Johanesa Rakotovao was a remarkable figure in the Protestant Church of Madagascar during the first half of the twentieth century.
Although his parents were originally from Masinandraina, in the Vakinankaratra, Rakotovao grew up in Bara land, where his father was an evangelist with the Norwegian Missionary Society (NMS). Like all boys in those days, he watched over cattle in secluded valleys. However, he was taught by his parents at home, and he received his “Certificate of Aptitude for Primary School Teaching” at a very young age, becoming a teacher in the NMS schools in Betafo and Fianarantsoa. Gifted, he studied theology at the Lutheran Seminary of Ivory-Fianarantsoa from 1924 to 1927, and went on to serve as a pastor for eleven years on the southeast coast in Manakara, Farafangana, and Vohipeno.
Unhappy with his housing situation in Manakara (a simple hut), he began building a larger and more comfortable presbytery, learning as he built. Also, as he couldn’t stand seeing children sitting around with nothing to do, he built a small school. His parishioners were quite pleased with this development, especially since he continued to care for them just as well. He also continued his theological studies, and the missionaries called on him to teach Old Testament in the seminary at Ivory.
Having become a professor, he began to study Greek and Hebrew in earnest. He also added English and Norwegian to the list, since he was already fluent in French.
Rakotovao had a genuine hunger for books, and considered them to be a necessary complement of his personal enrichment. He found ingenious ways to save money, and instead of taking the train from Manakara to Fianarantsoa for example (a distance of 163 kilometers), he preferred to walk there and use the money he had saved on books. In 1938-1939, when he was sent to Tambaran, India (Madras) as a delegate from the Protestant Church, he traveled on the bridge instead of taking a cabin, and spent the money he saved on reading material.
In addition to all of his reading, he also wrote articles for religious journals, in particular for Ny Mpamangy “The Visitor,” or for the little parish gazette he founded in Antsirabe. He also published a good commentary on Isaiah, and one of the hymns he composed is in the Malagasy Lutheran Hymnbook.
When African troops were stationed for some time in Madagascar during World War II, Rakotovao felt that he was somewhat responsible for their souls, and he gave them religious instruction.
In 1950-1951, he travelled to Norway and to the United States for further studies. In Oslo, he met the famous Old Testament professor Sigmund Mowinckel, who praised him for his knowledge of Hebrew. The great professor deplored the fact that Rakotovao hadn’t been able to undertake the study of Hebrew earlier and more systematically, because his theses were affected by this deficiency and couldn’t be published. Back in Madagascar, Rakotovao turned to politics and began to campaign for independence, and eventually had to leave his teaching position in Ivory. Shortly thereafter however, in 1954, he accepted the call to succeed Pastor Randzavola in the parish of Ampamarinara, in Antananarivo.
He remained there until 1963, when he returned to his hometown as pastor of the Lutheran church in Antsirabe. In February of 1966 he was elected president of the Lutheran Synod for the northern region, but he died on November 17 that same year. He was posthumously decorated with the [medal of] the National Order of Madagascar.
The last statement of his will was: “Love one another.”
A. Snekkenes, L. Molet
The above article, reprinted here by permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [People and Destinies: an Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.