Madagascar, previously known as the Malagasy Republic, is a big island country in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa, quite close to the Mozambican shores.
When I say big, it is indeed quite huge, being the fourth-largest island in the world after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo – Australia is a continent, hence no mention here. To give an idea to the French people reading me, Madagascar with its 587,041 km2 is bigger than Mainland France but smaller than France if you add its 5 overseas regions.
Madagascar gained its independence in 1960 after just over 60 years of being part of the French colonial empire. Before that, it was a Kingdom, and even before that it was ruled by different people and alliances. It is now a constitutional democracy and a member of the United Nations, the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.
Malagasy and French are both official languages there.
What is fascinating about this country is that over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth. Due to its split from the Indian peninsula around 88 million years ago, Madagascar’s native plants and animals evolved in relative isolation, making the island a biodiversity hotspot. Therefore the island has a unique wildlife and many different ecosystems to explore – that are obviously threatened by Man and environmental threats but let’s not think about that.
Here it is:
The sad part of Madagascar is that the country belongs to the group of least developed countries, according to the United Nations. And it shows from the moment you hop on your taxi to the capital city.
The weird part of it being one of the poorest countries in the world, compared to let’s say Mozambique (where the GDP per capita is lower than in Madagascar), is that you actually see the poverty more bluntly. Adults and kids are dressed in worn-out clothes and sporting very tired shoes when lucky enough to wear them. Strangely enough, you still get the feeling that the population is super self-sufficient and hard-working. There are people everywhere and they are pretty much active growing their own food (you can grow almost anything in Madagascar), making coal, preparing their own alcohol, fixing cars, washing their clothes and dirty dishes (and themselves sometimes) in the rivers, walking their herds around… Everyone works a lot but it doesn’t seem to produce any wealth for them.
Even though investments in ecotourism, agriculture, education, health and private enterprise were made and did produce substantial economic growth, the benefits were clearly not evenly spread throughout the population. As of now, the economy is still not great and quality of life remains low for the majority of the Malagasy population.
It is hard not to see the poverty and especially hard to ignore it when you see the many kids sleeping between dirty puddles on the paved streets of the capital city Antananarivo. It is depressing and gets to the core, thus making this trip not the easiest trips, to say the least (and making it my most delayed post so far).
Everyone of us knows someone who “loves Africa” because it is so “beautiful and easy, you know, and hiring staff is so cheap and like, you know, it was their best experience abroad”. And you think, what a twat. Some people do not seem to see what’s on the other side of their amazing experience, the hardships, destitution and distress of the local population, the indecent disparities between us and them, the injustice of it because it originates from parts of history that we should be ashamed of. And in Madagascar, I felt horribly white and privileged and confronted to the reality of the messy unfair world we live in and feeling crap about it (even more than in Mozambique). Even Matilda felt super uneasy (Marlowe, bless him, didn’t get anything!).
Anyhow, let’s try to tell you about my trip and show you, despite the ugly side of its socio-economic reality, the beauty of this country because it is truly a beautiful country.
Because Madagascar is such a big country (and the roads are so bad), I would discourage regular tourists to do what we did (lol), which is to try to see as much as we could in only 3 weeks (my bad). Forget seeing everything. Concentrate on 2-3 places maximum and enjoy your time there. Seeing more would require lots of driving (and when I say lots, I mean lots) on really bad roads. It’s unpleasant, stressful and dangerous. And I am saying this even though we didn’t even drive the car! The car usually comes with a driver and thank God for that! Our driver and guide was called Randriamanantsoa Ramiara Rina aka Miara and was the most amazing and kind driver you could think of.
Google Maps refuses to show the itinerary because even Google Maps doesn’t know where to go and how long it would take, lol! So, roughly, we went from Tana to the west in an almost straight line, then up a bit then back on National 7 all the way down and west again to Ifaty.
We didn’t start by visiting the capital city but I believe, in retrospect, that it was a mistake to end our trip there. Unless you’re super keen on history, I would drop Tana completely and concentrate on the stunning nature and beaches that Madagascar can offer.
What I wrote on my diary at the time is: Tana > cold, chaotic, messy, hectic, dirty and polluted. So I suppose these are the bad sides of the city!!!! The city centre is really crazy and we stayed right there, where the narrow one-way streets are crammed with street vendors, street food stalls and people eating it, along with quite ordinary-looking shops right next to totally run-down houses and/or luxury hotels. There were beggars and dirty-looking kids everywhere. Lots of merchandise was pushed around by barefooted man-powered handcarts. Outside of the city centre, it is the same chaos but with tons of rice or brick fields, cows, chickens, geese and a lot of people walking barefeet in the mud, planting rice next to their dilapidated house. A lot of people go places on bikes too. Clothes are drying everywhere, right next to the road, thrown on bushes or directly on the grass.
Nevertheless here are a few photos of what Tana has to offer (along with super good restaurants and many different ways to eat foie gras…):
We stopped on the way to Miandrivazo in Ambatolampy, the city known for its numerous tiny aluminium cooking-pots’ factories.
We visited many shops, some small and other bigger ones, that sell arts and crafts during our trip. There is a strong effort put in the craft industry in Madagascar and an even stronger effort made to promote and sell it to the tourists. It is always very instructive to see how it is done and the selling part is not pushy, which is a good thing. It makes you wonder why there is nothing like it in Mozambique…
Let me put here a range of the crafts we discovered in a few different places:
One of the very nice things we did in Mada was our trip down the river Tsiribihina in the west of Tana. It was very peaceful and pleasant after the long drive to get there. We stayed on the boat 3 days. Matilda read (how surprising). Marlowe played around with whoever was available to hang out with him and listen to him talk (bla bla bla). I tried to read and get a tan (and took pictures). We stopped to camp along the way for 2 consecutive nights.
As we were going down the river, we stopped to splash in a waterfall named Nosin’ampela where we saw a species of lemurs called Fulvus. We stopped a few more times to visit 3 villages, the village where the market was taking place: Begidro, the village where we tried to buy (warm) beer: Tsaraotana, and the village where we saw the baobabs: Ambatomisay.
Along the journey, we saw a couple of crocodiles, many people on the shore waving at us, kids expecting food and more (the girls usually asking for elastics for their hair, dictionaries and clothes, boys for sweets and biscuits!) every time we stopped the boat, lots of dugout canoes transporting people and stuff, a few cows and three militia posts (basically sheds on the shore with 3-4 people in it) asking for money and rice in exchange for their “work” to guarantee that the area is safe and secure of thieves and/or poachers.
Our companions on that journey were Robert the captain of the boat, Bouboule the cook, Dani, Donald, the engine guy and the late 2 chickens, may they rest in peace. Miara our driver took that time to rest and do his own stuff.
Robert gave us some fun and appalling cultural facts during the journey:
Zebus are like a bank statement. They will tell your neighbours how rich you are. The more you have, the wealthier obviously. Watch out for zebu thieves. Men on motorbikes are likely to be zebu thieves, he said.
A zebu is worth between 300,000 and 1 million 500 Malagasy Ariary (between 90$ and 460$).
Kids live with their parents in the family home. But when a daughter turns 15, her parents build her a little house so she can start having sex in order for her to have 1 or 2 kids. The purpose, it seems, is not to get married per se but rather to show that the family has “wealth” because they have more kids coming into the family. As a consequence there are a lot of kids everywhere, kids helping out their parents, kids selling stuff at the market, kids looking after other kids, kids washing the dishes in the river… As a consequence, there is a huge problem of early pregnancy, important dropout from school, high illiteracy rates…
A stunning experience we had right after the boat trip was our climbing in Tsingy de Bemaraha Nature Reserve. With its 150,000 hectares, the reserve is the biggest natural protected area of Madagascar. Tsingy was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 due to its unique geography, preserved mangrove forests, wild bird and lemur populations. The area is characterised by needle-shaped limestone formations, above cliffs over the Manambolo River.
The incredibly sharp limestone formations can cut through equipment and flesh easily, which makes traversing them extremely difficult. The word “Tsingy” is derived from a local word meaning “the place where one cannot walk barefoot”. And that is for sure something I wouldn’t advise!
After that, we went to Belo-sur-Tsiribihina where we walked around a bit and had lunch at Mad Zébu, one of the best if not the best restaurants in the country. Truly delicious.
Then we went to Kirindy Forest where we stayed the night. It is a dry tropical forest in the west of Madagascar. The nighttime walk in the forest was disappointing and a bit pointless to be honest as it was late (I am getting old!) and we only saw one lemur very briefly, a gecko and a tiny bird sleeping on a branch (okay, it was super cute but still!). There is supposed to be a number of species of nocturnal lemurs present so I suppose it was just a question of bad luck for us that night. Our daytime visit was much more interesting though, with the observation of a variety of endemic plants and weird-looking trees.
Morondava was our next stop. It is famous for its spectacular Allée des Baobabs. The whole scenery was gorgeous, what with the giant baobab trees, the paddy fields, the colourful rickshaws, the zebus and the sunset that day. The baobab trees have been preserved over the years for religious reasons but deforestation is real and large areas of this region, including some of the few remaining baobabs, are cleared to make way for sugar-cane plantations. Let’s hope they are still standing strong in the future because they look truly powerful and stunning.
We then drove across the desertic landscapes of the west with their shades of yellow and orange in order to head towards the green expanses of the highlands in the centre of the country, going to the south. We drove without seeing anyone except when we crossed lively villages along the way. We arrived in Antsirabe, the second largest city of Madagascar known for its high concentration of pulled rickshaws, for the night and went for a hike in crop fields and paddy fields the next day. Lunch was at a farm with music and villagers showing us how to dance the traditional dance (Hmmm, that went well).
The walk in the crop fields of the nearby village of Betafo was beautiful.
We then headed to Ranomafana National Park. It is located in the southeastern part of Madagascar. It is a tropical rainforest, home to several rare species of flora and fauna. It wasn’t our day again as we only saw 2 tiny adult chameleons and 4 lemurs. But the forest was lush and we could see a few endemic species of trees. Interesting fact: the secondary forest there was home to local markets before and nomadic tribes used to live there.
We passed by memory stones which were put there for the dead. At the time, the tradition of Famadihana, that is to say the turning of the bones, didn’t exist.
This funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar apparently originated in the 17th century in its present form and consists of bringing forth the bodies of ancestors from the family crypts and rewrapping them in fresh cloth, then dancing with the corpses around the tomb to live music. We saw a couple of them as we were driving all along our trip.
The custom is based upon a belief that the spirits of the dead finally join the world of the ancestors after the body’s complete decomposition and appropriate ceremonies, which may take many years. In Madagascar this became a regular ritual usually once every seven years, and the custom brings together extended families in celebrations of kinship, sometimes even those with troubled relations. Sometimes, the families are told to “turn the bones” more often, which as you can imagine is a strain to the family’s finances but still a tradition that cannot be ignored…
Fortunately, the practice of Famadihana is on the decline due to the expense of silk shrouds and belief by some Malagasy that the practice is outdated. Early missionaries discouraged the practice and Evangelical Christian Malagasy have abandoned the practice in increasing numbers. The Catholic Church however doesn’t object to it because it deems Famadihana purely cultural rather than religious. Concern has been expressed about recent outbreaks of the bubonic plague that may be caused by contact with bacteria living on the deceased (nice!).
We then headed to the village for lunch.
We’re getting close to the end of our trip. Bear with me, people!
Isalo National Park was next. Green, beautiful (I’m making it short as a sign of acknowledgement that this post is taking much too long). We went on a really nice walk all the way to some natural pools.
Then we went to see the sunset in a really nice spot close to the hotel (What was the name of that beautiful place, Miara?).
Finally (yes!) we stayed in a bungalow on the beach in Ifaty located some 900 km southwest of Antananarivo. The Ifaty beach near Tulear is famous for its water and sands. We were quite remote from the village which means that we were literally alone on the amazing white-sanded beach. Not much to do apart from relaxing and going kayaking, sailing and paddle boarding. Bliss.
That’s it! It’s a wrap, people!
On the whole and in retrospect, it was a great trip in spite of the hassle of the long hours in the car and the uneasy parts of it (not to mention that we are still recovering from it financially!)
It’s a fact: Madagascar is a very poor country, with only just over 100 cities or villages with access to electricity. Only 5% of the population have access to what we consider modern amenities. Only 10% of the population have (cold) water coming out of the tap and toilets inside their home. More than half the population have no access to water nor to electricity.
There are still a lot of beliefs that do not help the population go forward and change their conditions: in the countryside, stone houses are only for the dead so people live in brick or mud houses. Some people believe there shouldn’t be any water inside their home so they wash themselves, the dishes and their clothes in the river and go to do their business in the wild.
Christianity has been forced onto the population through colonialism and missions thus a lot of huge beautiful churches flourish everywhere, which is always outrageous to me in general but particularly in poor countries. The money could be spent on education and bettering the population’s circumstances instead of brainwashing them into accepting what they have and pray for God’s mercy.
There are a number of core cultural features that are common throughout the island, creating a strongly unified Malagasy cultural identity. Values such as solidarity, destiny, karma shape the population’s worldview.
Other cultural elements commonly found throughout the island include the practice of male circumcision (in which we have been told the foreskin is eaten by the grandfather or a zebu in order to allow the child to enter his ancestors’ tomb!), strong kinship ties, a widespread belief in the power of magic, diviners, astrology and witch doctors, and a few others.
Fady (taboos) have to be known and respected. They are intended to appease the ancestors. To name a few: twins are fady (!!). Walking with your shoes on in certain places. Doing your business outdoors in certain places…
Last but not least, wherever you go in Madagascar, you will be a vazaha, a foreigner. It will be mumbled at you, mentioned to you, screamed at you, yelled to other people to inform them of your presence… You won’t be able to avoid it nor forget that you are one!
Last sentence to thank our numerous guides: Julien (Tsingy), Jean (Kirindy), David (Betafo), Lanto, Patrice (Ranomafana), Gaston (Anja), Emmanuel (Isalo), our boat staff that I have already named above, and of course Miara who put up with us all this time!
Go, see for yourself and take it easy!