1A week ago we had the amazing opportunity to board the rickety camion “No Probleme” once again and head twelve hours south to stay in various villages in the Faux Cap region for five nights. The purpose of the trip was academically to allow us to produce resource flow and village maps as well as market diagrams and village transects, but also allowed us to explore living in a very remote Antandroy village and attempt to view their culture as much as our disrupting presence allowed us.
The taxi-brousse was once again filled with SIT and CEL students (serving as our linguistic and cultural translators) and we tried to while away the 12 hours on (once again) horrendous Malagasy roads. We climbed the mountains which encircle Fort Dauphin and which cup the moist warm ocean air and descended into the rain shadow into the semi-arid zone full of the unique and endemic spiny forest. Nowhere else in Madagascar can you transition from low elevation rainforest to quasi-desert conditions so quickly. We passed the expansive Sisal plantation in Ambosary and enjoyed the hot but dry air, a nice improvement from the bugginess of Fort Dauphin. As we drew nearer Faux Cap in the extreme south of Madagascar, the land flattened and became sunbaked before transitioning to completely sandy soil, relics of old sand dunes. Exhausted, we set up our tents on the beach of the Hotel Cactus and prepared to meet our village families the next day.
There were four of us in the village of Maromena (I believe means red soil despite the sand being white to yellow); Amanda and me as the two SIT students and two CEL students Ernest and Anicet. The village was one of the biggest villages in the immediate radius of the Commune of Faux Cap, some 4 kilometers away from the Hotel Cactus with over 50 houses and 100 children as well as a school and a catholic church. Our experience was therefore slightly different from other groups who lived in villages with 20 or less houses and so were quite a bit “chiller” than ours. Once arrived, it immediately became apparent just how distant our cultures were. If we had though the stares and attention we had gotten in Fort Dauphin had been bad, then the attention we were receiving in Maromena was nothing short of KGB agents. At any given time a dozen pairs of eyes would be fixed on every move the vazahas made and every activity, from setting up tents to sitting on reed mats to gulping down lentils and rice was discussed with intensity as to the various capabilities of vazahas. Any ability to prove to the villagers that we were competent human beings quickly disintegrated and for the rest of the village I felt only like a helpless child, taking up space and food as I struggled to grasp the social functioning of the Antandroy people.
We managed to finish our work within two days, and so the rest of the village stay was devoted to playing cards, visiting other villages, walking through the fields, and being stared at. The people in Faux Cap primarily grow Manioc and corn, supplemented with chicken, goats, and the revered Zebu. Rice is imported from Tana, and appears to actually be from Pakistan. Growing anything in this climate and soil is near impossible, and I had to marvel at the persistence and knowledge of the villagers as to their resilience. About 300-400 years ago cactus (closely related to prickly pear) was introduced from Central America by the French and this stubborn plant soon took over the arid south of the island, pushing out many native plants. The cactus are both a scourge and a blessing, as they grow almost everywhere and choke out crops, restrict free travel through the countryside, and overall are just a nuisance. However, the Antandroy weren’t conquered until 125 years ago for just their toughness – the cacti make fantastic defensive walls, and in times of famine the fruit can be eaten when nothing else is growing (the only payment being severe constipation). I ate several during my time in Maromena, and they tasted slightly like watermelon, but less sweet with more seeds.
Work and life is difficult in the Faux Cap region, but any suffering the Antandroy might feel is masked and tempered by their love for dance. While they do not dance every day, our extremely disruptive presence prompted dance festivities every day for over an hour, much to Amanda and my dismay. Music is produced by a chorus of young girls either unaccompanied or with drums and an assortment of homemade guitars and mandolins. In my time in the village I am certain I heard only four or so songs which were sung with great gusto multiple times in a single dance session (including the rousing number “welcome vazahas, welcome vazahas, welcome Drew, welcome Amanda, welcome vazahas…). Dances are heavily regulated by a dance master who blasts ear-splittingly on a tin whistle about six inches from your eardrum and grabs your hand should you (god forbid) slightly get out of step. The zebu dance, mimicking the movement of the zebu, is a favorite and seems to be the most physically exhausting dance one could possibly do. Others include an uncomfortable sexualized dance in which women were sometimes unwillingly dragged into the dance which really highlighted the extent to which women are treated as objects and property in this culture (not that our culture is free from that either). We managed to avoid taking part in this dance thankfully. Much of the village stay was a battle between being open and doing things to be polite and explore another culture as well as trying to reconcile what personal boundaries we had as westerners coming into a completely new society. We also felt to a certain extent that we were causing the “quantum-observer” affect, in that our presence in the village disrupted nearly every activity. Though we gained an incredible insight into a culture few others have had the opportunity to see, we would never be able to fully see or understand the village. For instance, when we were taken into the fields, it was more to show the vazahas manioc and corn (which I have seen before many times) and less to show their techniques which would have been interesting. A few young men, one in particular, stopped going out to work in the field and chose instead to sit in the dirt around the reed mat on which we as guests sat and watched us play cards for a few hours. I was informed by our academic director Barry (who has been living in-country for 17 years and has a Malagasy wife and kids) that dancing is performed only on special occasions like marriages or burial ceremonies, but when we were there dancing was performed for two hours a day, something I felt to be highly disruptive for their own everyday struggle to survive.
Overall, the trip highlighted to me even more how little I know or could do in Madagascar as a westerner. Not only was I more useless and disruptive to village life than many five year olds, but I realized how little I comprehended or would ever comprehend of Malagasy life or complexities tied to land use. It feels like neo-colonialism and arrogance now to even think I as a westerner can come into Madagascar and advise on conservation and land use when many people are scratching an existence out of sand and telling them not to do slash-and-burn means death. The misguidance of western interventions and development are extremely apparent in the Faux Cap region, where the main commune town is littered with several abandoned school buildings (one of which has a recent SIT mural painted on the inside) and a wind-turbine spins lazily, producing no power to the cold-house which has never seen any fish or any temperature below 60 Fahrenheit. The story behind the wind turbine/cold house was that the EU built the cold house to store fish and a private donor constructed the turbine to power the commune and the cold house. The turbine was built for free ostensibly without community input and after a few months the donor began demanding payments for electricity. Electricity is not a vital commodity in southern Madagascar, people have lived here for a thousand years without it, and they’re not about to go about paying for it now. So the donor dismantled the generator portion of the turbine before the cold house was even finished. The school building are a relic of NGOs seeking tangible feel-good projects which are visually available for our materialistic culture, while in reality there is a painful need for qualified paid teachers (ratios in the bush range 200 and up children per teacher for a single one room school house). All you really need to teach is some shade, a chalkboard, and a teacher – schools are nice thoughts, but why build one if you don’t have a teacher to fill them? Teachers cost more and take more time to train than it takes to build a school, and so schools are nice visual things to put on glossy brochures while spending the minimal amount of money.
Overall, by the time the fifth day rolled around and we had walked the four km back to the hotel cactus and finished our farewell dance marathon with our villages, I was so glad to see other vazahas and a modicum of privacy. It wasn’t a bad experience; in fact it was one of the most eye-opening experiences yet in Madagascar. But to throw away almost completely my own culture for a week (the villagers had almost no interest in where I came from or my own practices) was exhausting and uncomfortable many times. It was a relief after the 12 hours taxi-brousse ride back to Fort Dauphin to be in a town with a modicum of western comforts.
For the past week and the next one I have/will be in Fort Dauphin as we finish a last flurry of work before heading off on two weeks of camping starting in Tulear and working our way north east to Fianarantsoa and finally Tana as part of our exploration of Malagasy protected areas. From Tana we begin preparing for our independent projects which will take everyone to various parts of Madagascar. So we are all trying to enjoy our quasi-structured lives in Fort Dauphin before we are packed up in another unbearable taxi brousse. During this period internet will be super sketchy, but I will do my best to update when possible. There is still so much about Madagascar I wish I had the time write about, but I feel that it is almost impossible to express what is really going on here, the contrasting pessimism and breathtaking optimism in this country. If my blogs sound like a lot of suffering and complaining, this is only because I want to highlight important events that have happened here that have impacted my and other SIT students’ thinking. We are all having an amazing time here, learning so much and yes having lots of fun between sickness and culture clashes (how can you not with a beach by your classroom and with 80 cent beer?) But now it’s time to go back to reading papers.