The name Madagascar has a ring of sheer exotica, conjuring thoughts similar to those of Timbuktu. I suppose a lot of people probably think of movies with escaped zoo animals or maybe David Attenborough’s latest series, but insanely, it is the fourth biggest island in the world and thanks to its early split from Africa, 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on earth.
Whilst living in the Indian Ocean last year, I arrived in Madagascar with fairly inaccurate preconceptions, namely hoping for swimming pools and air-conditioning. I experienced a Madagascan 5-star hotel – one in fact, where Prince Phillip and Sir David Attenborough had previously stayed. It had electricity for a few hours in the evening and we discovered a grasshopper the size of my forearm in the bedroom.
Madagascar is the one of the poorest countries in the world and its people are subject to shocking poverty. There’s a high incidence of malaria, almost no electricity outside of the big cities and most of the population are subsistence farmers. Begging is the norm, and despite official recommendations of giving presents to the children, rather than money, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore blind, crippled children, who’s only French is the repetitious “Madame, Monsieur?”
On the country’s ‘Routes Nationales’ – one of the only upsides left by France’s colonial occupation – you see all the evidence of grinding poverty. Oxen and bicycles, never occupied by fewer than two people, dominate the roads, with only police and tourists in cars. Locals travel mostly by ‘taxi-brousse’, stripped down lorries crammed with as many passengers as possible – normally along with their livestock. Where there’s poverty, there’s corruption, and Madagascar is no exception. There are many separate police forces, all of whom need frequent bribes. Whilst staying in a hotel run by a French ex-pat, we were surrounded by policemen armed with AK-47s, who had thrown him in jail the previous week. They were arrogant in their unchecked control, and flaunted both their guns and their power. Equally alarmingly, an armed guard is customary at cash-points. Elsewhere, the country faces a Thai-bride phenomenon; it is a common practice for older, comparatively wealthy Frenchmen to arrive and marry young, local women. Within the cities, prostitution is rife and HIV is a growing problem.
While from this, Madagascar may sound like somewhere to avoid, it does have one big asset – its incredibly beautiful and largely unique flora and fauna. Lemurs (all one hundred and one known subspecies – with the last one discovered only in the 1990s) are abundant and distractingly cute. The island is also home to about half the world’s species of chameleon. The weird, eyes-facing-different-directions, colour-changing lizards range hugely in size, from thumb-sized pygmies to dinosaur-like ones the size of cats that don’t change colour for camouflage, but instead to convey their emotions.
Sadly, the good, old Madagascan way of life is in danger of disappearing, as the island undergoes its own version of the Industrial Revolution and the traditional tribal dress is being infiltrated by battered Manchester United shirts. Despite protection, the countryside is endangered by the encroaching towns and all-consuming rice-paddies, which require huge areas if a profit is to be made. As the shantytowns, beggars and homeless demonstrate, the Madagascans are attempting to escape the dire poverty of the villages by flocking to cities, but the problem is unresolved.
Naturally, with such poverty, Madagascar is incredibly cheap to visit (a litre of beer is about 50p, a meal perhaps a pound) and it is strikingly different from both mainland Africa and the neighbouring Indian Ocean islands. With beaches, mountains, jungles, wildlife and tribal culture – there is little that it can’t offer.