Madagascar: beyond the evil penguins #blogactionday

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October 16, 2014 by researchertransitions

If anyone happens to be out there, apologies for not keeping up this blog, and then suddenly blogging completely off topic! I happened to log in to twitter tonight and see lots of #blogactionday posts, and felt inspired to join in. Here goes…

I was recently lucky enough to travel to Madagascar for a fortnight with my friend Jane, to visit another friend, Sarah, who lives in the South East of the country. This was certainly the most adventurous holiday I had been on, and although I was enjoying the fact that everyone seem so intrigued and excited about my holiday choice, I have to admit I felt more anxious than excited. A number of reasons were behind this which I won’t go into, but one of them was the sheer anxiety of being a (relatively) rich person in a poor country. What was it going to be like to meet people who had so little, when I had so much? How guilty would I feel? Would would I do to help?

Thankfully, once we got there the nerves eased. We ventured of our calm hotel oasis to a busy and noisy market. We were in Ivato, a town near to the airport on the outskirts of the capital city, Antananarivo. While we were certainly stared at, and sometimes called out at, it didn’t feel intimidating. We managed somehow to buy vegetarian street food, water and a sim card and credit. The stall that sold us water thought my poor language skills hilarious (I attempted a mixture of Malagasy and French, not being confident in either) and we found ourselves laughing with them, albeit still slightly bemused about whether this interaction was going well or not!

The next morning, we were driven by a man in a worn suit and bowler hat, in an even more worn car, to the airport to be flown to Fort Dauphin, where our friend lived and worked when she was not in ‘the bush’. We were to have a night of luxury in a hotel with infinity pool before taking public transport out to Sarah’s other home in the village of St Luce. And so the contrasts were immense! From complimentary robes, wifi and large private deck, we found ourselves in the back of a truck, or ‘taxi brousse’, sat on rice bags, packed like sardines with Malagasy folks of all ages. Even in the hotels, inequality hadn’t been far from our thoughts, being the ‘rich’ white folks helped by poor Malagasy employees. Sarah told us about her Malagasy colleague who had previously been paid a pittance for her work as a hotel receptionist, despite her fluency in three languages, higher education in the capital city and commitment to the role. She had finally decided she had to find better employment when the hotel refused to pay for her taxi home when she worked into the night. With a young son, she could not afford to risk her safety for such stingy employers. And so, although the hotel she had worked out was not the one we were staying in, I wondered if the kind and helpful staff were well rewarded or cruelly exploited.

Next day, we joked about ‘the good times’ at the luxury hotel and tried to do mindfulness exercises whilst wriggling to avoid cramp and pins and needles in the packed ‘taxi brousse’. Sarah taught us the Malagasy for ‘it hurts’ in case someone leaning on us became intolerable. I couldn’t help be impressed by the Malagasy people around me, from toddlers to elderly, who sat without complaint. How spoiled I have been! (Later, at least two Malagasy people would good-naturedly tease us white folks about being weak, unable to carry much or walk far or experience discomfort!) Once a few people had got off and we had slightly more breathing space, we started to enjoy ourselves and interact with some travellers. Jane got out her Iphone and entertained a small girl with music and taking photographs. Who knows if the girl had seen such a gadget before or not? She was happy to explore it and listen to Britney Spears. Her father asked for a picture of his family: a breast-feeding wife, a teenage son and a young boy in addition to the little girl.

Getting off the bus, we were greeted by three brothers from Sarah’s village. She had asked the eldest if he would like to earn some money as a porter for us, and to find two others to assist. She was disappointed to see the youngest brother, as he looked very much like a child and we weren’t too keen on hiring child labour! But having been reassured that the boy was actually 16 despite his small stature, and that he would take a smaller load, we sat down for a lunch together and, after a massive bowl of rice and stew (or omelette for us vegetarians), loaded up and set off, the boys insisting on carrying everything but our day packs.

The porters were the first of our hiring and buying from Sarah’s neighbours. The Southeast is the poorest part of Madagascar, and what were small amounts of money to us went along way for a Malagash family, so we did what we could to spend and compensate people fairly for their work.

This led to a delightful few days – we tried the local street food, mofo (fried bread) and curried spaghetti for breakfast; sweet black coffee and fresh fish. We bought vanilla, commissioned a hat from the talented reed weaver pictured below, and a mat form another weaver, wooden spoons from a carver and ‘sakay’ (chilli sauce) from a Madame Benedict, who we fortuitously ran into at the coffee shop.

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We got our laundry done, and perhaps most enjoyable of all, we had a drum lesson and hired the band in which the drummer played for a bush party! The night in question is pictured below, although an electric storm resulted in some of the neighbours heading home early, while determined dancers packed into Sarah’s living room.

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We also had the pleasure of buying beautiful purses and bracelets from Sarah’s students: she teaches women embroidery, design and business skills as project manager and founder of Stitch St Luce, an initiative supported by NGO Azafady. The income from the embroidery which is sold through a UK website, to visitors, and through other organisations and opportunities has made a big difference to many women’s lives, enabling them to buy food, clothes, medicine and send their children to school. In some cases, the men in their families have joined in the embroidery instead of going out to fish in dangerous weather.

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This blog has barely touched the surface of my experience in Madagascar, and hasn’t dealt with the issue of inequality in any organised way, but I hope begins to give people an insight into this country which many in the UK know little about. Its name has become increasingly familiar due to the misleading children’s films and television series (hence my title) and others will know of its biodiversity and lemurs (a wild Sainte Luce red-collared lemur we were fortunate enough to see is below), but I few people in the UK know much of the Malagash people.

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The 4th largest island in the world’s people are diverse, with fascinating histories and cultures, which I can’t do justice to here. All I know is that the people of Sainte Luce (and Fort Dauphin – a special mention must be made to surely the most fun taxi driver in the world, Frederick [below]) were incredibly friendly. My short time there was filled with fun and smiles and laughter despite the incredible challenges faced by these people.

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So spare a thought (and maybe a few pounds – check out the links to Azafady and Stitch St Luce above) for Madagascar, which made a rare appearance in the UK news this week due to the return, and immediate arrest, of the exiled former president; the current President’s 2009 coup and the subsequent power struggle through the country into economic crisis due to suspended foreign aid and a resultant decline in the tourist industry.

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