By Daniel Johnson-Kim, Editor in Chief
Hasina Raharinomenjanahary’s first heard about conflict in her hometown of Antananarivo, Madagascar, on Jan. 26, and immediately did two things: called her family members to make sure they were safe and searched the World Wide Web for the latest update on the state of things back home.
More than 100 people have died on the world’s fourth-largest island after anti-government protests led by Andry Rajoelina, the former mayor of the country’s capital city, began in January.
A fellow Malagasy student interrupted Raharinomenjanahary’s work morning after sending her an instant message with a link to an online story about the trouble.
When she could step away from the office, she grabbed a calling card, picked up a phone and dialed her mother and father more than 10,000 miles away that afternoon. Her worries subsided when her parents assured her they were safe.
“The first time I heard about it, I really wanted to talk to them, and when I got to talk to them, they said they were fine,” said the graduate student from.
Raharinomenjanahary said her parents were desperate for news about the situation because several television stations were not broadcasting.
“They were really surprised that I knew more things about what was happening there than they did,” she said.
The unrest began when Rajoelina challenged the power of President Marc Ravalomanana and accused him of being a dictator, according to the New York Times. President Ravalomanana ordered the closing of a television station owned by the mayor, who responded by holding rallies to scold the government, the Times reported.
On Jan. 26, a rally organized by Rajoelina turned dangerous when rioters destroyed stores, factories and a television station belonging to the president, news services reported. The Madgascar armed forces reported 76 people had died during the riot and at least 86 others were injured. The U.S envoy reported that more than 100 people have died since the conflict began, according to Reuters.
Rajoelina declared himself the new leader of Madagascar and would establish an interim government by Saturday if the president does not vacate his position. Ravalomanana fired Rajoelina from his post Tuesday, but Rajoelina has continued to organize protests.
“I’ve been passing on news to the other Malagasy students and to my other American friends and other international friends here,” said Raharinomenjanahary, who was not part of the Madagascar Presidential Scholars program but came to ACU for graduate work in 2007.
President Ravalomanana has visited ACU’s campus twice – once in February 2005 to tour the campus and visit the 24 students he sent to ACU as part of the Madagascar Presidential Scholars Program, and again in May 2008 to witness the students’ graduation. Ravalomanana received an honorary doctorate of law degree and praised the students in his speech during the ceremony.
“I am proud of you. Your country, your families and your professors are proud of you,” the president said on stage. “I hope you understand what a treasure you will have when you receive your diploma from ACU. Having a degree from an American university is highly valued around the world, but to graduate from an excellent university where God is honored is priceless.”
The students walked across the stage once more, at a second Commencement for family and friends in Madagascar in July. Dr. John Tyson, vice president for development; Dr. Royce Money, president of the university, and several other members of the ACU administration, faculty and staff also traveled to Madagascar for the special Commencement in the students’ home country.
The scholarship program was created after Ravalomanana met Tyson in 2003, when the ACU administrator was visiting the country on the first trade mission sponsored by the U.S.-Madagascar Business Council. Ravalomanana, a Christian, was intrigued by ACU’s mission and wanted Madagascar’s best and brightest to receive their education at ACU and return to their home country to help in his efforts to pull it out of poverty. A national search began, and the chosen 24 students from 15 regions of the Republic of Madagascar enrolled in the fall of 2004. In exchange for full tuition covered by the Malagasy government, the students pledged to return to their home country for at least two years, but some remained in the U.S. to pursue graduate work, after getting permission from the president’s office to do so.
The World Bank, the United Nations, the U.S. and other developed countries’ leaders have praised Ravalomanana for his ongoing plans and vision to make his country a tourist destination and build its role in the world economy.
The African Union has condemned Rajoelina’s move to overthrow the president. UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said he was sending Haile Menkerios, the UN assistant secretary general for political affairs, to visit the island in the Indian Ocean and hoped to mitigate the situation by encouraging the opposing sides to talk, according to Reuters Wire Service.
Laza Razafimanjato, graduate student from Antananarivo, said that before the violence toned down, he checked the Web for news hourly.
“It actually has been hard to focus on things because literally after the riots and when things calmed down, I was pretty much OK getting back to my routine but I wanted an update every day,” Razafimanjato said. “I was looking at pictures of what is going on and looking at what is going on.”
He was shocked by the news and wrote messages to his fellow Malagasy students who had returned to the island with a population of more than 17 million after completing their degrees at ACU. After discovering his family and friends were safe, he knew he had only one thing to do: pray.
Razafinmanjato said he knew his prayers and the prayers of his church members and ACU community would bring peace to Madagascar.
Razafinmanjato’s faith was reinforced when he chatted with a friend who also was a member of the 24 students who first came to ACU more than four years ago.
“She really feels the prayers are coming their way and knows they are helping Madagascar,” Razafinmanjato said.