Nederlandse versie

Living on another planet

Madagascar | Anno 2001


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It's really getting on my nerves. Evening has fallen. Tomorrow we have to go up the Tsiribihina. But Hely is nowhere to be seen, although she had sworn she'd be present. Not that the boat trip would be very dangerous. But I'd rather not start without Hely, as she's the manager. After all, we will be cut off from civilization for three days. Our travel guide Hoby, however skilled, lacks experience.

The hotel Arotel in Antsirabe, barely six years old, already looks as if it has survived thirty years of communist rule. But that doesn't keep the kitchen staff from serving us an absolutely delicious evening meal. Suddenly someone from the hotel staff taps me on the shoulder. Can I please come down to the lobby for a moment? I realise something serious must have happened.

He trembles all over, his white shirt and pants are stained with blood

A young man sits on a chair in the centre of the lobby. He trembles all over, his white shirt and pants are stained with blood. The messy bandages on both hands can hardly contain the blood.

Still, he's relieved to see me come in, even though I don't know him. Timby is his name, he is one of Hely's associates. He immediately wants to tell his story, but right now I'm not listening. No one does anything to take care of him or to seek medical attention. The hotel staff is standing by and looking at it. They don't care, it seems.

I want a doctor as soon as possible. They stare at me like I'm coming from another planet. Only a vazaha – a white man – can come up with such a foolish idea. Do I really think a doctor would be interested in treating this poor man? But I stand firm. Finally someone reluctantly disappears towards the telephone. That doesn't help much. The doctor lets us know he is not interested in this patient.


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Only a vazaha – a white man – can come up with such a foolish idea

Meanwhile, Timby tells his story. He and Hely had left the capital Antananarivo to join us this afternoon when they were hit head-on in the dark by an oncoming vehicle about fifty kilometres from Antsirabe. The impact must have been terrible as their car went off the road and rolled over twice. Hely was at the wheel, but she’s unharmed, thank goodness. She has sent Timby to get help in Antsirabe. She herself stayed with the car to prevent passers-by from looting the crashed vehicle.

Hoby and our driver Pascal know enough. Without wasting any more time, they set out in search of Hely and the wreckage. What happens to Timby in the meantime, I want to know. Pascal reassures me. A colleague of his will take Timby to the hospital.

It is a quarter past eleven when they arrive back at the hotel. That Hely is unharmed turns out to be a white lie. Her left forearm is wrapped in a primitive sling. It's okay, she says, waving the pain away with a cramped face. For she wants to accompany us on the Tsiribihina at all costs. As a manager, she sees this as her job.

I really can’t agree with that. You only have to look at her forearm so to speak and she will moan. Hely has to go to the hospital, that much is clear. It is almost one o'clock before she gives in. She will visit the hospital tonight. Promised.


* * * * *


From cool Antsirabe, at about 1 500 m above sea level, we will descend today to sweltering Miandrivazo, on the banks of the Tsiribihina. There we board a boat for a trip of about 150 km west on the slow-flowing river. It eventually flows into the Mozambique Strait, but we won't go that far. Our three-day tour will come to an end in Belo-sur-Tsiribihina.


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Irrigation channel

With Pascal at the wheel – over thirty years of experience – we feel in safe hands. A pink lucky bunny dangles from his rear-view mirror, sharpening our sense of security. He cherishes his Mercedes Benz 802D van as if it were his own child. The vehicle has almost 250 000 km on the clock. Actually, it was imported from Belgium. Through the white paint we still can see the lettering of Taxi Hendrikx from Overpelt in Belgium.


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In the end, not Hely, but Hoby will accompany us. We have to give her a chance. The ebony cutie with the disarming pearly white smile is 23 now and does an exemplary job. After her baccalaureate, she studied tourism for three years. She has been working for Hely ever since. Her full name is Hobinirina Andrianarivoharisoa. That is beyond our comprehension, we can call her Hoby. A bit of a shame, because that's how a piece of poetry gets lost. Hobi means to praise, nirin means to hope.


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Her work is her life. She dreams of starting her own business one day. She likes to travel, she likes to have contact with people from foreign cultures. She actually learned a lot about her own country by guiding tourists. In Antananarivo, as a member of the wealthy class, you are living in an ivory tower, she has discovered to her dismay. In the capital they are unaware of the extreme misery in the Malagasy interior – or at least they pretend to be unaware.


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They owe their dominant position to King Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka

Like Pascal, she belongs to the dominant Merina tribe. All important social, political, economic and military positions in Madagascar are occupied by the Merina. They owe this to King Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka. At the end of the 18th century, he managed to bring all the members of his tribe together and to take control of half the island.


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But her grandparents don't think much of Hoby's job. Imagine her bringing home a boyfriend from another tribe? An Antandroy, a Betsileo, a Bara, a Sakalava or – worst of all – a Vezo? Her grandparents would die of shame, she chuckles.


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Traditional Merinas practice the famadihana, the ritual of reburial

Even by Malagasy standards, her grandparents are very conservative. Hoby's father passed away two years ago. Traditional Merinas practice the famadihana, the ritual of reburial. The bones of the deceased are then taken from the grave, wrapped in new cloths and carried around festively. Usually this happens five to seven years after he died, because the family has to save money a long time for that party. Quite a few zebus have to be slaughtered and that costs a lot. It is the mpanandro, a kind of astrologer, who accurately determines on which day the reburial should take place. The night before, the family goes to the grave to summon the ghosts to make sure they are ready for the big day.


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Hoby's father would certainly object to this ritual, as it is way too expensive. But her grandparents stick to the tradition. So her father's twelve siblings each will have to buy a special white robe worth 700 000 Malagasy francs - well over € 120.

A house is only for life, a grave is for eternity, goes a Malagasy wisdom

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Tombes of the Merina

Gradually, the beautiful, sun-drenched landscape of rice terraces and mud houses with thatched roofs gives way to a vast undulating prairie of knee-high arid grass. Very occasionally we recognize a tomb of a Merina in the landscape. Such tombs are beautiful stone structures, sometimes more beautiful and larger than the mud houses in which the people live. A house is only for life, a grave is for eternity, goes a Malagasy wisdom.


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Market place of Miandrivazo


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The Idéal, a nice little chaland, floats against the steep bank of the Majahilo. Manager Laurence welcomes us on board with her dog Pillule. The next three days, this Idéal will be our home during the day. By local standards it is a luxurious vessel, with wheelhouse, kitchen, toilet, dining area and even a deck that has been promoted to sundeck by Laurence. That is also the place where we install our luggage.


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The chaland Idéal

With regard to the toilet, Laurence does not fail to point out that it is only geared to small needs. For the heavier work we will always have to go ashore, between the bushes – if there will be any. In the kitchen two cheerful ladies enthusiastically practice their cooking skills. Furthermore, three boat boys watch over the technical aspects of the boat and John will be our guide. A little further along the river bank a second boat, the Bibina, is waiting for four French tourists who will be accompanied by Laurence herself.

In an imperceptible way, the Malagasy adage 'mora mora' – slowly, slowly – takes hold of us

Laurence seems to be firmly in control and to know what she is doing. That makes the absence of Hely a bit more palatable. Shortly after noon we sail off while lots of locals are watching from the shore. An excellent lunch on board immediately puts us in a great mood – a salad with tomato and avocado, zebu fillet with rice and pasta, a papaya for dessert.


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About twenty minutes later we reach the Tsiribihina and turn west with the flow of the river. For three days we will sail this river, without any possibility of communication with the outside world. In an imperceptible way, the Malagasy adage 'mora mora' – slowly, slowly – takes hold of us.


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In the evening we moor in Sahambano, on a huge sandbank in the river. During the rainy season it is completely under water, but today we don't have to worry about getting wet here. Anchoring the tent pegs firmly in the loose river sand obviously isn't a nursery game. Nevertheless, barely twenty minutes later we consider the job done. Seven tents stand nicely with their entrances to the east. Because the wind hardly ever blows here, John knows from experience. And even when it does blow, it's guaranteed to come from the west. Shortly afterwards a strong wind starts blowing. It is blowing from the east and will be blowing all night long.


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Tent camp on a sandbank close to Sahambano

Darkness is falling fast now. The boat boys build a wood fire on the shore, but we have dinner on board the Idéal. Decapitated water bottles, partly filled with sand, serve as candle holders and shield the delicate flames from the fierce wind. Over a salad with corn and tuna, we see our tents gradually drifting away from us in the darkness. That is an optical illusion. It is our boat that has come loose and is drifting with the current. Now it becomes clear why that wood fire had to be built – to make it easy to find the tents in the darkness. Without worrying, we start eating a fried tilapia.


* * * * *


A relentless wind yanks our tents all night, but they hold up without a problem. From six o'clock the camp comes alive. Ducks and herons perform their morning symphony. Just after seven, the sun rises over the mountains and casts its first rays over the tents. Our unrivalled chefs surprise us with apple and pineapple fritters. Towards nine o'clock fishermen with their pirogues moor up against our boat, offering some fresh fish. John doesn't hesitate to accept their offer.

Ducks and herons perform their morning symphony

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White-faced whistling ducks


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Breakfast on board the Idéal


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Fresh fish for sale

It's sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Gradually the riverbanks become hilly. We’re approaching the Gorge de Bemaraha. Densely vegetated hills rise steeply from the water on either side of the river, but spectacular isn't the right word to describe the gorge. If we want to see a Grand Canyon, we have to go somewhere else.


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High in the trees, five Verreaux's sifakas sunbathing with outstretched arms and legs. These great white prosimians are distant cousins of real monkeys. They look as if they wear a white ring beard around their black snout. It's a pity they're not on the ground. Otherwise we might be able to see how funny they are when they hop around in sideways movements.


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Verreaux’s sifakas


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Verreaux's sifakas belong to the lemur family. Lemurs are undoubtedly the most famous inhabitants of Madagascar. They are not found anywhere else in the world. They owe their survival to their isolation on this large island, as they are not able to compete with real monkeys.


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A large grey turtle also enjoys the early rays of the sun. It sits on a dry piece of wood near the waterline. The boat steadily slaloms across the river, partly to avoid sandbanks, but mainly to track down living creatures – bats, white-faced whistling ducks, kingfishers, a sunbathing Nile crocodile.

For many centuries a few relatively isolated communities of farmers have managed to survive here

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Gorge de Bemaraha

Shortly after noon we sail into the vast plain of Menabe. Here, on the fertile banks of the river, farmers can more easily earn their livelihood. For many centuries a few relatively isolated communities of farmers have managed to survive here. The village of Begidro is one of those. Literally, Begidro means many lemurs. Yet you will search in vain for lemurs. Because when tobacco plantations appeared in the landscape, the lemurs had no choice but to look for another biotope.

Two companies in Miandrivazo supply the planting material to the farmers. After the harvest, they buy the dried tobacco leaves. Yet tobacco is no more than an extra income for the local farmers. Rice and zebus, that's what the local economy runs on. If tobacco generates extra money, it is immediately invested in zebus. The farmers don't need banks – zebus are their walking investments.

The farmers don't need banks – zebus are their walking investments

In silence dozens of children and a handful of women observe us from the high riverbank. They are not pushy, just curious. Undoubtedly, they wonder what our intention is. Against the steep bank we climb ashore and walk to the village. The huts have thatched roofs and walls of dried earth sandwiched between horizontal twigs.


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Every now and then the wind howls powerfully through the village, whirling the bone-dry dust up into a pale blur. A strange shadow play then evolves, with humans and animals in the role of ghost apparitions, shrouded in a cloud of dust.

The Tsiribihina acts as a lifeline connecting the villages. A bit like the Congo River in Zaire

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Traffic on the river is now somewhat busier, as the Tsiribihina acts as a lifeline connecting the villages. A bit like the Congo River in Zaire. That does not prevent us from continuing our journey in peace. But that won't last long. Unexpected problems are always lurking around the corner. A little further on, the Bibina with Laurence and the four Frenchmen appears to be in a breakdown. For the time being, there is no prospect of recovery. Out of necessity, the Bibina is riveted to the Idéal. Shoulder to shoulder, the boats continue their journey.

It’s hardly a surprise that the famous taxi brousses on the Malagasy roads have floating equivalents on the Malagasy rivers. However, do not expect fast, safe and reliable transport. A lack of space and comfort is what you will get. And a lot of ambience, as these floating taxis are extremely popular because they are quite cheap.

Do not expect fast, safe and reliable transport. A lack of space and comfort is what you will get

One of those taxi brousses is called the Tsiribihina. In better times it makes its rounds on the river. But today that doesn't work so well. Lack of fuel, you know. Helplessly it floats in the middle of the river. We lend some diesel. Funny, we are starting to become the Tsiribihina roadside assistance.


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Sandbank near Berevo

A sandbank near Berevo becomes the place where we set up our tents for the night. The lovely peace that we experienced in Sahambano is hard to find here. It looks more like a busy service station along the waterway, judging by the many drinking and eating shacks.

We can't complain about a lack of interest as soon as we start setting up our tents. Children in particular are mesmerized by what is about to happen. There are dozens of them, earnestly observing our actions.

Dozens of children are earnestly observing our actions

Tonight our chefs have prepared a delicious romazava, a mixed meat ragout with spinach, the national dish of Madagascar. It is nine o'clock when we retire to our tents. It is a bit colder than last night, but luckily there hardly is any wind.


* * * * *


No ducks or herons, but roosters today consider it their job to wake us in time. Not to fall short on that point, all the roosters of Madagascar seem to have settled in Berevo especially for us.


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Through the loose sand of a sunken road we climb out of the enormous riverbed. Under no circumstances should we point the index finger to anything, John reminds us. Because that’s how we disturb the spirits. Disturbing the ghosts is fady – the Malagasy version of taboo. Violating a fady is taken very seriously in Madagascar. It will cost you at least a zebu to calm the ghosts again. If we want to point out something, we should do it with a closed fist. This is especially true when it comes to tombs.

Violating a fady is taken very seriously in Madagascar

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A half hour walk takes us to the covered vegetable market of Berevo. Apparently there are no shortages in the supply. Mainly rice, beans and tobacco are grown here. Again tobacco is grown as a bonus, the revenue being invested in zebus. Further up there is a lake. The banks must be very fertile, judging by the huts and rice plantations that abound. However, this situation is only temporary. Once the rainy season starts, the plantations will quickly be flooded – an annual phenomenon.


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A hospital, that's what they call the inconspicuous building on a hill in the middle of the village where a flag is flying on a pole. Two patients sit absently in the waiting room, staring straight ahead. As far as there are rooms to receive patients, they are largely empty. As a matter of fact, there hardly are any beds. What passes for the delivery room is a bare room with a rusty metal table with two brackets at the end. We dare not imagine that this thing could serve as a delivery couch.


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Hospital of Berevo

In his cabinet, Dr. Rambeloson Andriaraivotiara greets us with a deep sigh. A bed, a desk with some papers and a stethoscope, that's his complete set of instruments. He doesn't seem to have any medicines.

Dr. Rambeloson Andriaraivotiara stares at us as if we were from another planet

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Dr. Rambeloson Andriaraivotiara


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Delivery room

An area of 260 km², virtually without motorized transport and without communication with the outside world, that is his field of activity. Nine thousand people live and work here. Every month he receives 150 patients. His biggest problem? A chronic lack of materials and medicines. In addition, people are far too unconcerned about their medical condition. For example, if they are infected with tuberculosis, they only go to the doctor if there are complications. And then it is often too late. Alcoholism is common. Sexually transmitted diseases are common too. Polygamy and frequently changing sexual contacts are of course to blame.


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The depressing misery grips us, we want to help and start collecting money. Dr. Rambeloson stares at us as if we were from another planet. Only a vazaha – a white man – can come up with such a foolish idea, he must think. What on earth could he do with money here, in the middle of the bush?

Confused, we return to the Idéal. Medicines and syringes that every tourist should carry with him, but in practice never uses, can already be given to him. Back in Belgium, we will send him another package of medical material, we promise. Hely should assist us with that.


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Still unable to sail under her own power, the Bibina has become a bit of a nuisance, as it turns out as we return to the sandbank. There is no other option than to leave the useless barge in Berevo in the care of the crew and take the four Frenchmen and their cook aboard the Idéal.


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Half an hour later we reach Bekinakina. That means lots of bats. In this case, the toponym is perfect. There must be many hundreds of bats hanging in the crevices of a sandstone rock on the bank.


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As punishment, the gods planted the trees upside down in the ground, with their roots in the air

Then a beautiful forest of baobabs appears on the high bank. Their pale, leafless branches stand out against the deep blue background of the clear sky. Long ago, these trees angered the gods, so legend has it. As punishment, the gods planted the trees upside down in the ground, with their roots in the air. Indeed, they do look just like that, these naked trees with their capricious crowns. During the rainy season, they store water in their thick trunks, so they can get through the dry season effortlessly.


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It is five o'clock when our boat with a jolt against the riverbank comes to a stop in Belo-sur-Tsiribihina. A radiant Pascal awaits us on the bank, pleased that the trip has come to a good end.


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News from Hely sounds less good. This morning he called her from Morondava. Her left forearm is broken, the diagnosis reads. She needs surgery. But to date that has not happened. Now that the initial commotion has subsided, she also complains of chest pain. Some ribs may be bruised. Timby has eight stitches on his hands and fingers, a result of the havoc wrought by the shards of the windshield. Meanwhile, the wreckage of the Peugeot has been transferred to Antananarivo.

Enthusiastically we get acquainted with amenities we had to miss for three days – toilets and showers

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Market place of Belo-sur-Tsiribihina


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We say goodbye to the crew of the Idéal and to our lovely cooks who have managed to serve us delicious food in all circumstances. On foot we go to the Hôtel du Menabe and enthusiastically get acquainted with facilities we had to miss for three days – toilets and showers.


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Assistant cook


* * * * *


Two and a half years later. Hely is on a promotional visit to Belgium. In the evening I pick her up near Central Station in Brussels. The beautiful island of Madagascar, the unique animal life, the trip on the Tsiribihina, the meeting with the doctor from Berevo – we have plenty to talk about. Unitedly we praise the beauty of Madagascar and express our concern about the future of the poverty-stricken country. Two presidents are in power now, neither of them is prepared to resign.

Two presidents are in power now, neither of them is prepared to resign

Inevitably, Hely's broken arm comes up. Yes, the arm is completely healed, she replies proudly. Barely three months after the accident, Hely managed to bribe a doctor to have her arm operated on. How lucky she is to have received such good treatment, she adds with a proud smile, as in Madagascar very few people have access to medical care.

I confess. I live on another planet.


Jaak Palmans
© 2022