Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Jam Session with the Ni Cactus Blues

Today we spent the afternoon and most of the evening in Léa's cozy, little living room. Fataka, Josehito and Boana from Ni Cactus Blues, a Southern Malagasy band, had promised to improvise for us on the cyclone theme. How do you come up with such a band name? When you think about it, it's not that far off...

Cactus: because it's a typical plant from Southern Madagascar. Cactus Blues: because their music is a blend of traditional Malagasy music and blues. And Ni? Well, "Ni" is very important I was told because it's the definite article in Malagasy and the band wanted to make sure they'll never have to go to court over name rights with another Cactus band...

The blend is really special, great voices - and we just had so much fun!! As the day dawned Théo, another well-known Malagasy musician and a friend dropped by as well and soon we were nine people crammed around the living room table, jamming by candle light (Tana does have occasional power cuts), digging into Léa's Charcoal-Home-Made-French-Fries and listening to stories of Zebu thieves, bizarre Malagasy traditions and ancestor rites. A truly memorable evening.

Listen in to parts of the jam session:

Monday, 24 September 2007

Low voter turnout in parliamentary elections

7.5 million Malagasy were called to vote in the country's general elections on Sunday. Léa needed a little convincing, but agreed to take me to vote at her local school. At three o'clock in the afternoon the place was not exactly packed, but Jean Rakotobe, the man in charge of this polling station, said that many people would come out to vote after church service. Unfortunately, they went straight home.

Only one in five eligible voters went to the polls in Tana and turnout was as low as 10 per cent in other parts of the country. Many people I spoke to said they wouldn't vote, because they distrust politicians - and because they've never seen an impact or a change in their professional or private lives.

This morning's Madagascar Express said the low participation rate "threatens to erode the legitimacy of the deputies." But maybe these deputies simply don't care.
Preliminary results showed the ruling TIM - Tiako i Madagasikara (which means I love Madagascar) of President Marc Ravalomanana (the yogurt baron) poised to hold onto its majority in the assembly. But vote counting is still underway - I've tried to find out when the official results will be published, I've heard eveything from 4-5 days, to 2 weeks to a month. So, we'll see if we get the results before I leave on Friday...

Saturday, 22 September 2007


Now, I know I'm here to work... but I had to see some Lemurs... I've heard so much about them and my colleague Peter Koppen has been raving about them - I just had to find out what's so special about these little buggers. Listen to his report (in German) about the Lemur in Antsirabe.

Well, on the way back from Mananjary to Tana we drove through Ranomafana. The National Parc of Ranomafana is one of Madagascar's most popular parks, excellent for forest walks and lemur-spotting (sic Lonely Planet), so we really had to do a stop-over here.

Pretty hard core and determined to get a glimpse of Madagascar's best-known mammals we first bought some plastic wraps at the local market, because it was pouring down and going for a hike in the rain forest with an umbrella did sound a bit unrealistic... so here we are with our guide Louis:

The National Parc of Ranomafana consists of 40,000 hectares of cloud forest, spread out over rolling hills and punctuated by small idyllic streams that plummet down through the dense vegetation to the rushing Namorona river.
The park was set up in 1986 to protect two species of rare lemur - the golden bamboo lemur and the greater bamboo lemur.

Today, we were told, you can spot six different species of lemur in this park -- we saw two, but please don't ask me which ones. I just know we DIDN'T see the golden type.

We also saw this -- any idea what that could be? I always introduce a little quiz at some stage... but I think no one will guess that one.

It's a "Genus Brookesia" or more commonly known as Leaf Chameleon. Aptly named, leaf chameleons resemble a dead leaf in colour and size - even their short tail looks like a stalk. Leaf chameleons rely on subtle shades of brown, buff and ochre to work as camouflage. Some 24 species of the Brookesia genus are known; all catch insects with a sticky, elastic tongue, but they haunt on the forest floor and only climb above the ground to sleep at night. Now, you know!

Food for Work in Nosy Varika

In January 2007 cyclone Clovis hit Nosy Varika and it's surrounding villages. There were no casualties, but many houses were damaged, roads and infrastructures destroyed and the paddy fields which the farmers need for their survival were flooded and all the crops destroyed. The farmers here harvest the rice twice a year. Cyclone Clovis hit both harvests: the dry season rice which was about to be harvested and the wet season rice which had just been sowed in December.

In close cooperation with the World Food Programme, the German Agro Action immediately started an emergency distribution of food, targeting vulnerable families with pregnant women and children under the age of three. Early May a follow-up programme was put in place. The principle is simple: it's "food for work". People work in teams of 20 (12 women and 8 men), and a village can have up to 6 teams working at any one time. They work four days a week from Monday through Thursday (7am-12pm) rebuilding canals, roads and any other infrastructures which have been damaged by the cyclones. In exchange for this work they get food.

Every Friday around 2500 people make their way to the German Agro Action and their food hangar in Nosy Varika, some have to walk as far as 25 kilometers to pick up their entitled 8 kilograms of rice and 1.2 kilograms of dried vegetables.

I guess Léa and I are also doing "food for work"... logging tape during the few hours of electricity, before it's turned off at 10pm -- when the day ends and I curl up under my moscito net...

Fishing on the beach of Nosy Varika

Click to see the slideshow

Speeding up the Pangalanes

The "Canal des Pangalanes" is a collection of natural rivers and artificial lakes that stretches approximately 600 km along the East coast from Toamasina to Farafangana, although it's only navigable from just North of Mananjary.

On board a speed boat of the Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action) we make our way up the Pangalanes Canal -- past a procession of boats of all shapes and sizes, endless rice paddies, kids of all ages waving, laughing and racing with us on shore.

Our boat is time and again an attraction.

No wonder, it's three times faster than the bigger boats used for tourism or local transport -- and ten times faster than the traditional flat-bottomed canal boats that the farmers use...

The beautiful little villages on the banks of the Pangalanes evoke a picture postcard paradise... but it's only when you get off and speak to the locals that you realize how harsh reality really is -- with cyclones, heavy rains and floods hitting and flattening the region every single year.

Evil Twins

I've mentioned the tradition of fadies... everywhere you go you have to consider these fadies or taboos if you don't want to be in trouble with the locals. Another very bizarre custom we've come across in the Mananjary region is a phobia of twins.

Twins are evil and a bad omen, that's at least what the Antambahoaka tribe believes. Still today, a woman giving birth to twins has to abandon her kids at birth - in the woods or in a little floating basket on the river...

A weird custom in this day and age - so Léa and I did a little investigation on this subject, though lacking time we couldn't visit the local orphanage specifically for these twins.

We did however find out that a few hundred years ago a fire devastated an Antambahoaka village. A mother of twins fled with one of her babies, only to realize that she had left the other one behind. So she rushed back to get the twin, but didn't make it and died in the flames. Ever since the Antambahoaka has rejected twins as a sign of misfortune.

I'll have to come back one day to dig deeper.

Another interesting Antambahoaka custom is the mass circumcision ceremonies, known as Sambatra, that take place every seven years in Mananjary. 2007 is again one such year, but unfortunately we were four weeks early. We were told that the place goes mad. Frank Kuklinski from the Deutsche Welthungerhilfe told me he's had to introduce additional holidays for this period, because no one even thinks of working during this time.

The whole place is booked out - years in advance, Mananjarians from all over the country head back home for these festivities. And it's not only Mananjarians who flock to this quiet backwater town on the Eastern coast... Lea's RNM (Radio Nationale Malagasy) relocates for a week of special programming to this seaside resort... and we've even met a Polish TV crew who came down all the way from Warsaw to witness this circumcision spectacle.

Forgot to ask this gentleman if he got circumcised too, but seeing that this picture was taken on the beach of Mananjary there's a pretty good chance...

Friday, 21 September 2007

Sakamanga or the Blue Cat

Back in Tana after 7 days in the field. Sitting at the beautifully carved wooden bar of the Sakamanga, contemplating whether I'm going to have a ginger, coconut, pineapple, banana, lychee, vanilla or raisin rhum. Maybe it's more reasonable to have a simple "planteur" (punch) in order to make it back to my room later.

The place is packed as always, people having drinks at the bar waiting to be seated for dinner. The vibe is good, the atmosphere cozy, the music groovy - think Malagasy remix of Cantaloop. The walls are covered with black & white photographs from all over the country and wooden carvings. And the food.... DIVINE!!! Not only because I've been on the road eating rice, rice and rice for the past week. But I'm not back to write about food... I've just spent a truly exhausting, but amazing week on the road. Now, I just have to figure out where to start.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Hitting the Road

We've stashed up food and are hitting the road today. Departure 6 am sharp as we have a long day ahead of us. 12 hours down to Mananjary on the Eastern Coast. From there we're planning to take the boat up the Pangalames Canal to Nosy Varika, one of the worst hit areas during the last cyclone season. The road infrastructure up that coast is apparently pretty scetchy. And I guess the internet acccess will be too. So, I'll try to update mes petites et grandes aventures via Twitter - and of course when I'm back in the capital.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

THB - Fady?

Fady is a name given to a system of local taboos designed to respect the ancestors. Fady can take innumerable forms and varies from village to village. It may be fady to eat pork, to whistle on a particular strech of beach, to walk past a sacred tree or to swim in a certain river.

I wonder if drinking THB can be fady too? In some Malagasy villages it's fady to talk about crocodiles. What's fady in the 67H neighbourhood? I'll have to ask Lea!

Taxi B or 2CV

The first two days our mode of transport was the Taxi B - or Taxi Brousse if you're wondering what the "B" stands for. It basically operates like a mini-bus and takes you almost everywhere in the city. You just have to know which line you need and accept that the aim is to cram as many people as possible into this vehicle... However, you should be neither claustrophobic, enochlophobic or aphenphosmphobic.

My favourite are still the 2CV or R4 taxis, though admittedly they're not much better in terms of leg space or comfort, but who cares? Tana is full of these small, beige cars - all at least 40 to 50 years old - whining up and down the capital's many hills.

After negotiating a fair price (it's easier with Lea, I have "RIP ME OFF" written all over my forehead), the next stop is almost inevitably the nearest petrol station. Taxi drivers never seem to have more than half a liter of gas in their tank. Why? Are they afraid a full tank might get stolen at night? I'll have to ask next time. Five days of taxi driving in Tana and we've been already stuck twice without gas. Once in a tunnel during rush hour. But "mora, mora" -- slowly, slowly -- everyone stays cool!

Another taxi habit here: turning off the car while driving down hill - or turning it off every other meter while stuck in one of Tana's massive traffic jams. Has anyone thought how much gas it takes to start up an engine 20 times in one single ride?

Finding your way around Tana isn't easy. Street signs are far and few between, and most streets have interchangable French and Malagsy names, neither of which is generally known by locals. So, you better know your landmarks close to your destination!!

I normally have a pretty good sense of orientation, but this city seems beyond me. There're just too many congested, narrow, cobbled streets, similar neighbourhoods clinging to Tana's many hills and little valleys squashed in between. Plus, there never seems to be one way of getting from A to B.

Anyway, I'm always discovering new corners and surprising little spots. My favourite time driving through Tana is at sunset when all the beautiful delapidated brick houses turn golden. And I also love the paddy fields fighting for their space in the midst of the city sprawl - forming endless chequered patterns of green and brown.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Home-Made Yogurt

Yogurts are very popular here in Madagascar. Emmanuel sells 50 or 60 a day - 2.000 FMG each, that's about 0.16 €. He says it's a pretty good business.

Maybe he dreams of a success story like the one of the current president Marc Ravalomanana. The yogurt baron began his path to power by peddling around his hometown on a bicycle selling little pots of home-made yogurt.

By the time he entered the political arena with his campaign to become mayor of Antananarivo in 1999, his company Tiko was the biggest producer of dairy products in Madagascar and the newly minted millionaire was able to give away his yogurts to supporters on the streets...

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Tolilio? What's new?

Busy day speaking to the GTZ team about the environmental impacts of cyclones, legislation issues, reforestation and carbon emission trade.

Chasing the deputy environment minister who needs to give us the green light to visit a forestry project on Friday... but he wants to see us in person first to make up his mind... hmmm, what about setting up an efficient press office?

And in the midst of all that we also kept in touch with our potential driver Robert negotiating a fair price for a 4WD for our five day field trip on Sunday. We're planning to head South-East - down to Mananjary and Nosy Varika to visit one of the worst hit areas during the last cyclone season.

We already established radio contact, they know we're coming. It's the closest project we can visit from Tana - 12 hour drive + another 3 hours by boat...

Monday, 10 September 2007

Living with Cyclones

My Madagasy Mission: producing my first co-production with a Madagasy colleague

So let me introduce my co-producer:

Name: Léa Fanihia
Age: 35
Favourite Past Time: No time, she works too much
Favourite Music: Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and "tout ce qui bouge"
Biggest Phobia: she has many... but snakes are really bad
Why journalism: loves travelling
Why this co-production: new experience, world wide broadcast
Cyclones: Disaster. But she never experienced one
+ Madagascar: beautiful nature and kind people
- Madagascar: people are passive & don't stand up enough for their rights
Dream destination: NY to cover the UNGA
3 Wishes for the Future: she hasn't told me yet...

Tana - First Impressions

After 11 hours on the plane from Frankfurt to Joburg, 3 hours stop-over and another 5 hours flight - I was really looking forward to get a first glimpse of the so-called Green Island turned red from the plane. But lucky as I am I got the only isle on the plane which DIDN'T have a window...

Well, too bad no aerial frist impressions, but my driver Raymond waiting for me at the airport made up for it - big smile and a BEAUTIFUL beige 2CV with checkered red interior. A classic! Welcome to Antananarivo. And seeing that I always have problems with this tongue-twisting capital missing most of the time at least one "na", I'm glad Tana also works.

So, welcome to Tana!!

Petites et Grandes Aventures

So, I'm on the road again. After Fish Amok, Uchaguzi Watch, I'm back to haunt the blogosphere with a third blog I just set up - internet illeterate as I am... Still on the look out for a good name. I thought about "Tolilio", which means "What's New?" in Madagascan. But my internet advisor says this doesn't have a long shelf life - and after all that's what I'm after. A blog title - French, German or English which has something to do with travels, because that's what it's about: little travel adventures from the field. I also thought about barbstrips... but that would probably attract too much cyber traffic, and we don't want that... So, any ideas? Or do you like mes petites et grandes aventures? I need your input!!

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