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 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!