Faly miarahaba indray. A Malagasy saying for ‘happy to greet you again’. The Madagascar-Travelblog continues. I hope you are all as excited to read about my newest daily adventures, highlights and struggles as I am to share them with you. There have been plenty – apologies for the length of the tale – but they are just all worth recounting.
Already half of my foreseen four months in Madagascar are over – and I bet you’re curious to know how the actual mission I’m here for is going. Well, surprise, so am I. But this remains a topic for a separate Travelblog coming soon. Let me just say that our patience has been slightly overstrained despite the consoling words of the local WWF team members: “Welcome to Madagascar, this is how things go here.” (elaborations to follow next time)
First, I have the treat of my trip to the field for NEMACO to tell you about.
A trip to the field – What does that even mean?
That translates to going on a mission to see the project sites. Which also means: leave behind all tourists and civilization as we know it. Farewell to any comfort we are used to. And it means adventure, unparalleled impressions, moments of pure fascination and moments of wishing for your shower and bed.
In geographical terms it means visiting the rural fishing villages where the NEXUS Centers of NEMACO are located. To get there, Angelo, our Community Outreach Officer, and I took a boat from Tulear to Anakao – a journey that included free dolphin and whale watching (happy me!). From Anakao on it was a bumpy ride with a 4×4 on sand tracks until we reached the villages of Befasy, Beheloke and Besambay.
Vazaha meets Mayors, Village Presidents, the Water Committee and Elders
I am a Vazaha. A foreigner, which most often equals to ‘white person’. And when a Vazaha appears in those villages, it must be for a serious reason. Angelo seemed happy to have me with him: “When you come along it’s so easy to organize meetings. The whole village automatically gathers to come look at you.” (Glad I carried out such an important function.) As they all don’t speak any French and my Malagasy at that time consisted of hello, thank you and goodbye, I did my best to sit, smile, and appear to be important enough so that they felt pressured to hold a serious meeting.
In that fashion I met the Mayor of Anakao, the President of each village, the members of the Water Committees and an uncountable number of women and their children. It was a successful exchange of smiles and stares.
The meeting highlights: fingerprints and sacrifices
While I smiled, Angelo talked and did an extremely good job at diplomatically leading these meetings. He summarizes his role as: gather as much information, accusations, problems and opinions as possible and then make a balanced decision as to what reality might look like and how NEMACO can best respond. While the objective of the trip was to get contracts signed by the village presidents and the water committee that confirm the handing over of the land on which the NEXUS Centers are built to the community (which we did successfully), I find the little side-details of the meetings way more fascinating:
Besambay and the sacrifice
Besambay is the NEXUS Center that works flawlessly. No defects, no village drama. The people of Besambay are fully convinced that their NEXUS Center is so successful only because they sacrificed a zebu before the Center was built. This ritual is crucial to get the blessing of the ancestors. As we are soon starting the construction of the processing and storage space for the fisheries products, the village is requesting another sacrifice. A zebu costs money and NEMACO’s funds are limited and to be used wisely. No sacrifice means the villagers will not believe in the success of the project (which can just as much equal they will torment it) and we know that a convinced community is key. Angelo, in the end, found an extremely sophisticated solution: because we are simply building an addition to the already existing Center we can sacrifice a goat instead of a zebu. Beautiful, right?
Befasy and the struggle with customs
Befasy has a NEXUS Center that stands ready to be inaugurated except that one piece of the installation is missing. That piece is stuck at Malagasy customs since February. They request a ridiculously high tax on it (some new idea of theirs) and the WWF has been negotiating with the responsible minister to alleviate the tax (to clarify: The Center has to be handed over fully functioning from WWF to NEMACO). WWF had successfully reached an agreement with the minister just a couple weeks ago, when, from one day to the next, the minister changed. (It seems to be a tradition here to change ministers every couple months.) And because that change was not amicable, the new minister destroyed all dossiers of the old minister and the negotiations can start anew. A great example of mature Malagasy politics.
Tariboly and the signature with fingerprints
The village of Tariboly (which we didn’t visit but Angelo told me the story) is experiencing an internal conflict between the literate and the illiterate. The contract to give the land to the community has to be signed by both sides. A little hard for us to imagine, but if you have never learned to write or hold a pen, signing a contract can be difficult. Smart Angelo brought along ink for them to sign with their fingerprints. Seems logical now, but it’s definitely not something I would’ve thought of in the first place while packing.
I’m not too surprised about their lack of writing and reading skills. In the village of Beheloke, school was out at 10.15am (which is not actually funny but rather tragic, as we all know about the fundamental importance of education. Nonetheless, I’m sure some of us wouldn’t have minded such classroom hours on some days).
The village children and the story to the foto below
For the children, my appearance was like going to the movies. They gathered around in a half circle (only that the popcorn was missing) and stared at me as if I offered the best entertainment by just smiling back.
While waiting for lunch in Beheloke, I tried to interact with the children on the picture below. The little girl in the middle was proudly holding this tiny cooking pot in her hand. With sign language I enquired what was inside (expecting sand, or maybe rice, or water). What I didn’t quite expect was a chopped-off head of a chicken. But that’s what she conjured from the pot, and, fine, I can deal with that. But when she started to stick her finger through the neck and out again through the mouth I started regretting that I asked and really wished I could offer her some alternative toy. The situation was made worse by the fact that in the pots behind her, our chicken lunch was almost ready to be served (which led to my lunch being plain rice).
And the little lad on the left side, he was very skeptical about my presence. I was told he still believes the myths they tell about us Vazahas: When we show up, it’s either to abduct little children or to punish them for the naughty things they’ve done. Rightfully a simple turning around of our game of ‘Wer hät Angst vom schwarze Maa?’ (Who’s afraid of the black man/boogeyman?)
Besides playing with chicken heads, I was relieved to see that the game of soccer is just as popular in this corner of the planet. Only that the kids do not have an actual ball to play with but kick around a bundle of garbage held together with strings. That fulfills its purpose just as much I’d say.
And their third favorite activity was to request ‘cadeau Vazaha’, tugging at my hair tie, necklace, t-shirt or phone to see if I might just give it to them as a present.
Not recommended if you don’t like rice
Following their Asian heritage, Madagascar’s daily staple food is rice. I definitely like rice, no problem at all to get mountains of it served, especially when it comes with all that fresh fish & seafood I received – in grilled, smoked, dried, salted, cooked, fried and stew-version (we’ll forget about that one chicken lunch for now). I guess I’m also fine with drinking ‘burned-rice-tea’ with all the meals. But when I received rice-soup for breakfast (comparable with very watery, tasteless, practically dissolved rice – see below for inspiration)…well, at the latest then the fun stopped.
Don’t they just live at the most beautiful beach ever?
Being in the field also means coping with this discrepancy between the romantic idyll of those charming bamboo huts situated along these white sandy beaches when looked at from afar, and the profound poverty and challenging living conditions when seen from up close. It was inspiring to receive a glimpse into their world, to see how resistant human beings are and under what circumstances life is possible. They make the best out of the situation they have. They play, sing, drink and dance into the night to their Malagasy pop-tunes as long as the solar-powered radio lets them.
And it was motivating to realize the impact an easy to reach access to safe drinking water, electricity, and a cold chain and storage space for their fisheries products can have on their daily lives and incomes. It makes it all the more worth it to overcome all the hurdles and continue with NEMACO’s efforts.
Source: nexus ch