The Beauty of Madagascar

Rebecca Smith 9 June 2009

The summer after my A-levels, I was offered the holiday opportunity of a lifetime—no mere superficial jaunt where you see a lovely beach and English-speaking “natives” but an explorative trip to the heart of a country where what you see has not been glossed with the patina of tourism. I went as the guest of my uncle, who was invited by the MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) to witness their work first-hand, to thank him for making a donation to their charity.

The first thing to realise about Madagascar is its still remarkably remote—to get there we had to fly to Paris and then fly south, and there is only one flight a day. The second thing I noticed was the heat—stepping out of the carefully-regulated temperature of the plane it hits you like a fist.

The capital city, Antananarivo, or ‘tanarivo’ as it is more often called, still shows the marks of French colonisation: French is the main language spoken and the only decent schools are populated with expats. This leads to an intriguing—and in some ways horrific—dichotomy between areas of the city: huge, ornate embassies with artificial lakes juxtaposed with shantytown structures, rice paddies and banks of drying clothes along the river. There are no public services—no free schooling, hospitals, transport—everything has to be paid for.
We didn’t stay in what there was of the Madagascan urban environment for long; after a couple of days of meeting people and exploring it was time to head into the bush, over the hills (Tana sits in a basin).

Something I didn’t realise about Madagascar was how large it is—the world’s fourth largest Island, and slightly less than twice the size of Arizona (although this comparison means nothing to me).

Result? We couldn’t drive, so we flew; it is Mission Aviation after all.

Flying in a fourteen-seater plane is the most amazing experience I have ever had. I thought it would be terrifying but instead it was exhilarating. Everything is nearer, clearer, more real. And the landing strips were basically football pitches, although the ground quality would bring any responsible groundsman to tears. Before starting out in earnest, we visited the National Park, a beautiful, savage section of nature strangely contrasted with the refinement and civilisation of the high class resorts it contains. After trekking to a beautiful natural pool during the day and trying zebu steak and French monopoly in the evening, we went into the bush. The first village we visited bore the marks of severe poverty. There were few buildings, and of those in evidence only one was not of the dung and twigs variety. Nevertheless, everybody we met was very kind and very happy. Indeed most of the young people we met seemed to find everything about us hilarious, which was a little disconcerting.

Our party plus the entire village crowded into the schoolroom for a display of singing and dancing which would put many British institutions to shame. We moved on to a settlement by a gorgeous river and were ferried across to an area inhabited by a Dutch medical missionary and his heavily pregnant wife, who with admirable equanimity told us about the work she performed—surgery on a sterilised plastic garden table under a marquee. You realise you have left conventional holiday pursuits when you meet people that have given up wealth and comfort to come and operate in the most inauspicious circumstances. We were taken back across the river in their hovercraft— another first, and almost as fun as the flying—to the appreciation of our ever-present audience.

The final village was the one that truly caught my heart—more prosperous than others that we had visited with a market, electricity and, most importantly, a football pitch. The people here were as friendly as everywhere else but one little girl in particular stood out. She and her little band of friends (no doubt at her urging) followed me everywhere and whenever I went to take a picture, there they’d be.

So much has been left out of this account in order that it might fit a page rather than fill a book, but I hope that the indelible impression of colour, life and people that Madagascar left on me has in some way been conveyed: it is an extraordinary place where people are dependent on themselves and the kindness of others, and yet life goes on there as it does anywhere—regardless of their difficulties, people are not waiting around to be in a comic relief video, they are living and they are happy with what they have. This may not be what we have but this is not necessarily to its detriment.

Rebecca Smith