Saturday, June 15, 2013

96th day, Antananarivo - Back again, a stranger again

Back in Tana. The circle is closing. I am staying at the same hotel as I did on my arrival to Madagascar. But there is no excitement and anxiousness in the face of the upcoming adventure. Just a numb feeling of loneliness and melancholy, after the many goodbyes of the last 2 days and the countless good moments spent with my new-won friends in Toliara, whom I had to leave before really getting to know them. Strange to be back here. I am still in the same country, but this is not my city and I don’t know anyone here. I am a stranger again. As I was in the beginning.

96th day Toliara - How I met the President of Madagascar

That is indeed a long story. At the end of which I got to shake the hand of the President of the Republic.

In Toliara, I have been living in a bungalow that belongs to a hotel. When I first arrived, I had neighbours: A Malagasy family was renting the bungalow next to mine, because their house was still inundated after the cyclone that hit the region in February.

As they were incredibly friendly and warm-hearted, we quickly became friends and continued to be after they returned to their home. When I visited them at their house for the first time, I learned that the Malagasy president used to stay in this house whenever he was visiting Toliara, and that the mother of the family, Claudine (name changed), is a cousin of Mr. Rajoelina, the president.
Today, the 15th of June, Toliara saw 2 major events at once: My leaving and a visit of the Head of State in the course of the upcoming elections. Busy with packing and last meetings with friends, I didn’t have time to go and listen to his speech.

My lovely friends accompanied me to the airport to wave me off – everyone was there, the kids, brother, sister. Mr. President happened to be leaving the city in his private jet at the same time as my flight to Tana was scheduled. Consequently, there was quite a bit of fuzz and police presence when we arrived at the airport. Claudine headed off to the restricted section to say goodbye to her cousin, and beckoned me to follow her. I thus ligned up next to her along the red carpet leading to the jet, along with government officials and military, feeling slightly out of place in my baggy travelling pants and hiking boots that I wore in order to reduce the weight of my luggage. Before I could fully grasp the situation, a handsome, fair-skinned, astonishingly young man in shirt and tie stood in front of me and offered me his hand, as he had to the people who were in line before me, and I recognized the guy I had seen on the portrait painting at some government office in Toliara. A quick flash of surprise must have crossed his mind at the sight of this all-too-casual vazaha with multi-coloured rubberbands in her hair.

His handshake was not too hard and not too soft, but just right, close to perfect, and I realized that he must be a professional at handshaking. Certainly a presidential quality. If he has no others, as many Malagasy seem to think.

Surely, one of us was much more melancholic about leaving Toliara than the other one.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

92nd day, Toliara - If you stay alone in Mada, you must be a sociopath

Nothing is easier here than making friends. True, it took me a little while to ridden myself of my (maybe typical German, maybe just personal) general skepticism that strangers who randomly start talking to me potentially want something from me. It has been said many times before, but deserves to be repeated here because it really is one of the greatest virtues of this country: Malagasies are genuinely friendly and trustworthy. As generalisations are always false, there will of course be exceptions to this rule. But by and large, it is touching and heartwarming how eager people are on communicating and how much they are willing to share a nice moment or two and invite you to their family's home at the next occasion.

Friendliness and avoiding conflicts is deeply rooted in the culture. For the village community, social peace was essential. This has implications on the way people interact in the streets, but might also serve to explain why crime rates are relatively low, considering that we are talking about the 4th poorest country in the world and people would have plenty of reason for aggression. Tragically for the Malagasies, their aversion of conflicts (and the strong belief in fate/destiny) surely also plays an important role in the unbearable political situation of a corrupt "transitional" government being able to stay in power for 4 years already, doing practically nothing for the population - I just can't stop thinking that in any other country, a revolution or civil war would have broken out long ago.

Friday, May 31, 2013

81st day, Tsiafanoka – Catching a big fish

My last excursion into the field brought a spectacular success: During a patrol in the new protected area Ranobe-PK32 (congratulations on this sexy name!), we managed to catch one of the “Big fishes”: a man who is the owner of several cultivations on slash-and-burn clearings in the forest, and who is paying other villagers to conduct the burnings and look after the fields. This is a first-time ever in the history of the aerial surveillance project.

On a personal level, the situation is not quite that easy to digest. It is almost certain that this man will go to prison and it is equally certain that he has a family with children. Which alternatives he might have had to earn his living, we can’t judge well. And we are, in a way, responsible for his imprisonment. The next evening, I see my colleague who was with me on the patrol. After I inform him that he looks awful, he tells me that he has not been eating during the whole day, but drinking since 8 in the morning, because he felt guilty towards this man and had a hard time accepting his own (entirely professional) decision to take the guy back to Toliara.

Still, hatsake (slash-and-burn) is illegal, and anyone who does something illegal, will be punished according to the law, anywhere in the world. I find that very normal, but in Madagascar, it isn’t anymore. But if people get too used to their actions never having any negative consequences, then we might as well save the time, money and energy to conduct the overflights, evaluate the aerial photos and go on exhausting patrol missions. Worse still: if people feel safe burning the forest, the insane destruction that is taking place at the moment will continue at the same rate. 

This is why it is so important to set an example. Just one person who is found guilty of hatsake and punished accordingly might have a huge impact on the burning rates during the next season. This guy just happened to get unlucky.