08 Jun 1996 - Maroantsetra, Madagascar
You can speak about a country when you have been there 15 days or 30 years. Someone famous once said something like this. On the 6th of November 1995, the Queen's palace in Antananarivo burnt down, and the entire nation cried. There are only two fire engines in the Capitol, so there is little wonder that the fire couldn't be extinguished. Inside of this palace used to stand a single Mahogany pillar from one tree. It measured 130' by 6', and in 1839, it was transported from the coastal jungle across 200 kilometers and up 4,700' to the high plateau by 10,000 slaves.
I am on my way to this coastal jungle. The Masoala peninsula is the largest primary forest left in Madagascar. I watch the grasslands disappear, then there are freshly deforested areas with little bush camps on steep wooded slopes for men clearing the forests, then the open areas cease and the jungle begins. The weather is terrible here. It rains for 10 months a year. The "Presqu'ile de Masoala" acts like a big hook in the Indian Ocean trapping moist air, pulling it in, and wringing all the moisture from it as it tries to escape over the highlands. Maroantsetra is a wet jungle village of bamboo, wood and palm leaves. If there is any concrete, the mold clings to it and grows upon it like a hungry algae. These are different people too. They are called "cotiers," and they have more African and Arab blood in them.
I land in a rainstorm and pull up to a deserted building surrounded by jungle. The sun is about to set. The rain stops, and soon children appear from the forest and stand there looking at me. I am the "vazzha" - the foreigner - and there are not so many here. I feel at ease around children; if someone was going to be unwelcoming to me, they wouldn't send out the children first. The airport manager, Roger, soon arrives to find out who I am and what I am doing. The road from Tamatave has been out for the past 35 years, so there is no way to come to this town except by boat or by plane. Air Madagascar is a remarkably safe airline considering the terrain and conditions that they operate in. It is a lifeline for this country, and it must be one of the cheapest airlines in the world to fly on. Roger nods his head as I go through my routine, but I am sure that he can't imagine why someone would fly around the world just to get back to the same place again. Every once in a while, it is good to have someone look at you in the way he is looking at me. It is a look of respect and sincerity, but it is also the kind of look that you show to someone who is quite mad when you don't want to offend them.
The following morning a pretty young blonde French nurse named Veronique arrives on the weekly Air Madagascar flight. I have to blink twice when I see this. She is a bush nurse who travels via various rivers to distant villages to visit clinics, and this little village is her base. She asks me if I would like to stay with her, and I can't think of any reason why not to. We travel down a series of dirt paths into a delicate little village with buildings suspended on stilts. It looks like a town from the old American west. There is a bridge over a jungle river, then we drive through a sandy wet area to her house. It is a little French colonial building with shutters and a porch that looks out on the sea. The wind is rustling through the coconut palms, and the waves are tumbling down on a deserted beach. Her pet lemur, "Pippe," jumps down from a tree onto my shoulder and begins licking my ear. Its name is short for "pippericilline" - a French antibiotic.
Lemurs are primitive members
of the monkey family, and Madagascar is the only place in the world where they
can be found. The lemur dwells in the forest, so as go the forests, so also will
go the lemur. I watch this active little creature swipe a banana out of
Veronique's hand and munch it in choppy bites. Its bright red eyes seem to stare
right through me. I imagine that this might be a far distant cousin of mine -
one who was permitted to survive on an island without predators that drifted out
to sea. There is a theory that the use of hands promotes intelligence by
learning from experience through touch. Pippe's little hands discard the
stripped banana and launch their owner back onto my shoulder.
Orchids grow very well in
this rainy forest climate, and one of the most lucrative orchids in Madagascar
is the vanilla. At one point, Madagascar produced 90% of the world's vanilla.
Jean-Louis Rakutovelu is the proprietor of the restaurant La Pagode on the main
street of Maroantsetra. He is part Chinese, and his young daughter stands on the
front verandah of his restaurant with several bundles of thick dark rich vanilla
beans in her hands. There is a box of dried vanilla in the back of Jean-Louis'
restaurant. He sells it for about $20 a kilo, and he tells me that Coca-Cola
buys more than half of the vanilla produced by Madagascar today. I wonder if
this is some sort of secret. It is a very popular trend in Madagascar to put
vanilla beans in the sugar bowl. It gives a faint vanilla essence to the sugar
for your tea or coffee, and it is actually very good.
The next day we are bouncing down a dirt road towards the tiny jungle village of Manambia. Gilbert Ratsimaniry is the eldest son of Gilbert Jiva. He and his wife, Marie-Angeliene, export exotic wood from Maroantsetra to Philadelphia and Germany to make musical instruments. His father Gilbert died five years ago. We are going to a ceremony which I have never even imagined before. The Malagasy call it "Famadihama," and it is an exhumation and turning-of-the-bones ceremony. This peculiar custom is followed throughout Madagascar. In the south, it is a bit more of a wild affair. People will save up enough money for many years. Then there is a mass gathering, plenty of alcohol, and the deceased is disinterred. The bones are cleaned and examined, then passed around in a smaller casket. It is a chance for the dead to come up and dance with the people. Gilbert is intending a much more serious and somber exhumation. He is a Protestant, so there won't be any alcohol either.
As we arrive at the tiny village, I feel like a railway car on a long rail line. There are a lot of people here and there is not much place to go. There is a steep jungle bank on one side of the road and an ocean on the other. It has been raining a fair amount, so the mud is everywhere. First we all sit down for a huge meal of rice. There are no utensils, and the most important part of the meal seems to be in knowing how to fold the banana leaves into the shape of a spoon. The meal is followed by long dissertations through a poor quality amplifier system long into the night. Malagash is a language with long words and lots of letters. They eat the vowels, pronounce the consonants very fast, and all the accents are in the wrong place. By early morning, there must 500 people standing on the edge of the jungle. A huge slippery path has been cut into the jungle and up a steep hill to the cemetery. We begin a procession led by the family up to the grave site.
Gilbert explains that this ceremony is to "uplift" the spirits of the dead. It is usually done about 5-6 years after death, and it is a chance to come together again and to remember the deceased. It is also an opportunity to ask the spirits for any wishes that you may have. "You could ask for a daughter, perhaps," Gilbert explains. If you get your wish, you must remember the spirits and bring a gift, like clothes, to the grave the next year. Gilbert and his brothers enter into a wooden structure that has been placed over their father's grave and begin digging up the casket. Strangely, the women are not allowed to see the bones of men, and men are not allowed to see the bones of women. A cloth is held up over the door to keep the affair somewhat private. The rotten casket has collapsed in the damp earth. Gilbert and his brothers, pull the bones out of the moist earth and wipe them off and place them on a separate clean cloth. People outside are singing in the tropical sun surrounded by jungle on the top of this hill. When all the bones have been assembled, Gilbert brings them out wrapped in a white cloth and places them in a new and smaller casket. There is singing, and although I cannot understand much of what is being said, I imagine that the spirits are being spoken to by all those around me.
There are also guardians at the cemetery. If something is taboo in Madagascar, it is called "fady." Death used to be the greatest "fady" here, but that is changing now. Last year many bones were stolen on the East coast. Several shipping containers were found in the port of Tamatave ready to be shipped to developed countries. The stolen bones are used in modern hospitals to graft into living human bones if a piece is missing. They used to use coral for this, but old bones are better and far more profitable for those who stalk Malagasy cemeteries by night.
There is an abattoir in Tamatave that pumps blood into the sea. This must be the most dangerous place for sharks in the world. They are in a complete frenzy from all the blood. There was a Frenchman who recently lost his arm. Another person walked into the water up to his knees to wash his hands; he also lost his arm. Dogs have been taken in as little as 10" of water. It is a dangerous place. Most of Tamatave still looks like a ghost town from the last cyclone that went through. Each country in the area takes turns naming the cyclones. In the Indian Ocean, they are named after women. In the Caribbean, they are named after men. The first one begins with A, then on down through the alphabet. This year Agnielle, Bonita, Coryna, Doloresse, Edwige, Flossy, Guylianne, Hansella, and Itelle have been through. Madagascar always gets hit the worst, because they hit the coast then follow it down. The bad ones can have winds up to 360 kilometers per hour. First the wind comes from one direction, then the eye of the cyclone is dead calm for up to 4 hours. The wind then comes from the other direction, and that is what breaks all the trees. The worst one this year was Bonita. It went straight across Africa and on to the Atlantic Ocean.
Back in Maroantsetra, Veronique turns on the television. There is one channel, and it is a reporter explaining the latest government disasters in Malagash. Veronique comes scurrying back quickly from the kitchen, "Oh, c'est le temps pour les mouvements des Avions," she says. There it is, right up on the screen. I can't imagine anyone getting so excited to see this. It is a list of all the flights in Madagascar for the following day. She isn't even going anywhere. I stare at her in amazement. First she is a little embarrassed, then she starts to laugh. This is her link to the outside world, she tells me. It is nice to know who is going where, and at least, you know when to listen out for the plane flying overhead.
Downtown near La Pagode, I walk up to a chalkboard leaning against a wooden shack. This is the next best thing to a cinema in Maroantsetra - a video machine and an old television. The chalkboard says: "Double feature films at 19hrs." Then there is a list of all the films playing during the upcoming week. There is "Blood Sport (kick boxing)" followed by "Kick Boxer (kick boxing)." Then there is "Immortal Combat (karate kick boxing)" followed by "Operation Mercenaire." The following days become more interesting with "Shaolin Contre Ninja (karate kung-fu)" and "Les Rats de la Jungle (commando viet-nam)." I can't help but laugh. I know the quality would be terrible, but I would love to go and see one of these, but I can't. Veronique and I are going to meet her colleague for dinner.
Her colleague is a very slim and tall French nurse from the village of Mananara. She has traveled about 10 hours today via bush taxi, ferry and bicycle to get here. She does not look like someone who has traveled 10 hours. Her hair is long and lovely, and I have not seen such a short skirt in a very long time. There is a young Malagasy man sitting by her side, but just a little behind her. She and Veronique are speaking so fast that I can only catch the occasional "quand meme," but I am wondering where this young man fits it. He seems uneasy, and yet also confident to be sitting so close to her. Veronique tells me that he is her "copain" and that he has moved out of his small village and in with her colleague. But this has changed him, she says. He seems to be uncomfortable associating with the people of his village now. It is as if he has left one world to be a part of another. She wonders what will happen to him when her colleague leaves.
On the island of St. Marie just off the coast of Madagascar, there is an old pirate cemetery. There is also a man building a house, but he did not inaugurate his house. Two people have died, and it is because this man has disturbed the spirits of the nearby cemetery. There must be an inauguration ceremony now to bring peace to the village and to the cemetery. The man will provide 2 large zebu cattle and 5 sacks of rice for this ceremony. He is told that it is "fady" to live in a house before it has been inaugurated. The names of all the dead will be called out, and they will be asked to leave this house alone. It is really just a good excuse to drink alcohol, I am told. "Betsa-betsa" is the local beer made from sugar cane. They will need 250 liters of this, 20 liters of Rum and some wine. There are then abattoir taxes and ceremony taxes. The final bill comes to 4 million Malagash Francs ($1,000). They abuse the spirits these days, I am told. They used to believe all this, but these days, they only believe it when it is useful to them. If you don't have the ceremony, however, they will sabotage you, so it is best to have it. Mrs. Bangs tells a story of the used Air France Boeing brought out from France. The doors wouldn't open when it arrived here. On the island of Reunion, the doors opened. Back in Madagascar, the doors didn't open again. The aircraft hadn't been inaugurated yet, so they brought a zebu out and sacrificed in on the airstrip. It is an interesting combination of the first and third world here. You cannot ignore the third world though. When Mrs. Bangs was young, some Malagasy wanted to do "fanafody" (black magic) on her. She secretly dug a hole in the beach and poured petrol in it. Then she announced that no one should bother her and lit the beach on fire. No one bothered her after that. It is sometimes easier to play by their rules, I am told.
Veronique tells me about "Zavavirano." This is the spirit lady that lives in the rivers at the places where the men can't wash. Women can wash there, but if a man washes in these forbidden places, Zavavirano grabs them and pulls them under the water to make love to them. The story doesn't sound so bad to me, except that Zavavirano then keeps them under the water beneath a rock. The men can live under the water to serve her, but if they attempt to surface, they will then die. I wonder what the origin of such a "fady" is - did they make these stories up just so the men wouldn't watch the women bathe?
I will be interested to know
if there are any exhumation ceremonies in Malaysia or Indonesia. The idea had to
come from somewhere, perhaps it was brought from there. Roger at the
Maroantsetra airport tells me that Mr. Rahagalala, the director of civil
aviation, wants to speak with me. I am a little nervous when I speak with these
people from the world of rules and bureaucracy. We call Mr. Rahagalala on
Roger's HF radio from a little generator-driven concrete shack in the tall grass
by the airport. There he is. I am in the middle of the jungle talking with the
director of civil aviation. He wants to know what my program is. I explain that
I have been invited to an exhumation ceremony, and that I will be detained by a
few days. He wants me to send him my revised program. I write up my revised
itinerary, stamp it with my rubber "OFFICIAL" stamp - they love rubber stamps in
Madagascar - and drop it in the post box addressed to the Direction Aviation
Civile, Ministere Transport, Anosy, Antananarivo. Four days later, Roger informs
me that my program has been approved by the director. He also hands me a list of
HF frequencies to contact Antananarivo for flight information along my route. I
am amazed, even way out in the jungle, somehow this system works.