H ave you ever wondered what’s beneath the surface? Whether a calm glassy blue, a crashing green and frothing white, or a rushing bubbling brown, it hides a deep and complex mystery. Whether an ocean, lake, or river, we can often be standing right in the middle of it completely unaware of what’s swimming or crawling or growing right around our own feet. When you cast a line in, you usually have no idea what’s happening until the bobber dives below the surface or the pole starts bending with a feisty fish.
What’s really down there? I think most of us have asked that question, and some of us are afraid to find out! Even with swimming goggles, most rivers and lakes aren’t clear enough to see much of anything, so you never really know. But we’ve probably all seen documentaries showcasing the creepy wonders of the ocean’s depths. I know those images have made me think twice often enough that I’ve had to convince myself not to worry and to get in the water anyway.
A few days after my family and I moved here to Nosy Mitsio, the local king and I took his tiny canoe out on the ocean to go fishing. I was nervous, having never been on a small canoe out in the ocean before, but it was also my first time to go fishing in Madagascar, so I was excited to learn the local methods. It was simple enough: we paddled the canoe around above a head of coral, pulled chunks off a beach crab, put it on a small hook, then slung the weighted line out into the ocean. Mostly all we caught were a lot of “tsimitombo” or “won’t grow” fish. The name is certainly accurate. We even took some pieces of octopus and some of the filet from the smallest “tsimitombo” to use as bait, but never caught anything larger than 4 or 5 inches. It was enough for dinner for the king’s family, though I was disappointed there was nothing big enough for Lora and me to eat without swallowing lots of fish bones.
Since that first trip, I’ve been fishing a fair number of times here around Nosy Mitsio, and my primary question is always: where are the big fish and how do we get them? In the king’s canoe and the parts of the ocean we could reach with it, we rarely ever got anything more than “tsimitombo”. Even after getting our team boat, we took a fishing trip with several of the local village headmen to another nearby island and we didn’t have much more success, at least not in terms of the actual size of the fish. Of the several types of bait we used, octopus was always preferred, but from my perspective it didn’t seem to make much difference. We always caught the small sort of fish that like to eat easy bait. Where were the big fish?
I n Malagasy, the word for fishing hook is “vintana”. I find it curious that it’s the exact same as the Malagasy word for “destiny” or “fate”. True, the word for star is “kintana”, so there’s probably some astrological relation with that common word root; but that “destiny” is the same as the word for a “fishhook” is still very interesting. The local word for line-fishing here on Nosy Mitsio is “mamintana”. That could be directly translated as “doing the fishhook” or “making a destiny” or “settling a fate”. In my mind, I like to think of it as one of the latter. When you toss that line out into the water, you really have no idea what you’re going to pull back in. You might lose your bait, you’ll probably get a “won’t grow”, or you may even wind up fighting a monster-sized fish for a great dinner. But there’s really no way to know what’s there below the surface, and all you can hope to do is toss your line in and see where your destiny lies.
But of course there are other ways of fishing here and there are plenty of other fish. With fish being one of the few foods the local people eat regularly, you’d have to expect there are plenty of ways to get them. Going fishing with any method is a great way for us and our team members to spend some quality time with our neighbors and learn to see life through their eyes. Some people use canoes to take thin nets out towards deeper water and leave them floating there to catch the evening migration of fish going closer towards the beach. We’ve received some good fish that way, but often still not very large.
The most common fishing practiced by local women is to gather a big group of women in a large semi-circle in the shallower waters near the beach. Two women at the bottom of the circle are holding a mosquito net that they’ll use to catch the fish. The outer parts of the circle are just supposed to splash around and scare the fish towards the net. At the very edge of the circle is someone throwing handfuls of sand to increase the splashing distance of the water. The women work their way down the beach like this until they spot a school of baby fish, scare them towards the inside of the circle, then squeeze the circle of women in on them, shouting and laughing, until they scoop up the whole school of minnows in their mosquito net. Sometimes they even do this with schools of larger baby fish, but usually not more than 5-6 in. long each. It’s a great method for lots of women to get lots of small fish, but it only works when the water’s calm.
Some missionary friends from a nearby city visited us here at Nosy Mitsio once and they brought some fishing poles with them. We walked up the beach a short ways from our village, and standing on some rocks with his poles and lures, we caught some great fish that we rarely see otherwise. With our friend’s poles and lures at the same nearby island, we had a great time catching some big toothy needlefish that I don’t see anyone else ever catch. Though no one here has their own pole or lure, I find it to be a very effective way to get different types of fish. I think the difference is that we could make our lures appear to swim and it entices the larger types of fish that like to strike and fight.
It’s the same anytime we take a boat trip to or from the Port: we run a heavy line with a big diving lure out behind our boat and we usually catch some nice really big fish. But we usually only get bites from the few types of fish that can actually swim fast enough to catch up with our boat: often getting big sleek fish called “ango” and occasionally a large barracuda.
Then there’s what I think is the most reliable method for getting fish large enough to enjoy eating: spearfishing. Rather than always wondering what’s below the surface and hoping the fish will come to you, it’s better to go under there yourself and selectively target the choice fish one by one. Some of the young men in the other villages have spearguns they’ve purchased on the mainland and so they frequently spearfish for food or for profit. All the families on our team also brought spearguns with them and they’ve learned how to use them from the other men in their villages. Since then I’ve also had the opportunity to go out spearfishing with them. I’m no expert yet but I’ve speared my own dinner on several occasions! The interesting thing about spearfishing is that it gives you the opportunity to get yet a different type of fish: ones that aren’t attracted to bait, lures, or likely to swim into a net. Especially the fat meaty parrotfish, who seem to prefer pecking on the coral and who don’t always know well enough to swim away at the sight of a diver with a speargun.
I’ve learned that these different types of fish need to be caught in different ways, and I didn’t learn how to do that until I slowly began to learn what’s really beneath the surface. I’m never going to catch a parrotfish with a net or a piece of crab for bait. Nor am I ever going to catch an “ango” with a speargun; they’re just too fast! Above a head of coral, I have the most variety and density of fish to try to attract to my line, though most of them may be small and “won’t grow” is the type that bites most. Out in the open ocean is where the largest fish are, that roam from place to place, but they can be few and far between and I’ll need something fast and enticing to catch them.
E ver since moving to Nosy Mitsio, I’ve thought a lot about what things were like in Jesus’s time, with his disciples. So many of them were fishermen. So much of their time was spent taking a boat from one place to another. Maybe their boats were not much different than ours is here. And there’s Jesus’s key statement that we all remember: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)
Even before I knew anything about fishing, I’ve often wondered: “What does that look like to fish for men?” Usually I have no answer, just a vague idea of persuading people to know Jesus. Now that I know a bit more, I think Jesus’s statement would’ve held more nuance for his disciples, that they would’ve had more ideas to go along with it, some idea of what it means to gather men to Christ the same way they gather fish in their nets.
Maybe people are a little bit like fish in that respect. If you know what’s “beneath the surface”, the things that make their hearts beat, then maybe you can know how to catch a particular type. Maybe there’s some that are eager to bite the first morsel you throw to them, as long as it smells good enough. Maybe others want something they can chase hard after, something they can sink their teeth into. Maybe some fight the whole way, pulling back, giving in a little, pulling more, and finally giving in altogether. Maybe sometimes you can gather them in big crowds snatching them all up at once, with unified efforts from a lot of people being what it takes to get them to that point of decision. For others, maybe you have to go down where they are, where they live, and reach them there. (At least with spearfishing, that’s the most sure way to know you’ll get something.)
S o all of these thoughts leave me wondering: what kind of men are we fishing for here on Nosy Mitsio? Even without that analogy, I’m constantly considering, what is the way that God wants to reach these people here? I know of lots of different missions strategies and I know the ones I prefer the most, I know some that are considered the most effective, I know of others that draw in the crowds. But what should we be doing here on Nosy Mitsio? So far, “normal” methods of evangelism don’t seem to have worked well for most Antakarana. So what type of fishing should we be doing here? Honestly, I just don’t know.
So I think again of the early disciples. When Jesus was with them, they hung on his every word, waiting to see what he’d say, what he’d do. They only left his side when he deliberately sent them out to preach the Good News of his Kingdom, to start fishing for men. In John’s Gospel, after Jesus was crucified, even after he rose again and appeared to the disciples, the disciples no longer knew what to do. Jesus was no longer with them all the time. So they did the only thing they knew how to do: they went back to fishing in their boat.
The disciples fished all night long, but had caught nothing. Jesus appeared on the shore (unknown to the disciples) and told them, “cast your nets on the other side of the boat.” Normally, this would seem a ridiculous request. The likelihood of the fish swimming on one side of the boat, but not at all on the other, is absurd. But the disciples must’ve figured they had nothing to lose after a terrible night fishing, so they gave it a try. After all, who knows what’s beneath the surface? As soon as they did what Jesus said, their nets were full of fish… so full they couldn’t even haul them up into their boat – the catch of a lifetime! With those results, the disciples finally realized who was speaking to them from the shore, and Peter gave up the fish to make a quick swim to Jesus.
I think this story reminds me, as it must’ve also instructed the disciples, that no matter how much we know about fishing, about what methods to use to catch what sorts of fish, that ultimately Jesus is the one who brings in the catch. Only he really knows what’s “under the surface”, what’s feeding the hearts of men and how to draw them to him. When he speaks, it’s time to fill the nets.
When we’re not currently hearing Jesus’s voice, I think it’s fine to be out fishing anyway, to use what we know to catch what we can. Jesus has been our teacher and we can do what we’ve seen him do. In fact, it’s our responsibility to do likewise! But ultimately, when we’re in a place like this seeking a harvest where there’s yet been none, there’s only one thing we can rely on: listening for the voice of Jesus. The catch is his. If we keep tossing our nets, and if we keep our ears open and attentive for his voice, he’ll let us know when it’s time for just the right toss and where, when the nets will be so full we can barely drag them in. And with Peter, I’ll be diving into the water and swimming to the shore with the joy of it all! Where Jesus is waiting to receive the catch.
Adam, Lora, and Matimu Willard