Journey To Beauty & Chaos In Paradise Islands

Madagascar: Erotic Tombs, Tribal Warriors & Bull Fights In The Great Red Island

Part III: The Highlands


Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore  (July 2003)

Betsileo House Inside A Betsileo House Boy Cutting Up A Zebu
Fishing In A Lake Deforestation Around A Lake Cottage Industry: Making Pots Cottage Industry: Making Pots

The climate became colder when we moved into the Highlands.  We spent a night in the city of Fianarantsoa, “Place Where Good Is Learned” as it is known in Malagasy, also the intellectual and academic centre of Madagascar.  Despite the reputation, the city is a dump and disappointment, and the rain made everything worse.  It was crowded and dilapidated, and we could hardly find any cheap internet place.   

The only respite was the Panda Restaurant, the best Chinese restaurant we found this corner of the Indian Ocean, and run by a mid 30’s Chinese guy with a surprisingly Bohemian pony-tail.  The won tan soup was fantastic, and the won tan tender and yet nicely and tightly wrapped.  There are over 20,000 Chinese in Madagascar and many are third generation Malagasy-Chinese.  Though mixed marriages are common, many continue to speak Cantonese.  They seem to do well and Chinese restaurants are seen in all the main cities, and often on the main streets.  Many also run hotels, provision shops and supermarkets.   

Indians and Pakistanis are all over Madagascar as well.  They run the retail sector of this country, and together with the Chinese, are sometimes called the 19th tribe of Madagascar. 

After Fianarantsoa, we travelled on an awful stretch of extremely muddy road, to the Ranomafama National Park, whose rainforests contain more lemurs and other tropical species.  As Southeast Asians, we were not overly thrilled by rainforests, though we were delighted to see ayes-ayes with their sharp glowing eyes in the dark, chameleons, geckos, civet cats and more of other lemurs.  Amidst the excitement, one momentarily forgot that even in this supposed paradise of wildlife, uncontrolled logging had actually turned more than half the national park, mostly the deep jungles to the north, away from the glimpse of the visitor, into an environmental wasteland.   

Market Ranomafana National Park

Across Madagascar we came across banners and advertisements with the words “Tiko – Vita Malagasy”, meaning “Tiko – Malagasy-made”.  These advertise products of the Tiko Group, the largest conglomerate in Madagascar, founded and owned by President Marc Ravalomanana.  Ravalomanana grew up poor but was educated by missionaries in his home village not far from Tana.  He completed his secondary education in Sweden in a strict Protestant school, and went on to found his first business – that of home-made yogurt – in his 20’s.  His business acumen has served him well and his business grew rapidly as Madagascar liberalised its economy.  Before long, his Tiko Empire had come to control milk, yogurt and all diary products in Madagascar, as well as interests in mass media, TV stations, soft drinks, and food and beverage products.   

He decided he had a thing for politics and ran for mayor in Tana.  As mayor, he won the hearts of its citizens by cleaning up and streets and tackling crime.  Then he ran for presidency in Dec 2001, which his supporters said he won.   Incumbent President Ratsiraka refused to recognise the results and a six months’ political crisis ensued.  As an old rat in power for almost two decades, Ratsiraka has the upper hand initially – he had the support of all the provincial governors except for that of Tana, and they imposed a blockade on the capital and the Central Highlands.  Many in Tana and the large cities saw Ratsiraka as a corrupt dictator who had been in power for way too long – Tobi was to point out an enormous fantasy palace complex Ratsiraka built for himself south of the capital.  Chaos followed as bridges were blown up and clashes occurred between supporters of Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana.  Ravalomanana declared himself president and set up a government in Tana, while Ratsiraka set up his own HQ, rival government and central bank in his hometown, Toamasina.  Economic activities came to a stop.   

In June, however, the tide turned as the provinces fell one by one tto Ravalomanana.  Eventually, Ratsiraka fled for Paris while Ravalomanana’s supporters marched into Toamasina.  The political crisis had ended but the economic progress made in the last decade all but totally wiped out.  Tourism had disappeared and foreign direct investments in the textile industry, one of Madagascar’s largest, had dried up as well.   

Madagascar is recovering and perhaps its entrepreneurial president can accelerate this process. 

We travelled northwards through Madagascar’s wine country – we tasted the fairly good red wine but wondered about its consistency - and land of the Betsileo, supposedly the best farmers of Madagascar famous for their terraced fields on the mountain slopes.  The Betsileo are mostly Christians but also continue to practise some of their traditional customs and beliefs.  They also have a tradition of education and the relative (I stress relative) prosperity of the region is evidenced by large farmhouses that look somewhat European from afar but actually made of mud bricks and grass roofs when one gets nearer. 

Tobi’s sharp eyes stumbled onto a grand house warming ceremony in which hundreds of guests were involved.  We saw the locals dancing and merry-making, and then witnessed an exciting zebu fight.    Six frightened zebu were rounded up into a ring, actually a hole dug into the ground and a few hundred people crowded around it to watch the fun.  A dozen brave, more likely reckless young men jumped into the ring to attack the zebus with their bare arms.  Some jumped onto the zebu while others agitated the sharp-horned zebus by waving blankets in an aggressive manner, not unlike the Spanish matador in front of an enraged bull.  Enraged, some zebus charged at the attackers with their long intimidating horns, but most of the time, the zebus were terrified and headed for the ring gate instead, struggling to knock the door over.  Those men guarding the entrance would hold the gate tight to prevent the zebus from escaping, while shouting orders to the attackers behind the zebu.  There were obviously some rules for the game, for once in a while an elder would reprimand some of the attackers for breaking certain rules, and they would then be obliged to leave the ring.  A pity we didn’t understand Malagasy and that Tobi was taking a break in the car, which is one hundred meters of muddy path away. 

After an interval, an elder would make some announcements and the zebu would be freed, and guided out of the ring, and shortly after the zebu fight would be repeated.  After two hours, it seemed that the finale was approaching.  This time, a few elders and women entered the ring as well.  An elder had a branch of leaves and a bowl of sacred rum with him.  After some chasing and herding the zebus around the ring, he selected a black-and-white zebu by splashing the sacred rum on it using the leaves.  The selected zebu, for some unknown reasons, became horny, jumped onto a female zebu and tried to fornicate with it, with its organ erect.  The crowd roared with laughter.  The company in the ring had to beat the oversexed zebu off the female zebu and then led the other zebus out of the ring, leaving only the selected one. 

The crowd have been waiting for this moment and indicated their approval of the choice by clapping.  A few young men jumped into the ring to help.  They chased the poor creature around for a while, pinned it down and tied its limbs.  A hole was dug into the ground next to the throat of the zebu and a vast vase placed inside the hole.  Another elderly gentleman came forward with a huge sharp knife.  The crowd roared again and clapped.  He uttered some prayers and then positioned the knife on the zebu’s throat.  Then he started slitting its throat.   

First a trickle of blood flowed into the vase, which soon turned into a bright red fountain spurting out in a spectacular though gory fashion.  The crowd cheered to indicate approval.  The vase of blood was then raised from the ground carefully, and brought to the new house, while the butcher proceeded to cut up the zebu to distribute the meat to the honoured guests.  At the new house, the blood was poured into zebu horns hollowed into a kind of drinking vessel, and then poured in different parts of the building for heavenly blessing.   

The dancing continued, now even wilder since the zebu meat was been distributed and the rum passed around.  At this moment, we decided to leave, as we were running late and the skies were cloudy.   


We headed north, passing the wood-carving town of Ambositra and then spent the night in Antsirabe, Madagascar’s “industrial belt”, where there were a number of foreign investments.  Here we visited the market town of Betafo nearby, as well as a few lakes.  It was here at the heartland of the Malagasy people that deforestation and erosion were the worst.  There were few trees and everywhere we saw rolling bare hills and roadside stalls selling branches and leaves as burning fuel – properly matured trees had long been felled and only branches and shrubs were left.  Even by the bank of Lac Andraikiba, where French colonials once spent summer holidays at the then fashionable Club Nautique under the shade of enormous fig trees and traveller’s palm, no tree is left standing apart from a few ugly stumps.  A rusty jump-stairs and a small-dilapidated building was all that remained of the Club.  After the French departed, everything had fallen apart and consumed by the tropical rainforest.  Even the trees are dying and the animals disappearing fast. 

We visited a metal pot factory where used metal was melted at high heat to be reused and remoulded into pots.  The entire process was manual and antiquated, and the place - dirty, messy, cramped and polluted - looked like a scene from a Charles Dickens’ novel from the time of the Industrial Revolution.  No electricity was used at all, like many of this country’s cottage industries and workshops, as it was expensive and unreliable.  We did a quick computation to assess the profitability of this enterprise.  Productivity is low here – only 40 pots are made everyday.  Given that the pots are sold for about US$7 and GDP per capita is US$870, we estimated that the factory still makes a margin of above 20%. 

I wonder why China-made pots haven’t wiped out small plants like this – a standard Chinese plant is a lot more mechanised and would probably manufacture 40,000 pots a day rather than 40.  Perhaps, shipping costs are high, but I am sure the day shipping cost falls below a certain point, manual operations like this would be wiped out.  Already, most of the things I saw in the markets – clothing, blankets (which are part of the everyday apparel here where the locals walked around wrapped into blankets), bags, miscellaneous electrical appliances are already made in China.  I wonder when would this factory be hit.  Or maybe the margins are simply not enough for the Chinese exporter, thus the reluctance to enter this market.  The rise of China economically have an impact on the global competitive landscape. Suddenly, many small countries found themselves rendered uncompetitive.  If nothing is done to boost their competitiveness, their citizens may found themselves returning to subsistence farming.

Madagascar - Part IV: Tana & Perinet 


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