Just after dawn in Malagasy

Just after dawn in this central Malagasy city, carrots, green leafy vegetables, and plants are headed downhill to the market. Bread and eggs are headed up hill to the hotels and restaurants. Mostly on heads. Often with bare feet. Sometimes the women going to market carry their good shoes along with their produce on their heads. At the market they’ll put on their shoes as they change from porters into salesladies.

A few going to market have push carts. The hand-made carts have brakes (a wooden plate jammed against one wheel) to slow them down if need be. Some lucky ladies get rides down hill on the carts along with their goods. Mostly men control the carts because their strength is needed to get the cart up the next hill.

Now and then a minibus passes with vegetables loaded on top, but most of the transportation is by people on foot.

I’m observing all this because I like to go outside at dawn with my coffee before all the good morning air gets used up. The first couple of days, I just stood in front of the hotel. Now, I watch all this from a narrow alley beside the hotel as I drink my morning coffee. The alley provides a good view between buildings of the churches of old town across the valley. Mostly, I like being inconspicuous in the alley, watching what goes by.

If I’m visible to the passers-by, I attract too much attention. I’m strange, out of place. I’m taller and bigger and whiter than anyone passing by. Some are startled by me, others look at me shyly. A very few smile and say, “bon jour”, thinking I must be a French guy since nearly all the other white folk here are Gaullic. A few try to hit me up for a few coins. Sometimes they have a trinket they want me to buy.

But in the morning, just after dawn, the vast majority are hustling to get their goods to their buyers or potential buyers. They don’t give much more than a passing glance at the big white guy drinking coffee in the alley.

Later in the day, I lug my own goods along the same street. I don’t tote anything edible or even very useful to the average Malagasy. I lug the tools of my trade (a computer, a projector and butcher paper) down the hill, mostly walking in the street since the sidewalks are mostly filled with sales booths erected every morning. Tuesday and Thursday are market days and the goods spill off the sidewalk into the street.

The only sidewalks available for walking are in front of the government buildings where machine gun toting guards keep the way cleared.

Every day I walk down this hill past families who have already staked out spots on the sidewalk as their salesroom for the day. One day I pass a mother with two children who look to be about 6 and 4. Their inventory is spread on a blanket on the sidewalk. The children are so cute, I stop just up the street from them to play peek-a-boo with them. The mother soon leaves and the children sell their bananas and cookies to other children and some adults walking by. I stay for awhile thinking the mother will come back, but she doesn’t. The children seem to be doing a good job of making sales and keeping track of the money.

I look in every possible direction at every intersection, trying to anticipate speeding motorbikes and minibuses along with push carts which can get up a real head of steam going down hill.

After about eight blocks of avoiding fellow pedestrians and every possible means of conveyance, plus deep potholes and other obstructions, I get to the alley I must walk up. It’s only about three foot wide and has a rivulet of water running down it. The rivulet is kinda gray and not something I want to step in. I straddle the stream and make it up to a swinging wooden door and then up two flights of stairs meant for short Malagasy, watching my head all the way.

One day as I arrive, huge sacks are being unloaded from atop a minivan. Guys barely bigger than the sacks somehow carry them up the alley and the stairs to the office I am headed to. The sacks are filled with prized certified seed. The organization I am working with will distribute the seed to farmers who will then multiply the seed to provide high quality seed for farmers all across Madagascar.

I don’t particularly enjoy walking up the smelly alley or the narrow stairs built for people half my size and where I bump my head now and then. But I love working with Julienne and her team at Cercle Régional des Agriculteurs Malagasy Fianarantsoa or CRAM. None of them speak English, but they wanted me to come and help them transform their organization, so here I come up the stairs with my equipment led by my translator.

After the first meeting, we decide it would be best for me to see how they work in the field so I visit three communities they work in. All require long, but scenic rides over rough roads. As far as I can tell, nearly every ride in Madagascar is scenic.

Only 5% of the land is flat enough to plant crops. The rest is hills and mountains. So it’s a lot like Appalachia, where I cut my teeth in the cooperative business. Which is fitting because I’m here to help them transform their nonprofit into a cooperative union, a cooperative of cooperatives. Just up my alley.

In two of the communities the local organizations (Cercle Local des Agriculteurs Malagasy or CLAMs) are well developed with warehouses to store seed the farmers produce. They are both close to roads a large truck can get down to haul seed out. The third was more typical of the CLAMS. The village where this CLAM is located is visible from the paved road, but only just. Our vehicle parked in the shade at the end of the passable road, we climb down a trail for several kilometers to be surprised at the quality of their houses. All are made of local brick, two stories high with metal roofs. The bricks are made from local clay, but everything else was hauled in on their backs. Anything they produce for sale also only reaches the road on their backs.

Their compound is composed of four houses which double as storage sheds, an earthen walled corral for their Zebus, and a Christian shrine. They surround a dirt courtyard which is swept clean. In one corner of the courtyard, a teenage girl is pounding grain with a long club-like pestle which she pounds again and again down into the traditional high walled mortar. Her shy toddler hides behind her skirts as she works.

As they learn visitors have arrived, members of the CLAM start arriving from nearby compounds.

They bring out some rugs woven from reeds and place them on the ground under the only shade trees they have. We learn they farm very small amounts of land. An average of two hectares, about five acres. But this land is usually split up in several plots. One farmer we talked to has four different plots which together total five acres.

Their biggest problem is water. They point to a spot across the valley just above their rice and vegetable plots. That is a spring which is their only source of water. It does flow all year, but only a trickle. Any water for their compounds is carried on their heads from the spring up the hills to their houses. We talk a little about checkdams and other water harvesting systems. It’s one of many areas of knowledge that they are interested in, but unfamiliar with.

It’s a peaceful, quiet, isolated spot, with beautiful views down the valley. We joke it would be covered in vacation homes if it was in the US and ask if any French people live in the area. They say no, but one French girl did spend a year as an intern on the other side of the valley. I wonder aloud how I would survive here with my dependency on computers and internet and cold beer and other habits which require electricity.

Only 13% of Malagasy have electricity in their homes and the folks in this valley are in the majority. I’d have loved to stay longer and at least visit the spring, but my minders want to press on to the next village. There we did spot one solar panel and a huge Lutheran church set off by itself from the village. Nowadays the pastor only holds services once a month. He also grows rice seed. “Pastora” marks his bags in the CLAM warehouse. We don’t see any electric poles for dozens of kilometers as we skirt along the ridges heading back to the city.

Now that I’ve got the lay of the land, its time to dig into the fun of helping them sort out how to transform CRAM and the CLAMs. I’m hopeful, but not totally sure, how successful we will be. You never know in this sort of work.


My trip was made possible by CNFA and USAID through the Farmer to Farmer Program. A trip to Madagascar might be in your future. Look at the assignments available and apply.

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