Mission in Madagascar

As a student at the University of Cordoba, Argentina, my aim was to finish my education, become a dentist, and get settled in life. Sure, I was aware of my Adventist roots and responsibilities. My parents had brought me up to love God and serve humanity. Doing His will wherever He needed me was part of my early commitment. Although I thought about offering my services as a missionary, I felt that in my own homeland there were enough challenges.

But God has a way of mysteriously intervening in one's life. I was not on a Damascus road or in a fishing boat. I was not even attending a church convention. Just an ordinary meeting with Siegfried Mayr, then president of Indian Ocean Union Mission, turned into an extraordinary event in which profession, vision, and commitment merged, and packed me off on a plane to the distant island of Madagascar.

Madagascar? I had to look up an atlas to find out where it was. Two continents away, on the western edges of the Indian Ocean. Culture, language, eating habits, lifestyle, and whatever else that spells strangeness confronted me when I landed on the island. But there was one thing that was the same between Argentina and Madagascar. There were people in need of God's loving care.

Soon I realized that God's love for the people of Madagascar could be expressed by my working on their teeth. That's a strange way of showing God's love, you say. Not at all. Didn't God make our teeth to last a lifetime? Well, here was a place where such focus was needed. Elder Mayr convinced me earlier that the church could have a lasting impact through professional dental care. No sooner had I landed on the island than I began working on establishing a quality dental clinic that would show in practical ways that Adventists really care.

Difficult beginnings

But the beginnings were not easy. Bureaucracy has its way of turning policies into roadblocks. The local dental association did not see the need to have another dentist on the outskirts of the capital, Antananarivo. Only 10 percent of materials needed to begin the clinic was available locally. And then the biggest problem of all--finances to build a modern facility with up-to-date equipment.

The situation was not promising. Should I stay and keep trying? Or should I return to the certainty of a comfortable practice in my homeland, near family and friends? Fortunately, the balance was tipped by the force of faith--instilled early in my childhood by godly parents. And did not the Lord Himself say that faith of the size of a mustard seed has the power to move mountains? We prayed, prayed some more, and let God work His way.

Soon doors began to open. Seven months after the initial petition, the Madagascar Health Ministry and the Dental Association granted our request to begin the clinic. Donations from the General Conference and ADRA Sweden, and a loan from the union mission gave us a financial headstart. Two local dentists and a dental associate joined me to form the initial working team. But we needed help in installing laboratories that would make prostheses locally. Help came from Reijo Heirovonen, a Swedish prosthesis maker retired due to an accident. He heard of our need and flew in to make our dream come true. Two other volunteers from Sweden and one from France followed, and finally we had a full-fledged, modern dental clinic in an attractive building we had designed.

Patients from far and near flooded the clinic. Today our patient list includes the former prime minister of Madagascar, other national ministers, embassy staff of Britain, France, Germany, Egypt, the United States, and Switzerland, leading businesspersons and professionals. At one time they were flying to South Africa for dental care. No more.

Two years after we started the main clinic, we opened a branch near downtown Antananarivo. It is small but well-equipped, serving low-income people. Our patients throughout the island have come to know for the first time who Adventists are and what they stand for.

The caring outreach

But soon I discovered other areas of need. On a visit to a small island 30 miles from Madagascar, I found people living without any primary medical facility or care. The island had a small population, but 70 percent of the young people had sexually transmitted diseases, and 95 percent of the children suffered from intestinal parasites, scabies, and mouth infections.

We decided to do something for this remote island. We returned as a team of four--a female doctor, two nurses, and me--with needed medications and instruments. From village to village we moved. There were no paved roads, no modern communications, but just aching feet, loving hearts, and responding people. We lived among the villagers, in their huts, ate with them, and showed them what God's love means. Our two-week stay ended with treating 800 people. But it was not just treatment and healing that made our mission fulfilling. It was seeing children smile, young boys and girls sing with us, older people looking up again and somehow sensing that there was joy and hope in life.

Why missions?

Five years after I landed in Madagascar, the question for me is a far larger one. What does God expect of me in this world? That question comes again and again as I look into a decayed tooth, treat a scabies-ridden child, or work with prisoners in the Madagascar jail. I have found the answer. God expects me to be His hands, His eyes, His ears, His legs, His heart to love and serve His people. That's mission.

Life as a missionary is not counting victories, nor sobbing over failures. Satan wants us to fall into either trap. To be a missionary is to be where God wants us to be. It may be near home. It may be away from home. But whenever He calls, you can be His person and do His work where He wants.

Marcelo Toledo (D.D.S., University of Cordoba, Argentina) is the director of the Adventist Dental Clinic in Antananarivo, Madagascar. His address: Boite Postale 700; Antananarivo 101; Madagascar.

Readers who have completed their dental studies and wish to serve as missionaries may write to the Director of Dental Affairs; Health and Temperance Department; 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, MD 20904; U.S.A.