NOTE FOM JONAH: This is part of a series of photographs and thoughts from Madagascar. To see earlier installments of this series click here.
When I landed on Madagascar I wondered what I would learn from the country.
It would be the 17th country I would enter in 2012, and according to statistics — the poorest.
But unlike the other countries I’ve past through this year (2012 was spent in China, Mongolia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, UAE, Qatar, Yemen, Socotra, USA, Canada, Holland, Italy, France, Singapore, Mauritius, Madagascar), the leftover stench of colonialism was present here in a different way.
Abject poverty, filthy kids playing in small straw huts that looked they could be blown over by a gust of wind, tremendously over crowded buses driving at dangerous speeds — these things don’t really surprise me much anymore. But seeing the influence of France did. Madagascar gained independence from their former French overlords in 1960, but if you didn’t know that, casual observation might leed you to believe they never left.
Today the French colonists come in the form of fat tourists touting cameras, iPads, inaccurate guidebooks and euros, hoping from place-to-place, treating locals like servants and the land as if it (still) belonged to them. They see the amazing national parks; the endemic wildlife and are presented cuisine they recognize nightly. But for the most part, they miss the places in between and aren’t subject to viewing how most Malagasy actually live.
On one of many 12-hour car rides I took in the country, I wondered what the Malagasy population must think of the outside world. Secluded at seemingly the bottom of the world the vast majority of these people will never leave this island. On top of that about 90% of Malagasy don’t have electricity. The influence of satellite television, western media, Hollywood and Bollywood are not deep routed here.
So for these people their views of the outside world must be tremendously influenced by those tourists who chose to make the long journey down here.
In my three weeks on the island I saw almost zero nonnative French speaking tourists. Almost everyone of these people was carrying some sort of camera taking pictures of what must seem ordinary to the Malagasy.
As poor village after poor village past by, I wondered if the Malagasy picture the outside world like the image they see in their country: A bunch of over weight, white people with stiff brimmed hats partially covered with smeared sun block walking around taking pictures of every child, tree, living or dead animal and plate that comes in front of them.
Neocolonists aside these impoverished people go on living a difficult life, but in a much different way than I’m used to seeing in Asia.
Here, their actions seem dictated by the need to survive.
The factory worker in China works hundreds of hours of overtime because they are trying to get ahead; trying to create a better future. They can both see and imagine a better furutre. But here, without work you might simply starve.
I wondered where I would rather be poor: in Africa or Asia? The African people in this country are living in a condition far more undeveloped than what I normally see in Asia. However, here people seem to be a bit more happy.
People seem more content with the life they have been born into.
But maybe this is because they have no choice. In many parts in Asia, you have the choice to go work a horribly dull job in a factory or to move to a big city where employment is obtainable. But here, thats not an option. You can farm and try to earn some small bits of money selling something, building something, maybe even mining something. But at a certain level of poverty and development — choice becomes a luxury noun.