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).