"Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing." --- Helen Keller
Continuing with the journey of the Joffrions - Dr. Van and Margaret Magee Joffrion who were Franklinton residents (1977-1984) - in early 1984 plans were made for the continuation of the humanitarian work they had begun in Ethiopia in the early 1970s. With children William and Susan at Asbury College and Wheaton College, respectively, and Winston in high school, the time was right.
Through the Christian Blind Mission International "CBMI," headquartered in Germany, Dr. Van discovered that the Lutheran Church of Madagascar had interest in establishing an eye department, training local physicians, and serving mission hospitals. With Madagascar a former French colony and Dr. Van and wife Margaret fluent in French, it was the perfect match.
On a trip to Pakistan and India to teach an eye course and to attend the International Leprosy Congress with Drs. Paul and Margaret Brand in March of 1984, Dr. Van and wife Margaret made a preliminary visit, afterwards, to the Democratic Republic of Madagascar (the former Malagasy Republic) which occupied the island of Madagascar and several other islands which are close in proximity. Upon arrival in the airport, my Cousin Margaret had a serendipitous meeting with a Malagasy man, while waiting for Dr. Van to get the luggage. He was there to cover the return of the Malagasy president who was on the Joffrions' plane, and Cousin Margaret, a congenial Southerner, engaged the gentleman in conversation. So, the headlines in the Madagascar newspaper read the following day, "President returns to country and Dr. Van Joffrion, American Eye Surgeon visits island to assess the medical situation."
For reference, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world with the 290 mile-wide Mozambique Channel separating it from the African continent. The topography includes, in addition to the 3100-mile coastline, mountains, rainforests, and drier regions, making it rich in exotic fruits and flowers and agriculture. Madagascar's orchids are magnificent, and there are coffee trees. But at that time, the medical situation was dire. For 11 million people in Madagascar, there were two eye doctors.
The Joffrions made the decision to move to Madagascar so that Dr. Van could establish an eye clinic in the city of Antsirabe and also work at mission stations across the Southern part of Madagascar. He would train doctors to become ophthalmologists and would train personnel at mission stations, teaching them eye care at whatever level they could learn. As he explained to folks in Franklinton in advance of his family's departure, "I will treat patients and teach missionaries and national health workers how to better treat eye disease, including surgery. In my opinion, the most important thing a missionary can do is teach the nationals to take care of their own problems."
Of the move, his wife Margaret wrote about the plans to divest of the ophthalmology practice and their home in Franklinton. She poignantly penned, "It was a daunting task to pull up roots in our forties, leave family and friends. It was much harder to do than when we moved to Ethiopia twelve years earlier." But she added, "The Lord was very faithful to us as we tried to be faithful to Him, and so all was done and completed." And reluctant as Franklinton was for the Joffrions to go, friends and family understood the value of Dr. Van and wife Margaret's work.
The Joffrions arrived in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar, in early September 1984. Without English schooling for fifteen-year-old Winston in Madagascar, he attended the Rift Valley Academy, a boarding school, in Kenya for three years. Before beginning medical work, the Joffrions took language lessons during which time they lived above the Lutheran Printing house. By year's end they were at home in Antsirabe in the central highlands where they had a lovely, but cold, stone house on the hospital compound, providing Dr. Van a short walk to work. He served as Director of Ophthalmology, Medical Service of the Lutheran Church of Madagascar. The Ophthalmic Medical and Surgical Program was established during Dr. Van's tenure and under his direction.
As part of his work, the Joffrions also travelled to the southern part of Madagascar where Dr. Van trained staff in Mission hospitals, teaching and working for a month at a time. He conducted two clinics at the local Manambaro hospital. Cousin Margaret took along her little Singer Featherweight sewing machine and transformer on these journeys so that she could design and teach quilt making, a craft that the native people continued long after her departure.
Though there was much joy in the Joffrions' work, there was also sadness. As just one example, while in this southern region of the island, Dr. Van had the unfortunate task of declaring a five-year-old boy blind. Sponsored by the local Lions Club in a town in Southern Madagascar, he was to fly to the United States for a corneal transplant. The Joffrions emphasized the value of the Lions Club work, a valuable organization Dr. Van had been a member of in Franklinton.
Writing books, one each for Ethiopia and Madagascar and a source for these columns, Cousin Margaret's compositions beautifully summarized their friendships, family, and experiences, "Goodness, when I think of the people we've known and loved here I am overcome with thanks to the Lord. 'The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.' Robert Louis Stevenson. The Lord has been so faithful to Winston, Susan and William, to Van and me. We have all grown tremendously. The Lord surely went before us in each step, like the Oriental shepherd."
•Stay tuned next month for the conclusion of the Joffrions' work in Madagascar.