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.