27 May 1996 - Antananarivo, Madagascar
"It is okay to take a risk if you are the only one who will pay," someone tells me. I find this quite a sobering thought after my reflections on the island of Juan de Nova. I am not the only one who would pay; I have a family at home. They would pay too - perhaps even more than me. "Mann denkt und Gott lenkt," the Germans say (man thinks and God steers). I am not sure who is steering at the moment, but I am not in Africa anymore.
Mr. Dieudonne Randriamandimby is nervously looking for a copy of my flight clearance as I arrive in Mahajanga. It is not so scary if you arrive in a place during the day, but it is dark now. I have landed at night, and I feel a little unwelcome here. I am not familiar with these type of people. They are not African; they are more like Indonesians, and they seem to get excited over small things. I do my usual smiling-a-lot routine, but inside, I am a little nervous. When the police, immigration, customs, health and various other officers arrive, it is almost 10 P.M. I feel a little outnumbered. The policeman seems to be the senior decision maker, and he only speaks Malagasy.
I have to pay for their taxi out to the airport, but now the trouble begins. They want to know how much I am going to pay them for coming out to assist with my formalities. I am aware that it is not so wise to make enemies when I still have to survive the night under my plane with my passport confiscated. I smile a lot more and ask what time the bank opens tomorrow morning, so I can get something to thank them. I can see the trouble stirrer. He has those beady shifty little eyes of a hungry rat. He doesn't look at me, and he is urging everyone on in Malagasy. I change the subject and suggest that this short little man should be my "papianet" (teacher) and teach me some Malagasy. There are a few smiles, and eventually it is agreed that they should come back tomorrow when they return my passport. It will be light then; the force will be with me again, and the rules will change - but they don't know that yet.
For 17 years, this was a socialist country. It is now democratic, but old habits die slowly. Apparently, I am the first foreign visitor who has been allowed to fly his aircraft around this country. I am told that I must remain on the airway and fly directly to my destination. It doesn't take long to see through all this - that these are old rules, and that no one has made up the new rules yet. I feel suffocated by these people who tell me the old rules. In the air, I feel free again. This new and different world expands beneath me.
After Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo, this is the fourth largest island in the world. It is a biologist's paradise. Having split away from Africa over 165 million years ago, 85% of the plants and animals here are unique and found no where else in the world. Half of all the species of chameleons in the world are found here. With their independently moving eyes on opposite sides of their head, it is said that the chameleon can see the past as well as the future. The largest bird ever to live - the aepyornis maximus - was also here. Its egg is about the size of a basketball, only larger, and the egg is a precious collector's item for longtime French residents of the island.
Olivier Langrande tells me that during the rainy season, from January to March, the Betsiboka river carries two grams of silt per one liter of water out to sea. From the air, this island looks like it is bleeding. The rivers run like blood carrying the rich red laterite soil down from the high plateau. The deep scars left from the massive erosion are called "lavaka" - which roughly means "long hole." Over 80% of Madagascar has been deforested by man since his arrival almost 1500 years ago. The Asian rice culture and cattle have replaced the forests. There are 10 million zebu cattle on the island for nearly 11 million people. Three-quarters of the population are subsistence farmers, and the cattle is their wealth.
By cutting down the forests, there is more room for crops and grazing, and there is increased runoff for the rice fields. During the months of November and December, the island burns. The Malagasy call it "pushing the grass." The grass is dry, and the rains have not arrived. If they burn it, the roots will have just enough energy to push up tiny new green shoots to carry the cattle until the rains do arrive. "It works," Olivier tells me. "If they didn't do this, they would have to carry 30% to 50% less cattle, because the land couldn't support more." The Malagasy believe that the smoke is the clouds, and in the clouds is the rain. When the rains do finally come, the soil is stripped and bare. The "lavaka" begins, and the island bleeds into the sea leaving leached and useless earth behind. "This is the problem," Olivier says, "if they don't burn, there is not enough food for the cattle, and if they do burn, there is greater erosion. There is no balance, and it is not sustainable." Olivier has covered a fair portion of this globe. In 1977, he was in Iceland just after the volcano buried a portion of the town in the Vestman Islands. He liked it there, he says, because you couldn't sell your house until you dug all the ashes out. From 1978 to 1980, he was mapping avifauna in the desert regions of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. In the summer of 1984, he was on an expedition in northeast Greenland up to 77 degrees North latitude, and then in 1986, he went to the jungles of Gabon. "I am an ornithologist," he says. Madagascar seems to attract strong characters who like the wilderness. Olivier has been with WWF here for over eight years. One of his major efforts has been in education, and it is starting to work. Young children are beginning to say to their parents, "Why are you doing this type of agriculture? You are compromising my future."
It is hard to navigate here by using rivers. There are too many of them, and they change their flow all the time. Instead, it is much better to use roads. There are not many, and they don't change. I wouldn't care about this, except that I am trying to find the "tsingy." This is one of the reasons that I have come here. It is almost impossible to see the "tsingy" - except from the air. They are sharp and pointed, and if you try to climb them, they can cut your hands. Ahead of me is mangrove swamp and some forest. I am not really sure what a "tsingy" will look like, because I have never seen one before. As the forest comes closer, part of it seems to look different. It is almost blue. It resembles tall pointed trees - only that they aren't trees at all. Beneath me is a forest of towering giant rock spires almost a hundred feet high. It stretches for perhaps ten square kilometers. There are deep canyons amidst the rock needles that zig back and forth, then disappear. I come closer to try to look down inside of this bed of nails. It occurs to me, only briefly, that if my engine were to fail here, I would probably become impaled on one of these limestone pinnacles. For nearly thirty minutes, I circle trying to photograph the wild terrain beneath me. I would much prefer to be in a balloon so that I could just drift and stare into this impenetrable wilderness. The French call them "pointures," and they are the remains of an ancient coral reef that has been uplifted and eroded by rain through millions of years. Further to the south in Madagascar, below the Mangoky River, is a 200 kilometer living coral reef - the second largest in the world, I am told. The whole island appears to be rolling to the East - making coral reefs, then lifting and eroding them into "tsingy."
As I approach the capitol, I notice more and more rings around the villages below. These are not normal rings; they are deep, and they look like they are designed to keep people out. They are the "force circular" to repel the "dahalo" (cattle bandits) and warriors from a far more violent era. Antananarivo means the "town of 1,000 warriors." Back when Queen Ranavalona I was fighting to increase her power, this must have been an impressive sounding number. In the capitol, I am having a little difficulty finding the actual town. There are rice fields everywhere, and the town or city seems to be scattered between the rice fields. The houses are not African. They are all two stories, mostly made of mud, with a peaked roof, balcony and shuttered windows. They look more like they belong to a little village in the south of France than on a high plateau in Madagascar.
It costs US$ 27 to make a one minute phone call to the United States from here. They killed 22 dogs near the Hilton hotel - 9 of them had rabies. You can buy a $200 Cashmere sweater for $20, and the plague is also here. There were 120 cases of the "black death" in Mahajanga last year and six deaths here. The rats come out at night. There is a sense of crushing poverty as you drive through town; the French call it "misere," but no one is starving. Perhaps, this is why unlike other parts of the world, "time is not money" here; there is plenty of food, so no real need to work. The rich are very rich; the poor are very poor, and there is no middle class in between.
Five kilometers from the center of town, Thierry and Sonja Ranarivelo live on a 26 hectare walled estate called "Tsarasoatra" (good thank you). Thierry's great-great-grand father was the secretary to the Queen, which links him to the royal family, and this estate was the weekend palace of the Prime Minister of Queen Ranavalona III. Crime is a problem in the city, but not on "Tsarasoatra." Thierry's grandfather was an accomplished horseman; he was also an insomniac. In the middle of the night, he would go out and gallop around the perimeter of the estate. The Malagasy are a highly superstitious people. Even today, there are stories about the ghost rider of "Tsarasoatra," and strangely, no one comes over the wall.
Thierry tells me that the Queen Ranavalona I was a rather cruel woman. She used to watch people be thrown off of cliffs. She killed her lovers, Christians and her enemies this way. She was also very superstitious, and her witches were her advisors. "The plants in this country are very strong," Thierry tells me, "and make no mistake, the Malagasy know how to use their plants." They call it "fanofody" here, and this is the black magic of Madagascar. Sonja is very quick to confirm Thierry's words. "It happened to my father," she says. Sonja is German, and she and her parents came to Madagascar when she was nine years old. After 8 years here, her parents got divorced because of her father's affair with a young Malagasy girl. "He was being fanofody'd" Sonja says. "My father was getting weaker and weaker. He went to a disease specialist, and they could find nothing wrong. He became indecisive, but as soon as my mother had left, he got better and was completely different." Sonja is convinced that the young Malagasy servant girl was using plants to make him weak and dependent on her. His friends had tried to tell him that this was happening, but he wouldn't listen. Many foreign men marry Malagasy women. It is "envoute" I am told. The Malagasy girls put something in your drink and put a spell on the white men; it is their ticket out of "le misere." I hear this story so many different times from so many different sources that I become a little wary.
"La Boussole" is the chic bar in town. If you are anyone, this is the place to be seen. It is an old converted Malagasy house from the early 1900's with a lovely combination of brick, wood, clay tile, and modern lighting. John and Katherine Hargreaves have brought me out on the town to see the other side of Malagasy life. Katherine tells me that 90% of the European women living here have nervous breakdowns. She has been here for 6 years and has had four already. Her husband is the largest private employer in the country. He imports cashmere from Mongolia and wool from Australia to make sweaters. Until 6 months ago, the phones didn't work. "This is not tourism here," Katherine says, "this is adventure." Tourism is the third largest foreign exchange earner for Madagascar after vanilla and coffee exports, and there are only 50,000 tourists a year. Mauritius has 400,000 tourists a year. Thierry tells me that three years ago there were less than 100 cases of AIDS in the country. This was a closed country, and no African people came here. He is worried that sex tourism could come here now that the country is opening up. "Before, it was the Philippines and Thailand, now is could be Madagascar."
The General Manager of the IMF. recently completed a visit to Madagascar. "I came here to inform myself," he said, "but the more I learn, the less I understand." This country is like a frontier town. There are rules, but no rules apply; it is more like general anarchy here. The corruption is very bad; 99.9% of the people have a price, I am told. Thierry tells me about a little island off the west coast called Nosy Lava. "This is the prison island," he says. "Two years ago in Madagascar, public enemy number one was Bob and Carter." The whole story begins to sound like Bonnie and Clyde. Bob and Carter were bank robbers and train robbers. They were brothers and former wrestling champions. The whole country knows about them, and their faces are posted in all the police bureaus. They were eventually captured and put on Nosy Lava until a sailboat with a German couple that was sailing around the world anchored off the island. They never found the German couple nor the sailboat ever again. Bob and Carter had escaped. Sometime later, Bob kidnapped someone in Mahajanga and drove through a roadblock. He and his hostage were both shot dead by the police, but Carter is still out there. It is a great story to listen to, because you can imagine an entire country, where not much goes on, trying to chase down the famous bank and train robbers Bob and Carter.
On Thierry's estate there is a traveler's palm. This is a very popular tree in Madagascar. Its wide leaves spread vertically high in the air like a fan. When the rain falls on the leaves, it trickles down the stem and collects in the area at the base. On a long voyages, you can rest by this tree and cut the base to water yourself from this reserve. Thierry tells me that every six months there is a big political event here. Two months ago, the Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister argued. They didn't agree, so all the finance ministry went on strike for three weeks. The National Assembly now says that we need a new Prime Minister. "The government will change, but all the problems will stay the same," Thierry says. "We are too young for a democracy. The level of education of the population is too low. In the USA, you change government every four years. Here is every six months. It is very easy to manipulate people if they are not educated."
Thierry's mind seems to drift away from this city for a moment. "I am very
happy in the bush," he says, "It is pure; it is clean. The people work; they are
honest. They are not clever. It is better there; it feels better. We are not
honest here; there is conflict. It is difficult." It interest me how clear this
seems to be in his mind. I am reminded of how one extreme can make you
appreciate and see clearly another. I am wondering about the erosion now - from
the Grand Canyon to the Betsiboka River. Madagascar is supposed to have the
worst erosion in the world. I wonder if it really matters. Isn't it part of
nature? Aren't we part of nature? Or are we?