Words & Photographs: Louisa Feiter
The rain came softly at first, a gentle pitter-patter on the umbrella above us, but then the heavens opened and a cascade of rain hit the streets of Antananarivo. Rivers began to stream down the cobbled streets of the city centre and cracks of thunder reverberated above. Then the electricity went out. But life continued. Taxi buses continued to disgorge their passengers who simply hoisted their umbrellas or ran through the rain. Stalls continued selling their wares. Restaurants and shops put out candles or lit their wares by the light of their cell phones for potential customers.
That seems to be the dictum of the Malagasy people. Life isn’t particularly easy yet it is met each day with good cheer, come what may.
Traffic rules generally are taken very lightly and traffic jams are to be expected at any time of the day in the capital as ox-carts, bicycles, trucks and taxis all vie for space on the narrow, one lane roads. Right-of-way has been modified to who-gives-way-first but it is with surprising skill that this is negotiated. Hooting is an intricate system of communication and can mean anything from ‘coming through’ to ‘thank you’ or the traditional ‘move over’ or ‘you @#$%& !’ Traffic lights are non-existent and the only regulators are traffic cops at particularly busy intersections.
In Madagascar life happens outdoors. Laundry is washed in the river and dried on the embankments. Teenagers play on outdoor foosball tables.
Everything can be bought on the streets. The smaller towns and villages don’t have supermarkets and even in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, it isn’t necessary to trek to a store as everything from car parts, furniture, live chickens, meat, fruit and vegetables to clothes, shoes, snacks, appliances, airtime and charcoal can be bought during a stroll down the road.
We had arrived in Antananarivo in the single flight that goes from Johannesburg to Madagascar daily. The arrivals hall was empty and with only one passport and customs control to negotiate, we stood outside in the muggy warmth of Madagascar half an hour and a few metres later. The next day the journey continued on to Moramanga, a town 100 km’s outside of Antananarivo, where we spend the bulk of our visit.
As we drove out of Antananarivo, windows open to let as much of Madagascar in as possible, I couldn’t stop taking photos of the landscape, so different to our own. Madagascar is a country that consists of browns and greens. The succulent green of the rice shoots in the rice paddies everywhere, the darker green of the forests, the cloudy brown of the rivers, the reddish clay brown of the earth, the mud huts dotting the landscape and the dust coating everything. But come to a village and there is a flurry of colour: green, pink and blue houses, tricycle taxis or pousse-pousses as they are known, brightly decorated, and the yellows, reds and greens of the fresh fruit and vegetables being sold.
And wherever there is water, there are rice paddies. Villages like Moramanga are surrounded by rice paddies as rivers are blocked off into fields of all shapes and sizes. Rice is part of the staple diet in Madagascar and that is how many families make their living. Charcoal is also another means for income, and often big white sacks line the road. For many, these tightly filled white bags are the main means of heating and cooking in Madagascar.
Though largely Christian, tradition remains important to the Malagasy people. Sacrifices to the ancestors are still made and certain beliefs related to actions, social events or objects, known as fady (taboo), are still retained. In the Eastern region of Madagascar it is fady to enter or leave through an eastern-facing door, as this is used for the dead, for this is the space of the ancestors. As many Malagasy are from Polynesian and Indonesian lineage, the East is where the forebears came from; offerings are therefore also left in the north-eastern corner.
We see fresh offerings at Ambohimanga, the royal palace and village just outside of Antananarivo, and are told that families still bring their children to be blessed by the bath water of the kings that once lived there. While they still ruled, this was quite literally the water in which the kings bathed – in a basin sunk into the ground under a tree, filled with water brought by 70 virgin girls – as the king was considered to be holy and therefore anything touched by him was also holy. These days it is the rain water that gathers in the bath which is still seen as blessed.
The air is particularly hot and sticky as we drive back to the airport and it takes us two hours to traverse the 30 or so kilometres there. Antananarivo’s traffic is at its best. But it gives me a chance to say goodbye to the narrow roads lined by stalls, the noise and the bustle, the fields of lush green that lie between the hills of tightly packed houses. And as a final farewell, Madagascar graces us with one of her monsoon-like rains. It beats down on the asphalt of the runway as streaks of lighting make jagged lines across the horizon. Madagascar, what an experience, what a country.