There’s a woman sitting awkwardly at the bar top. Her eyes dart around the restaurant as she tugs at her too short skirt. She is beautiful but looks miserable. I watch as she straightens her back and and flashes a false smile at the guy who just walked up to her… its time for her to work.
When I arrived to Madagascar I knew only a handful of facts and tips about the country. Mostly cultural, some political and a few about the sexual climate. What I knew couldn’t compare to what I saw, what I experienced. Almost every business I saw had a poster warning about the sexual exploitation of children and women, while the poster says it’s a crime, far too often the authorities look the other way. But those posters and the few facts you’ll find on google don’t tell the whole story.
The whole story, as a dear friend said, is that this country is Satan’s best kept secret. When you hear about sex trafficking have you ever thought of Madagascar? Did you know that one in seven Malagasy women is sexually exploited? That’s just the women, that’s not including the children and men. In 2012 there were 29,000 registered prostitutes in Tamatave. The city population is approximately 145,000. But this isn’t a post about statistics and numbers, this is nothing more than my observations and experience over the past six months.
This is my heart breaking.
We were a homeless Advance team, there was no time to secure a team house before the ship arrived so we lived out of hotels. And while most of the time was spent in our rooms working away or running around town going from meeting to meeting there were plenty of chances for us to see the reality of the situation. There were nights I worked in the hallway because the wifi was better. Some nights were quiet but most nights I saw men come back with a prostitute or I heard the sounds of lust through the thin walls. My heart was heavy for these women, I was torn and conflicted knowing that I wanted to do something but knowing that there was nothing I could do.
While in Tana one night I went out for dinner with a friend, I excused myself at one point to use the restroom. As I walked by a table a man tried to solicit me, he had no shame in what he was saying and not even fussed when I said “No.” He could walk outside and find a dozen or more girls who will say “Yes.” My heart was heavy, my denial meant nothing to that man.
My translator and I passed a pizzeria in Tamatave, I commented it looked nice. She politely told me the pizza there is great but I should not go there, “its a very dark place. Its where the women go.” I understood what she was trying to say to me and my heart was heavy again.
And when your heart becomes that heavy there are only two things you can do;
- Distract, deny and distance yourself from the root cause, or
- Do something.
I chose the second option. Surely there must be an organization to join or partner with. Surely the local church has outreaches. Surely someone is already at work in this area. Surely this place is not as unknown as it seems. But I discovered that Tamatave truly is Satan’s best kept secret. There is nothing here.
But never underestimate the power of a little prayer. A small group of us started gathering to pray each week for Tamatave and to discern what our response to the social injustice should be and how are we to honor our primary calling as Mercy Ships crew members but also honor this burden that has been placed in our hearts. We prayed for four weeks, we wrote down verses, we wrote down phrases, we shared images and prompts. We sought the heart of God for this corner of His world. We listened. And then we prayed some more. We prayed for another three months.
Slowly something came together and as we continued to meet and pray on our ship we also started to venture out. Our mission is one of love, to restore worth and value to these women, to not judge them but to smile warmly and bring light into a very dark place. We don’t speak the language and none of us are trained in this line of ministry or work so we simply go and be light… no agenda just love.
So here we sit every other Wednesday night eating fantastic food and enjoying good conversation while La Terrasse fills up around us with lust, desire and money. We make eye contact and smile at the girls asking nothing in return. Someone told me that its possible that the closest to Heaven these girls may get is the light we bring with us.
When I go to La Terrasse now I don’t see prostitutes, pimps or johns I see broken and hurting people, both men and women. I see hopelessness and desperation. But I’ve also started seeing cracks in the darkness. Maybe I’ll never get to speak with these women one on one and maybe nothing “big” will happen but I believe that none of these dinners or smiles are wasted. I believe that there is so much happening that we can’t see and I believe that even if only one woman finally feels the weight of her worth and value and true beauty it is all worth it. Even if only one woman knows Jesus wants the rose… who’s to say that one woman won’t speak truth into another woman… and that woman into another and so on.
The same beautiful and miserable woman was there on our last night. This time as I left I caught her eye as she turned from the man she was with to watch us leave. I smiled and prayed for her, for protection from STDs, for safety from aggressive men, for a way out and for love. She smiled back for the first time. A real genuine smile, one that makes the eyes bright.
I don’t know her name but to me she’s not just one in seven Malagasy women, she’s not a statistic, she’s simply Red Dress. And across from her is Fanta and at the next table is Tonic and Sequins.
It still frustrates me that there isn’t more happening, that there aren’t resources or organizations to partner with, that there isn’t a statistic or victory story to share. But who am I to limit God or demand tangible, quantifiable results? I am just a woman called by God to pray and smile and trust that there is something greater He is doing in the unseen.