On a break from our work with UNICEF in December 2015, my colleague Luke Freeman, an anthropologist who has worked in Madagascar for over 20 years, took me to the rambling market in the Quartier Isotry, one of the poorer districts of central Tana. In the traditional remedies section, stalls are piled high with sticks of wood and bark, shells, bottles and packets of remedies. One promised to cure almost everything—diseases of the heart, liver, lung and stomach. Others claimed to improve fertility or to build muscles. To ward off evil spirits, there were amulets to wear and incense to burn. Traditional medicine use is obviously not confined to remote rural regions; here in the capital city there were dozens of stalls, most offering the same range of merchandise, and people were buying.
The Isotry bazaar is off the tourist route, and all the more interesting for it. Live geese, ducks, chickens and turkeys are crammed into straw baskets on the roadside. Scrawny cats, tethered by string to the baskets, are also on sale; the point-of-purchase message is that if you buy a cat to keep down the vermin, it will not attack your ducks. People hawking artificial Christmas trees and decorations, live crabs in buckets, stacks of old clothes and shoes. There’s new stuff, of course, including the bizarrely branded T-shirts and underwear—Tokyo Super Dry, Cool My To Rock, Hugo Premium Fashion Boss. In the consumer electronics section, it took me a few minutes to figure out why stalls displayed guitars, amps, car batteries and solar panels together. Of course, it’s because electricity is still not available in many communities around Tana, power cuts in the city are frequent and the band has to play on.
At one stall, we found a wide selection of farming hand tools, with shovel blades of different lengths, widths and angles designed for every task, all forged by blacksmiths from scrap metal. Next door, the vendor was selling hand weights fashioned from car gears. The Malagasy have long learned to recycle and reuse—not through any sense of environmental consciousness but because in a poor country there’s no alternative. As in Central Asia, bottles and jars are washed and reused. I am returning with hot sauce, all bottled in jars that once contained jam or pickles.