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Life in Rural Madagascar

What is it really like here? I’ll try to put it into words, minus the smells and sounds that can only be experienced by a visit to this beautiful island.Home here is a bungalow room at our very touristic hotel, Chez Maggie. Morandava is located on the coast and provides easy access to ecological parks and rainforests as well as some of the most beautiful rivers and Baobab forests in the country. Europeans come to spend a night or two on their way to their Madagascar adventure destination. Luckily, I was able to barter with the owner and secure the room for almost nothing for our two and a half week stay.As soon as we pull out of the hotel every morning, we are immersed in Malagasy culture and lifestyle. Mohabo, where we are working the first week, is in a very remote area an hour away from Morandava. The road on our way passes though downtown Morandava, which is crowded with men, women and children either walking or traveling by “pousse pousse” to the market. The market is a conglomeration of people sitting or squatting in front of a bed sheet on the road on which they have placed their items for sale. They are selling used clothing, handmade baskets, lambas, many types of fresh grown produce, butchered meats, prepared foods and most importantly small sacks filled with charcoal chips. The ability to make a fire in a place where there is no electricity is extremely vital. To the above picture, add herds of goats and zebu (the Malagasy cow) followed by young boys or men with a staff and women walking with babies strapped on their backs reminiscent of babies in a papoose, as well as full buckets or baskets balanced perfectly on their heads. Many have their faces completely painted with a yellow pommade that evidently is used as sunscreen and keeps the skin healthy and young looking. The colors are vibrant! The lambas (a piece of rectangular cloth made of cotton) worn by all Malagasy are bright yellow, blue, red, green, gold and pink. Women wrap them around their waists as a skirt or around their chests as a dress; men wear them as a shawl to keep warm on the cool Madagascar mornings.The road is lined with people walking to the market all along the 100km drive to Mohabo. Some families will take an entire day to walk to market and back. Almost no Malagasy living in the rural area owns a car and only very few own bicycles. I imagine it’s easier to carry the items they will sell and buy rather than to attach them to a bicycle. As we drive along the road we also pass the zebu market. The zebu trade is as important as the trade of stocks in Western society. The zebu is used to help do the work in the fields and is also a very important part of the marriage dowry. In fact, a Malagasy would most likely prefer to be paid in zebu than ariary (the currency here). Unfortunately, however, because of their value, there is much theft and trafficking of zebu.The other main commodity here is rice. Before coming to Madagascar for the first time, I simply grouped the country and people with those of Africa and assumed the culture to be similar. I was so wrong. The true Malagasy is more Austronesian than African. Their diet follows a rich history and culture of Indonesian migration to the island. Rice is the main staple of the Malagasy diet. As we drive to Mohabo, the road is lined for miles and miles with rice paddies. Workers can be seen cultivating the crop from dawn until dusk. Malagasy often have a plot or rent one for a small fee and cultivate their own rice. A Malagasy friend who does just this explained that it’s a lot less expensive than buying the rice. I couldn’t imagine doing all the work they must do to harvest rice just to save pennies a month, but for a Malagasy it allows for the main staple to be readily available to eat.Three bags rice will buy a Malagasy child one year of education in the overcrowded dilapidated private Catholic school here. Public school is an option, but not one that even the poorest Malagasy family would choose for their child.We are teaching inside a simple church building in Mohabo. As we pull up, the children who have most likely been waiting since sunrise greet us. It’s interesting observing the daily patterns of an entire culture without electricity.Families are up at sunrise and are asleep very soon after the sun goes down.I’ve written about the children who arrive in dirty clothes and barefoot, yet eager to learn. They are happy, and can be seen playing with whatever they can find. Today it was an old tennis ball and a hand made sling shot. All around the children are chickens, roosters and emaciated dogs. Worn and tattered clothing that is washed in the nearest stream hangs to dry outside a makeshift home fashioned out of sticks and mud. A small table is placed outside the home on which sits a cocotte (a French cooking pot made of heavy metal) or two, in preparation for the mid day meal. There is an outhouse, but the flies and maggots deter us from using it. We have determined we are better off to just go in the field as many Malagasy do.I’m not describing this to evoke a reaction of pity, or disgust. I’m simply writing to give you a glimpse into life in a world so very different from our own. I’ll say it a million times, “The Malagasy are happy people.” While we are laden with emotional stresses such as work, money, and relationships, the Malagasy encounter stresses that are physical, as they must deal with the elements, lack of clean water and little availability of medical care. They do have rich soil and can grow crops, so they are not starving. The human spirit is strong, and I believe that the fact that the Malagasy are so strong in spirit allows them to manage the physical difficulties while keeping a healthy emotional outlook. I’m not so sure we as Westerners fare as well because we demand so much of our physical environment. We are never satisfied, and we are told in ads that we do not have enough. Our desires spill over into our emotional life corrupting our feelings. Of course there are many healthy happy Westerners as well, yet my observation is that they are simply not as ubiquitous as their Malagasy counterparts.Just a thought, or as says my friend…. Just my .02.Posted 28th July 2014 by Lisa Nigara Gustinelli

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