“Candy, candy,” screamed the children running after the car for a few hundred meters. All this effort just for a piece of candy. Bony hands and deep sad look that reveals the hard life on the island.
An island located in the southeastern part of the African continent in the Indian Ocean. Known as one of the few places in the world where wildlife is so unique and diverse that is the subject of research to biologists and scientists around the world.
I have the impression that for lemurs, chameleons, birds and other creatures in Madagascar life is better than for its citizens. For nearly 22 million people nobody cares. They are not in focus of anyone’s interest. Skinny arms and eyes full of suffering.
It’s hard. Almost 90% of the population live below the poverty line, on less than one dollar per day. Most of them are farmers, working in rice fields all day. Rice is vitally important to Malagasy people, as a main food source as well as being Madagascar’s greatest export. Before arriving on the island I was not aware of the situation that I found there. Madagascar is among the 20 poorest countries in the world and one of the poorest countries of Africa!
Malagasy woman with a basket on her head
The first settlers
Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, was settled about 2000 years ago by immigrants from Southeast Asia (primarily from Borneo) and later by immigrants from neighboring African countries.
Europeans arrived in the 16th century led by the Portuguese in search of India. Arab traders also came and Madagascar became a real cultural “melting pot”, which is still reflected in 18 different ethnic groups living on the island.
Each group has its own characteristics and differences from dress code to traditional beliefs. Although today most of the people are Christians, many still believe in the spirits and power of dead ancestors.
French rule & political situation
In 1960 after many years of French rule Madagascar becomes an independent republic with a semi-presidential regime. France has left a huge impact on the island. Although Malagasy is the official language, French is wide spread. Children learn French from the first grade and it is almost impossible to find a person who does not know it. Due to the high corruption and poor governance, the economy has been slowly sinking year after year.
Angles wherever you look!
Landscapes of impressive diversity
It takes a lot of time to experience the magic and beauty of the island. Minimum 3 weeks. National parks and other tourist attractions are scattered all over the island, the roads are bad, and driving long and exhausting.
But you will be amazed by the unreal landscapes of impressive diversity – in just 300 kilometers, you can go from rain forest to desert! Canyons, mountains, fertile cascading rice fields, forests of every kind – rain, dry, spiny and a laterite – rich soil that gave the county its nickname of “Red Island” make this corner of the Earth true natural paradise and an ideal destination for lovers of ‘outdoor’ activities.
Rice fields in the the Central Highlands of the island
My ‘road trip’ began in the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, or Tana, which is the starting point for exploring the island to relatively few tourists. Tana, Madagascar’s most populated city, is situated in the Central Highlands of the island. It is one of the most fertile regions in Madagascar, well known for the rice fields.
Tana, the capital of Madagascar
Local people & life on the island
Farming, based on rice and cattle
Most of the Malagasy people live depending on subsistence farming, based on rice and cattle. As the population increases by more than 3% per year there is no enough arable land for growing hungry mouths to feed. So the villagers began to plant rice in a beautiful, endless rows of green terraced fields. This human activity has shaped the surreal landscapes filled with a terraced paddy fields.
Working in the rice field…
No water, no electricity
Between the fields are situated small houses and huts made of clay, wood and brick. Houses with an earthen floors, with the candles instead of light bulbs and the river instead of the washing machine. It is hard to imagine that people in the 21st century still live like that. No water, no electricity. Life is really hard there.
Life is hard
Women with children on their backs and baskets full of laundry, food or dishes on their heads walk every day for miles to the nearest river. Muddy river filled with garbage, so essential to their lives. River is bathroom, washing machine and kitchen at the same time. In the dry season when most of the rivers dry up they bathe and wash themselves in the rice paddies.
And while women are responsible for washing, cooking and other ‘house’ works, male part of the family and older children go to distant fields, to dig, to plow or clutter holes on the roads, whatever they find just to earn something. It’s hard to see a child with a shovel along a dirt road ‘that leads to nowhere’ with a serious, profound look that reveals the tragedy of life.
Crossing the river on the way to home…
Zebu, a real fortune
All money that families earn leave aside for the purchase of food (read: rice) or a zebu one day. Zebu is a type of domestic cattle, like our cows, and represents a real fortune. This ‘horned cow’ helps in the cultivation of fields, serves as transport and cargo vehicle, as dowry at the marriage or the source of so valuable proteins. Herds of zebu’s can be seen on every corner.
Girl with a baby (wearing ‘local’ make up)
On the road
There are more zebus on the roads than cars and other vehicles. Making a traffic jam every now and then. As well as many ‘taxi brousses’. These small vans are a Malagasy type of public transport.
They are slow and uncomfortable, but they are often the only affordable alternative to chartering your own 4X4. These ancient taxis, on average, carry at least twice as much passengers than they supposed to. As if that was not enough, the roof of these ‘tortured’ vehicles is usually loaded with several hundred pounds of goods, from bags of rice, baskets full of fruit and vegetables, household furniture (as it is quite normal to buy a mattress or a double bed on the market, right?) to livestock, popcorn, geese and ducks. Truly amazing.
Traffic accidents & infrastructure
Because of the old roads in really bad condition traffic accidents are something quite regular and normal. Every 50 kilometers or so, you can see the overturned truck in the rice field or in a river, as well as a group of people waiting along the road in the hope their ‘taxi brousse’ driver will manage to start the vehicle. In addition, no other infrastructure along the roads is in better condition. Well, there is no any infrastructure at all.
Zebu, a real fortune
The biggest problem is the lack of toilets. “Natural toilet”, my driver shouted every time he suddenly stopped the car on the road. I have no problem with the natural toilets in general.
But my version of natural toilet and the one of Malagasy people is quite different. Veeery different! Everyone on the island use it without hiding behind a tree or in the grass. No hiding at all! Natural toilet is version of public toilet along the road. Veeery public!
When the car stops people go out, thick to the car, men standing up, woman crouching next to them (some of them do it with the children on their backs). Along the road. By car. No problem. At all. For them.
You can imagine how I reacted when I realized that will be my toilet on the road trip for almost 2 weeks. Great! The worst part was during the drive to the west of the country where the vegetation changes and the plateau and the trees turn into low grass. Miles and miles of low grass and absolutely nothing else. So find a tree to hide there! No way. Wherever you crouch everybody see you. Especially if your butt is white and glows in the dark. Oh my God. True ‘happiness’!
Although crowded and old, schools in Madagascar are full of life, joy and positive energy!
Unlike anywhere I have been
Madagascar is unlike anywhere I have been to – from epic landscapes to its incredible wildlife. After more than two weeks in Madagascar, an island, especially its people left a huge impact on me. Although they live in such a great poverty, they have some spiritual energy that keeps them all together, positive and happy. They are truly the most extraordinary and beautiful ‘part’ of the island. Hope I’ll visit them one day again!