Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hard Times

The rainy season comes late in Madagascar this year, and good thing, too, for we are woefully unprepared for the torrential downpours typical of the winter (austral summer) months in this country. We’ve left most of the inadequate canvas tents provided in Tana behind and are relying on WWF Vondrozo’s stock of nylon “Freetime” tents, a Malagasy mark that seems to specialize in one-time use, disposable products. Incredibly, the tents look the same as any you might find in Europe or North America—indeed, their design is the exact same as Brian’s tent which he purchased abroad in France—but the only difference is that all of the WWF tents break and his does not.

We get creative with tent pole combinations and DUCT tape patching (thankfully, Kuni was a better outdoor leader than me and brought some to Madagascar), but when the rain starts to fall in earnest, we find ourselves battling outside in the elements, digging trenches and building levees around our flimsy plastic structures in an effort to keep our cameras—if not our persons—dry. Florent says that because of “la grande chaleur”—the great heat, in reference to climate change—the local wet season onset has been delayed more and more every year. In the old days, he claims anecdotally, the rains set in as early as mid October. Thankfully for us, we don’t really start to experience the wrath of the monsoon season until our last week sur terrain in late November.

While we may be pleased about the prolonged dryness, the changing climate patterns bode ill for the Malagasy people, whose lives are tied so closely to the seasonal calendar. According to Ranto, the end of the dry season marks the “periode de soudure,” a time of scarcity and suffering when dry season crops are all but spent and wet season crops have yet to sprout.
During our first field excursion, we carried rice and beans with us throughout the séjour but regularly bought various additions and accompaniments to our dry goods—vegetables, meats, sometimes eggs—in the villages we encountered. This time through, we discover that vegetables are rarely available, that rice is overpriced, and that the population is, in general, edgy and hungry. Somehow, the distended bellies of the children in every village seem more pronounced or at least more evident. I am particularly shaken one evening when a skinny black cat sneaks into tranobe to nibble the scraps spilled from our dinner. The poor baby scarfs down forgotten rice kernels on the mats under our knees like there is no tomorrow; maybe there is not, after all. I think of Sassy back home, turning up her nose when Mom buys the wrong flavor of Fancy Feast. What might she say if she knew that cats in Madagascar are so hungry that they’ll eat unaccompanied rice? Knowing Sassy, though, I doubt she’d be very sympathetic...

I mentioned previously that it is custom to give the gift of a chicken when a visitor arrives to a village in the rural southeast; our last session in the field bore witness to enough chicken slaughters to make a native Petaluman proud of her heritage. This time around, however, the gifts are few and far between, and if the carnivorous among us are craving meat, it is more likely that we buy a chicken and more likely still that it is mangy and scrawny. Maman’Dilo has a gift for turning a small drumstick and spoonful of chicken broth into a delectable meal when paired with rice, and I pause briefly to marvel at the casualness with which she prepares our food. For me back home, cooking a chicken for a party of twelve would be the cuisine event of the month, if not the year; I’d stress about it for weeks beforehand and feel relief only when the plates were washed and the guests on their way home. For Maman’Dilo, it is something that is suggested at 4pm and ready by 7pm—routine, simple, no questions asked.

For those of us who have become habituated to consuming a mountain of rice three times a day, it was at first disconcerting to discover this séjour sur terrain that those mountains were eroding away. We never went hungry, of course, but the quantities diminished to a noticeable extent—enough certainly to make us aware of the scarcity around us. We are all a little bit delighted, I think, to find ourselves back in Vondrozo where food is more readily available, and where the onset of the life-giving rains and wet season fruits is more than apparent. For 100 ariary (about 5 U.S. cents), you can spend all morning “hoovering” (Christa’s favorite verb) some two dozen delectable lychee fruits; for 400 ariary (20 cents), you can eat a whole pineapple; and if you are feeling truly profligate, for 3000 ariary ($1.50 U.S.), you can always go to the hotely next door for a zebu steak and a plate of French fries. And at Behavana, misy ketchup—always.

You may laugh at the absurdity of it all, but remember the tragedy, as well. For the Malagasy, these are hard, hard times, indeed.

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