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Jan Heckler

Jan 15, 2024

In the heart of poverty, a community's spirit shines, defying limitations, and embracing hope against all odds.

It is late, and I find myself in the village of Ambaniakondro ('under the banana tree') in the lower half of Madagascar. I am wide awake. Periodically, I must kick huge rats away with my feet. I cannot see them, but I hear, smell, and feel them. I try to remain covered from head to foot with my blanket as best I can so I won't be bitten or scratched.

Bats, snakes, killer bees, attacks on my person, and bombs going off close enough to rattle windows—just about anything else I have survived as a missionary in Africa. But rats? Huge Bubonic plague rats unnerve me. I cannot sleep tonight because the rats seem to be everywhere. I even hear them inside the wall beside my head lying on my pillow.

My colleagues and I are here to help this village community plan its development, and we only have this afternoon, just past, and tomorrow to complete our part. We must work within the four days as the car is only ours for that period. Time is of the essence, and yet, right now, I cannot even think about sleep. I am about to 'lose it' when I remember a 'trick' I used a dozen years ago in Zimbabwe as a Peace Corps volunteer to relax while surrounded by poisonous black baboon spiders.

To relax my anxiety concerning these pests, I used intentional distraction. So, in like kind, I recall how I came to work with the women of Ambaniakondro. To recount this, I think of Pastor (Pr.) Mamisoa. Mamisoa and I worked together once before, earlier this summer.

I hear the rats scratching and crawling in the wall beside my head. I place earplugs in my ears. Best to do without this intrusion and try to get back to my distraction.

In June and July, Mamisoa and I collaborated to research, write, and deliver a four-day workshop on leadership for the FJKM Women’s group, Dorkasy. Two months later, Pr. Helivao, the Director of FJKM’s Chaplaincy for Marginalized People, contacted Mamisoa and me. The village of Ambaniakondro, comprised of about fifty women and children, requested help from FJKM in establishing a congregation and, more broadly, helping them develop their new community.

The women of Ambaniakondro have led destitute, oppressed lives. The men of their tribal heritage require dangerous activities that are practiced against their wives at the time of their first pregnancy to ensure that they are the fathers of the unborn child. These activities range from having to 'survive praying for one’s own death during labor' to having to 'survive the consumption of poisonous tea.' The idea is that somehow, the innocent will be spared death, while the guilty will die. Having had enough, about fifty of these women and their children left their homes with the Antemoro tribe and their families and ended up in Ambaniakondro, a small village southwest of Vohipeno. The women realized quickly that they needed help and thought of FJKM. Hearing of the women’s requests, Pr. Helivao asks Mamisoa to go with two other student pastors, Pr.s Lalaina and Andry, to assist them in establishing their new congregation. Meanwhile, Helivao also asks me if I would do some 'development' work for her. She has already checked with the president, so my schedule has been cleared for this. I am most interested in the invitation and readily agree. Helivao says she would like me to begin immediately.

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When Mamisoa and her teammates return from Ambaniakondro, she drops by to tell me about her adventure. The women have taken a huge step towards planting a church. It is nice seeing one another. She could not be more surprised when my turn to tell came up in our conversation. Astonished at my news, she asks, “You will go down there alone? Why not let me go with you? I know the people. I’m familiar with their customs.”

This is precisely what I had been hoping for. We rewrite the plan and make it ours. Later, Mamisoa communicates with local pastors in Vohipeno and arranges when we’ll arrive. Then she finds a car and driver, but it can be ours for just four days partly as it is scheduled after that and partly due to cost. Still, our new plan is set!

At a certain point south of Antananarivo, it becomes dangerous to drive after dark due to highway bandits, so we drive 13 hours to Ranomafana ({place of} “hot water”), where we stop for the night. Early the next morning, we awake to cool temperatures and dense fog. A river runs next to the highway, and after a picture or two, we are off for another 6-hour drive that takes us to Vohipeno via Manakara. There, we meet Pr. Vero, our local contact, and drive the final 45 minutes on muddy, potholed roads deeper into the coastal plain. It is warmer and more humid because we are only slightly above sea level.

As we arrive, the children surround Mamisoa. She has found a home away from home among these people. The children are so taken by her! My own smile dims as the village and its grave level of poverty make me catch my breath. As I begin taking in the extent of this village’s heart and energy, I equally appraise how few resources it appears to possess. Mamisoa had fully briefed me on the way down, but it seems clear that seeing has a greater impact than simple words. Here, poverty means no bathrooms. No running water. No doctors. No electricity. The symptoms of poor health and nutrition are pervasive. Many children show signs of Kwashiorkor. Indeed, this community’s development will be a generational challenge.

In Ambaniakondro and the surrounding parishes, all women must use the east-side door of any structure only. If there are other doors, we are forbidden to use them. The irony is that, in throwing off the shackles of one oppression, the women were forced by poverty and lack of mobility to abide by another.

We speed through much of our greetings since we have severe time constraints on our work. We persuade the women of this and convene in one of the huts, a family’s home that has been cleared of belongings for our plenary meetings. It is one large, rectangular dirt floor with old boards, mud, and sticks for walls, and thatched grass for roofing. The women were told of my experience in planning and development, so they easily receive my instructions.

I explain that we will break into three groups, each of which will prayerfully discern the community’s chief development goals. At the end of the day, we will reunite for reconciliation. Each group will try to work out answers to the following: “What does our community need the most? Need first? After first, what next?” Outwardly, I exhibit my usual ‘can do’ attitude, but concerns lie deep in my heart. Normally, this kind of planning is orchestrated within a full retreat with many summaries, trend analyses, and executive summaries. Further, participants are usually provided materials to read in advance. In Ambaniakondro, there are none of these things. These precious children of God have only their experiences and our translated verbal instructions to guide them.

So, we are thus moved to pray before breaking from plenary, asking for the help we so plainly need from the one who never tires nor wearies. Then we break into groups. Mamisoa and I move from one group to another listening to each. She translates our facilitations and though she has never done long-range planning, Mamisoa takes to it naturally and is elated by what we are trying to do. More importantly, a miracle is ongoing: everyone is participating; even the older children. Everyone’s enthusiasm is unrestrained; they dive into this like experienced planners. Yet none of these people has finished primary school! It is exhilarating!

Mamisoa and I find the magnitude of the success simply overwhelming. The Lord’s spirit is palpable among us! Finally, with little light remaining, we are blessed to learn no serious conflicts exist. The people are of a common mind and the three groups quickly concur. The community’s development goals are to: 1. Construct a church. 2. Erect a school. And, to 3. Establish small businesses to stimulate economic growth. Other matters like improving health care, sanitation & clean water, are temporarily set aside to better focus on the three priorities. We are so overjoyed we spontaneously sing hymns.

As we sing, the people project more loudly, with greater enthusiasm, until everyone is on their feet, clapping, singing, and making a joyous noise unto the Lord! It is an incredible sight! Finally, with darkness now upon us, we go to our respective places for the night. Mamisoa, Vero, and I retreat to our hosts' house where we are ebullient in our joy. Yet, faith informs us that only God’s hand could orchestrate such unbridled success under the present conditions. Mamisoa and Vero prepare chicken and rice over an open fire. We talk briefly but head early to our respective ‘beds.’

I am assigned the couch in the living area near the front door and window that do not quite close . . . so the rats come and go as they please. On this night, the rats have finally found their way to the kitchen for now; at least, and they leave me alone. Thank the Lord for this and so many other things. Finally, sleep comes. No more kicking tonight.

✦ I awake to the smell of village fires, frying eggs, and fresh coffee. I slept after all. I hurry to get dressed, fold my blanket, and find Mamisoa. After breakfast, the village meets again in plenary, and I am struck by the positive, confident energy of the group. They are full of anticipation - a genuine synergy. Again, I am ashamed of my prior doubts. ‘Fear is the absence of faith’ I remind myself. With this, I effortlessly stand straighter and breathe more easily. We can do all things through our Lord who strengthens us!

We quickly define new groups, one for each goal and, after identifying group leaders, invite everyone to attend the hut that corresponds most strongly with the goal of their greatest interest. Again, we send everyone off with a prayer for help and guidance. Mamisoa and I watch as yet another miracle unfolds. Energy and level of participation, like yesterday, begin and remain high. People are involved, even talking over others to be heard. Equal participation is often difficult to achieve. Yet, though we have done nothing to affect this, we readily see that everyone is having her say! Also, the work is being done more quickly than imagined. Again, we feel the presence of the Spirit among us. The entire village is alive with it! The energy is contagious, and Mamisoa and I cannot help but laugh being a part of something so special.

After three hours, everyone is ready to report back, so we call the fourth plenary. Each leader reads their reports and Vero translates. As good as the plans are, each action plan has a missing component: a lack of funding. 1) People identify those who will build the church. However, land is needed on which to build, and funds for materials are lacking. 2) The school problem is similar. Finally, 3) At least eight entrepreneurial jobs are needed. More would be better.

When the final report has been read, the plenary becomes silent. Even the youngest are quiet and attentive. Have our plans run out of road and fallen into the precipice of this test by reality? Then, it begins. People speak up to add their personal contributions toward making the goals more achievable, lightening the burden of the whole. Lalaina and Anja, the owners of the house we slept in last night, speak first. “We can donate land for the church!” says Lalaina. Everyone murmurs in excitement. Pr. Vero jumps in with, “And I can teach at the school until a more qualified teacher is found!” Again, the murmuring resumes. Another woman suggests that the church and school might initially share the same structure. This way, they could begin together, and the cost will only be half what it was!

Suddenly, moved by the self-less, community spirit of the group and seeing the emerging feasibility of the plan, I act as the part-time, volunteer Executive Director of A Project of Hope (APOH) and award a grant to pay for the building materials and school supplies of the temporary church-school and another to establish 10-20 micro-loans. Seeing that the action plans would be realized, everyone begins singing and dancing again. Such unrestrained joy! But at least these dreams of the women of Ambaniakondro were going to come true. Finally, we all pray in thanksgiving for the women of Ambaniakondro and their new community development plan.

✦ Two days later, back in Antananarivo, Mamisoa visits me. We both confess to still experiencing the joy of the last days. While we are visiting and reliving the experience, her phone rings. Her laughing smile disappears and is replaced with sobriety. As she speaks in Malagasy, I realize something terrible has happened. She rings off her cell and says, “Someone has burned down Lalaina and Anja’s home and business! People think it was because they put us up and donated land for the church. All the Bibles we donated beforehand went up in the fire since the house was where they were stored.”

As bad as this is, not knowing who did it or why seems worse. Mamisoa and I work hard to avoid perceptions framed with suspicion and ill will. Instead, we are deliberate in promoting the ideas given to us in the sermon on the mount. When someone attacks, we turn the other cheek. Most gratefully, this is what the women of Ambaniakondro do. They simply bear it. What motivation contributed to the burnings we will never know. Mamisoa and I end the day and this chapter of our lives praying for peace and reconciliation. Such kind and selfless people being judged and punished for their willingness to develop their community strikes us as an unspeakable tragedy of the human condition.

 ✦ Epilogue. The temporary church- school became a permanent church by mid-2014, and the school was dedicated solely to the education of the village’s children. In addition, the women received another grant to dig a second, strategically located well nearby and purchase a minivan to move their produce and products to Vohipeno for selling on market days. 

More than twenty individuals were able to establish their own businesses. No interest in retribution materialized and the women of Ambaniakondro remain steadfast in their love of and commitment to God.

Image: The temporary church-school built by the Women of Ambaniakondro - Photo by Jan Heckler - February 2015.


Jan was called to Africa beginning in Zimbabwe before 911. She received doctoral training at U. of Fla.. Sharing effective teaching methods became a primary way she serves God in mission. Jan is a published author and has taught in Namibia and Malawi - twice, winning teaching awards. As a consultant for the Govt of Ethiopia, she helped attain a five-donor nation-World Bank funding package for $417 million. Forced into early retirement by injuries she writes and consults from her home in Berkeley.


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