Based on an interview by Oscar Osindo, Associate Director, IWM
For many, the opportunity to explore a culture different from their own means a two-week summer vacation spent eating local food, exploring tourist attractions and moving from one Airbnb to another. For Flavie Palin Claver, professor at Adventist University Zurcher, Madagascar, it meant a lot of studying in preparation to serve abroad as a missionary.
“I believe that if you want to work in a country, you have to learn about the culture and the language,” she asserts. Flavie started studying the Malagasy language before leaving her home country of Martinique to teach nursing at the university in Madagascar. “Malagasy is very different from my native French and is not easy for outsiders. But I was determined to at least try!”
Though the national languages of Madagascar are Malagasy and French, many students arrive at the university unable to speak French. This is because throughout primary and secondary school, students are taught in Malagasy.
“People mistakenly believe that because in Madagascar they speak French that teaching them should be no problem for me, as I am fluent,” Flavie says. “This is not the case!”
The university teaches in only French and English, which poses an obvious problem when students speak neither. So she created a course for her first-year students to learn French.
“They learn so quickly!” she exudes with pride. “After only three months, they can understand and speak the language. And by the time they graduate, they can speak three: French, English, and Malagasy.”
Language was only one part of Professor Flavie’s challenge in adjusting to her new community; she also had to adapt to a new culture.
“I come from a country that is very independent in culture,” she explains. “In Madagascar, the culture is very group-centric, very community and family oriented, and individually I found they could be quite shy.”
To overcome this, Flavie greeted people cheerfully when she met them on the sidewalk and would stop to talk with them if they were willing. As they got to know each other, Flavie found that she had been accepted by many in the community, and once she was accepted, it was much easier to begin working together.
Her Plan of Action
One of her first tasks was to overhaul the curriculum for her program. So she created a training book and began meeting with students outside of class to answer questions and get to know them. Understanding that in the Malagasy culture, like so many around the world, people enjoy eating, Flavie invited her students to dine with her as well.
“While this sounds wonderful, it did cause a little bit of a cultural misunderstanding,” she says with a laugh. “Because I had offered to help my students with their coursework, as professors do, the students, due to their cultural background of being community-centric, naturally assumed I would help anyone who needed it. So they brought their whole family to my house to consult on various problems!”
That wasn’t all, Flavie says, laughing still: “They came at 5:00 in the morning!”
Though it is amusing in hindsight, it was surprising at the time, and she had to explain that she couldn’t solve all problems and help her students’ families understand university culture, while learning more about theirs in the process.
Going the Extra Mile
Many missionaries experience difficulties in their work, but 2020 posed unique challenges around the world. Madagascar did not escape the new reality brought about by COVID-19, and the pandemic created problems for Flavie and her students too.
“When they closed the university, I insisted we continue teaching online, and the director agreed,” she recalls. “But this was new to everyone, and we all had to learn new skills in order to make it happen.”
Additionally, some students did not live in the city but rather out in rural villages, where there was no internet. Doing coursework via Facebook, Skype, and other technological methods was just not going to work.
“So I called every single one of them on the phone,” Flavie explains. “It’s what they had access to, so I went through the coursework over the phone for those who couldn’t access the internet. It cost a lot of money to call them all, but I was determined that they continue their education!”
Once the university reopened its doors, the challenges didn’t stop. Students whose parents had lost their jobs due to the pandemic no longer had funds with which to pay tuition. Several did not return to school.
“I talked to the director about these students and told him they must continue in the program,” she says. “I told him to accept them at 25% tuition, and I would cover the remaining 75%.”
Following Jesus’ Method
Near the beginning of her time there, she was told that when a previous missionary had come from Martinique, the people had been frightened of her. As she dug into this story further, it came out that the previous missionary had dressed as she was accustomed to at home, not realizing that her strange garb was inhibiting her ability to connect with the locals.
“I am an experienced seamstress, and before I came to Madagascar, I made myself several pieces of clothing in the Malagasy style,” Flavie says. “From the moment I set foot on their soil, I looked like one of them, and that made it easier for them to relate to me.”
Sewing and language learning weren’t the only ways she prepared before heading into her mission field; she also earned a master’s degree in cultural anthropology.
“You cannot go live amongst a people without knowing a thing about them,” she points out. “I studied society and culture, and now it is easier for me to understand the people I’m working and living with in a culture so different from my own.”
One of the first things she did to connect with people when she began her work in Madagascar was to reach out to the woman in charge of the town closest to the university. She asked the leader for permission to do something for the community and was granted permission, so she began to make plans. She prepared her first-year students to educate someone about what they knew about nursing and then bused them into the town with 300 loaves of bread. Each student was tasked with finding a local woman to teach and share bread with. This day spent educating the local women and sharing food with them built a bridge between the university and the town that hadn’t existed before.
“I also did a lot of reading,” Flavie says. “I went to local bookstores and bought several books about life in Madagascar, medicine in Madagascar, and the Malagasy worldview. I learned a lot that helped me in working with the people.”
Additionally, she found a local person willing to mentor her on her journey to understanding the Malagasy people, culture, and language, walking her through challenging situations and encouraging her along the way.
As Oscar Osindo points out in their interview, Flavie follows the Jesus method, mingling with the people “as someone who desires their good, living with them, and loving them.” She approached her new community with humility, friendship, and a desire to understand. This endeared her to them, and relationships blossomed much more quickly than they may have otherwise.
“I would ask the missionaries around the world to pray for our students here in Madagascar,” Flavie says in conclusion. “They need a clinic on campus in which to do their training before going to the hospital. I have begun to save money for this, but it is not enough, so we need prayers!”
“Anything else?” Oscar Osindo asks as the interview comes to a close.
“I also want Jesus to come back now,” she says simply.
What about you?
Have you been inspired by this story? Do you have a similar experience you’d like to share?
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