Impressions of Madagascar

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

For the first time, I had the opportunity to visit Madagascar last week, leaving on Monday 23rd January and returning on Sunday 29th. It was in the context of a project for the control of communicable diseases in the Indian Ocean, specifically the islands of Mauritius (Rodrigues included of course), Reunion, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles.

This issue had assumed major importance since the outbreak of Chikungunya in the region in 2005-06, which affected us and Reunion quite extensively given our small size. But there are other diseases with a potential for epidemic too, such as dengue fever and plague (present in Madagascar), and it was realised that these islands needed to strengthen their capacity for surveillance and response so as to be ever prepared both in between and during epidemics should they arise.

The conference was held in Antananarivo, or Tananarive as it used to be called during colonial times and by which name most of us had heard of it, and for those most familiar with the place it is simply Tana. Way back in the 1960s, I am aware of some friends having gone to study at the university there, for it had a great reputation in the region. Further, we knew that rice known as perle de Madagascar was imported from there. Besides, Mauritian students who were proceeding to the USSR for studies would catch their Aeroflot flight at Tana airport.

I overflew Madagascar once, in 1994, on the way back from South Africa. The pilot informed us that for a good bit of the way we were flying under the huge cloud of cyclone Hollanda, and indeed on looking through the window it was quite dark. Were we scared in anyway? I do not remember, frankly! On the other hand, I recall seeing a documentary about the flora and fauna of Madagascar several years ago; biologists keenly study the Lemurs, a category of simians which apparently are interesting from the evolutionary point of view.

By special arrangement I was able to visit the University Hospital in Tana, which is a 700-bedded one. Its Medical Director explained to me the developments that he had pushed since he took over some time back, and some of the difficulties and constraints that he was facing, not least as regards financing. Since he happened to occupy the Chair of Orthopaedics too, which is my own speciality, it struck a chord and he kindly took me to visit the Orthopaedic ward. Naturally we talked shop! Afterwards we met the Director of the Centre Hospitalo-Universitaire himself and had an interesting exchange of views.

On the same afternoon I visited the Institut Pasteur de Madagascar (IPM), a reference laboratory with which we already have arrangements to send samples for analysis when required, and also for training of our staff. A number of them have already done so, and there are further training projects scheduled in future.

We were staying at Hotel Le Louvre, of more modern design than Le Colbert a few minutes’ walk away, where we proceeded at 8.30 am daily for the meetings. Le Colbert is more traditional French style, and one could imagine the notables during the French administration converging there for both work and détente in its wood panelled rooms. We met the Mauritian lady who was in charge at Le Louvre; she was known to some of the colleagues who had been there before, and had assured me that we would be looked after properly. Indeed we were – always a great comfort when one is in a foreign land.

Although official transport had been arranged, Varun, a nephew who works in Tana, insisted on coming to welcome me, and of course I was only too happy – especially when he assured me that this had not disturbed his work. In the evening, after I had freshened, he and Nadia came to the hotel, and he was kind enough to invite my two other colleagues also to an evening out. We had a drink at the Carlton Hotel and then proceeded to have a Chinese meal. It was the best introduction to the nightlife of Tana, and also to make me feel relaxed and comfortable and ready for the next few days of intensive discussions and decision-taking. But more than that, Varun and Nadia made me feel completely at home, through the evenings we spent together – including the dinner at Nadia’s place – and then the trip on Saturday last outside Tana. One thing I noticed was that the food in restaurants is much cheaper than in Mauritius, and I would say the service too – something we could usefully learn from.

Tana is a city of ‘douze collines’, I was told by the colleague who drove me to the university and the IPM. It has a population of 2 million, and inevitably there are overcrowding and traffic jams throughout the working hours, with peaks in the morning and evening of course. Unfortunately the fleet of vehicles dates to the 1960s and 1970s, so the cars are in a rather shabby state, looking their age what with their fading paint and worn bumpers and other external accessories. Public transport in crowded vans with passengers hanging on at the back was another feature that caught my eyes, reminding me of even more crowded buses in India. There is the railway station, but I learnt that there is more of cargo transport than human travel between a few of the main cities in the country.

Houses are juxtaposed cheek-by-jowl, sloping roof constructions that dot the hillsides, all of them overlooked by the ‘Palais de la Reine’. The latter truly dominates the city, being the highest point that is seen from many kilometres around. Many of the roads in the city are cobbled, and in general are rather narrow, in spite of which they have to accommodate vehicular traffic. One has to be a very skilled driver to negotiate these lanes – and I could appreciate that Varun had learnt to do so quite well, for it is a matter practically of survival!

Everybody is busy making a living, and there were many hawkers along the way to Le Colbert and elsewhere; alas there are also many beggars, including children in rags or mothers with such children or babies in their arms. This sight caused a pinch in my heart, and my reaction was as it is when I face a similar scene in Indian cities (though there has been a considerable decline there since my student days): with a country that is so rich in resources and culture, why do we have to witness such heart-rending situations? Why can’t the leaders and rulers come together to make the best use of their riches and the people’s talents to ensure to all of them a minimum level of prosperity and decent living? Some wise ones somewhere must surely have the answer…

On Saturday we set out to visit first ‘Les Collines Bleues’, about 30 kms from Tana. It was a beautiful sunny, dry day but somewhat warm, in spite of Tana being at 1350 meters above sea level. We drove through green countryside under a blue sky with bright white fluffy clouds scattered in it. I observed that for such a big country the roads are rather too narrow, and this is felt especially when one has to cross lorries on the way. Nevertheless, we reached our destination safely, and after parking and buying the tickets we took the small boat to the other side of the small lake where was situated the Gasikara Park.

There are replicated the provinces of Madagascar on a miniature scale, featuring through built houses and statues of animals and human subjects the characteristics of each province. Thus we saw the thatched houses, that resembled the lacaz lapaille of yore in Mauritius, and Varun and Nadia gave me explanations of the specific features. For example, why was the main entrance in one house we saw a small one, and had a similar door exactly facing it in the opposite wall? We also saw the cooking pots and wooden pilons-mortiers, similar to the ones that were in routine use at home when I was a kid. Nadia, who visits far-fetched villages as part of her work, gave me an insight into the local customs, pointing out how the people there managed without running water and electricity.

After the ‘provinces’ we took a round of the mini-zoo, where I saw the Lemurs and maquis. We than had a nice meal at the restaurant before proceeding to visit a historical place: the former residence of the kings and queens of Madagascar. A well-informed guide took us through and we learnt a lot in the relatively short time of 45 minutes about that part of the history of Tana, why the first king had twelve wives, the reasons for the various architectural features of the high-roofed house where he lived and so on. I also learnt about the sacrifice of the zebus, and that this custom is still prevalent though in a modified form.

Saturday evening ended in a nice Indian meal, a welcome change from the too non-vegetarian fare that I had been having in the previous few days. All in all, a very fruitful (professionally) and most pleasant stay courtesy my official and personal hosts. They have expressed a wish that I come again, and this time strictly for holidays! I will certainly not miss the opportunity!

* Published in print edition on 3 February 2012

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