.
Saturday morning, the first day of competition, we did not go to the pool until the afternoon. So in the morning I took some time to walk around Toamasina, see the beach and take some pictures. Toamasina is one of the largest cities in M/car, and is also the location of the largest port. After lunch, we went to the pool. Again it was another long day of waiting, ending with back to back 200m races. At about 6:30pm I swam the 200 free and at 7:15 the 4×200 free. That night, after the races and dinner, I went almost immediately to bed.
The second day was again a long, full date of races. The morning started for me with the 50m free, followed by the 100 fly and the 4×100 free. I had a frustrating incident with the 100 fly. I was supposed to be in the top heat, as I was with all races. At the last minute, I was bumped from the top heat to the next heat. As a result, I ended up swimming almost alone, winning by heat by more than 10 seconds and taking 4th overall. With some competition in my heat, I may have been able to do as well at 2nd. I didn’t understand the reason for being bumped.
In the afternoon I swam the 50 fly followed by more waiting until finally finishing my swimming career with the 100 free at 7:00pm and the 4×100 medley at 8:30. Thankfully, this pool at least had lights. Madagascar is a tropical country, but nonetheless, it does cool during the winter months. Since it is a southern hemisphere country the winter months are June-September, so our races were taking place in the fall. I remember during the final race looking out of the water to take a breath and seeing the stars in the night sky. I thought to myself, this is no time to be swimming. I ended up being the last one in the van back to the hotel, leaving the pool for the final time around 9.
Overall, I was disappointed with my performance, but I greatly enjoyed the experience. My results at the national championships declined from the previous month, due again to my lack of conditioning. I only placed in the top 3 in the 50m and 100m free, just barely missing 1st in the 50m free.
After going back to the hotel that final night, we had a party back at the hotel and handed out the medals earned during the weekend. Our team, overall, did really well. I hung out until 12:30 but by then was too tired to stay up any longer. My roommates stayed out until 4:30 and came back into the room still loud. The swimming team was a great experience and one of my fondest memories of Madagascar.
Regional Championships Results
50m free – 2nd
100m free – 1st
200m free – 3rd
50m fly – 5th
100m fly – 4th
4×100 free – 3rd
4×50 free – 3rd
4×50 medley – 3rd?
National Championships Results
50m free – 2nd (by a hand)
100m free – 3rd
200m free – 5th
50m fly – 7th
100m fly – 4th
4×100 free – 3rd?
4×200 free – 3rd?
4×100 medley – 3rd?
Madagascar has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world: long, pure white sand, insanely warm water, devoid of people. Being my first trip to a tropical place, I was especially enthralled with the beaches. Shortly after arriving in Nosy Be, we visited our first beach, Ambatoloaka. It was beautiful.
Two local guys, Sevy and Patrick, who often helped David at the church and were the most consistent of the youth group, came with us. While there they decided to lead a few of us; Jeff (a holdover from a Point Loma group that had been in Nosy Be earlier), Loriann, Patrice, and I; down the beach. We walked down the beach and around a point, and came to a beautiful little bay. The bay is almost a perfect circle, with an arch at one end of the entrance. Unfortunately, there is also a shrimp packing plant in the bay, the only thing ruining the beauty.
After hanging out there for a bit, Sevy said he knew an easier way back. We all thought it would be easiest to just go back the way we came, but Sevy thought it best to keep walking and get back to Ambatoloaka beach a back way.
We ended up walking little trails and roads through villages, with Sevy stopping to ask directions every once in a while, of course. Although we were completely lost and barefooted, it was pretty cool to explore a little.
When we did finally get back to the beach it was near sunset and we jumped back in the water and swam around some more. While swimming, my knee hit the bottom, and at the time I thought I just scraped it, and didn’t think about it. When I got out of the water I realized I had a really deep cut. Blood began to run down my leg and everyone got really worried. I used an old towel and held it against my leg to stop the bleeding as we all piled back in the Land Cruiser to drive back to Hell-Ville (no, really), the city where we were staying.
We dropped off everyone except me, Loriann, Scott and David. We then drove back to Ambatoloaka where there was a French doctor. We picked up a South African missionary along the way who knew where the doctor lived. This guy was pretty funny, his more famous quote being, “Nobody likes the Frenchies but the Frenchies. Jesus loves them, but he doesn’t have to like them.”
Madagascar is formerly a French colony. Like many French colonies, the French colonized, destroyed much of the local culture and way of life, profited off the land and the people, then left. The country has since been unstable and unable to gain much progress since it’s independence in 1960. The French are blamed by the Malagasy people for much of the ills, and often accused of meddling in the political affairs of the country. There is some evidence that the French may have been involved in the coup d’etat in early 2009. Additionally, the former 23 year president of Madagascar, Didier Ratsiraka, now resides in France after fleeing the country following a failed civil war attempt to regain his presidency after losing the controversial election in 2002. To add to their own bad reputation, many French men tour the country and sleep around with the local women (sometimes teenagers). Therefore, being in Madagascar, it’s easy to take on a negative view of the French.
Ironically, we were on our way to see a French doctor to stitch up my leg. After first going to the wrong place, we then found the correct house and went up to the door. We met the doctor and showed him my leg and the pack of fresh sutures we had brought. He didn’t speak English and none of us spoke French. The doctor put my leg up on table, cleaned it with some iodine and then he began. There would be no anesthetic since it was a small cut, and he probably didn’t have any anyway.
Not knowing how many stitches it would be or how much it would hurt, I bit on my shirt. The first stitch was pretty easy and all I felt were a couple of small pricks. the second stitch was not so easy. He got the needle into one side easily, but it would not come out the other side. He kept pushing and pushing but it would not go through. I finally looked down to see my skin pushing up from the pressure of the needle. It was not very comfortable to see. I only got two stitches, cosmetics not being a concern.
He put a bandage on it, gave me some antibiotics and sent me home. I had to go the next week being careful not to bend my knee, and sacrificing not playing basketball (our primary ministry). A few days later we stopped by the doctor again to make sure everything looked okay, and after a week, I cut the stitches out.
During that week, I took it easy. The cut was small, but it was deep, and right on the knee where the skin stretches. Not wanting the healing to take all summer, I did my best keeping my leg straight which meant not doing as much walking around town and not playing basketball for that week. Hanging around the neighborhood a little more, gave me the opportunity to get to know the neighborhood kids, and some of the other people who stopped by.
We played games with the kids we taught them some games we took from training camp like “Boom-chicka-boom,” and “Little Malagasy.” I also made balloon animals one day. It is amazing how an empty street can become filled with dozens of kids in just a few minutes. Some kids I especially remember are Baba, Madame, Emilio, Vola, and Yasmine. Through the summer, we threw water balloons, shot “finger-blasters”, and aimlessly ran around.
These kids generally had nothing; you could always tell when it was laundry day because the little kids were running around in their underpants (having only one outfit of clothes). It gave me an opportunity to really experience what God’s love was like, it was a situation in which there was nothing but the building of relationships; a lesson I still keep with me.
I also taught the “children’s church” on Sunday mornings. I would take a fun story from the Bible and re-write it in a way that I thought would be easiest to tell through a translator. David and Lisa also had some Bible pictures that I was able to use as well. I would tell the story, Patrick would translate, and hopefully the kids understood the lesson at the end. The last Sunday there I told the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and all the kids raised their hands to accept Jesus afterwards. I’m not sure if they understood or not, but hopefully it planted a seed that stuck with them.
On our last day there, I gave away a few of shirts, including my two YIM shirts to Baba, Madame, Vola, and Emilio. They were all beaming. We then had to say goodbye which was by far the hardest day there, seeing the little kids cry as we were leaving.
While getting stitches seemed like a set back at the time, it ended up being the trigger to getting to know the kids and building a relationship with them. When I was able to go back to Nosy Be a year and a half later, many of the kids were still there and remembered me. I would love to know how those kids are doing now.