I’ll just go ahead an admit to being a hopeless Pollyanna. I was expecting better in Madagascar; I was expecting a higher standard of living. Actually, we had dinner the other night with a couple and she said that she, too, was expecting something different in Madagascar. We decided that it was the Disney Effect. We coined that term to describe how the Madagascar movies and Lion King had set us up to expect a country where the people were strong and triumphant and charging forward with great dreams and aspirations. Neither of our husbands shared that expectation. (At least we didn’t actually expect the animals to talk, so give us a little credit already!) I really don’t mean to disparage the wonderful people of the world’s fourth largest island, but it is a terribly sad place. It is an undeniable fact that the future doesn’t look bright for the population. No animated film can change that.
I won’t load this post up with sad facts and figures, but will point out a few stunners. For one thing, access to clean water is a problem. Ditto electricity. The growth of half the children in Madagascar is stunted. Yes, half! The country ranks fourth in the world in chronic malnutrition, which made it all the more ironic that I spotted a local man wearing a shirt from a Portland, OR walk for eating disorders. I’m betting the only eating problem in Madagascar is malnutrition and it is going to take more than a walk to fix that.
Speaking of clothes, I am pretty sure that nobody has a stitch of clothing that didn’t come from some far away church clothes closet. I’ve seen shirts from just about every state in the US. Yesterday, I saw a boy walking along the road with a Boy Scout shirt on. “Aww,” I thought, “They have Boy Scouts here in Madagascar.” Then I quickly regained my few brain cells and thought, “Nope. Some kid in Troop 642 outgrew it and it landed in the bag of clothes going to charity.” Everything everyone is wearing is torn and dirty. Clothes are washed by hand in muddy streams and strewn about on grass or a fence to dry. Re: footwear – let’s just say having a flip-flop shop here would be lucrative. Twenty seven million people are wearing them.
Travel in Madagascar is nothing short of nightmarish. The roads are sometimes paved, but often not. The dirt roads are full of ruts and getting anywhere is slow and the ride is very bumpy. Transportation is often by tuk-tuk, rarely by private car, and often in an incredibly super crowded sort of a city bus, but mostly people walk or ride a bike. We never saw a woman driving any type of vehicle. We were transported in dirty, rundown vans with no air conditioning and with dirty windows that usually wouldn’t slide open all the way. The seats were usually torn and frequently untethered to the floor of the vans. When we were in Tolagnaro, in the southeast of the island, we were told that it takes three days of nonstop driving to get to the capital city which is about 1000 kilometers away. They drive night and day, and supposedly only stop once each day for lunch, but the roads are so bad that the trip cannot be competed in less time. Oh, and it’s best not to attempt this journey in the rainy season. But there is hope, according to our guide. China has agreed to get some of the roads in order. In all our travels, we’ve never seen a country happy with a bargain with China when all is said and done. In places like Myanmar, the people despise the mere mention of China. I personally think that they should direct their anger at the crooked politicians who made deals with the CCP, but what do I know? We were somewhere on the other side of Africa last year where China was building a first class port facility. If the country was not able to repay China within a certain time frame, China would forever own the port. We all know how that is going to end, don’t we? China is building universities all over Africa and, of course, including large facilities for Confucius Institutes. What could go wrong, you might ask? Nothing to see here; it will end up totally hunky-dory, I’m sure.
We were intrigued by the people of Madagascar. Many of them don’t look like other Africans; many have features that look Malaysian or Indonesian mixed with African characteristics. They speak Malagasy which is an Austronesian language, one of the largest and most widely dispersed of the language families. We found it interesting that the Seychellois speak Creole, as do the Mauritians. Creole is a blend of African and French. Some of Mauritians we saw were Indian or had physical characteristics of the Indians and some made me think of Asians. The official language of Mauritius is English, but our guide called Creole the “mother language.” Looks like I strayed from Madagascar. Let’s get back to that country.
We asked our guide about education. He said that only about 20% of the children go to school because their parents can’t afford the $15 fee required every year. Girls were not allowed to attend school in the past, but now they can. Unfortunately, he said people usually don’t send their daughters to school because “they are only going to take care of children.” However, in another port, our guide said that public school is free and we did see many schoolchildren along the roads. And, happily, at least half of them were little girls. Maybe different regions have different policies or maybe we are not understanding each other very well. However, parents like it very much when their daughters marry because the husband’s family has to give them a zebu and that is a prized possession. (A zebu is a cow with a hump.) We saw so much of that meat in the market. People have lots of kids for two reasons. First, it signals that you are rich. (I don’t know who you will fool here.) Secondly, since there is no form of social security or any safety net, the thought is that all those kids can and will take care of you in your old age. Just what this country needs: more mouths to feed. We were told by several guides that a man can have up to four wives; one guide said he has two. I wanted to verify that polygamy is legal, but everything I read said that it is not legal, although it is still practiced. I would think that more wives means more kids: just what Madagascar needs.
Madagascar is actually rich in gems and minerals, but, again, infrastructure is a major problem. There is a big mining operation in the area around Tolagnaro. Rio Tinto is the international company running the operations in the southeastern part of the country. They build homes for their employees and give then free water and electricity. Their homes look like mansions compared to the usual bamboo huts we’ve seen all over the country. Below is a home for a Rio Tinto employee.
We were shocked and saddened by the level of poverty of most of the countries of Western Africa that we visited last year. Madagascar beats all of them. It’s no contest. I can’t find any humor here and I can’t pretty this up. We are glad we came here, but honestly don’t know why. I can only assume that we think our time here adds to our understanding of the world at large. But I will admit that witnessing the poverty and hopelessness in Madagascar makes us ache in our hearts. We hurt for the little children who will never escape the cycle of profound and excruciating poverty. How awful to think that there could be a child here with the potential to grow up and solve some big world problem or make the world a better place through art or music. There have to be Bachs and Beethovens, Edisons and Einsteins, Michaelangelos and Monets with talents unrealized as they sit crushing stone to make gravel as we saw so many people in villages doing. Sadly, I think that the problems here are so insurmountable that all we can do is try to get it off our minds. That seems to be what everyone does. And that hurts, too.