Informal, behind-the-scenes, no-word-limit version 😛
For Sambany’s journey to healing (part I), click here.
It was a journey that would involve six of us braving altogether around thirty-three miles and five days hiking up and down approximately 2,600 feet of altitude (‘What felt like about 10 Mount Everests,’ recalls Jordan), walking on ‘bridges made of fallen trees’ (in Josh’s words), canoeing in hollowed-out trees, sleeping on hut floors of kind villagers, using our wits to navigate and survive (we breathe thanks to Laurin’s and Jordan’s hours of patient water-purifying) , befriending people whose language five of us could not speak, witnessing journeys ending and beginning, people reacting to the impossible become possible, relishing the joy of teamwork, and more …
The ‘Fellowship of Sambany’ (as we dubbed themselves) accompanied Sambany, a man whose 7.46 kg tumour had been removed by volunteer Mercy Ships surgeons, and his grandson Flavy, back to their home town of Sahanomby!
It all began when the leaders of the Africa Mercy decided to send Sambany home with a team from the ship to honour him. In less than two days, translator Henintsoa Rasolonjatovo (Tsoa), plumber Laurin Avara, carpenter Jordan Stull, hospital supply coordinator Scott Reed and writer/photographer (only for this trip) Eunice Hiew (me) were pulled together into The Fellowship, led by Josh Callow, affectionately known as ‘Gandalf’ due to his wise leadership, thick beard, and penchant for using a large stick with his Go-Pro perched on it as a walking staff.
Preparing for the trip. Gadget-man Gandalf Josh is also like Mary Poppins – he has everything in this bag(s) … and possessions, including this??! Haha! (No we didn’t end up bringing it :P)
Early on the morning of Thursday 21 May 2015, bathed by a sun shining as brightly as our excitement, we set off.
Dear ‘Fellowship of Sambany,’ it was an honour to do this journey with each and every one of you.
I mentioned excitement. There was also gratefulness, curiosity, determination, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening (partial delight and partial suddenness. Scott on the morning we left, ‘Twelve hours ago I had no idea.’), and tickled feelings of this-is-all-so-surreal as I sat in a car with two cowboy-talkin’ men from the other side of the world listening to music which inspired them to say things like, ‘Miss Patsy Cline, that’s what I’m sayin’!’, discussing Guardians of the Galaxy as we drove through the streets of Tamatave on our way to take a patient to his home in the depths of the Madagascar.
When I asked Laurin about what he was most looking forward to, he replied,
‘… The whole thing is just so cool!
Being a part of helping Sambany return to his village is something that will stay with me my whole life.’
After diligent study of Google Maps with Sambany and Flavy, our boys had estimated that we could get to Sahanomby and back within three days. Our first day was focused on finding a bridge we would allegedly be able to drive across before having to hike due to road conditions unsuited to driving. It was a bit of a mission to find the bridge, but our team are not only beauty and brawn, but also brains, and we got there!
The feeling upon discovering said ‘bridge’ was similar to the feeling induced when suddenly discovering you’ve been driving in the wrong direction (this had happened earlier hahaha*) – the ‘bridge’ was a river with dead stumps in it.
(* A little while (fortunately it was only a little while) after we had set off, Flavy had commented, ‘This is not the way we normally take when going by taxi-brousse.’
When I came up to Sambany later, he just laaaughed and laughed.)
We decided to spend the night in the town of Mahanoro. According to my notes, dinner was, ‘AMAZING. big fillet’ and I’d watched, ‘Flavy dancing to music xD’ a tiny bit.
The next morning, we woke up early – so early that the stars were still shining. I remember gazing up at a black sky full of little twinkly dots; perhaps they were winking at us 😉 Sambany had already shaken some of the others’ hands, and he came and shook mine. Just like the day before, he kept giggling and saying, ‘Eh!’ Haha! Adorable. He motioned for the car he was going to be in to be open, sat in it, and began fiddling with his radio. (Little did my naïve self recognize this forewarning for what it was. More on this later.)
Our boys would check the bridges to make sure they were safe before driving over.
We drove into the last village our Land Cruisers could drive to. Earlier, we had bought around 50 kg of rice to bring as gifts to Sambany’s village, and were trying to hire some men to help us carry it. I was busy packing lunch for one of the others, so I missed the following episode, but Tsoa describes what happened,
‘They started to surround the car!
Everybody wanted to see him!
‘The man who had the huge thing on his face is alive!’ they said … T
hey were amazed that he is still alive.’
The next thing that happened was wholly wondrous, and wholly unexpected. We had literally just begun our hike, walking out of that village, when our group noticed Sambany talking to a laughing woman who seemed overcome with excitement to see him. The ever-ready Josh started taking pictures, which was fortunate because we found out …
This was Sambany’s wife!!!
(Whaaaat haha! We hadn’t been expecting to see her until we got to his hometown!)
His very own Barazafy.
Later, we found out that whilst Sambany had been having the time of his life, Barazafy had fallen into a deep despair. She shared,
‘All our family was saying that he is dead; I did not know what to do. My husband is dead, and with him my grandchild – I thought about that a lot.’
She had sent her son to investigate, but he’d heard nothing. She then sent her friend; it was he who had found out that Sambany was alive. She told us, ‘I was finally happy!’ and decided, ‘I want to go there! And I did it! As you saw!’
She describes the moment she saw Sambany,
‘I did not recognize Sambany! And he came to me … I said, ‘It is you?’
With a merry laugh, she shares, ‘I was really happy, my heart did like this! *hand motions up and down* I was surprised!’
She told him, ‘Let’s go home! Together!’
She was so excited that, ‘I forgot my ID card there in the village!’
Thus, Barazafy joined our merry band. The happy couple didn’t stop talking to each other the whole way home.
Thank you so much to these men, who helped carry the rice bags we had bought as gifts for Sambany’s village.
You would never guess that Sambany had recently had a massive surgery. He and Barazafy powered ahead! (Barazafy was barefoot even! I remember staring at her feet as she fast-walked in front of me thinking what a badass she was). I had been put on second camera duty, and I must have practiced some form of high-intensity-interval-training with the running-fast-with-a-backpack-whilst-protecting-fancy-camera in order to get front shots of them, in between lagging behind them. (Like this one!)
Sambany would say, ‘I’ve been on the ship too long. It’s made me slow!’
Our team would respond (huffing and puffing), ‘You’ve been on the ship for months, we’ve been on the ship for years!’ Our Malagasy companions teased us, laughingly calling us ‘Reraka vaza!’ (‘Tired foreigners’).
I remember thinking, his relatives carried him on their backs up these hills?! His tumour alone was probably heavier than the 3 L of water, camera and backpack I was carrying!
We took a lot of breaks 😛
It was crazy to think that only four months prior, a weak and nearly lifeless Sambany had had to be carried, or rely on a stick, to get to our ship. Now, the same yet different man guided the way home, his feet trudging the very same paths he’d been carried over with youthful vigour, his belongings swinging in a plastic bag from a stick balanced on his shoulder – a red-capped man on a mission.
As we passed through village after village, Barazafy and Sambany would sometimes stop to say hello, and people would stare. Many listened wonderingly to this man they had thought would die, now before them the picture of life and energy.
Their faces say it all.
The whole journey was rather Lord of the Rings-esque – there was walking, some more walking, followed by even more walking. Fortunately our scenery was a lot better than Mordor. It was like hiking through an extraordinary 3D painting where a green version of Avatar meets the non-Mordor parts of Lord of the Rings meets The Road to El Dorado. The views from the tops were great, and not only because you knew you’d be going downhill soon after. Fresh flora surrounded us, with occasional bursts of colours waving hello from the tops of stems, red earth boldly contrasting with green leaves, the air visited fleetingly by red dragonflies, blue butterflies. In my notes, ‘Traveller’s trees (basically huge water bottles! Although Wiki tells me they’re not good for drinking without purifying first) dotting the hills (like) beautiful high fives – amazing landscapes – lush, green, alive like Sambany. Rushing river.).
Isn’t it wonderful to think that the wilderness we walked through was
literally alive and breathing (photosynthesizing)?
A metaphor for life, fitting for Sambany’s story.
At the first stream we came to, the Malagasy forged ahead. We innocent Mercy Shippers took a little pause as we tried to figure out how to cross it. Under the patient gaze of Flavy, we decided that the best way forward would be to take off our shoes and socks before crossing.
What must he have been thinking, knowing that very soon, we would be wading through waist-high river!
Top left – Sambany and Barazafy win the Cute Couple award of the journey fo sho!
Bottom – Scott wins the facial expression contest in this picture!
Top right – Sambany turned around to reach out to me as I was busy having fun taking pictures.
Middle right – #LiquidMirror
Left – There is a lot of uphill.
Right – This is our team looking like the intrepid adventurers that we are 😛
We trekked through rice fields and over bridges…
Over paths made of mud, soil, stone, clay, and ‘paths made of fallen trees’ (in Josh’s words) …
Through more water and villages …
This was our last place we could buy water from. Also where one can befriend lemurs!
We even had a soundtrack to our adventure. You may remember the radio forewarning I mentioned. We really got to know Sambany and Barazafy better on this trip: specifically, we got to know in a very real, first-hand experienced way their deep, shared love of music.
Imagine us from a bird’s eye view: a little line of humans, ants crawling through the majestic mountains of Madagascar, as it fills with songs such as One Direction numbers (I remember laughing to myself at the delicious ludicrousness of this! Harry, Niall, Liam, Zayn and Louis would be stoked to know I’m sure) and ‘Alouette,’ amongst others, blasting at full volume. On repeat. The mysterious box strapped to Barazafy was not, as initially assumed, her belongings; it was another radio! (LOL.)
The music did not stop when we arrived at the village in which we were staying that night. The very hospitable villagers brought us into a little one-room building which had a bed(frame), and covered the floor with mats. A crowd of people poured into the parts of the building we weren’t occupying (it was like there was an invisible line surrounding us that they didn’t cross), and watched attentively through the windows, as Sambany told his story (he even told them about his CT scan!), all to the background noise of his radio blaring away.
Barazafy cooked rice and two-minute noodles for dinner (in my notes, ‘noodles super nice’), and candles were lit as the sun went down. Barazafy continued being a badass; she helped to set up a makeshift ‘security system’ over the door involving a stick (if I remember correctly). We put up mosquito nets and went to sleep.
Or tried to. Sleep-time did nothing to stop Sambany and Barazafy from blaring their radio or talking! (They had a lot to catch up on I am guessing :P). ‘Alouette’ blasted the room boldly at 3 am in the morning!
I asked one of the others the next morning, ‘How would you describe last night’s sleep?’
His response, ‘I didn’t.’
Another teammate, ‘Sleepless.’
I vaguely remember begging God in the middle of the night that Sambany’s radio battery would die (or something along those lines). Josh shared that one of guys who helped carry the rice got a little close to him that night, ‘He kinda cuddled me.’
I look back on this night with genuinely fond amusement xD
Sambany’s first words to me that morning were, ‘Faly! Faly!’ (Happy, happy!) We were happy for him too. After all he’d been through, today was the day he was coming home. And what a beautiful day it was. The weather was perfect; almost as if it knew.
On our way, we passed by a village where Sambany’s sister lived. She was astounded,
‘The huge thing has disappeared! There is no scar! It’s amazing! That thing was as big as his head! We did not have hope for him anymore. We said he cannot be treated anymore.’
She looked at him and said, ‘You got a second chance.’
A curious, attentive crowd gathered as Sambany told his story, and they stared at the pictures Mercy Ships had given him, as well as a huge ‘Get well’ card that ‘Miss Kayla’s 3rd Grade Class of the AFM’ had made for him him.
After stocking up on coconuts and coffee, we continued on our way.
There are a few key words/phrases that characterise what the journey meant to me. One was ‘namako’; friend in Malagasy. Our languages and cultures were very different, but ultimately, we are all the same. We all eat and drink, we laugh and cry, we pray and love (the main difference perhaps is that they don’t get tired and we do :P). One of my absolute highlights was getting to know Sambany’s family even more.
I would like to take this opportunity to declare that Sambany can be such a goofball! Back on the ship he would make the funniest faces for photographer Katie Keegan. I wasn’t sure what was funnier – him making the funny faces or how he’d giggle at himself making the faces. At one point on the journey he was trying to see if he could hop over a stream without getting wet. Barazafy, what a spunky firecracker! With her cheeky grin and a thumbs-up always at the ready, her personality was as bright as her hat. Like grandfather like grandson – occasionally on the journey, Flavy and Sambany would let out their inner flow as spontaneous mini-dances (one of Sambany’s resembled tap-dancing). I felt very fond of Flavy (and Sambany. And Barazafy.). The best part is that I think it was mutual (don’t you just love it when friendship is two-way and not unrequited? :P). Although Flavy would laugh at me whenever I fell over (at one point we would count how many times we fell. Yes the numbers steadily increased), on the way back, he stopped me to say that he wanted to carry my bag at one point when my ankle was in pain. I was so touched. The fact that he gave it to Richard (Barazafy and Sambany’s son and other guide, who I also felt very fond of) is irrelevant.
The second characterizing phrase was what Sambany would always say whenever we asked how he was feeling, ‘Faly be.’ Very happy.
On the third afternoon, on Saturday 23 May 2015, after dressing up for the occasion by donning something resembling a white lab coat, Sambany finally made it back home. Heralded by Barazafy with loud exclamations, for the first time in over three decades, he stepped onto that soil without a tumour.
Sambany did the first thing his heart felt was right: he strode straight for the centre of the village and prayed. He gave the first moments of his new journey to God.
After that, it was a brisk walk under amazed and intrigued stares to a small wooden hut.
People took turns pouring through the doors to shake the hand of a man who they once had thought there was no hope for. I will let the pictures tell the story:
Sambany’s people listened attentively to his tale, gazed at the photos, and Miss Kayla’s 3rd grade class’s card was proudly shown off.
That hut witnessed a lot of handshakes and amazement that day!
Confession: these candid photos are not what they seem 😛 I had been taking pictures of them looking at the photographs. Soon, they started posing as if they were looking at the pictures, waiting until I had snapped a picture, and then they would motion to others to look at the picture so that their picture could be taken, and thus the photos got passed around so that everyone could have a turn being photographed ‘candidly looking at the photos’! =D =D … I do think they were genuinely interested in the photos too 😛
That night, Sambany’s radio was the centre of a dance party for what seemed like all the little kids in the village.
Sambany’s village was so good to us. After sleeping on mats and pillows filled with grass (I think?), we dined on chicken broth and rice for breakfast. After this, Sahanomby held a ceremony to thank Mercy Ships.
Dressed in their best, holding their hats, the village elders gave a heart-felt thank-you speech,
‘We are so happy here in this village of Sahanomby because a
friend who was about to die is alive! He was lost but now he is back!’
Following a gift of three live chickens and a bag of rice, their spiritual leader said, ‘This is all we can afford, this is from all of us: men, women, young, old, for you with love and appreciation … Thank you very much and also thanks to God! Misaotra Tompoko!’
Once spurned, Sambany’s life was now being celebrated. Barazafy says, ‘Yesterday night … where we slept, people did a dance party all night! And after that, people at Ambohifinaritra congratulated us as we passed by, and now people here in the village! The family is saying, ‘Sambany is alive! Sambany is alive!’
Faly be, faly be, faly be. Joy is contagious; our hearts were full as we played witness to this sheer, pure joy.
But then I remember – one of the reasons their joy was so intense, was the immensity of suffering they had undergone before.
Let me share with you a reflection of Jordan’s, which I love:
‘One truth that sank a little bit deeper into my heart on this trip was how God loves us all equally! As we got to know Sambany and his wife a little, we learned to love them and enjoy their company. A few times I met someone along the way whose personality would remind me of someone back home. As I watched Sambany and found myself in a place completely different than the world that I live in, I was forced to look into how God transcends all the differences and loves us not for what we have or who we think we are but because of the way HE see us. He made us with such individuality and He knows that thing which makes each of us unique from each other. He loves us equally and deeply. Therefore he sees me and Sambany the SAME.
If he didn’t prevent that tumor in Sambany,
He wouldn’t necessarily prevent it in me either.
That realization of truth for me brings a whole new level of
compassion and urgency to the hurting people of this world.
God loves every single one and nobody in 2015 should be living with 16lb tumors on their face.’
Hurt is everywhere. All around us. In you. In me. It was in Sambany. The reason his suffering has now turned into joy is because other people, who didn’t even know he existed, opened their eyes to the hurt in the world, and allowed their hearts to be soft enough to do something about it.
So what does that mean for me, for you?
We are all different, with our own little spheres of influence –
who is the Sambany in my world?
It doesn’t have to be a tumour in a country far away – it can be the issues in my own country, a friend having a rough time.
What then, is my responsibility? We were not made to save everything; we can only do what we can with what we have, and trust God with the rest. It is the posture/attitude of our hearts and lives that matters: to prayerfully have our eyes open to what is around us and to respond in compassion – heart and action, married with wisdom – the way appropriate to each context. I can learn up more about the issues in my country and get involved where I can (I am not great at this but am striving to improve), I can be there for my friend and love him/her well, I can donate to charities.
‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy … Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD.
– Jeremiah 22:16
It was time to say goodbye. Sambany’s people assembled to wave us off and we shook Sambany’s (and fist-bumped Barazafy’s) hands.
Our hearts were full.
Sambany and Barazafy’s story started with a radio (announcing the arrival of Mercy Ships), and so will the story of their new lives. We asked Barazafy if they were going to dance. With typical Barazafy excitement, she exclaimed, ‘Yes! We are going to dance! And also my children and grandchildren! They will all come here! … All the people here are going to party! … … Tell them in Tamatave that we wave our hands for them! Tell them that we are so happy in the village of Sahanomby thanks to save Sambany’s life! … Tell them that all the ‘Raiamandreny’ of the village has received you here (elderly and important people)! They should come here to party with us!’
Our goal was achieved, but the journey was only halfway through. Which is where I will bring up the third phrase that characterises this journey for me:
Vitatsika io! We can do this!
It wasn’t just the bonding with the Malagasy that was beautiful –
it was also the bonding within our Fellowship.
We were diverse, but boy were we united.
Such a random group of people … yet so perfect.
Every individual had something valuable to contribute, and
we all recognized and embraced each other.
It was thanks to the dedicated efforts of cowboy-talkin’, joke-crackin’, hymn-singin’ Jordan and Laurin that we had safe drinking water to survive on! One could write a whole blogpost on the water-purifying-process itself! The boys spent hours acquiring water, boiling it, cooling it and UV-penning (which they dubbed the ‘Arkenstone’) it (on the Saturday I think they did 25 L!). Josh and Scott had collected coconut water from coconuts from Sambany’s sister’s village. The water at one point tasted super-smoky, which is how we discovered that Gatorade helps make smoky water taste somewhat more palatable, and at another point tasted like coconut, but most importantly, it tasted as sweet as survival! Jordan and Laurin were gentlemen in all their actions, indispensable to our mission.
Prayer warrior Scott made it his mission to ensure that no one got left behind. Always faithfully, intentionally staying near the back, providing support, prayer, encouragement and conversation. A super-solid dude. Every journey (yes life metaphor intended) needs a Scott.
Josh’s origami bowl (yup. These are a thing.) is useful for pouring coconut water into bottles!
Gandalf Josh, talented leader (and all that entails), organizer (and all that entails), gadget-man and videographer (and all that those two things entail), was the reason we were able to forge forward, and the reason the rest of the world got to see Sambany’s homecoming story, on so many levels.
All four men were skilled off-road drivers who got our team as far as the vehicles could safely go.
Tsoa was the crucial language bridge without whom things would have been rather difficult 😛 More than that, he was kind, faithful, and good at his job; everyone was super impressed. I remember later when we found out that doctors were not going to a place they should have been, the passionate indignation that Tsoa felt on behalf of that whole village; such is my namako’s heart.
On our last night together, we fondly reflected on our different roles, and Laurin summed up how we were feeling,
‘This is the best group I could have asked for.’
Everyone had a solid attitude, pulled their weight, gave it their all, stayed mature, and supported each other: as we trekked, the mountains of Madagascar were filled not only with the sounds of One Direction and Alouette, but also with encouraging exclamations of, ‘You can do this!’ and, ‘You got this!’ in six different, exhausted but determined voices – comrades supporting each other, spurring each other on as we defied gravity.
Teamwork makes the dream work.
I am so proud of us.
We powered through that last day of hiking. Tsoa’s shoes broke, but never fear when Gadget-man Gandalf is near! Of course he had duct tape (along with his differently coloured headlamps (this is where I learned that red light doesn’t hurt night vision), different lenses for the different cameras, and more), and Tsoa the trooper made the rest of the journey back on his duct-taped shoes. The journey back felt faster. At one point, we were tempted to stop for the night, but decided to keep going. After almost ten hours, we stopped to spend the night in a little village.
It was a special night. Not only did we have the BIGGEST two-minute noodle feast (my notes say possibly ‘15?? Check’), but it holds a place in my memory as a dark night, far away from anything I knew, alone with other wonderful souls who I’d just shared a meaningful adventure with, lit by nothing but a candle and our voices raised in song. Lights in darkness. At one point during Jordan and Laurin’s singing it felt like the epic dwarf song in the Hobbit. But for Jesus 😛 We ended with a fond reflection on our team (as described earlier. Josh, ‘full heart’) and prayer to our God. As Laurin put it, it was like, ‘Choich!’ The most fitting way to spend our last night together.
My buddy Tsoa, who had been my translating buddy ever since we started working together on the Comms team, made my heart cry a little with his words, ‘I’m glad … came … this is like our last adventure together.’ (Our ship was leaving Madagascar soon). Oh namako.
On Monday, we felt like God was spoiling us, because it turned out to be a really good thing that we powered through that last stretch the day before; we discovered that a canoe trip could save us four miles! Ain’t nobody in their right mind gon’ say no to that! It was GORGEOUS! Like gliding through a postcard. After learning the art of balancing bodies and bags on bamboo sticks in hollowed-out-trees on water for over an hour, we made it to shore.
It was just a short walk to the land cruisers, and people, I never thought I’d see the day where seeing a land cruiser would make me feel (according to my notes) ‘probably as happy as on my wedding day’!!! (I can’t even imagine how Sambany must have felt upon reaching his home).
After a whole bunch of high fiving, whooping, hugging and yes kissing the car, we began the drive home.
The obligatory selfie that every adventurer must take at the end of every epic adventure.
The joy was deep because it was meaningful, on so many levels: we had been a part of something bigger than ourselves, been part of a meaningful journey, held on to our character and attitudes, persevered through challenges, loved each other well, witnessed real joy and hope, experienced new and wonderful things, and had fun.
In time for dinner (I don’t even want to imagine arriving just after dinner (although knowing the Mercy Ships team they’d have saved some food for us because they’re good at loving their neighbour like that)) on Monday 25 May 2015, we made it back to our waiting, welcoming, caring ship family (aww moment alert: Jordan’s wife was waiting for him at the top of the gangway).
God had been sooo so faithful. I only got diarrhoea after I returned to the ship’s flushable toilets and toilet paper! No one had gotten sick or dramatically injured, the weather had been kind … and I realised:
If I hadn’t extended my time with Mercy Ships around a couple of months earlier,
I would never have been able to make the journey.
My original departure date had been 23 May 2015 – the day Sambany returned home.
I just want to give thanks to my God.
For the wonderful people He used to save Sambany, for the journey bringing him home, for the Fellowship, and for this opportunity.
Thank You, my dear Father.
Photos by Josh Callow, Eunice Hiew, Ruben Plomp and Katie Keegan.
Credit to J. R. R. Tolkien for the Lord of the Rings series, which is referenced several times.