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close this bookThe Courier N 156 - March - April 1996 - Dossier: Trade in Services - Country Report : Madagascar (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderCountry report
close this folderMadagascar: A history of the unknown
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe red moon
View the documentProfile
View the documentPresident Albert Zafy's priorities
View the documentGuy Razanamasy, Mayor of Antananarivo
View the documentAn economy on the rocks
View the documentExaltation of the senses in Madagascar
View the documentEven the Malagasies have the blues
View the documentCulture and tradition in Madagascar

Exaltation of the senses in Madagascar


Antananarivo, beautiful and without artifice

Tana is beautiful, very beautiful. Some may find this statement difficult to understand, given the dust and traffic related smog which creates an asphyxiating atmosphere during the daytime. The city does not have just have one area of shanty housing; in fact it appears to be one big shanty town. Annexes are built on to houses to cope, after a fashion, with the city's rising population. Poverty is at the very doors of all the luxury villas, and there are no rich districts. Unlike the major 'capitals of destitution', where the rich can always take refuge in 'reservations', here, as one expatriate resident puts it, one cannot shield oneself from the spectacle of misery. This is probably why so many foreign aid volunteers are often sharp and scornful when talking about the city, forgetting its essentials. The important point about Tana is that it is beautiful and original, unlike all the other showcase capitals in Africa and other Third-World countries which aspire to this condition.

There is, moreover, a light which bathes the city in glorious glowing colours. This is the light of dawn, seen before the polluting vehicles make their mark. The city comes to life as rickety carts drawn by hungry animals and dense crowds of pedestrians spill on to the streets. In this soft light, Antananarivo is unique and captivating, particularly if one has the opportunity to admire it from the lower town which is encircled by hills, as if by a pearl necklace. There is a small lake in the middle of the lower town, from the centre of which rises a monument. As in so many of France's former colonial capitals, this was erected to commemorate those who died in war, but it is more reminiscent of a sculpture in a grand English garden, rising like a huge candle from the middle of the lake. The sun, which has not yet taken on the shape of a perfect disc, casts its reflection over a hazy sky and lifts the mist from the lake - a genuine soft mist which contrasts with the polluted daytime fog which will appear later. The magnificent stage set is completed by the filmy curtain of the surrounding hills which, at this time of day, appear as watered silk. The effect is due to the pale violet clusters of jacaranda blossom. In this warm southern winter, the flowering jacarandas give the city the appearance of an enormous mixed bouquet, tinted with the russet of the roof tiles that rise in stages towards churches and palaces that appear in silhouette. Standing amongst them are the walls of the Queen's Palace offering a tragically grandiose shadow play. The interior of the building has been gutted by fire allowing a few timid rays of sun to filter through. This subtle interplay between the city, the light and the mist on the lake, gives the impression of incense rising from a huge altar - paying homage perhaps to the Queen's Palace.

Looking at the morning scene calls to mind some words by Racine: 'Beautiful, unadorned, attired only in a beauty just torn from sleep'. And at dusk, the few small lamps illuminating the houses on the hills create an effect of shadow and light which is almost as seductive.

During the day, the contrast is striking. Overwhelmed by the harshness of the city - the pollution, noise and sights of misery and poverty - it is easy to overlock the essential beauty. Below the old Galli bridge, a boy of seven or eight years, in rags, feeds his little sister with a withered fruit. These two little souls, alone in the world, make one forget the pretty cottages and narrow streets of the higher town, the jacarandas, flower-decked balconies and charm of the colonial houses behind their peeling walls. The initial image may fade, but it is rekindled again at sunrise, or when one suddenly stumbles across a square which is reminiscent of a small Swiss town rebuilt under a tropical sky. This is when a curious sense of nostalgia sets in, a nostalgia for a city one has never known! Antananarivo must have been truly stunning 30 or 40 years ago!

The brashness of Diego

Even when one has been told that no two regions in this country are alike, a short trip inland throws up many surprises. For the traveller, the first surprise is the journey itself. In such a poor country, where public transport in the capital is so unreliable, one might expect to be flying in an overcrowded old crate of an aircraft and one is prepared to be patient. But the aircraft leaves exactly on time and the 'crate' turns out to be a Boeing in perfect condition. Given the stipulations of the World Bank, it is clear the airline is preparing for privatisation.

Antseranana, in the far north, is still known as Diego Suarez to the rest of the world, or just Diego to its inhabitants. It was the first concession made by Madagascar to France in the last century and the French influence can still be seen everywhere, from the street names which were never translated into Malagasy, to the decor of the caf This was one of the most prosperous ports in the French overseas territories and today it is a splendid relic. One's first impression, coming from the overpopulated capital, is of space, relaxation and relative cleanliness. In comparison with the austerity of the high plateaux (in Antananarivo everything closes down in the evening), Diego Suarez displays all the expected brashness of a port. It has a bustling nightlife with cafes and nightclubs that stay open into the small hours. Late into the night, couples can be seen taking a stroll or passing the time in pavement cafes. The scene is illuminated by the lights of the many cheap restaurants that serve tasty fried fish. Here you find young foreign tourists mixing with the locals, eager to breathe in the scents of the city.

The six-month season of the tuna boats lends rhythm to the life of this nostalgic city with its history of steam ships and elegant foreigners. The last tuna vessel docked, a few days later than usual, in November. The population is cosmopolitan, a significant proportion being recently arrived Indo-Pakistanis and Arabs, who have not yet blended into the Malagasy melting pot. Diego also has a higher concentration of European tourists than elsewhere in the country, (with the exception of the tourist island of Nosy Be).

Fish caught in the region are processed at the port. Many of the tuna boats come from far away (particularly Australia). In the evenings, the 'false tuna' (unintentional catches, or windfalls) are distributed amongst the population. There is enough for everyone. All have a right to a standard measure and the fish are carried on a home-made wooden trolley. This is a small bonus in addition to the direct and indirect employment created by the port activities. The CMDM (Malagasy Handling Company), which packs tuna and has a cannery, alone employs almost 200 people full time and up to 800 day labourers in high season. Outside the tuna-fishing season, other activities continue, such as boat maintenance and the export of coffee, cocoa, wood, vanilla and tobacco. The city appears to be going through a rebirth at present as the fortunes of its port, which is one of the oldest in the region, revive.

The Compagnie de Batelage et de Charbonnage de Madagascar (Malagasy Lighterage and Bunkering Company) was set up here in 1839, later to become the East-African Maritime Company. The current renaissance dates from the end of the 1980s, when the government introduced a degree of liberatisation. The intention is to extend the port, making Diego more competitive vis-a-vis other ports around the Indian Ocean. In this respect, its location in the far north of the Malagasy Republic gives it a considerable initial advantage. Apart from the CMDM, six other companies working in the port and involved in the tuna trade have formed a professional grouping to protect their interests.

Antseranana's twin port city, Mahajanga, which has also benefited from the spin-offs of the recent economic development, is the country's second largest city although it does not have the same nightlife or apparent cosmopolitan character - the air of freedom possessed by true port cities. However, it does have the same sense of space. The streets are uncrowded and a long boulevard runs beside the port, alongside a pedestrian promenade, giving it something of the air of a Caribbean coastal city. The interesting thing about Mahajanga is its countless rickshaws. These are meticulously decorated in bright colours, and their bodywork and softly upholstered seats make them appear like miniature limousines. Mahajanga's rickshaws, unlike those of many Asian cities, leave less of an impression of wretchedness and social injustice - but this may be nothing more than an illusion created by the clever use of tropical colours.

The sensual isle

Nosy Be (pronounced Nosch-Bis regarded by many as the place to visit. It faces a large bay where an estuary gives the mainland the appearance of a constellation of small islands. Two airlines and five cruise ships can take you to this place of dreams. And it is cheap in comparison with the very few islands on earth which can genuinely compete with it in terms of beauty and changes of scenery. Seen from here, the rest of the country is not just the mainland but a fully-fledged continent.

Nosy Be is an island apart in all senses. It is round, like a child's drawing and has a luxuriant flora of fruit trees, lianas, orchids and other flowers in their thousands. The hill in the centre sparkles with small crater lakes, and it is surrounded by a myriad of small islands and sandbanks which pattern the sea with stripes of every shade of blue and green. Then there are the inviting spices and fragrances. This is the island of ylang ylang, the flowering tree which has a scent as captivating as its name suggests and which provides an essential oil used in the composition of virtually all the world's great perfumes. On the island, its fragrance blends with the piquant scent of the pepper plant and the magical smells of vetiver, coffee, cinnamon, geranium and sugar cane. I his is an island one could visit with one's eyes closed: it is sensual and enchanted, each spring and small stream telling stories of philtres, magic and love.

What a delight it is to be the first to reach the hill as the afternoon draws to a close. There is beauty as far as the eye can see -in the sky, at sea and on land. The noise from the four-wheel drives and motorcycles of the tourists, arriving at the meeting point, does little to mar the pleasurable assault on your senses. The faces of the little girls and teenagers are decorated with white paste in lacy designs. This is a cosmetic rather than 'make-up' and their faces blend well with the finely worked white tablecloths which the embroiderers have hung out to flutter in the wind as they await their customers. The children offer little bottles of pure ylang ylang oil in return for a trilling sum.

All the while, the colours in the sky are gradually changing. We have been told to expect a riot of hues but for once - perhaps the only time this year - Nosy Be's sunset is disappointing. The island's rain is supposed to stop before dusk, but this time, nature plays a trick on us, and the drizzle is still descending. Just before surreptitiously dropping out of sight, the sun briefly reveals itself as a small pale disc, as if to cock a snook at those who believe they can be at one with nature. However, even this furtive appearance, seen through a screen of fine suspended droplets against a backdrop of islands and water, has its own beauty! We were certainly not shortchanged.

For a growing band of tourists, Nosy Be is, above all, the Indian Ocean's island of leisure. It is extremely rich, with beaches which one could argue are the finest in the worid. It has wonderful promenades and exceptional underwater offshore reserves. The neighbouring small islands are home to the lemurs. Then there is the history. If you should grow bored, one of the last old Sakalava kings will gladly tell you the secular history of his family and of the other kingdoms on the island - wonderful stories of battles and love. H.G.