Colourful Madagascar

Throughout 2021, I’ve decided to revisit many of my travels throughout Africa. Since today is International Forest Day (21 March), I’ve dedicated this blog post to my fond memories of Baobab trees; particularly the golden sunset in Madagascar’s Baobab Avenue.

My journey begins in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar. It’s name translates to place of one thousand warriors and came about in 1610, when Merina King Andrianjaka conquered the region with one thousand men. I had arrived in Madagascar in early 2016 to discover a capital city that now paints an entirely different scene. The hilly city has evolved an unique character with ambling roads full of people, cars, colourful markets and food stalls.  

The mingling of Asian rice paddies, French styled architecture and fruit filled African markets made for a wonderful mix of cultures. Madagascar is home to at least 24 million people, thought to have arrived originally from the Indo-Malaysian region evident by the cultivation of rice paddy fields. Linguistic clues showed elements of Sanskrit, and even Arabic in the Malagasy language. ‘Salama’ was the greeting, a word so familiar to me in Arabic. In fact, the northern region of Madagascar including the islands of Comoros is predominantly Muslim. 

The French dominated the scene in the late 1800’s, and have certainly left their imprint. French was spoken widely here, with all children schooled academically in the French language. French cuisine and pastries were a common part of the diet along with plenty of fruit. Roadside markets were colourful displays of bananas, plums, apples and pineapples.

Roadside markets display a colour abundance of fruit

Madagascar riches are not monetary, with approximately 80% unemployment and people surviving on $2 a day. Life may be challenging, yet the locals didn’t always show such hardship in their faces. ‘Relaxing’ appeared to be part of the daily routine. Men and young boys were often seen herding the Zebu’s, which looked similar to cows but distinguished by their longer horns and hump at the back of the neck.

Sunset glows across Baobab Avenue
The Lover’s Tree

Baobab trees are an iconic image of Madagascar. I had the chance to see a ‘lovers tree’, a baobab that had spilt into two trunks and proceeded to grow intertwined. Honeymoon couples come here, believing in the power of the baobab tree. The Malagasy people associate a lot of spiritual power with nature and spirits. It is common to find offerings placed underneath the baobab tree.

The classic view of the Baobab Avenue was in sight. One thousand year old Baobab trees stand proudly as a sprinkling of tourists and locals milled about. The sun streaked past the clouds that had been teasing us for the last half an hour.

“Colourful is wonderful” I heard one tourist say in his excitement. Sunset photographs of the Baobab Avenue were definitely colourful.

Local children had learnt various techniques for making money from tourists. Chameleons darted about on sticks and the children were keen to pose for a photograph. I offered the rest of my fruits I had bought in a market stall to some of the children.

I woke up to hazy sunrise, filled with fisherman on the beach. Morondava is a cosy seaside town of 30,000 people. It was once the heart of Sakalava Kingdom, and home to many burial grounds. Erotically carved tombs were typical of this tribe and linked strongly with African connections and beliefs of the afterlife.

The landscape was to changed dramatically again, from the coastline’s Baobab and palm trees surrounded by rustic hut villages of mud, sticks and leaves to the highlands filled with rice paddies, misty rocky mountains and balcony terraced houses made of brick. I even saw small vineyards on a few occasions adding a European slice of flavour to a country mixed with African and Asian origins. I tasted typical Malagasy food again for lunch in what appeared less than hygienic conditions. Dirt and cobwebs lingered, cats and dogs at people’s feet. The chicken soup was basic and I added a good dose of chili to engulf a big bowl of rice.

With so much time on the road, there was time to hear a few folk stories. Weddings were an expensive affair and celebrated for many days with large numbers of people. It was advantageous for males to own Zebu, adding status, wealth and prestige to their name. Reburials were another traditional belief that fascinated me. The afterlife and respect for the ancestors was deeply rooted in Malagasy beliefs. Seven years after a burial, a person’s body would be dug up and the bones cleaned. It was referred to as ‘turning of the bones’ and was customary for the onward life of a spirit. I couldn’t imagine cleaning bones of a deceased beloved, yet this ritual was embraced with much celebration, food festivities and dancing. I was learning that Madagascar was just as rich in its anthropology as its biological uniqueness.

The traditions of making paper and silk are unique to the town of Ambalavao. The stringy, fibrous bark of the Avoha tree is boiled for a day before being transformed into a doughy substance. It was then further stretched out and then left to dry. Beautiful designs of flowers and leaves were then placed on top with some additional water added. I was told “Designs are made from your imagination”.

Local children walking down Baobab Avenue

My travels through Madagascar had shown me a country filled with colourful landscapes and diversity. What was particularly memorable was seeing the people live a life in such poverty. But I did like the little boy I met herding cattle down the Baobab Avenue. Instead of asking for money he asked for a book and pen for school. Let’s hope he can write his own story about Madagascar one day.

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