Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Scenes from Madagascar – by Vicki

Our visit to Madagascar was limited to our experience in the “big town” of Hellville, and the small and remote seaside and roadside villages in northwest Madagascar. I want to share with you and explain some of the sights, colour and vibrancy of the Malagasy people we experienced. Scenes of everyday activities in picturesque locations charmed, while fady (taboo) intrigued.

Hellville had a busy energy – down at the port the runners and touts, the taxi and ferry drivers compete endlessly for your business. Passenger numbers ebb and flow with each arriving and departing slow boat. Above the port the colonial architecture – decaying grandeur –nestles next to an avenue of ancient trees which leads to the shopping precinct. Uptown the shopping revolves around the covered market which sells fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. The old taxi’s – Renault 4s - are a novelty but the zebu carts and yellow Citroen really caught our attention.

Hellville a mix of the old and not so new
 Once off the main street of Hellville the housing stock is decidedly modest. Whether in town, a village or on the savannah houses are around 2 by 3 metres. Building materials (thatch, corrugated iron or concrete) and the presence, or not, of colours are points of economic difference. Features such as solar panels and satellite dishes are sure indicators of wealth in such a poor country. There is no running water in most houses, water must be collected from a nearby well or stand pipe. Cooking is done outside over charcoal.

Housing varies from primitive to modest

Madagascar still embraces the French tradition of closing for the midday heat from noon to 3 o’clock. In this climate the rhythm of the day begins at dawn then slows at noon, awakening early afternoon and then quietening as darkness falls. However economic circumstances dictate that many people still toil in the midday sun.

Upon the water fisherman float, paddle and sail for their daily catch. Once done, ashore many hands make light work as the sun heads towards its zenith. During the morning women gather for communal laundering and rejoice the availability of modern plastic basins to carry washing and other loads.

Toiling in the sun and shade

For some workers – the needleworkers of Nosy Komba - nearby shade means they can be on hand to sell their wares. However for others the midday sun is inescapable – unloading a cargo of rice is hard physical labour that must be done quickly. Only the fittest and those with the greatest stamina prevail!

Unloading rice is a really hot tough job

 For the Malagasy in coastal villages life moves to a different rhythm. The village market is a focus for both social and economic activity. In Analalava the market nestled under two magnificent mango trees, providing an oasis of shade as the temperature climbed. For us, in search of fruit and vegetables, there is little produce on offer at the end of the dry season. Beer is very cheap and there are many bars – hard to image there are any spare Ariary (cash) to dull the crushing hardship of subsistence living.

We were delighted to see a coastal sailing outrigger sail being repaired on shore. The crew worked in the open in the heat of the day – the glare from the sail had us quickly slide our sun-glasses on. The sailcloth was in need of repair and the boat crew stitched light-weight canvas to the nylon rope edge.

Villages and fady

Malagasy life is riven with tradition and fady (taboo). For us, a chance discovery of a cemetery in Boina Bay bought their traditions and fady closer. Malagasy visit their buried relatives yearly to lift their remains so they may be part of an annual feast. Many graves had signs of regular visitors – cooking pots with scorch marks on the bottom nestled amongst the stones. Other graves had modern concrete headstones - homemade and covered with personal graffiti and symbols. A string of grave-sites sat on the highest part of a sand-spit island, stretching some 500 metres. They stood high and saw-toothed in the landscape, small areas formed by the regular placement of large flat reef rocks. Fascinating!

Our other experience of fady was the giant baobab tree in Moramba Bay. This tree sits on Sacred Island in the middle of the bay. The tree had large shells, animal skulls and bones, and a small hearth at its base. We circled the tree using the well trodden path made by the many people who passed this way before us. In a landscape where trees are not sacred, this tree clearly was significant to the local population to have survived for its estimated 1500 years. We left wishing we knew more about this baobab.

Giant baobab

Malagasy life involves traveling to trade and purchase goods – from home to village and to market. We saw many people travel in various sized boats as well as shipping their cars. We loved the patchwork sails made from sarongs used on the small dug-outs with outrigger. And marveled at the over-loaded inter-island ferry/taxis – some you could hear coming because they passed their time with flamboyant singing and drumming. More amazing were the fleet of noisy roll on roll-off (ro-ro) vessels which plied between Hellville and Ankify – they often had cargo and/or passengers on the loading ramp. Lastly, are the slow boats – crammed with humanity and cargo as only the Malagasy know how to tolerate. We enjoyed watching these boats unload as people and layers of cargo were disgorged – sacks of rice, baskets of live chickens, plastic bags containing precious possessions, and a few suitcases.

Travel in Madagascar is not all romantic images. We encountered a number of people on the main east-west path through Ankarana National Park pushing their bikes 30 kilometres from their village to the (north-south) highway. Their bikes were their donkeys - carrying rice and other produce. They had little choice – there were no other roads. You hope they don’t puncture a tyre.

At the other end of the travel spectrum are the taxi-brousses – overloaded mini buses hauling cargo and luggage on the roof-top. Road travel in Madagascar is not measured in kilometres but hours. From Ankify to Deigo Suarez takes six hours with passengers sitting shoulder to shoulder for the entire journey. Gary describes our journey to Ankarana elsewhere.

Travel between villages

Inter-island ferry, aka slow boat

Lastly, our experience of Madagascar would not be complete without mentioning the children. Their curiosity shines through despite not understanding English. Many school-age children do not go to school, it is not compulsory and therefore many do not understand French only their local Malagasy dialect. Madagascar is a very young population and wherever you look an older child will care for or carry a younger child. At a young age they help with carrying water, pounding rice and other household chores. The girls also master the art of carrying loads on their heads quite young. Toys are few – homemade sailing boats and pull along toys – an active imagination will do.

Children playing and working

The school of life

We enjoyed Madagascar and encourage others to visit.

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