A Newborn Sakalava Church

Nosy Be, Madagascar

Story and Photography by Tori Alverson

Off the northwest coast of Madagascar lies a small island that one might pass over on a map. Nosy Be is a beautiful and messy place. It is home to a tribe known as the Sakalava and to a team of nine missionaries just trying to survive. When I stepped off the plane in April 2013, I was overwhelmed and in awe of this picturesque island. However, as the realities of everyday life set in, I began to see the messiness and darkness that flooded this land.

The Sakalava are known as an animistic culture, and they are bound by fear of their long- deceased ancestors. Holding ceremonies to ask the spirits of the deceased to inhabit their bodies is not uncommon. Leaving offerings of rum, money, or clothing at sacred sights to ask for favor or blessings is typical. Following the many taboos, like staying home from the rice fields on certain days, for fear of repercussions from the ancestors keeps the Sakalava bound. This spiritual darkness consumes the island, and the weight of it is carried on the backs of the Sakalava.

Bound by fear.

Bound by the unknown.

My TIMO team and I came to the island like small children. Wide eyed and a little lost. Not knowing the language or culture, we had to rely heavily on our neighbors and newfound friends to help us with the day-to-day tasks. These were frustrating times for me and the Texan independence on which I pride myself.

We serve a gracious God who gently helped me through my issues of pride and self-serving independence, but He also allowed me to fall face first in the mud. Literally and figuratively. Only then did I begin to understand the necessity of putting aside my independence so that relationships could flourish.

Every team member was forming relationships throughout each of our villages. It wasn’t until near the end of my term that I realized from the beginning how God, so purposefully, used those specific friendships and relationships to further His Kingdom. He had intricately woven together people from different walks of life, cultures, ages, genders, and races for His glory.

Let me explain.

The first week on the island, we lived with local families. It was a crash course in the daily lives of the Sakalava. One of our team families also comes from Texas. Bryan, Rebe and their three kids stayed with a well-known local family in the main fishing village, Ambatozavavy. Both families are outgoing and welcoming, so the connection was instant. Little did we know this would be the start of God’s perfectly planned path.

Through that relationship with the local family, our team was introduced to a group of Sakalava musicians called Groupe Tsinfitaka. By day, these five talented young men earn a living by fishing or guiding tourists through the local reservation. They were once known as the bad boys of the village, and others urged us to steer clear of them. But that was not an option for our team. We knew there was something special about this group of guys.

My team and I started memorizing Scripture in the local dialect that had been translated by our team leader, Rosina, who is originally from Nosy Be. Before this, there were no Scriptures, no resources, and no songs written in the heart language of the Sakalava. Why would they want to be a part of the Church, when the Church seems so foreign? Soon after learning parts of Daniel chapter three, my teammate, Bryan, asked for our thoughts about giving pieces of the Scripture to the band. We didn’t know what would come of it, if anything, but thought it was an idea worth pursuing.

Bryan and Rosina met with Groupe Tsinfitaka and asked them to write a song based on the verses. My team leader gave some background of the bits and pieces of the passage, but that was the only direction given. We gave them free rein to create a song that was purely Sakalava in sound and purely Scripture in word.

The band finished the song in one day.

We gathered together to listen to the band perform. “There is no other god who can rescue like this God,” they sang, and with tears in my eyes, I knew this was the start of God revealing himself to this little island.

My team decided to make translation a priority. Another member of the team, Jed, helped Rosina form a committee of locals to translate Scripture. Jed put together passages ranging from creation to Revelation to produce a condensed version of the Bible. Now we had more Scripture to give to the band, and they wrote a song based on Isaiah 43 in just a few days. Eager to continue making music, they asked for more. This group of young men was singing the word of God, and they were loving it. I prayed that the Scripture would not just be words from their mouths but would also be written on their hearts.

As the band continued to write songs and the committee continued to translate, we started having a stockpile of Christian resources in the local language. As a team, we decided it was time to pull these resources together and have a simple outreach event. This became known as The Gathering. We started in the two villages where our team members lived. Each month, we met once in each village, gathering under the shade of a mango tree and sitting on grass mats. Through Scripture reading, songs, stories, and prayer, locals heard the Gospel message in their own language. Eventually, we held the Gathering in five different villages, allowing hundreds of Sakalava to follow the biblical narrative from creation to the Fall, redemption to restoration.

After hearing the truth of the Gospel, four of our friends confessed the sin in their hearts and their need for Jesus. Alexi, Mbotizara, Angela, and Blondine now follow the path less traveled for the Sakalava. They are our brother and sisters in Christ.

On June 21, 2015, the first Sakalava church service was held. The simplicity of the Gatherings translated into a simple church that resonates with the Sakalava culture. We held our first meeting in the front yard of Alexi and Mbotizara’s hut. Once again, we sat under the shade of a mango tree and on the grass mats, but now we sang with our new brother and sisters. Many people from the village came to be a part of the service, and we are hopeful that the church will continue to grow.

Even though the team finished in August of 2015, the work on Nosy Be will continue. Rosina, the band, and a few local believers still labor onward. The Gatherings and the church will still come together every week. The translation work continues and the local committee has started the process of printing the book of Matthew. People can hear audio files of the word of God, and the band’s songs have been playing on the Madagascar radio for months. The ministry is not dependent on foreign missionaries, but on the Lord, and we are so grateful for that.

The Sakalava are reaching the Sakalava.


Tori Alverson is originally from the great state of Texas. For the last couple of years, she has had the privilege of living life on the island of Nosy Be off the coast of Madagascar. The Sakalava culture, people, and islander lifestyle have been woven into her heart and will forever be a part of her. She will find any excuse to be outside with a camera in hand or on her deck with a good book and a cup of coffee.

A Newborn Sakalava Church

Sep 21, 2015 | Articles, Bound to the Past, Guest Post, Southern Region, TIMO