ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar – Something’s gone wrong in paradise – terribly wrong.
Considered a gem of the Indian Ocean, the island has it all – turquoise-colored waters, white sand beaches, crimson sunsets, listing palm trees and exotic sail boats. Tropical fruits are in abundance, and markets overflow with the island’s aromatic spices: vanilla, clove, cinnamon, anise, black pepper and more.
Besides its romantic beaches and world-class tourist resorts, the island boasts of pristine rainforests, national parks that feature the unique baobab tree, the world’s only natural habitat of the lemur, hardwoods made into treasured artifacts, varied marine life and coral reefs, and a cuisine built on French and Malagasy traditions with a seafood lover’s mix thrown in.
Ninety percent of Madagascar’s plant and animal life is indigenous only to the island.
IMB photo by Wayne Littlefield
Sex tourism is big business in Nosy Be, a large island off Madagascar’s northern coast. Local prostitutes are always on the lookout for new clients, so it is common for tourists to encounter prostitutes while walking the beaches here.
Beneath the surface of it all, however, an evil lurks, permeating the very heart of society.
On a small island off the coast of northern Madagascar, a boat pulls ashore. Those aboard seek to purchase local children, especially girls, who will later be trafficked. Down in the southern part of the country, women are put on the auction block and sold to the highest bidder. All night orgies ensue. Elsewhere dozens of young women nightly parade themselves in front of foreign men who gather with the intention of hiring girls for the night. Deals are negotiated and struck, and couples go off into the dark.
All across the island, young children wield sledge hammers, crushing stone sold for construction purposes. In a major tourist district of Madagascar, households designate which baby girls will grow up to be “their” prostitutes, earning money for the families. Nearby, two foreigners are lynched, suspected of harvesting organs from a young child.
Some acts are openly visible, while others are quietly whispered. Some can be proved, and others can be only suspected and speculated.
According to locals, it all started when the French colonized Madagascar in the late 1800s. Following the arrival of the colonists, prostitution evolved, and over the years this illicit sex trade grew into something much more sinister than mere street corner prostitution. Today sex tourism, human trafficking, exploited labor and, some claim, even organ harvesting abound.
What’s going on is shocking and appalling, many say, but little embarrassment or shame seems to settle on those who live here. For them, this is life; it’s how they live and survive.
On an interior wall of an abandoned and dilapidated hotel in northern Madagascar, a graffiti artist depicts the hopes and aspirations of a young woman. She sits dreaming of things beyond her grasp at the moment – money, travel, fashion. The artwork drastically contrasts its surroundings, the here and now.
In the airport of the nation’s capital, a poster pleads with new arrivals, “Stop Sex Tourism.” Such messages are also needed on the island’s beaches, in its hotels and bars, on its streets at night, and in its city parks – in the places people are commonly exploited.
Those who minister and serve among Christians across the island see what’s going on, but little is being done to reach out to those caught up in a dark world where humans are commodities – bought, sold and used, often for ridiculously low prices.
Local Christians agree on one thing, though: discipleship is the solution. They agree on something else as well. They want help – help in reaching out to those being exploited, help in training others to reach out, help in evangelism, help in discipleshi, and help in educating and mentoring.
Three International Mission Board (IMB) journalists went to Madagascar to hear from those who are being exploited and those who could do something about it. They talked with pastors, prostitutes and missionaries from various organizations. Visit stories.imb.org/africa to see the entire series written by these journalists.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Charles Braddix is a writer for IMB based in London.)