A Pastor from Nowhere
A pastor from nowhere: On the taxi brousse between Vangaindrano on the east coast and the capital Antananarivo, a distance which takes about 24 hours, we passed through one of the regions most prone to banditry in the country. Banditry occurs under the cover of darkness and involves stopping vehicles and relieving passengers of all of their valuables. I normally shied away from travel at night in Madagascar but I changed plans quickly and decided to spend Christmas in Antananarivo and get my visa sorted before travelling onwards. Maybe I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I normally would as I had just spent over 30 hours travelling the 250km between Fort Dauphin and Vangaindrano but regardless I was on an overnight bus going through an area well known for banditry.
It was only after the bus had departed that the dangers of overnight travel occurred to me. I was sitting beside a pastor called Honora, who I met on the leg of the journey up from Fort Dauphin, so I asked him about the situation. A pastor from nowhere. He didn’t know exactly but a quick chat with the driver revealed we were going to be passing through some dicey areas for night time travel. This was tempered by the reassurance that we would be joining a convoy near Ranomafana national park and be protected by an armed member of the gendarmerie (security forces) during the night.
It was already after 9pm when we left the coastal city of Manakara towards Ranomafana. The roads closer to the park are twisty and full of bends with lots of hills on each side making it perfect ambush territory. It was still too early for anything like that yet but it didn’t stop me from considering removing my passport and camera card and hiding them, but it would have be pointless because if we were robbed we would have been thoroughly searched so I left things as they were.
There didn’t seem to be any worry among the passengers about an ambush, at least outwardly anyway and I hoped if we were stopped having the pastor (even a pastor from nowhere) on board would prevent us from having anything worse than our valuables taken. I did start to wonder when we would be joining the convoy as there were sets of headlights coming in our direction in threes and fours so they had the protection of their convoy. There was the odd bus on its own but they were going away from Ranomafana and the hills which hide the bandits.
About midnight on the outskirts of one village there was police stop with a stinger across the road, except there were no police to be seen. The stinger could clearly be seen in the dark as it had plastic bottles sticking up from its spikes to make it obvious. We stopped and looked around but there was no one to be seen so the driver beeped his horn thinking the policeman may have been asleep in the hut by the side of the road, but there was no answer so the assistant went towards the hut gingerly and knocked on the side but there was still no answer. Eventually the assistant lifted the curtain and peeped in but there was no one inside so I was a bit concerned about who had pulled the stinger across the road but said to myself that bandits would hardly attack us near a village.
The bus went very quiet and I could feel the mostly relaxed atmosphere up until now turn decidedly tense as people wondered what was going on. There was very little talking and anything said was whispered.
This seemed to go on for a long time but after a few minutes the assistant opened the passenger door and a well-dressed man with sunglasses jumped in and sat beside me. The story got back to me through the pastor that our new passenger set up the stinger across the road to stop a taxi brousse. He was waiting in a house nearby and didn’t want to wait out in the cold so he had the bright idea of using the stinger. I thought he was joking at first but this is actually what happened. The tension was relieved and most saw the funny side, but we could have done without these kinds of antics, however later I did see the humour in it.
Next morning I got talking to the man who caused the previous night’s stoppage and it turned out he is a pastor too. A pastor from nowhere! He called himself Paul, but this may be only just his English name and was on the way to visit his wife and newborn son near the city of Antsirabe about 100km south of Antananarivo. His pastoral work is based near the village we picked him up and this was the first time he has seen his son. He has a mischievous way about him and this is backed up by his mischievous activities but he was good company when he wasn’t scaring the life out of me.