Our bus stopped on a deserted country road with savannah in all directions. Ten Danes and a Malagasy lady stepped out. A mixed herd of travellers, all raising their cameras to catch the grasshopper swarm that covered the sky. Wow!
My first impression of Madagascar was quietness. Even in the capital Antananarivo, traffic noise was limited. Apart from a few cars, city life in Madagascar is mostly characterized by bicycle rickshaws, pousse pousse (running rickshaws) and (often barefoot) pedestrians.
Gentle and growing population
The Malagasy appeared to be characterized by dignity and joy, gentle people who smiled and greeted us strangers politely.
Children were of course curious. And there are indeed many children in Madagascar! A major reason for this is that children provide labor for field work. In thirty years, the population is expected to double to sixty million, a disturbing prospect as it means Malagasy people will have trouble feeding themselves
No tap water
Life is austere, especially in the countryside. Extremely few households have tap water. In cities, people fetch water in buckets from public taps, where they stand in line for hours. In rural areas people depend on rivers and lakes for water supply.
We met very few beggars, and our local guide Claudia encouraged us NOT to give money, but instead to tip people who provided a service such as carrying luggage or playing music for us (picture below). Payment for benefits rather than dependency on passive support, was the point.
Rain forest and endemic animals
A growing population needs more space. Accordingly, Madagascar’s rainforest has shrunk alarmingly to only 10 pct., and many species are endangered or extinct. We felt lucky to experience the country’s unique nature.
Occasionally, nature came close. In two hotels we had a mouse visit in the room, and in a third hotel a VERY large spider (crab size!) landed on the head of my husband, who managed to push it down on the floor before it dawned on us that it was a spider.
On a night hike, I was lighting up some limes on a tree above my head, whereupon someone behind me spotted a large tree boa snake in the same tree. Luckily, our guide told us it was harmless.
Lemurs and chameleons were the main attraction on our animal spotter hunts. I will refrain from listing the distinct species, but simply share my enthusiasm for the lemurs’ agility and speed as they “fly” around the treetops. I encourage you to google the sound of Indri lemurs, it is loud and penetrating, like New Year party blowers!
Baobab Avenue is (literally) a big tourist attraction near the town Morondava in western Madagascar. At sundown, tourists compete for the best spot to photograph the giant tree silhouettes in front of the setting sun.
When we arrived, a group of American photo enthusiasts had already lined up. Baobab trees are indeed impressive, and sacred to the Malagasy. The trunk of a Baobab contains hundreds of liters of water, which makes the tree resistant of drought and forest fire. Six out of eight baobab species grow only in Madagascar.
A bit of history and culture
We noticed Asian traits in the highland population, which makes sense as the first inhabitants of Madagascar came from Indonesia 1500-2000 years ago.
Previously, Madagascar consisted of several kingdoms, which were united under Radama I (regent 1810-28). During his regime, British protestant missionaries played a significant role in the development of the island. At the same time, French Jesuits converted the coastal population to Catholicism. In 1896, Madagascar became a French colony, and the country achieved independence in 1960.
The Malagasy population consists of eighteen tribes, and we noticed tribal differences in architecture and attire: Some tribes build houses by unfired mud bricks, others build wooden houses on stilts, and the poorest people live in thatched huts. Some tribe men wear “lamba” (garment) over their shoulder, others wear braided straw hats, etc.
About 50 pct. of Malagasy adheres to indigenous beliefs, 40 pct. is Christian, and 7 pct. is Muslim. However, Malagasy often mix traditions and beliefs. For instance, the “turning of the bones” burial ritual is similar to Indonesian burial traditions, and also practiced by Christian Malagasy. It involves taking dead family members out of the crypt after seven years, wrapping them in new cloths, and dancing and singing around the tomb.
The largest ethnic group is Merina, a Malay-Indonesian community, situated in the highlands. They are higher socially ranked than the coastal population of African descent.
Apart from environmental challenges like floodings and drought, ethnic conflicts and political instability contribute to the country’s economic problems.
Dangerous gemstone mining
Ilakaka is a small town where sapphire was discovered in 1998. We felt the tense wild west atmosphere in the main street among men with gloomy eyes, who risk their lives in search for gems in dangerous excavations. We visited a gem shop and watched buyers from Sri Lanka stand behind barred windows ready to buy stones from gem diggers, and to then process and resell with profit.
Climate challenges and opportunities
Malagasy use charcoal as a heat source, which is of course bad for forests and emits CO2.
On the other hand, the predominantly non-motorized Malagasy road users are climate-friendly, and one might hope the country will skip a development stage (the stage with heavy petrol and diesel traffic) and go directly to electric vehicles.
Madagascar – a cartoon movie?
A google search of Madagascar leads to pictures from the cartoon comedy about a group of zoo animals from New York who end up in a jungle in Madagascar. This underlines the fact that Madagascar is a country off most people’s radar, and receives very few tourists. In many hotels we were the only guests. Covid 19 is, of course, part of the explanation.
I have only seen a fraction of Madagascar and would love to go back. The only two downsides are malaria and poor infrastructure. Next time I will visit northern Madagascar to experience rock formations, more rainforest, and small islands with nice beaches.
Did you know that …
.. Madagascar is the 4th biggest island in the world
.. zebu is humped cattle in Madagascar, and quite tasty
.. Madagascar supplies about 80 pct. of all vanilla in the world
.. Malagasy women paint their faces with powdered wood to protect their skin from the sun and insects