On the market in Quartier Isotry, Antananarivo

Isotry market, Antananarivo

Isotry market, Antananarivo

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.  

Manioc seller on market

Manioc seller on market

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.  

Dried fish--an important source of protein

Dried fish--an important source of protein

 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.  

Abide with me in Madagascar

Lutheran church in Antsirabe. Madagascar

The sound of the group singing drifted in from the courtyard during breakfast on my first morning in Antananarivo.  The tune was familiar, but in my early-morning stupor after a long plane journey I couldn’t place it.  Then it came to me.  It was my father’s favorite hymn, Abide with Me, composed in the mid-19th century and an Anglican standard.  I had sung it often during my childhood, usually at school assemblies or compulsory Sunday church attendance.  I remembered the opening lines, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” although the line seemed surreal on a hot sunny morning in the middle of Madagascar’s capital city.  I wondered how this hymn had traveled across two continents and been translated into Malagasy.  

For that cultural exchange, we can credit (or blame depending on your attitude to missionary work) a lesser-known group of 19th century colonizers, the Norwegian Lutherans.  They were young men from the farms and fjords, called to the mission of converting the peoples of southern Africa to Christianity and civilization.  They boarded ships in Bergen and Stavanger, and set off for a long sea trip to an unknown island in the southern Indian Ocean.  The first two missionaries arrived in 1866, and established a Lutheran church at Betafo in the central highlands south of Antananarivo (we’ll use the abbreviation, Tana, from now on).  Others followed and were joined by American Lutheran missionaries.  Some had left young wives on the farm, promising to return when God’s work was done.  Most never did, and entered into accepted, but unsanctified, unions with Malagasy women.  Until the end of the 19th century, Madagascar was a British colony, and the Lutherans competed with other Protestant denominations for souls.  When the French took over in 1896 (in a colony swop for Zanzibar), competition increased as Roman Catholic priests arrived.  Yet Lutheranism continued to thrive, and the missionaries built churches throughout the country.  Today, the Malagasy Lutheran Church claims to have more than 4 million members in Madagascar and other countries.  And they do love to sing.

We were staying at the Norwegian Mission in the Isoraka district, high on one of the city’s hills.  It was originally built to as the administrative center for missionary activities, providing accommodation for missionaries visiting the capital.  Today, its guest houses are open to all, but you won’t find it advertised on the hotel or backpackers’ travel websites.  It was recommended by one of our team members, Luke Freeman, an anthropologist from University College, London, who has worked in Madagascar for almost 25 years and stays here when he’s in Tana.  A group of two-story buildings around a garden, it’s an oasis from the traffic and bustle of the city.  Each building has a memorial plaque to a noted missionary or church leader.  History is even celebrated in the Wi-Fi code.  No boring “guest 123” stuff, but a real name, Andrianarijaona (which is difficult to type, especially if you’re in a hurry).  For those readers not intimately acquainted with the history of the Lutheran church in Madagascar, this is Rakoto Andrianarijaona, whose father and grandfather were both prominent revivalist pastors; in 1960, he became the first native Malagasy to be named leader of the national church.   

For about $18 a night, you get a simple, clean room with bathroom, and a shower (the water was always hot).  The so-called “Norwegian breakfast” (rolls, butter, jam, cheese, ham, tomatoes, cucumbers, juice and coffee) sets you back 8,000 ariary ($2.50); for $2.00 you can get the Malagasy breakfast of rice with leaves (rice and leaves in a broth), juice and coffee.  There’s no bar, of course, but you are within a few minutes’ walk of three excellent, and modestly-priced, French restaurants and a Vietnamese.  It's the best accommodation deal in town.

Route Nationale 7

The beginning of the journey--Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo

The beginning of the journey--Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo

It’s officially 923 km (577 miles) from Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital in the central highlands, to Toliara, the main port on the southwest coast, on Route Nationale (RN) 7. All the guidebooks (and every Malagasy I’ve met) say that RN7 is the best road in the country.  It’s all relative, I guess.  I’d classify RN7, a two-lane highway with many one-lane bridges, as a superior county road in Ohio or West Virginia, or maybe a lesser state route in need of maintenance. Yet, for better or worse (mostly for worse), this is the main route to the south.  

And it doesn’t even go all the way. The southernmost port and city, Fort Dauphin, the administrative center of the region of Anosy, is another two days’ travel from Toliara on dirt roads (which also have at least the official status of Route Nationales), bone rattling in the dry season and impassable in the rainy season. To make the trip to Fort Dauphin, and other destinations in southern Madagascar, you need a vehicle that rides high off the ground so that it does not get stuck in the holes and ruts, and provides some cushioning for passengers. Traveling south out of Antananarivo—or Tana as everyone calls it—our UNICEF vehicle passed a boxy, high-riding bus, lumbering up a hill.  “Fort Dauphin,” remarked our driver. The bus was packed with passengers squeezed onto bench seats, luggage piled high on the roof. I asked how long the trip would take. “Four days,” said the driver. That’s actually four days and four nights. The bus makes rest and meal stops but goes through the night, the two drivers taking shifts.  

We stopped for the night at Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar (over 200,000) about 160 km south of Tana. We left at 7:00 a.m. the next morning and in late afternoon, 400 km on, passed the Fort Dauphin bus again as it struggled up another hill.  Its passengers faced another 50-60 hours of travel, most of it on dirt roads.  At least they had seats.  The cheapest mode of transport to Fort Dauphin is what’s called the “camion-brousse” (literally bush truck/lorry) where you ride on top of the cargo.  As we entered Toliara, we saw several being loaded for the bumpy trip southeast.

Driving on RN7, it sometimes seemed that half the country was on the move. By “taxi-brousse” (bush taxi), the minivans with luggage, bicycles and the ubiquitous yellow bidons (jerry cans used for carrying water) piled so high that they look as if they will tip over on a curve (they sometimes do).  By auto and bicycle rickshaw.  By bicycle.  On carts pulled by zebu, the humped cattle used for every agricultural task and (with fish) the main source of protein for the population.  Every hour or so we stopped to let a herd of zebu cross the road, the boy herders shouting and waving their sticks.  Outside the towns and villages, there were always people walking along the road.  Rice farmers going to and from their fields. Men with axes and long sticks with curved blades, cutting eucalyptus trees for firewood and charcoal.  Children returning from the river with bidons, lashed onto wooden push-carts, the day’s supply of water for cooking and washing.  Families walking home from church.

Of course, most people in central and southern Madagascar were not on the move. It’s just that those who were traveling were squeezed onto the narrow ribbon of RN7. Outside the towns, I saw only two east-west roads leading off RN7 with a tarmac surface, and who knows how far it went?  The poor infrastructure—primarily the roads, but also rural electricity supply—is the major barrier to economic development in a country where most people are still subsistence farmers, and which lags behind most countries (even many African countries) on human development indicators for health, nutrition, water, sanitation and education. Every rainy season, landslips block the road, and sections wash away, or develop huge potholes. South of Antsirabe, we came across three places where work crews were building ditches and culverts to divert the water.  But many more stretches have not been repaired. Our driver engaged low gear and crisscrossed the road, expertly avoiding the largest holes.  It was uncomfortable enough in the high-riding Nissan Patrol; it must feel much worse in a taxi-brousse.

Each administration in this notoriously politically unstable country promises to fix the roads and extend the network but, faced with poverty, hunger and pressing social problems, the promises are soon forgotten. “You can’t eat roads,” remarked our driver dryly. The bridges, mostly one-lane, are also in serious need of maintenance.  That’s except for one new structure crossing a river north of Fianarantsoa.  he old bridge, my UNICEF colleague explained, didn’t fall into the river through lack of repair; it was blown up in 2002 by opposition forces that had seized the government buildings in Fianarantsoa to stop troops sent south from Tana to quell the revolt.  The rebels were defeated, and a new bridge was built with French aid.  Apparently people in other towns up and down RN7 wondered if it was worth seizing the mayor’s office and blowing up the bridge on the north side to get a new one.

From Tana (which definitely does have traffic jams) RN7 winds through a landscape of hills with impressive granite outcrops, terraced rice paddies, hilltop cemeteries and small towns.  The hills were once covered with forests of pine and eucalyptus, but most of it has been cut for building materials, firewood and charcoal, the main fuel used for cooking.  Eucalyptus grows fast, so new branches were already sprouting from the blackened tree stumps.  There are still stands of old growth in the national parks, though illegal logging is common.  Until the woefully inadequate power grid is updated—and the government certainly doesn’t have the money to do it—the trees will continue to be cut for charcoal, some of which travels up RN7 to Tana where many settlements outside the center lack access to electricity.  Firewood is also used to fire the small brick kilns that line the road.  Mud bricks are cut from the red clay soil, piled into stacks and slowly baked.  Most houses in the highlands are built from these rough bricks, with roofs of clay tiles or thatch; a metal roof denotes an upper-class home.  Most have no windows, but wooden shutters.  At night, the only faint light comes from cooking fires. 
If you’ve got something to sell—fruits, vegetables, motor oil, bicycle tires—your best point of purchase is somewhere along RN7, preferably on one of the few straight stretches.  However, there are small retail clusters where stalls sell similar items.  If you’re in the market for a brightly painted Jesus or Madonna statue—or one of the animals from the Ark (breaking news--Noah did not forget to get the zebu on board)—your destination is a stretch south of Antsirabe; further south, a line of stalls sell wooden cooking utensils; south of Fianarantsoa, the second largest city, musical instruments including drums and the Malagasy ukulele; then brightly painted tin models of trucks and cars.  

South of Fianarantsoa, the road turns southwest, dipping down out of the highlands to the treeless savannah grasslands.  This is Madagascar’s High Plains country, where herders drive their zebus and sleep out under the stars.  If it wasn’t for the distinctive red and white kilometer posts on the roadside and the absence of pick-up trucks, it could be Wyoming or the Dakotas, the long grass blowing in the wind, the mountain ranges on the horizon.  The grasslands gradually give way to a desert landscape dotted with scrubby trees and cactus, reminiscent of the American Southwest.  We stopped for the second night in Ranohiro, the gateway to the L’Isalo national park; it’s a small market and tourist town with hotels and restaurant.  Chez Alice, with its cactus fence and corral boasting Malagasy rodeo (presumably bareback zebu riding) was full, so we ended up at a hotel in the town center, eating dinner alongside long tables of European tourists on their Madagascar Adventure tour.  We were on the road again at 6:00 the next morning, as the sun rose over the bluffs and canyons, bathing them in the warm morning light.  

The wealth in this beautiful but desolate landscape is definitely in them, thar hills—in this case it’s not gold, but sapphires.  Migrants from all over the country have come to this region to seek their fortunes, digging into the hillsides with shovels and pickaxes.  They live in rough, single-story shacks in a series of small towns that straggle RN7.  The real wealth is controlled by foreign traders—mostly from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Thailand—who buy the rough sapphires and sell them, mostly for export.   The names on the gem stores tell the story—Fayez, Najeem, Iqbal, Farook.  These are reportedly wild towns, with high rates of crime and prostitution, where the lucky miner who has just sold his sapphires blows it all on sugar-cane moonshine and the slots at Les Jokers Hotel and Karaoke Bar. 

The final 100 km to Toliara is desolate, and the people poor. In contrast to the rough but functional two-story houses of the highlands, the villages consist of single-room mud huts with thatched roofs and fences of branches and cactus, their occupants literally scratching out a living from the dry, sandy soil.  And then, finally, we glimpsed the sea in the distance and crossed the low sandy hills into Toliara.  We made it to the Chamber of Commerce just in time for the mid-morning coffee break.  And just in time—my first presentation was on the schedule for right after the break.  

Vive le Renault 4!

It was a common sight on the roads of France in the 1970s.  The Renault 4, with its functional, box-like design, sat high (for its size) on its chassis, its front end leaning slightly down as if it was getting ready to dive into the potholes and muddy farm fields.   Like its main rival at the bargain end of the market—the even more ubiquitous two-cylinder Citroen 2CV, the celebrated (largely in memoriam) deux chevaux—it was seriously under-powered, taking several minutes to reach its preferred cruising speed of about 80 kilometers per hour.  But once it made it, it chugged along happily, using much less petrol than anything else on the road.  The gear shift was a challenge—you pulled it out directly from the dashboard, and then twisted it left and right, forward and backwards, in a complex series of motions.    

I haven’t seen a Renault 4 in France for many years, although I’ve spotted a few rusting in barns in the Dordogne region, where my sister Liz and her husband Michael live.  But the Renault 4 is still the most common taxi on the roads of Antananarivo, the sprawling, noisy capital of Madagascar, which I’ve visited four times in the last year on a project for UNICEF.  Many are survivors of the city’s traffic wars with battered panels and out-of-whack alignment.

On some, the ignition no longer works so the driver has to hot-wire the engine.  As you rattle up the cobbled streets (Antananarivo is built on hills—a sort of tropical Paris with rice paddies) you try to forget that there’s almost no suspension and just marvel that the car is still running.  

There are modern cars and gas-guzzling SUVs on the roads of Antananarivo, but in a country where all indicators—unemployment, poverty, health, literacy—put it in the “least developed” category on most global indexes, you’re pretty fortunate if you own a Renault 4.  Out in the countryside, you’re well off if you have a cart pulled by a zebu, the humped oxen used to plough the fields, transport people and produce, and to serve as a sacrifice at traditional ceremonies.