3 hours drive north of Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, is a small agricultural town named Anjozorobe. It is surrounded by green hills and enormous stretches of rice paddies. Local farmers are certainly liable to the slash and burn culture, which means there are few trees about, but the production of nutritious red rice still has high yields.
People wear a huge array of hats. Some don more traditional straw trilbies and sun hats while others adorn a whole range of hats imported by foreign aid charities. American clothes dominate as a result of this. Traditional garb seems rather distant.
While I was teaching, the main high school even held a beauty pageant, which although extremely popular, seemed to borrow its entire process from an outside world. Students dressed in tennis gear and brandishing a tennis racket to pose for one catwalk seemed rather misplaced. Tennis courts are not in sight throughout most of Madagascar. The students posed in filmstar fashion although many have little access to TV screens.
The relative proximity of Anjozorobe to the capital means that teenagers walk around the town with mp3 players and they can download music from the local internet stall. They listen to
American Hip-Hop and French rappers mostly. The fast paced joviality of most Malagasy music can be quite repetitive so the youth are branching out into other cultures of music. Bob Marley and the celebrated African reggae artist Lucky Dube are held in high regard all over. Malagasy music videos tend to involve 4 or 5 dancers in unison swinging their hips quite conservatively but with plenty of enthusiasm. Otherwise they are songs of love and relationship.
Most of the villagers went to church for up to 5 hours on a Sunday and it seemed likely that many people visit some sort of alternative doctor or priest in the afterhours. Malagasy people still treat death with intricate and detailed ceremony with ideas that are beyond the Western grasp. There certainly seemed to be a lot of underground activity regarding alternative practises while I stayed in Madagascar on the whole. On the surface, however, there were churches catering for almost every different branch or sector of Christianity found anywhere.
Villagers would often approach my teaching partner and I then ask us to share a beer with them. All too often the Three Horse Beer or vanilla rum would be billed
to my partner and I, but I have to say that I’ve rarely been to a country where foreigners are held with such awe as regards to their relative wealth as in Madagascar. It can sometimes make a foreigner feel disrespected due to the resentment of locals. Foreigners whether they be tourists or aid workers are seen as people that can be exploited and it is assumed that they have plenty of funds to fend for themselves. As Madagascar has been a French colony, the influence of France can be seen from croissants in the capital, to music from Paris and west Africa, to resentment of French businessmen.
Bread stalls with an array of cakes and sweetbread are doted all over the town. Most meals in diners involved red rice with chicken, pork or fish. Avocado is often eaten with sugar as a pudding. Passion fruits were in season during my visit, which began in May and they were the most incredibly flavoursome fruit that I have ever experienced. Other favourite fresh products from the market included courgettes and tomatoes.
The water used to boil the rice is always drunk/recycled as rice water and drunk. It often has
a smoky taste to it.
Villagers walk in the dark around the village with fantastic vision. Electricity only lasts in the early evening so the view of the stars was almost completely unimpeded.
The marketplace at the center of the village was the main meeting point. All sorts of people from surrounding villages would turn up to sell their products or to catch the taxi-brousse to the capital to sell in bulk. Most taxis involved waiting several hours for people to strap their bags of rice to the roof before heading off. A look round the clothing market was always amusing. It wasn't case of selling unmatching socks but a case of selling unmatching shoes!
Most of the school children had parents with professions, but almost everybody owned a plot of land with a paddy field, such was the importance of rice in the Malagasy diet. Many people around the village were Zebu cattle herders.
Schoolchildren wore pink shirts to school and always started the day singing hymns in unison. Their ability to sing was quite astounding. It was culturally instilled in them to sing well. Local schools had a surprisingly good record for speaking English,
especially since French has been the dominant second language in Madagascar for years. American teachers often learnt Malagasy before they came to volunteer as English speakers so the language ability of the village was increasing rapidly.
Below the village, down in the valley a large river meandered beautifully towards the coast. The granite boulders providing the backdrop to most of Madagascar’s central Highlands were beautifully contrasted with the paddy fields.
Villagers tended to laze about after school and there was a very relaxed atmosphere. Teenagers were able to spend whole afternoons in the local games console shack. They would play football console games. The Champions league final was on one evening and never has there been such an inadequate screen. Almost every man in the village came out to the market place to crowd round a TV screen that can’t have been more than 14 by 14inches.
You could see live pigs being transported around on the backs of motorbikes. Some men wore hats meant for Western women without realising it. The biggest event was the famed singer Firmin coming to the village for a concert. The villagers did not seem to like dancing to this music
however. Alot of local men, however, were wandering around the streets inebriated in the early afternoon as a result of this concert. An uglier side to the Malagasy came out on this afternoon. The villagers were very peaceful and easy going but in almost every situation where drink was involved conflicts would spark.
All in all the town was beautiful and provided a unique insight to traditional farming cultures being influenced at a very slow rate by western technology. It is a huge shame, however, about the dominance of deforestation over the landscape. The highland forest near Anjozorobe is one of the last remaining so I would recommend visiting.
In terms of beauty, however, the ride from Atananarivo to the West Coast is far superior. Remember the people of Madagascar are very small so the leg space in a taxi-brousse is minimal. I spent 20 hours in a taxi from Tulear to Tana so squeezed in that my backside didn't touch the seat once...
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