By Jesse Masai
As representatives from around the world prepared to gather in Glasgow, Scotland from October 31 to November 12 for the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, few people were more interested in the proceedings than members of Madagascar’s Diocese of Fianarantsoa in the Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean.
Its head, Bishop Gilbert Rateloson Rakotondravelo, believes the fourth-largest island nation in the world is grappling with its worst famine in a generation. While Madagascar continues receiving support from the international community and some non-governmental organizations for its estimated population of 26 million people, Rakotondravelo reckons that may not be enough to tide them over terrible hunger pangs.
“The situation south of the country is not good. Out of our 22 regions, it has been hit the hardest. Some crops have also been destroyed by bandits,” he says, warning that at least one million people may be at risk.
Within his own diocese, which was founded in 2003, Rakotondravelo says reports continue streaming in of high malnutrition.
“The situation has worsened since March 2021, especially for our women and children. We need short-, medium-, and long-term interventions,” he says.
According to the U.N.’s resident coordinator in Madagascar, Issa Sanogo, “climate change is making life increasingly difficult for the people who live there.”
Rakotondravelo agrees, noting that while people want to farm their lands, there is no rain.
“When this is all over, we will need to begin shifting from rain-fed agriculture. The relief aid received so far is insufficient and unsustainable in the long-run,” he said.
The Malagasy Church, he believes, has a great challenge to meet emerging needs in the context of COVID-19, characterized by loneliness and uncertainty.
“As a diocese, we are offering pastoral care and encouragement. We have an opportunity to provide a Christian response, including a message of hope. We are the people of God. We must continue to teach and train in accordance with the Holy Scripture in these trying times,” he said.
About half of the Malagasy population is Christian, with the rest actively following African traditional religious practices.
Amid this, the diocese continues to thrive, including by training new catechist evangelists, priests, and deacons.
“We are running programs for Sunday school and discipleship so that our people can become responsible in this situation, especially when it comes to civic-mindedness. We believe God is marching with us, because we have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. Many of the people in my diocese are children, so we are also laying a firm foundation for our shared future,” he said.
The diocese’s response to the famine has not been without challenges and lessons.
“We have witnessed power encounters through demonic attacks. We are learning to fortify the faith of our people and staying with them through prayer, fellowship, guidance, and counseling,” the bishop said.
As he ponders the future of the 3.5 million residents of his see, 25,700 of whom have been baptized, Rakotondravelo believes the Southern African nation must begin grappling with the consequences of environmental degradation.
“The suffering of our people — especially in the neighboring Diocese of Toliara — without food and uncertainty over future is indescribable. The Anglican Church in Madagascar and its partners is trying its best, but right now that is simply insufficient,” he said.
A missionary see, the Diocese of Toliara was carved out of the Diocese of Antananarivo, achieving autonomy in 2013 under the leadership of Bishop Todd McGregor.
Located southwest of the island and growing fast, it is now led by Bishop Samitiana Razafindralambo.
In responding to the current situation, Rakotondravelo believes the Body of Christ in Madagascar will do well not to live in isolation.
“As a rural diocese, we need all the help we can get to ensure our people have seeds for maize and beans farming. I think that we can work together to sustain them before the next planting season,” the 59-year-old said.
The famine is expected to feature prominently during the Anglican Church of Madagascar’s Synod in December.