When people think about Madagascar, they think about cute lemurs and huge baobabs. They imagine an exotic land where tourists feed themselves lavishly on papaya and pineapple for breakfast and treat themselves to coco rum as the sun goes down. They imagine green forests and hidden waterfalls. And they certainly cannot pronounce the name of its capital: Antananarivo.
All of this rhymes indeed with Madagascar. But there is so much more to find there. Here is a crash-course into Madagascar and why it left an indelible mark on me.
Madagascar is the world fourth biggest island and is located in the Indian Ocean off the African South-East coast, at Mozambique level. Its separation from the continent makes it truly unique: because of its isolated position, close to Africa yet surprisingly Asian in many respects, Madagascar is home to species that have developed there and nowhere else in the world. In spite of its abundant diversity, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on the Planet. Having suffered 90% deforestation, it struggles to preserve its unique wildlife on the one hand and feed its population and provide them with essential resources on the other. It is a challenged land. It is often the doom of beautiful countries to be also needy.
Cherry on the top, the country does not exactly receive support from its government and corruption is the true currency, much stronger than the Malagasy ariary that make you a millionaire when you convert them from dollar or euro. Because of instability, poverty, poor governance and everything that can go wrong in a God forsaken country, Madagascar tends to be less appealing to the ill-informed tourists.
With no reported traffic lights or street names, Tana (short and affectionate for Antananarivo) could give headaches even to a GPS. A European driver would have to navigate on a sea of hens, zebus (local cows), and humans who constantly feel the urge to cross from one side of what we shall call the “road” to the other, which to me looks more like a suicidal desire than anything else. Yes, Tana is the human jungle.
However, have no fear: Madagascar is an amazingly beautiful place, the sole possessor of some of the world’s one-of-a-kind treasures, a country of farmers and hard-working people. If you love nature, discovery, a bit of adventure, if the taste of dust does not frighten you and if you hunger for new, extraordinary experiences, Madagascar can hardly disappoint.
What Madagascar desperately needs is tourism and jobs. With tourism, jobs opportunities are created. Most of the restaurants and hotel owners are still French people, but they do employ locals. An increased awareness that tourism brings in money will hopefully also educate people more on the reforestation programmes that have reportedly started throughout the island.
The reality as I see it is rather simple: no lemur, no tourism. Which means there is no other choice but to battle to keep these species alive (90% of the lemurs – which can only be found in Madagascar and some neighbouring islands – are estimated to vanish forever if urgent action is not taken, aka start planting those bloody trees). Madagascar simply cannot afford to lose this tourism opportunity. Its people depend on it. Hopefully, again, this will also become a governance priority with traceable results. Right now, the country seems to be more kept afloat by the support of dedicated NGOs which, as I imagine, have not only the hard task of righting the wrong, but also fighting the authorities on the way.
I have seen some of the most beautiful faces in Madagascar (the Malagasy are an interesting mix of Asian and African genes), trekked canyons and changing landscapes, bathed in crystal blue waterfalls, watched spectacular sunsets, tasted zebu in all its cooked forms, held hands with the locals while dancing by the camp fire, woken up to tens of sparkling rice terraces, went through dust and burning sun and took comfort on the beach, spent my birthday with a lemur on my head (if that is not magic!), enjoyed the local rum, collected hundreds of smiles and memories. Madagascar is no doubt an experience like no other. It is a place of colour and warmth, and above all, an eye-opening destination. I have never been thanked so much for choosing this country over a starred beach resort.
But it is I, the Vazah (white tourist) who am grateful to have witnessed and have been a part of a small fraction of Malagasy life. It is not every day that I get the privilege to wake up in a remote place of the Earth where everything is so different that you’d better forget where you come from and just observe this new universe that develops its wonders in front of you.
Madagascar, you have swept me away with your variety. A much rewarding surprise and nothing short of a treat for the eyes and soul. Merci. Milles fois merci.