‘Little in this scene suggested the twentieth century, and this very quality drew me to rural Russia. This was the selfish conceit of the traveller. What to me was a charming lack of modernity was, to the Russians who inhabited this landscape, a world of outhouses, of water hauled from wells, of endless chopping of firewood, of constant digging in gardens so there would be enough potatoes and pickled cabbage to last the winter’. Fen Montaigne, Hooked.
The above quote was written in the early 90’s and although I am unlikely for some time to see if Russia has improved, it does sum up eloquently how I feel travelling around Africa with the added concern that we are now cruising through the 21st century. I first visited Madagascar in 2019 and I was horrified to discover that my romantic notion of an island loaded with lush green countryside, endless trees and exotic animals was nothing more than an ignorant dream. The environmental destruction and degradation were endemic yet there were no clear benefits to the population who continued to live in extreme poverty. It was that trip that influenced me to change direction within my agricultural career, a change that is currently in full swing and a change that I am determined to succeed in after visiting Madagascar for a second time. After the shock of the first visit, I have been able to soak in the experience of the second without a cloud of misery hanging over me. It’s still there, but shock has turned into understanding and questioning what can be done. Unfortunately, I was travelling with a group of Westerners whose ignorance tested my patience to the absolute limit. I can only assume they were visiting under the same illusion I was originally under and their idiotic comments were born out of shock but nevertheless, their attitude was shocking.
First up is the fact that some people had arrived not realising that antimalarials may be a good idea for a high-risk country, which is surprising considering so many people were terrified of a single mosquito or a single bite. This is very odd indeed, people travelling to countries with no idea of potential health risks yet also people terrified of a disease that is unlikely to cause themselves much harm thanks to universal access to preventative treatments. But this is trivial, I’m just warming up. ‘Why are the streets so messy?’ was one of the first big questions to be asked. With a poverty rate of 81% (less than $1.90/capita/day) and 97% of children aged 10 unable to read and understand a short age-appropriate text, I would suggest that the Malagasy people have more to worry about than clean streets. It’s easy to judge but look closely and most locals will actually keep their patch of home or shop remarkably clean and tidy and with no rubbish collection provided by government, where is it supposed to go? Of course, population growth is putting huge pressure on the planet and Madagascar’s population has increased from 5 million to almost 30 million in 60 years which inevitably led to another idiotic question from a privileged European, ‘why isn’t the population controlled by the government?’ The same person later asked if feminism had yet taken hold in Madagascar, as we walked through villages with houses made of mud bricks, straw roofs, and smoke billowed from the open cooking fires or a sustainable cook stove at best. Now I don’t want to get myself into a pickle but surely forcibly controlling how many children women are allowed to have is quite far from feminist ideology, and if feminism had taken hold there would be no need to suggest population control. It is well understood that getting young girls into school and widespread availability of family planning, along with an improving economy will reduce birth rates. Even I will concede that having children is the most natural thing in the world and regulation is immoral, while blaming people less fortunate than ourselves is plain idiotic.
A concerned Westerner had thoughtfully come prepared with dog biscuits which they handed out to skinny dogs as hungry children looked on. I knew the children were hungry because they devoured the dog biscuits as soon as they managed to get their hands on some. There was then the time someone asked our tour leader if he could offer the zebu handlers a bigger tip if they would stop hitting their zebu and causing distress as we were transported by zebu cart out to a waiting boat thanks to the lack of a jetty. I’ve only worked with livestock for my entire life and so although I’m unqualified to pass judgement I believe that a flimsy branch used to direct the zebu was far from distressing for them and merely a distress to privileged Europeans that have the luxury of not needing animals to get by in daily life. Don’t get me wrong, animal welfare is far from adequate, but so is that of humans. Then came ‘why don’t people stop selling endangered tortoises to China?’ I’m pretty sure the locals wouldn’t if rich people in Asia didn’t demand the tortoises in the first place and the locals in Madagascar weren’t so poor that it provided a handy source of income to buy a new electric car, sorry, I mean survive! We had a couple of local dining experiences (no tortoise involved) which were excellent but always troubled me because the guide emphasised the fact that there would be more meat put on for us, in which case I’m not experiencing a local dining experience surely? On one occasion we sat in someone’s house in a room decked out with straw matting where one of my travelling companions asked if it is laid out for ‘honoured guests’. No, it isn’t you numpty. No one walks into a home in Europe and asks if the carpet has been laid out specially for lunch and besides why should we be considered an honoured guest? Because we’ve tolerated mosquitos and a bit of litter in the streets? Complaining about crap Wifi and the lack of flavour in food was another common complaint, in a country where over 1.5 million were facing severe food insecurity at the start of the year. Remarkably, when we stayed at a school that taught locals the hospitality trade and provided a fantastic training restaurant serving up excellent three course meals for the price of a European Happy Meal, a place that was doing good for the local community, a third of our group opted to go and get takeaway pizza instead.
With all this in mind, why bother? I’ll tell you why. In a country whose people have little, a small act of positivity stands out rather like me at a jockey convention. I’m the first to argue that humans are fundamentally unable to care about anyone else or anything else other than what is in their own interest. Selfish is the word. But I also acknowledge that rare individuals are capable of incredible acts of altruism. On one occasion we were easing our way through a tide of people along a busy market street and as so often is the case in such places we came to a halt as chickens, goats, people, cars, cows and carts bounced off one another. A minibus overloaded with local passengers as standard came to a stop alongside us and a local lady immediately set to work rummaging through one of her shopping bags until she pulled out two oranges and enthusiastically handed them through the window to one of us on our comfortable, non-crowded tourist minibus. There was absolutely no reason for this gift other than pure kindness, from one person who had little to another that had more than the first could dream of. I have seen such acts of kindness before under similar circumstances and it touches me to the core which says something as I’m famously emotionally retarded. When we roll back the layer of consumerist bullshit that we busy ourselves with in the West we begin to see what really matters in a human life. The market days we passed through in Madagascar were an insane scene of colourful mayhem, held weekly where people from miles around would walk into town to sell, buy, and gossip. It was the day everyone came together and where wealth was spread around the community, no one was sat at home clicking ‘buy now’ and transferring their money to billionaires. There is then the fact that no day in Madagascar ends without an epic sunset that lasts for hours, setting the sky ablaze before giving away to night, although it isn’t night as we know it in the West. With almost no electricity in the majority of Malagasy towns and villages everywhere goes dark except for the glow of a light bulb or two lit up by the solar battery, or a gas lamp. But outside the lack of lighting is of little concern as the sky above is blanketed with the Milky Way and the consistent darkness provides peace as opposed to daunting contrasts that are brought about by artificial light and darkness. And so, we arrive at my ignorance. Travelling through one of the poorest countries on the planet provides me a selfish escape from the miserable uniformity of the developed world and no matter how I word it, however much I try to justify the beauty of such places, poverty cannot be romanticised. But that doesn’t mean that beauty cannot be found, especially when we leave our developed world prejudices behind.