Madagascar Adventures V

My adventures in Madagascar are fast coming to an end.  So this could be my last email from Madagascar (and definitely my last book-length one!), depending on whether anything exciting happens in the next 3 weeks!  The chances of something exciting happening are hard to calculate, since the present political instability in the country means on the one hand that it is better not to plan anything too extravagant or exciting, but on the other I could end up with some unplanned excitement or adventure…  Anyway, apart from the political news, I have news to share about field trips, national park visits, comical and not-so-comical accidents, my first weekend to stay put in Moramanga… and I must come back to the development and tropical climates question that I posed last time and got many interesting responses to.

OK, I’ll start with the political news.  Madagascar had its presidential elections on Dec 16 (7 weeks ago).  The result did not yield a decisive majority-winner by most counts and/or calculations, however most of the counts (even those endorsed by the incumbent president) showed that the main opposition candidate received clearly more votes than any other candidate.  OK, perhaps you can guess that there’s a fair bit of corruption going on…  Anyway, the courts have ruled that a second round ballot must occur at the end of this month (about the time I am to leave), however the opposition candidate and all his supporters (which is nearly everyone living in and around the capital city, Tana) are not particularly happy, and are rallying and striking.  So many domestic and international flights have been cancelled, which means my plans to visit a holiday island before I leave are looking rather tenuous… and it may also put my final departure plans in some doubt.  Anyway, things have been in general quite peaceful and calm considering the political tensions and uncertainties, and so far there has been no reason to worry about safety, just reason to be annoyed by the closure of most businesses.

I have spent most of the past month travelling between all the different satellite offices of the project, staying in the field for up to a week at a time, to demonstrate, implement, and provide training for a computerised activity planning system that I developed for the food security project with which I’m volunteering.  “In the field” means no electricity, no running water, no telephone/internet, no sewage, no TV… definitely no MacDonalds or KFC!  Plenty of rice, pit toilets, candle-lit and early nights, laptops run from car batteries (the one technology that makes it out into the sticks, thanks to the funding from USAID…) The implementation of the system is almost complete, however I have 4 other relatively major “projects” to finish off before leaving in 3 weeks – so will be kept busy not just finishing my own work on these projects but ensuring that the staff here can continue to maintain and/or develop the things that I leave (eg the ADRA Madagascar webpage… for which I still haven’t managed to arrange a local host, and therefore it’s still at [defunct URL] but significantly improved now).

Anyway, the field trips were quite enjoyable, and provided many memorable experiences such as building friendships with the team members and mixing with the locals – trying to speak Malagasy and/or French, and occasionally English.  I kept up my every-other-day running routine, and found some nice countryside and bush tracks along which to jog.  Once I decided to climb a mountain just after sunrise.  Awe-inspiring stillness and view!  On the way, there was a peasant farmer working his field near the bottom of the mountain, and when he saw me, he initially froze, then took flight.  That evening the maid for the satellite office told us that the villagers were all scared of the white vazaha going for his early-morning run 🙂

I half expected to have stomach problems from the food out in the field, but surprisingly (and thankfully) for most of the time I was fine – just when I’d come back for the weekends and start eating semi-western style food again I’d have problems!  But finally by the last trip I had giardia again, so had to go to a pharmacy out in the middle of nowhere to take something for it.  That was an interesting experience – the first time that pharmacy ever served a vazaha, I think!  The price was all of about 50c.  Fortunately the medicine kicked in pretty quick, because later that morning I had to travel 2.5 hours by motorbike (as passenger) on a treacherous but scenic road back to Moramanga.

This last weekend I stayed in Moramanga for the first time during my whole time here!  Every other weekend I have travelled somewhere (generally back to Tana).  The main reason was because I was preaching at the local SDA church on Sabbath.  But I also ended up working at the office on Sunday, and perhaps it was a good time to avoid travelling back to the capital city with its political demonstrations.  The local Malagasy “medicin chef” (doctor in charge) of the main hospital here is an Adventist, and he invited me to preach, as well as to stay for lunch and the afternoon with his family.  Dr Lalatiana, his name, is quite a talented doctor, having been to France and Mexico for training, and speaking Malagasy, French, Spanish fluently, English well, and also a bit of German.  He is also a very good public speaker – he translated for my sermon, and made my words come to life in a much better way than I could have done.  And he also gave a very good Bible study to a Malagasy family later in the afternoon.  A man much loved and respected by his community, it was a pleasure to spend a day with him.  His wife is also an excellent cook – of both western and Malagasy food!

As we were travelling to the home at which we were to have the Bible study, we saw a pedestrian get hit by a car travelling in excess of 100kmh…  I guess it was fortunate that we were right there, since Dr Lalatiana immediately took charge of the situation, helped the man to the hospital by way of the car that had hit him (no ambulances here!), and made sure he was looked after.  Fortunately the car didn’t catch him fully head-on, so it seems he will survive.  Many things combine to make the road environment a risky place here in Madagascar, and while it’s a good thing that there are not many vehicles on the roads (relative to Western countries), that is more than compensated for by the number of pedestrians, animals, carts, pousse-pousse and other obstacles that occupy the narrow and deteriorated roads.

Which brings me to my own comical accident…  Last Friday morning my bike decided to provide some trials for me – or perhaps some entertainment for the locals…  First I lost the key to my bicycle lock (or someone took it – I’m still not sure).  So I took the bike by pousse-pousse (which was a rather comical sight indeed) to the project warehouse to get the lock opened.  Then on the way back, this time riding my bike, I took a short cut (to make up for lost time) alongside some railway tracks.  I was riding as quick as the rough track would allow, but somehow got my pedal caught on something protruding out of the grass.  It stopped the bike rather abruptly and sent me flying over the handle bars, bike following.  Fortunately (or unfortunately) the grass was long where I landed, but either a dog or person had recently defecated right where I landed!  After picking myself up and wiping as much mess off as I could, I rode back to thoroughly hose myself and the bike off… and worry about any injuries (very minor, apart from pride) later!

Four weekends ago I went to the nearby national park for the weekend.  It was the first time I’d been to the place – the nearest and one of the most popular tourist attractions of the country!  So I guess it seems I have a bit of a habit of leaving my experiencing of the local and immediate things for late in my stay, don’t I?  I shared expenses with an American backpacker that I met in the taxi-brousse on the way out for the weekend.  We went for two 6-hour hikes plus a night walk, seeing a number of lemur species as well as beautiful birds, frogs, insects, boas, only one chameleon… and peaceful (but unfortunately degraded) rainforest.  I also saw a “foosa” (large cat, predator of lemurs) in captivity at a private zoo.  The zoo also has about 60 crocodiles.  When I first entered the gate, there were half a dozen crocodiles, perhaps 1.5-2m long, resting in the grass about 3-5m away.  The guide was casual, so I was too… but after a moment or two I realised there was nothing between me and the crocodiles… but the guide assured me that the larger ones, which were more dangerous, were kept behind walls.  The 43 that were allowed free roam of the zoo were not likely to do as much harm!  But back to the national park…  This one is particularly known for its indrii (and was in fact established to protect that species).  This incredible species has only a very short tail, but is the largest of the lemurs, and looks a little like the Aussie koala.  However it is much more agile, and has an eerie but captivating cry that carries for kilometres.  It starts its cry at about 5am – an excellent alarm clock!  I took quite a few photos, and now have most all of my Madagascar photos (9 of 11 rolls of film so far) developed.  I have scanned a few, so if you want I can email some to you, or you can wait till I get back…  I was so enthralled by all there was to see and do at the national park that when I finally decided it was time to go back late in the afternoon the last taxi-brousse for Moramanga had long since departed.  So I had to ride my bike all the 40km back.  I hoped to be able to catch a taxi-brousse passing by from another town, but the only taxi-brousse I saw was one that I passed – stopped (broken down) as close to the centre of the road (which is the main highway between the capital city and main port) as possible, and as if to make sure it was extremely difficult for cars, let alone trucks, to pass, the vehicles was parked at an angle!  My ride back also provided a few opportunities to stop and talk to some of the villagers – and it was nice for me to realise that my French had improved to the point that it was better than that of some of the locals (which doesn’t actually say a lot for my French…)  So I was left to try to communicate in bits of Malagasy and French, and absolutely no English…  I finally arrived back in Moramanga while there was still light, finishing a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

During my time at the National Park I visited a friend living at the nearby village.  He is a German agronomist with a PhD, but has abandoned the affluent lifestyle of the West, married a Malagasy, adopted Malagasy lifestyle, citizenship and language (as well as speaking German, English & French), and is thoroughly enjoying life, being able to spend much time in the park while getting the little money they need by working sometimes with development projects.  I know him because he did the mid-term evaluation as an external consultant for our Food Security Project.  Which brings me to coming back to my thoughts on climate and development, and the responses I received from the question posed in my last email: “Why are most countries in tropical regions less developed than those in temperate and colder regions?”

A lot of people mentioned the fact that there is less need for work in tropical countries.  One response is worth repeating:  “Because in cold climates you have to develop systems to survive, while in the tropics you can sit round in the brain-baking sun and wait for a coconut to drop into your hand? Because most tropical regions don’t have horses? (Or, in Africa, a useless indigenous horse. No-one can get a zebra to carry them or plow.)”  Back to the first argument, nature produces food in warm regions through all seasons, and thus there is no need to store food or provide shelter or warmth for adverse seasons.  Additionally food production of tropical countries is not profitable for export, due to the abundant supply and competition from neighbouring countries producing the same thing.  It was also pointed out by one or two people that the oppressive heat tends to reduce activity, therefore development.

OK, so there’s an “abundance of food hence low productive drive” argument.  Other arguments focused more on the adverse conditions, such as natural disasters, exploitation from Western countries, a vicious cycle of lack of money for health and education, etc.  A couple of people suggested that godliness of the nation was more relevant than climate.  I’m not sure whether this argument favours developed or less-developed countries… but another person proposed a similar argument in terms of less exposure to the gospel yielding less stimulation to produce.

One friend that has recently returned from the UK explains that only reason she can offer for why the industrial revolution happened there is since the place is so cold it stimulated the production of technology earlier.  She also commented that countries attached to the occupation by the Roman Empire (and thus exposed to the technology/science/ideas of the renaissance) are the ones that seem most developed.  Finally she questions the concept of development – since many in poorer countries were satisfied with their lifestyles until exposed to Western products and economic philosophy.

A friend in Brazil wrote an essay in answer to the question, with many good points, some of which have been mentioned.  He added some extra points about the complicating factors of Africa, such as non-stop civil war in many countries during the cold war (fuelled by USSR & USA in order to protect oil interests) and the lack of coincidence between political and tribal borders – so designed by the exploiting West to ensure internal instability…

A couple of people pointed out that there are many exceptions, eg Greece, Rome, Spain, Brazil (booming civilisations in warmer places).  However, another quote worth repeating: “If development came with low temperature, Mongolia and Nepal would rule the world.”  My supervisor for my future research responded by asking whether I’m saying that Australia is a developing country (and she “very much agree”s)…

Which brings me to my own thoughts.  I believe each of the preceding arguments plays a part in the overall answer to the question.  Which one(s) is/are most important, which ones are primary causes and which ones are secondary (or even effects) is sometimes hard to tell with all the exceptions that inevitably crop up.  But my perspective on the question would start first by questioning the concept of “development” held by capitalist society.  I think that countries such as Australia are materially over-developed but underdeveloped in other areas such as socially and spiritually.  From my experience of five months in one of the poorest of the poor countries of the world, but being a citizen of one of the most affluent, I observe that people here are generally-speaking much happier than those in Australia, enjoy richer family relations, and have far less stress than those in the Western, growth-oriented, profit-motivated world.  That’s not to say that countries such as this necessarily have a desirable living standard, since basic nutrition and health problems are rife.  My own “answer” combines a number of the above reasons in saying that harsh climatic conditions have awakened man’s desire to compete, overcome and conquer – first his immediate harsh environment, then, having tasted the success of developing systems to produce more materials, his desire to gain in material wealth and power has seen him set his sights on the environments and resources further afield.  Hence those in tropical regions who have in the past not had to compete with and conquer their environments in order to provide for themselves have been the ones that have had their resources taken from under them by those who have developed systems to do so in their harsher regions.  So we are left with a world where the rich use far more of the world’s resources than is sustainable, living lifestyles which are far more affluent than necessary, and at the expense of the poor of the world, whose once-abundant resources are fast being depleted from under them.  All because man thinks development and good living is achieved through increases in production and material possessions at the expense of our natural environments, limited resources, and – perhaps most significantly – personal happiness.

Anyway… On returning to Australia and adjusting to the culture shock of Western lifestyle :-), I’ll be commencing study at UNSW starting next month…  Researching “sustainable village design” of systems for water supply, treatment and reuse/disposal. I can’t believe time has come & gone so quickly!  So I’ll be having to find (share) accommodation in Sydney again.  I hope to find something in the Hornsby region – being as close to the country as possible while still being able to get to uni reasonably easily…  If you know of anything, please let me know…

If you’ve managed to read this far, thanks for your interest in my life and adventures abroad… and if you haven’t… well, I’ve enjoyed typing anyway 🙂  And thanks for the many prayers and encouraging messages.  I hope I’ve encouraged someone to serve as a volunteer – it’s a great experience!

Will see many of you back in Australia in a month (I have 3 weeks here, then take a week to get back, spending 3 days each in la Réunion & Singapore).

Madagascar Adventures IV

I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year.  It’s hard to believe it’s already 2002!  It was kind of strange for me to be way over here in Madagascar for Christmas & NY… watching Sydney’s fires and fireworks only on CNN – not sure whether to be sad or glad that I wasn’t there! 🙂

However my Christmas break here was thoroughly enjoyable, albeit very different to the normal.  After our staff break-up party I went by road to the port city of Tamatave to join up with one of the two couples with whom I was to then go on to our holiday destination, Maroantsetra.  The trip to Tamatave was with one of the few Malagasy project staff that own a car.  His family lives at the other end of our 4 hour journey – and he only gets to see them about once a month when he takes part of his salary back to them.  Anyway, the trip was the first time I’d seen that part of the country, as the last return trip I’d made to Tamatave was entirely at night.  The countryside was beautiful in places, but also stark in others – fires have rendered many hillsides bare and ugly (similar to NSW at the moment, maybe!), due to the traditional but questionable “tavy” agricultural practice.  And now that I’ve seen how dangerous the road is during the day (we saw about 10 containers at various points along the side of the road – left there after falling off the back of trucks, and we also very nearly cleaned up a cyclist) I’m not sure that I want to make that journey again unless I have to!

On our arrival (on the Friday night before Christmas) at Tamatave my “chauffeur” left me with Kim & Colin, who told me that due to a combined mix-up between ADRA International and ADRA’s principal donor (USAID), they had to continue working on a project proposal until the end of the following week and thus could not come on our planned holiday!  That was of course quite a disappointment both for them and for the other 3 of us that were still going.  And poor Colin & Kim were working almost every hour of each day of the next week (including Christmas Day) right up until their revised deadline!

So I stayed with them just for the Sabbath.  Kim gave me another packet of “Weetabix” for Christmas – so once again I felt a little more at home food-wise :-).  They also showed me their pet chameleon eating grasshoppers, which is truly an amazing sight.  I was holding the chameleon, as Colin held the grasshopper a full chameleon-body-length away.  I was puzzled as to how the creature was supposed to procure his dinner, when all of a sudden the chameleon shot forth his very long, sticky tongue and sucked in the grasshopper!!  So you can imagine I spent quite a bit more time treating the chameleon to a feast of grasshoppers while I tried (fruitlessly I think) to get a photo of the quick-fire tongue in action!

So on Sunday morning I took the plane up to Maroantsetra and waved goodbye to Colin & Kim who started back into their unfortunately-timed proposal writing!  I met up with Pingo & Priscilla, another young couple working for ADRA, at our holiday destination for the next 3 days, the bungalow-style “Relais du Masoala” at Maroantsetra (on the northeast coast of Madagascar).  And it turned out that for half the time we were the only ones there at the whole resort!  (A French couple came later.)  In spite of the fact it seems the place isn’t too popular at the moment, we enjoyed our time there – eating from a western-style menu, swimming in the pool (the beach wasn’t good), playing table tennis, and watching satellite TV.

On the 24th we took a boat to a nearby island National Park, where we stayed for the rest of that day, camped for Christmas eve, and left the next morning.  The island, named “Nosy Mangabe” (island of the deep blue), is about 5km offshore, and about 2km wide & long.  It is mainly beautiful & dense tropical rainforest rising up to a height of about 300m, and, as a reserve, basically uninhabited.  Our time on the island was spent going on several walks, and being enthralled by the various species to be seen.  During the day we saw quite a few black-and-white ruffed lemurs, some from close range, and heard quite a few more.  Our guide was incredible in finding things for us to see – including a number of tree-leaf geckos that are about 20cm long but usually almost entirely camouflaged on tree trunks.  He would find them as we walked through the forest, and point them out to us – but it would take us about 30 seconds of staring at the spot on the tree trunk before we realised we were actually looking at a gecko!  He also found for us the smallest species of chameleon – one about 5cm long, slender and camouflaged – in the leaves of the path as we were walking!  How he found these things I’ll never understand.  There were a number of birds and some interesting, almost plastic-looking insects, lots of colourful crabs by the sea shore, and a variety of different plants the likes of which we don’t see in Australia!

There was also a very nice secluded beach, but we didn’t get to enjoy it much as much as we would have like due to all the other things to be seen & done.  The Relais du Masoala arranged the guide for us, as well as a cook – both Malagasy, and both of whom we had to ourselves.  So Christmas eve dinner was candle-lit (no electricity, of course!), under a thatch (ravolana) roof, with western food (pasta & salad) cooked Malagasy style (a charcoal stove).  It was actually quite an enjoyable way to spend Christmas eve, talking to the guide as we waited for the evening rains to stop so we could go for our next walk.  The rain didn’t let up and by 10pm our guide said it would be best to go to bed (in our tents) and go for our night walk at 1am.  So sure enough he woke us up, the rain had stopped, and we set out in search of the aye-aye.  This unique and incredible species (like lemurs, but so unique it has a family and genus all to itself) is solitary and nocturnal, so sightings in the wild are hard-earned and memorable experiences.  After almost tripping over a boa, seeing several mouse lemurs (the smallest lemurs – which are more like a mouse in size but swing around the tree branches like the rest of the lemurs), and walking for about an hour, the guide found an aye-aye for us (I think by hearing it feeding).  When it looked down at us from its branch about 15m up, its eyes reflected our torch light in bright-bright red.  Incredible.  I have seen one in captivity from close range, and got to see its very long and slender middle finger (almost like the tongue of a chameleon!) which it uses to scratch out termites and other insects from trees.

The other memorable aspect of our night walk was finally realising that the stomach cramps and diarrhoea that I’d had for the past few days truly was giardia.  But when I took the necessary medicine the next morning, it soon cleared up.  Fortunately it wasn’t as bad as a previous occasion when I got a stomach bug (but I don’t think giardia) while in the field working for the project, and had to cut my trip short to come back for treatment.  And also fortunately for me I’ve never had troubles when the water has been cut, like our project director did one day when the water was cut for over 24 hours.  Not much fun for him indeed!

Anyway, Christmas morning a French photographer who is staying on the island for a couple of months introduced us to his “family” of brown lemurs that come every morning for biscuits.  There was even a mother with a tiny baby lemur clutching his mother’s back as she jumped around from tree to tree.

Time to leave the island and then Maroantsetra came all too quickly.  We flew back to Tamatave, where I had originally planned to spend the rest of my holiday until NY, but because of Colin & Kim’s mad rush to finish writing their proposal, I thought it better to join Pingo & Priscilla & stay with them at their home in Antsirabe.  Fortunately there was space on the next plane to Tana which was leaving within an hour, so I bought a ticket (about $A 150) and jumped on the plane back to the capital, Antananarivo.  That experience of getting a ticket was a lot better than getting the return ticket between Tamatave and Maroantsetra – for which I had to wait in the Tana Air Mad (often also referred to as Air Bad) office for 2 hours!  After the tiny airports (more like sheds!) at Tamatave and especially Maroantsetra, the Tana airport now seems huge and grand!  We then drove 170km south to Antsirabe – a lot of Madagascar seen & travelled in one day!

I stayed there for almost a week, including New Years Eve, which we spent mainly in front of the TV – watching the celebrations in other parts of the world on CNN (which made Antsirabe’s local singing and shouting look a little tiny), and also watching the Aussie “Water Rats” translated into French (“Brigade des Mers”).

Apart from enjoying Priscilla’s great Brazilian cooking, most of the time in Antsirabe was spent working.  Pingo & Priscilla on the “School Feeding” Project which is just starting up there in Antsirabe, and me working on a computerised planning tool I’ve developed for the Moramanga “Food Security Project”.  I presented the system on the 2nd day back at work, yesterday, to all the staff.  I’ve got my work cut out for me over the next 7 weeks that I’m here in Madagascar ensuring that the system is successfully implemented before I leave, as well as finishing the web page and several other things.

Interestingly, the Adventists here in Madagascar don’t celebrate Christmas at all, however make quite a big thing about New Years.  (I’ve just come back from a rather long celebration for the whole of the first Sabbath of the New Year…)  When I preached a week before Christmas, I thought I’d try to allude to Christmas in a positive way that would help remove some of the barriers.  I preached on God’s gifts.  First I compared God’s gifts with worldly gifts.  Then looked at what gifts God gives to everyone (Jesus, life, creation, choice), then what He gives to His followers only (eternal life, forgiveness, salvation, Holy Spirit, peace, rest).  Then I looked at what conditions must be met to receive this second lot of gifts (faith, repentance, obedience, victory).  Then I showed from the Bible that each of these are also gifts!  So everything we need is a gift!  Finally I looked at how/why we might accept or reject all of God’s gifts (which must eventually either all be accepted, or all rejected).

Anyway, wishing you an abundant blessing of all of God’s gifts as we start this new year!

Regards,
Daniel

PS. A question I’ve been pondering for some time, especially since I’m involved in development work… “Why are most countries in tropical regions less developed than those in temperate and colder regions?” I’d be interested in any of your thoughts… and may try to give my perspective next time I email.

Madagascar Adventures III

Once again I feel the urge to write to you all, my dear and valued friends.  And once again I will probably try fruitlessly to keep this short and/or interesting – hopefully, to some degree, both 🙂

While at times I do feel homesick (for Australia), I am starting to become more and more “at home” here in Madagascar.  But home is not a concept I will fully appreciate until I reach our real home – heaven.  Afterall, “home” for me has shifted so many times in my short life (I have lived in about 20 places – in 4 different countries).  I should share some of the experiences that have made me start to feel more “at one” with the Malagasy, and less of a “vazaha” (foreigner).

First there was getting my hair cut.  Most of the expats go to Westernised hairdressers in Tana (the capital).  But I decided I’d go Malagasy style – for the experience, and to save a bit of money.  So I asked one of the attendants at my hotel for his suggested barber.  So he gave me directions (and I needed them – the place was quite out-of-the-way) to the place of his wife’s brother’s uncle (or something like that) who was a hairdresser.  I arrived at what was more like a house than a hairdresser’s, and was showed through the yard (with a few chooks) into the house, then into a room which was the barber’s shop.  They had a few posters of Westerners posing with their hairstyles, which, although they seemed out of place for the location, reassured me that I was actually at the right place.  I was more like a special guest to a family rather than one of many customers at a shop.  First it was a lady who started on the job of cutting my hair.  She showed me the clippers, which looked like they had undergone a catastrophic meltdown, and needless to say they didn’t work.  So she started with scissors.  After about 15 minutes, the “professional” barber came in, and took over the job.  He took great care, and did a great job with just scissors and a plain razor blade, although it took him about 40 minutes to do it.  The whole experience, almost an hour, cost about $1 – a tenth of what it would cost in Australia, even though taking 10 times as long!

Other “Malagasy-fying” experiences have been going for my first ride in a pousse-pousse because the weather is so hot here – we have not had rain for sooo long!  And amazingly I was charged the Malagasy rate (about 50c) instead of the “vazaha” rate (double).  The picture above shows some of the pousse-pousse (behind the bycicle) in Moramanga town (where I live).  You will also notice, no doubt, the ever-present “CocaCola” advertising painted on one of the bigger and “better” shops of the town.

To be Malagasy one must be able to eat rice (“vary” – apt name for something they do NOT vary!) three times a day.  I can now say that I have managed to stomach rice for three consecutive meals.  This was while going on a field trip, where I stayed overnight at a “bureau satellite” with some of the field agents of our project.  However for breakfast the next day I took out some cereal that I had packed and was quite happy to have a change.  Yesterday I was with another group of field agents (giving them some computer training) who provided me lunch…  Not only did they go to the trouble of making sure it was all vegetarian for me, but they even managed to keep rice off the menu!  I was very impressed.  I have also eaten at a couple of “hotely’s” – the local mini-restaurants which specialise in providing large quantities of – you guessed it – rice… at very cheap prices.  These are rarely frequented by “vazaha’s” due to the increased risk of getting sick, however I didn’t have any problems…

I shouldn’t complain about food at all, considering the variety of fresh fruits available right now.  At the moment it’s the lychee season.  And there are copious quantities of lychees for sale at markets and stalls just about everywhere where there are people.  So guess what I’ve been eating nearly every meal (no, not rice!)  Plums have also just started, and I bought and tasted my first lot yesterday… yummy! (and cheap!)  And of course there are mangoes, pineapples (sweet ones!), passionfruit, papaw, etc, etc…

The vastness of the gap between the rich and poor is clearly visible.  For example, I am on a supposedly “meagre” volunteer stipend, however my stipend is slightly more than most (if not all) of our Malagasy project staff and field agents receive in their salaries.  However, in spite of their low salaries, our field agents can easily afford to hire maids to do their cooking and housework for them, since they earn about 15 times more than what they pay their maids.  If a Malagasy happens to make it to become a project director, he/she will then earn about 6 times more than before (ie 90 times more than a maid).  While expat project directors earn about 3 times what Malagasy directors earn (ie about 270 times what a maid earns!).  What an expat earns here is equivalent to an average salary back in their homeland.  I find all these comparisons mind-boggling.  Ironically, what I pay to the hotel to do my weekly clothes washing (separate to room service) is equivalent to the full-time wage of a maid… (who I could employ to do not just my washing, but cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, etc, etc…).  Realistically I can’t have a maid and stay in a hotel, but, even though I’m paying roughly equivalent of what I’d pay at an Aussie laundromat, I’d like to find a cheaper way.  At the moment I’m doing some by hand myself!

Above is a photo of the hotel in Moramanga where I stay.  It is right on the main road (route nationale), so gets a little noisy at times…

Speaking of the main highway…  I think I mentioned in previous emails how bad the roads can be here.  In the last few weeks I’ve seen a few more sad and sorry sights on the highway between Tana and Moramanga.  Once there was a car and a truck stuck in some trees a few metres down a steep embankment from the road where it descends a mountain range.  It seemed everyone was OK though.  Another incident, I can only figure out by the evidence which was left on the road (for about a week).  A truck coming down a gentle but long and windy grade must have lost its brakes.  At a relatively sharp bend, we drove past a shipping container half on the road and half off it, upside down, and a little beaten out of shape.  Our imagination of what might have happened was confirmed about a kilometre further down the road where we saw a semi-trailer (with no container) on its side, occupying one lane of the road.  A couple of people were camping around the upturned cabin of the truck – probably the driver (if he survived) and his offsider, making sure no one stole any salvageable parts of the truck.  The picture remained the same each time I passed the spot, until yesterday when the last of the truck was finally removed.

In a week’s time Madagascar will have its presidential elections.  The campaigns have been in full swing for a couple of weeks now – with most of the campaigning being done through parades, loud music, many copies of portrait posters of each of the candidates, dinners, parties and printed T-shirts and caps.  The existing president, an old man who’s been president for over 20 years, is being closely challenged, so it seems, by a young businessman, the mayor of Tana.  Hopefully there won’t be any violence, coups, or assissinations… but there’s almost sure to be corruption in the counting and interpretation of votes (especially considering the majority of the population is illiterate).  Should the young businessman win, he will probably bring many changes to the country, which many see as long overdue.

Last weekend I was invited by an Argentinian-American family to spend the weekend with them at “Lac Mantasoa”, a weekend holiday location for many of the foreign residents of Tana.  It was quite an enjoyable and relaxing weekend, spent swimming, boating, waterskiing (thanks to a friendly South-African with a speedboat), and of course relaxing, reading, eating, sleeping.  There were three pet lemurs allowed to roam free, one of which was rather friendly and inquisitive.  After chasing then being chased by a pet dog, the lemur hopped up onto my shoulder making friendly lemur noises…

This weekend I am in Tana again, and will be again next week, since I’ve been asked to preach at the English-speaking church.  The following weekend I will be in Tamatave (I think) before going to “Nosy [island] Mangabe” for Christmas and a couple of days afterward.  That should be quite a nice break.

I’m starting to learn to get used to everything taking longer to accomplish here… For example, trying to do some business one day in Tana, it took two attempts to accomplish each of my objectives.  First the British embassy had moved to another location, then my air tickets were at the domestic instead of international terminal (hence a second trip out to the airport was required, after I found out where the tickets were), then I got the wrong type of batteries for my camera…  But that’s life in a developing country.

My ADRA volunteering work has got more and more busy.  I’m starting to realise that in the two and a half months I have left, I have lot of things to finish off…  The webpage, for example, now has a few more pictures (hint-hint, if you want to take a look at http://homepages.tig.com.au/~djliving/adramad) but I still have to finish off some of the content, get a local host & a better URL, and train a local to maintain it.  Besides that I have been doing a lot of troubleshooting, training and administrating with computers, helping with the English language, and going on a few field trips.  I haven’t quite worked out the purpose of some of the field trips yet, but it seems they want me to give an “independent” evaluation of the infrastructure activities of the project.  I don’t feel I have adequate appreciation for the Madagascar context or development work in general to adequately assess the activities, but I’m willing and hoping to learn.

I’ve managed to stay single, in case you were wondering, in spite of the efforts of others to the contrary…  If it’s not other expats trying to match-make, its Malagasy waitresses trying to “practise their English”…

I’m starting to get accustomed to the idea of having long Sabbath-afternoon meetings now… Some of them are actually quite worthwhile (although at times I wish shorter) – and I sometimes wish we in Australia didn’t altogether abandone the old “AY’s”.  A few weeks ago there was another big sacred concert, and a few of us were just about to leave early when they put on a song in English specially for me.  I thought I had better stay :-).  Another afternoon there was an ordination of a couple of pastors.  The whole ceremony must have taken about 3 hours.  There were church leaders from Conferences, Union and Division – and it seemed all of them got a chance to speak, and of course being translated meant double the time…  But in spite of the length, it was a really good service, with some challenging messages and inspiring music.  The highlight for me was when the Division Treasurer (of all people) made a really encouraging motivational speach regarding the evangelistic plans for Madagascar next year.  He started by getting everyone laughing when he said “I’m sick of coming to Madagascar, sick of eating rice!”  But that was acceptable, because he went on to say “I want to go home to heaven.”  Then he challenged us all to make our “homecoming” a reality by being involved in the large-scale evangelistic efforts which will be launched in Tana next year.  There will be about 20 evangelists coming from overseas, preaching concurrently at different locations around the capital city.  Then the year will be finished with Madagascar for the first time taking satellite downlinks of Net 2002 (or whatever it will be).

I was asked today what Adventist youth do back home, and when I said we go for walks or sleep, they couldn’t seem to understand not having afternoon meetings.  And they questioned whether going for walks was for our own pleasure or praising God for His creation.  Sleeping seemed more acceptable, Sabbath being a day of rest.

Often when people ask me about life in Australia it is tempting for me to “impress” the Malagasy people with all the riches and conveniences of the developed world.  However I often also tell them that, at least from my observation (which is shared by others too), the people here in general are happier and friendlier, and are richer in relationships with people than in the “developed” world.  Which brings me to question what we really have “developed” in our Western societies:  fast-paced, high-stress lifestyles, resulting in broken families, poor relationships, depression, suicide… in short, Godlessness.  There are grave needs in the poor countries of this world, too – I am not blind to that.  But true “development” is really only when we achieve what is truly important to our happiness.  At the end of the day, most of us realise that happiness is not to be found in material wealth, money, power or reputation.  Yet most of us spend most of our time pursuing those things!  My time here in Madagascar, while I can laugh about some of the difficulties that come with living in one of the poorest countries, is actually contributing immensely to my personal “development” – helping me to prioritise what is really important.  Family, relationships, (I love you all! :-), and most importantly my relationship with God.

As I write we are finally receiving some rain – which is quite a blessing, even if it meant getting wet on the way home.

I hope you managed to read this far 🙂

Veloma topko!  A bientot!  Regards!

Madagascar Adventures II

It is now 3 weeks since I wrote my last looooonnnnggg email newsletter from Madagascar.  And 6 weeks since leaving Oz.  That doesn’t necessarily mean these newsletters come every 3 weeks though 🙂  And they won’t all necessarily be so long, either – I will try to keep this one short (relatively speaking…).

It has been good to hear of news back home…  Having heard of a birth (congratulations Paul & Natalie), an engagement (congratulations Brian & Fiona) a marriage (congratulations Glen & Nicola) &, sadly, the passing of Bev, I know that time most certainly passed since I was last at Waitara.  Thanks for the many emails…  I don’t mind the odd email or two coming my way.  Email access is not as hard as it was at first – now that I’ve figured out ways & means :-)…  Especially now that I’m putting a bit more time into developing the ADRA Madagascar webpage – it kinda means I’ve got to spend a bit of time on the net.  The webpage is still very much under construction, however if you would like a bit of an idea of the work of ADRA Madagascar take a look at (site now inactive). And your constructive criticisms / feedback are welcomed & would be appreciated (please)!

I spent last weekend (two weekends ago now) in Tamatave, and that is something worth telling you about.  Nov 1 (a Thurs) was a holiday here, and ADRA staff work only a half day Friday normally.  (The working week is still 40 hours, but quite different to Oz.  We start 7:30am, and finish at 6pm, and take a 2 hour lunch break – except finishing at 1:30 on Fridays.  But that’s all by the way.)  So the boss was kind enough to give everyone an extra long weekend by giving us last Friday morning off.  So I gratefully took the opportunity of visiting Colin & Kim Radford (Lynley Woolley’s brother & sis-in-law).  I left (from Tana) on the Wednesday evening, travelled all night by “taxi brousse” and arrived 9 hours later at 3am.  No, Tamatave is not 900km away, only 360km.  But that’s the quality of the road for you.  Sleep was very difficult – being jammed right in the centre of the van’s 15 passengers.  But when we arrived, I was able to stretch out across a full seat and sleep till a more reasonable hour (6am) when Kim was to pick me up.  After a brief early morning tour of Madagascar’s main port city (and 2nd largest city) – which, like most of Madagascar, is quite well alive at such early hours – Kim took me back to her & Colin’s house – which is the top level of a beautiful (by Malagasy standards) two story house.  Near the beach, too!  For breakfast they treated me to a cereal called Weet-a-bix.  I almost thought I was in heaven.  The taste was almost as good as Weetbix – although the price is so prohibitive it would cost about $7 per day for me to eat the equivalent of my normal 12 Weetbix :-<>  Anyway, I won’t go into quite as much detail as to the rest of the weekend – but as you can tell my first visit to the coast of Madagascar was quite pleasurable – and my hosts treated me to as much as their busy schedules could fit.  (Colin told me that over the last week he has been working 18-22 hour days! – maybe catching up on lost time from my visit…)

So the rest of last weekend was spent relaxing on the beach, being enthralled by the sights & sounds of markets, craft vendors, restaurants (including one by the beach, which we visited on the eve of the full moon! … spectacular!), Tamatave night-life (which you don’t really want to know about… there are reportedly 11,000 prostitutes in a town of about 200,000)….  A highlight was visiting the lemur park just out of town.  There were a number of varieties of lemurs, as well as the rare and endangered aye-aye.  This incredible creature comes out only after dark – however just for us they came out while there was still a bit of daylight so I was able to get a couple of good photos (I hope – since they are not developed yet…).  The lemurs are truly amazing creatures.  A large number were allowed to run free – and some were tame enough to allow us to touch them.  Words don’t do justice to the playing, jumping, screaching mating calls and so on that I enjoyed so much for that one afternoon.  It really makes me look forward to heaven.

The other memorable highlight was going to church on Sabbath.  On the way we stopped by a malaria-stricken boy so that Colin could pray for him.  Then we picked up about 50 kids which have been following Colin & Kim to church each week (from non-SDA families).  The numbers grow each week, so now they hire a church member’s small bus to cram the kids in.  The ride to church is something I won’t easily forget – 50 kids singing praise songs (in Malagasy, French and English) at the top of their lungs – must have been quite a spectacle to those we passed.

Speaking of Malagasy singing, the previous Sabbath was a regional rally day leading up to an evangelistic series (which we’re right in the middle of now) in this region of Tana.  There are 100 SDA churches in Tana – and the 11 churches in this region needed to hire a university hall to fit the 1500 people who came to the rally.  Anyway, the “Voice of Prophecy” choir graced us with several songs during an afternoon concert… it made putting up with hearing everything in Malagasy all worthwhile! 🙂

Well, since the webpage doesn’t exactly tell you what I’m doing at ADRA, I’ll give you a little more info.  Apart from actually developing the webpage, and helping with various computer needs, I’ve been helping out the infrastructure team of the food security project.  Not that my input is altogether essential – since I struggle with the language barriers and the locals have all the engineering skills needed for the technologies that are appropriate.  For me the most rewarding experiences are field visits.  One day last week I went with a couple of Malagasy staff to Anosibe An’ala, only 68km but 3 hours drive away.  The small township is actually the hometown of Madagascar’s Prime Minister.  The terrible road to the town doesn’t worry him.  He flies in by helicopter.  His house stands out in contrast to the rest of the town, although he’s done the town a few favours such as putting in a concrete road (I guess to keep the dust from getting into his house) – and a monument or two (I shouldn’t be so cynical :-))…  From the town we had to walk another 6km into the bush.  I really enjoyed that walk – through scenic mountainous terrain.  The object of our 4 hour (8 hour return) journey was a small dam for a village up in the mountains – for irrigation of their rice paddies.  At first, seeing a concrete structure after walking through bush for over an hour seemed a little out of place.  But the dam is only small (about 6m wide) and except for the cement and the little bit of steel used, all materials were local.  So I guess it fits into “sustainable development”… only time will tell.

At present I am in Tana again.  On Friday night I started getting a bad sore throat… but it was OK to go to church on Sabbath.  But when I arrived I found out they were expecting me to take the SS lesson!  I told them I had a sore throat (and I hadn’t prepared), but eventually I gave in and… well, my voice held up for the lesson… But needless to say I now have not much of a voice left!  So the little French I know isn’t doing me much good right now! But I’m feeling well, and am once again at work in the office here in Tana – taking a short break to send this email… which is almost as long as my last email, so I must stop

Oh, except to say that yesterday I went to see the remains of the arsen-destroyed queen’s palace – which is on the highest of Tana’s 12 “sacred” hills.  The palace and the few bits of furniture that were salvaged from the fire (which destroyed it 6 years ago) were interesting, but the views of Tana and surrounds were quite breathtaking!  I took quite a few photos.  But you’ll have to wait – since I haven’t developed any yet… OK, that’s all for now…

Madagascar Adventures I

It is now almost three weeks since I left Oz… and I guess that means it’s time to say hello and give some news.  I may have done so earlier except that it has been quite hard to get access to email.  Not surprising, since I am in one of the poorest countries in the world (quite a bit poorer than I had imagined before arriving).  This is a rather long email – so I won’t be offended if you only skim-read 🙂

Madagascar is a unique and intriguing place.  Of the four largest islands in the world, I’ve lived on three of them (Australia, Papua New Guinea & Madagascar (but not Greenland)) – and they’re each very different.  I’ve also lived in the Philippines, however living in two other developing nations didn’t really prepare me for Madagascar.  In spite of the poor condition of much of the country’s infrastructure and the polluted and largely destroyed environment here, the country still retains its own natural beauty and the people are very friendly, happy, and peacible.  Moreso than in Australia – which makes you realise tangibly that wealth and happiness are not necessarily proportional.

The population of Madagascar is quite diverse.  While it is considered an African nation, the majority of the people are not African.  They migrated from Indonesia and Malaysia about 1500 years ago.  There are also subsequent immigrants from China, India, Pakistan and mainland Africa.  As well as the French colonial influence.  One of the interesting things in terms of people is that there are rumours that Osama bin Laden has relatives here, and that the man himself visited in the last year or so.  These rumours are supported by some high level people in government and USAID.  Incidentally, USAID is the primary sponsor of the particular project I am involved in (giving in the millions of US $ – which means billions of Malagasy Francs).  Anyhow, the good thing is that the country is at peace, and I doubt that there is much to be concerned about here compared to other places in the world at present.

The poorer people (about two thirds of the population is in poverty) eat virtually only rice (in a few variations) – which does not do wonders for nutritional balance…  To get green leaves and and maybe some fish with the rice is a luxury!  I should also point out that the locals also produce a variety of other fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and eggs and some meat.  However they do not produce these to eat, but only to sell to the more wealthy.  There are a few (maybe about 5 to 10 in the whole country) Western style supermarkets that stock some things that I am slightly more used to – however most things seem to have a French influence (which also takes a little getting used to) and the price is prohibitive.  One of the places is rather quite massive – I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it even in Australia.  It has about 30 check-outs!  I am preparing some food myself, but also eating at a couple of inexpensive restaurants while I get used to things.

On my arrival in the country at Antananarivo (Tana for short), the capital of Madagascar, I was immediately greeted by the polluted, narrow traffic-jammed streets teeming with people, markets and stalls.  There is no “expressway” out to the airport.  It is more like the tiny lanes you’d expect to see in “The Rocks” of Sydney – with similar cobbled sections of the streets (although the similarities stop there).  Soon after my arrival, much sleep-deprived from the journey, I slept for 14 hours straight, waking up at 6am local time, much refreshed and completely over any jet-lag.

I spent the rest of the first week staying at the guest house under the ADRA head office in Tana (where I am again now) – getting acquainted with the place.  Then my first weekend I went with a young Brazilian couple to spend the weekend at their house 150km south of Tana in Antsirabe.  We went to church at the Adventist “University” of Madagascar (quite basic), and were invited to stay for lunch by an American couple.  (So there were Americans, Brazilians, Malagasy and an Aussie there for lunch.)  There is an instant bond between Seventh-day Adventists in a foreign land – which for me adds something special to travelling abroad.

The next couple of days I got my first tastes of public transport here in Madagascar.  Between regional centres one travels by “taxi-brousse”.  Such a vehicle is often an old French station wagon or a Japanese van, with about 11 (station wagon) or 16 (van) people crammed in, along with chooks, bicycles (on roof), luggage etc…

I arrived at my final destination, Moramanga, where the “Food Security Project” is based, about a week after first getting to Madagascar.  I am volunteering with this project for most of the five months I am here, although often (eg weekends, like now) I am in Tana.  Moramanga is only 100km east of Tana, although it takes 2 to 3 hours to make the journey, depending whether you’re going by private vehicle or taxi-brousse, and also depending on traffic.  Trucks use the route to get between the port town of Tamatave and the capital.  There are often accidents, break-downs, road damage, bullock carts etc which, together with a narrow road to start with, contribute to an interesting journey…

Each time I come back to Tana the place seems so much more like a “thriving and developed city” than before… because Moramanga has so little in terms of shops, business or industry.  However I like living in Moramanga because it is quieter, the air is cleaner, and the bush is closer.  Tana is by far the biggest city (about 2 to 3 million ppl).  It is right in the centre of the country, about 1500m above sea level in the “hauts plateaux” region.  Moramanga is halfway to the eastern coast, and about halfway down from the plateaux.  So we get a mix of coastal and highland weather – including the probability of destructive cyclones in the wet season while I am here.

I have gone jogging out into the countryside of Moramanga and it is just so refreshing and peaceful – in the still of the morning at or before 6am…  I have to run at that time and out of town to avoid the people.  Everyone gets up early, and the streets (even of Moramanga) are always crowded.  So getting out onto the country roads at that time of the day provides the best means of clearing my head and getting some good exercise.  The first time I went for a run was in the middle of the day – and I was the spectacle of many bemused Malagasy who probably don’t often see a “vasa” (foreigner) running through their streets.  Some of the little kids excitedly came running after me…  In case you’re wondering what I’m doing up so early, there’s not much to do in the evenings at Moramanga…  There’s a TV downstairs at the hotel, but the two chanels are only in French and Malagasy.  (I’m used to not having TV and prefer it that way, anyway!)

I have not yet been to any National Park, but am looking forward to seeing the lemurs and chameleons and getting into the “jungle”…  The most popular park in the country is only 30km away from Moramanga, so I will be sure to visit.  I have managed to see the remains of the old king’s palace, however, which, although modest by Western standards of royalty, is still rich in culture and interest.  But I forgot to bring my camera!

You may be wondering about the work of ADRA here, and where I fit in…  Well, one of the things I have been asked to do is build a web page for ADRA Madagascar and some of its projects (of which the Food Security Project, where I am working, is by far the largest).  So you’ll have to wait till that’s up and running then I’ll give you the address and you can find out all about it.  But briefly, the food security project aims at increasing the ability of people in the Moramanga region (maybe about 60,000 people) to access and utilize enough quality food all year round.  It does this through providing education, training and resources in the areas of agriculture, marketing, health (family planning), infrastructure (where my engineering may be of some relevance), and envirnonmental education.

As you may have guessed life for me here in Madagascar has taken quite a few significant changes to the “normal routine” of life in Sydney.  Some of the more obvious differences are the level of development, of infrastructure and services available, and also the language.  English is at best the 3rd language for the Malagasy people, who speak Malagasy then French.  And English is also the third language for the other expats on the Food Security Program.  So while I am trying to crash-course myself in French, there are times when I am powerless in terms of communication, which can be frustrating 🙂 – but also patience-teaching.  Another difference is going to a place where I basically know no-one, and having to start fresh in terms of making friends (which is often by smiles, due to the language barrier).  A blessing though is that I have no commitments (except my volunteer work).  Which means I can set my own routine, and have time to read, think, and invest in my own development as a person.  Getting away from the routine and distractions of daily life and assessing and concentrating on what is important to oneself is a highly rewarding experience.