The Road Less Travelled

Published in Africa Geographic, December 2004

Then

The men listened respectfully as the Président du Fokontany delivered his speech about mutual co-operation. With its soft consonants and lilting cadences the Malagasy language is ideally suited to oratory and this village chief was obviously a master of the art. But a cluster of youths turned away, one of them muttering something as he left. The diminutive Président called them back and spoke quietly, his attention on them alone. “He’s talking about mending the cattle fences.” explained our guide. “It’s something the village does together. These boys don’t want to do the work. They say would rather pay the fine (about 50 cents).” As he talked, the boys’ faces softened and smiles broke out. “He’s telling them how special this community is, and proud he is to have such strong young men here.” our guide whispered. As we walked away, the lads were starting to strip the leaves off a raffia palm to bind up the bamboo poles.

That day’s walk near Andapa, in eastern Madagascar, stands out in my memory as one of the most special in over 20 years of tour-leading. We were a group of ordinary tourists who had accepted an offer by our local hotel-owner to guide us on a circular route through some isolated villages in his neighbourhood. “They don’t see many foreigners” he explained. “It will be something new for you – and for them.”

Leaving the fence-makers at work, we continued up the red dirt road to the next settlement where a white-haired village elder matched his stride with ours and conversed in elegant French. He discussed the state of the world, American politics, the coffee harvest — and the difficulty of chewing sugar-cane when you have no teeth.

Later we passed rice paddies where little girls were fishing in the irrigation ditches with mesh baskets. Giggling, one of them showed us her catch of fat green-and-silver fish. On the outskirts of the next village, the coffee crop was laid out to dry on the road; no car was going to come this way to disturb it. The school was set on a hill. Its corrugated iron roof had rusted to the colour of the road, with some replacement panels glinting silver. The children poured down the hill like a waterfall, stopping abruptly about two metres from us as though hitting an invisible rope. A member of our group broke the tension by asking, in Malagasy, what their names were. They stared at her then a small voice piped up, then another, then another. We introduced ourselves in turn. I remember being transfixed by the shadow of a boy’s long eyelashes, cast on to his brown cheeks by the noon-time sun.

A narrow path led up a steep hill into a remnant of woodland. We had our picnic sitting on a grassy bank, watching birds and listening to the sounds of the forest. The men approached so quietly that we only heard them when one cleared his throat. Initial alarm at the sight of their machetes gave way to smiles and greetings. One fellow sticks in my memory: he was wearing an old suit, the trousers rolled up and tied with a rope of plaited sisal, and a bowler hat made of raffia. They wanted to walk past but courtesy dictated that they ask first, using the Malagasy gesture which means “May I pass?” Each man leant forward from the waist and stretched his right hand in front of him while looking at us questioningly. We smiled and nodded.

By the time we reached the bottom of the hill and the final village, the schoolchildren were waiting for us with their teacher. He had decided that talking with foreigners was just as educational as sitting in a class room. We combined the languages we knew and had a conversation of sorts. “Foreigners don’t come here”. He said. “They only want to see lemurs, and we haven’t got any.”

Now

Last year I went back.

We heard the beat of pop music long before we came to the village. A group of youths were clustered round a huge black radio. “Hey man!” one called out: “You got music for us? Music tape?” We shook our heads. “T-shirt?” He proudly pointed to the grubby University of Texas T-shirt he was wearing. Again we shook out heads. “Gimme that one!”

We walked on. A man blocked our way. “Sapphires!” he whispered. “Good!” We inspected the black, nondescript stones clutched in his hand. “No, we don’t want”. We continued to the school and again children poured down the hillside towards us. “Bon-bon!” they screamed, their hands outstretched. “Stilo! Madame, madame…”

Don’t worry, it didn’t happen. My only visit was in 1998 and I have not been back. But I expect the villages to be unchanged because there are no lemurs their neighbourhood so foreigners don’t go there. And when I’m asked – as I often am – if I ever refrain from writing about a place in my guidebooks, I say: “Just once. There’s a place in eastern Madagascar…” 

© Hilary Bradt

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