Why I Love Madagascar SO Darned Much

15 March 2018

I often say “Madagascar is the place where magic is born” and I think that for a variety of reasons. First would be the people, the amazing Malagasy people.

All you gotta do is pull out a camera, and all the hams run to have their pictures taken. These crazy kids… love ’em all.

Per oral history that has been passed down in my family for at least seven generations, my LEE side originated in Madagascar, though I have no idea where exactly or the tribe or even the region. This story has been so prevalent all my life that, when I decided to give up my hustle-bustle life of I.T. in the San Francisco Bay Area to live a simpler life, Madagascar was at the top of my list. I had no idea how I’d make it happen, but I just knew it was where I was meant to be. When I discovered that the Peace Corps had some openings there and that I’d been dreaming of serving with the Peace Corps ever since I was eight years old, I knew that all the decisions I’d made in my life up to that point had led me to Madagascar.

THE PEOPLE – This country was formerly enslaved (officially colonized, but what’s the difference?) by the French and though the Malagasy reached their independence in 1960 (after many years of fighting for it), and though there are lots of remnants of their French history, the indigenous Malagasy culture not only survived but is as strong and vibrant as ever. There are 18 distinct Malagasy tribes and each with its own dialect, in addition to Malagasy Official. I happen to live in the Boeny region and speak (haltingly) the Sakalava Boeny dialect. The differences between dialects can be light night and day, with many native Malagasy even unable to understand another Malagasy who speaks a particular dialect with which they’re not familiar. Add to that the regional dialects, such as where I live, in Mahajanga, and there are words spoken only in Mahajanga that are not an official part of the Sakalava Boeny dialect.

Each child that attends school in Madagascar has to learn at least THREE languages: Malagasy official, French, and English, plus they may also be formally taught their local dialect, making a whopping four languages to learn. In addition, throughout their school career, they have to take a total of three state-sponsored exams, one after 5th grade, one after 9th grade, and the final one after they complete 12th grade. Failure of any of these exams means the child cannot progress to the next level, and failure of the final one, the Baccalaureate exam, means the student cannot attend any college in Madagascar. The “Bacc,” as it is called, is administered only once per year, and I met a man who’d taken it seven times, but finally passed it. By then, he was 26 years old but delighted that he could FINALLY begin college. However, because of Madagascar’s poverty and poor ranking in the world community, the lack of available jobs means that even with a college degree, many graduates still cannot find a job or find one in their field. Despite all that, they just keep striving, keep pushing to better themselves, and this is something I find so refreshing.

Case in point, in Mahajanga, a tourist destination because of our location on the Western coast and because it’s just the best place in Madagascar, period, jobs are still a problem. But that doesn’t stop enterprising people from creating their own jobs and just getting a large lawn umbrella or a tarp and setting up shop. Two of my favorite bike shops are run by guys underneath a large umbrella on the side of the main road, and though I was a bit leery at first, because of the somewhat high-end bike the Peace Corps provided me, they had no problem fixing it and they made me feel right at home as I stood by and watched them do their work. In another instance, though we only have about three months of rains each year, umbrellas are used year round because the average temperature year round is between 85-90 degrees, so keeping the sun off of you is truly a thing. In the States, if you bend or break your umbrella, what do you do? If it’s a treasured umbrella with which you cannot be parted, you stick it in your umbrella stand or where you store your other umbrellas, and it stays there, forever, and forever broken. Or if it’s a crap umbrella that you care nothing for, you toss it and buy a new one. The majority of the people of Madagascar are poor, so throwing away a bent or broken umbrella isn’t really a thing. What IS a thing, however, is roadside umbrella repair guys, who,

Umbrella repair men, next to a bank, in the Mahabibo district of Mahajanga.

like the bike guys, set up on the side of the road, next to a bank, or other busy places, and start repairing the umbrellas of passers-by. It makes SO much sense, and for a pittance, your busted umbrella is as good as, or better than new. Same goes for shoe repair. Cheap, fast and good quality repairs.

And electronics are the same way. Busted phone? Squirrely computer? Sluggish tablet? The electronic guys are everywhere, but I found a couple of guys whom I actually adore, and they’re located in the Mahabibo area of Mahajanga, along the main road where there are lots of other electronics to be bought, sold or repaired. The ingenuity of the people is what I think I respect the most. Our public buses are actually like 15-passenger vans that have been refitted to seat at least 30 people. There are probably about 15 different routes around the city, each with a sign in the window stating the route number and a list of the townships and areas it visits on its route. Fitting that many people into a van designed for half that number means only one thing — tight fit. Once the seats on each side of the aisle are full, a wooden board is placed across the aisle at each row, and a fifth person sits in that row, often having to sit on one hip, sideways, because there just isn’t any more room. Nobody seems to mind, either. No “You’re in my personal space” or anything you’d expect to hear in other countries, here, we’re gonna be real close here for a while. I’ll try not to cough on you.

The vans themselves, most of which would not be considered roadworthy in the West, many are being held together with rubber bands and chewing gum. Missing windows, doors that won’t lock or even stay closed, tiny seats with no legroom, holes in the floor so you can see the road below, and no ignition, so they’re hot-wired to start. How do they keep these OLD Mercedes Benz clunkers running? That Malagasy ingenuity. If a part if no longer available, they’ll just make a new one. May not look very pretty, but it will get the job done. There is a car repair yard near my house that I pass all the time, usually several times per day. Recently, they had one of the Number Nine vans (they’re called taxibes, “taxi-BAYS”) in the yard and they stripped it down to almost just the frame. Over the course of 2-3 weeks, they rebuilt that van, put in new seats, new interior, and exterior paint, newly painted rims … it looked like it had just been driven off the lot. Once the rebuild was done, it was pushed (or maybe driven) about two blocks down to another shop for a new engine and/or transmission. And because everything is so cheap here, this old, rusted, busted up taxibe due for the junk yard, was given new life and will probably run at least another decade. I find this utterly fascinating and resourceful, something we could all learn from.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I will continue to post about the people I encounter, the places I explore and the experiences I have teaching the incredible children of Madagascar.

My 6th graders, all 13 of them. My favorite class.

“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”