Thanks a BOMB: VazahaGasy a ‘Best of Malagasy Blog’

I am gratified and honoured that this VazahaGasy blog has been voted the winner of the Society category in the Best of Malagasy Blogs awards.

Society award

I’m resisting an urge not to mention it and hide in the corner in embarrassment, because I’d like to pass on a big thanks both to those who voted and the organisers of the competition.

Projects like the BOMBS (Best of Malagasy Blogs) competition generate awareness and energy around internet usage thanks to the effort of the FOKO team behind the awards.

I’m convinced of the need for countries like Madagascar to embrace the internet and other IT options, in order to be able to develop as fast as they would like.

Clearly, the lack of funds – for individuals and organisations – plays a big part in restricting usage.

However, it’s also awareness and skills that are lacking. People here are bright and eager to learn – they just need people to point them in the right direction.

Unfortunately, at this point, many of the blogs are maintained either by the Malagasy diaspora or, like me, by a Vazaha living in Madagascar.

Let’s hope, before long – all the winners are Malagasys living in Madagascar and that these people are also using the internet for marketing, e-commerce, business-to-business processes, e-learning, transparent government and all the other things that facilitate growth and efficiency.

And please everybody send up a prayer to anyone or anything you think can help – FOR GLOBAL BROADBAND (that plea is both compassionate for the greater good of Madagascar and a selfish one to make my life easier).

So a big thanks again to all those who voted and congratulations to the other winners.

And let’s hope the BOMBS continue to raise awareness around the possibilities of blogging for Malagasys and those connected with Madagascar.


How to make a lamba

lambasFollowing on from a comment received to my previous post ‘Traditional Madagascar clothing: the lamba‘, here’s a quick guide to making your own lamba. Even a total beginner at clothes making could make this.

The lamba is made of two parts; the lamba oany, which goes round the body, and the kisaly which is draped around the shoulders or head.

Making the lamba

Lamba oany: this is a long tube of cloth sown down the drop. It’s 2metres wide around the body before it’s sown (so 1 metre wide when you step inside it). The standard drop is 1.50 metre – but this can be adjusted. It needs to be roughly armpit to ankle. Simply sow down the drop to make a tube.

Kisaly: this is a piece of material of the same cloth 2 metres by 2 metres.

Choice of material

red lambaLambas tend to be made out of 2 types of material – neither of which I have precise information on (maybe a reader can help here).

One is close to cotton and is thus not transparent.

The other is more transparent and very soft. It’s closest to a transparent sarong or scarf but has a bit of weight to it so it hangs well but is still breathable.

Wearing the lamba

To wear around the chest, step inside the tube of the lamba oany and hold it wide at the top between both hands. Then fold it around you like a towel – taking head lamba each hand under the opposite armpit. Many women just manage to tuck it in – you can also tie a knot in the ends at the middle of your chest and then cover the knot by pulling a bit of fabric over it.

To wear around the waist just wrap it round and tuck it in. Any way you manage to keep the lamba staying put is acceptable – and will be slightly different depending on the shape of your body.

The kisaly can be wrapped around the head in any way you like, or draped around the shoulders.

Living with poverty: personal stories

Each Westerner from a rich country living in a poor country like Madagascar faces the challenge of coming to terms with being rich living amongst poverty.

There are those who despise the poor people around them, those who live in permanent sadness for them, those who try to shut it out, those who are motivated to act to improve the situation and those who are resigned to the fact that life isn’t fair and there are people who have and people who haven’t.

In reality, most of us have all of these feelings at different times.

Lazarets roadI’m going to examine various aspects of poverty over the next few posts – it is a defining theme of life here, that combines with Malagasy culture to constitute the reality of life.
Below are different stories of five Malagasy women I know, showing just some examples of how life is tougher here than in developed countries.

I’ve included describing things I give to these women because deciding whether to give or not is a complex issue, one I will look into more deeply in my next post.

Why only women’s tales? Well, that’s a whole other issue but, to summarise, I believe men and women’s experience of poverty is generally quite different here and my friends are mainly women because it’s difficult for women to have real male friends here. I will try to include some male stories at a later date.

Drop in the ocean

HouseLast weekend I took a walk through some of the poorer districts of Antsiranana this Sunday. My partner was showing me where he grew up. As we walked past family after family all struggling with stories of poverty I felt a sense of hopelessness creep over me. And I know that these town dwellers, in the main, are not the really poor people of Madagascar. Corrugated iron may look like poverty to westerners, who prefer to see the houses from natural materials, but it’s a valuable building material here.

I can give little gifts to my friends which they appreciate and no doubt helps me feel better. But, all these houses, all these stories. They go on for ever. Throughout this town, throughout Madagascar and throughout the world.

Story 1: Soa – the recently widowed street stall seller

Soa sells tea, coffee and rice cakes (each for €0.04 or 2.5p) in the mornings on the main street in Diego.

I used to have breakfast there when I was staying in a nearby hotel in 2005. Soa has a soft manner, open face and kind heart. I appreciated seeing a friendly face each morning when life could be lonely.

The other day, I was taking an early morning stroll and stopped their for tea, mainly to chat and introduce my baby son.

I asked her if she had children. She has 5, the youngest being 6 years old. When I asked her, laughing, if she’d stopped now or was going to have more she smiled but said quite firmly that she wouldn’t have more.

Then she stopped smiling and said “Life is hard”.

I asked her if she had a husband at home and she told me he had died 6 months ago. “So life is more hard now than before.”, I said. She nodded solemnly.

When I’d finished my tea I handed her “A present to help out a little.” (20, 000 Ariary or €8).

She smiled at first and then tears rolled down her face. She was too upset to speak but mumbled “God bless you” as she tried to compose herself before the next customer.

I don’t know the exact reason for the tears. Maybe they were from the actual benefit the money would bring, feeling that somebody was just taking an interest or just because life is really hard.

The money I gave won’t pay for her rent or school fees for the children or any medical bills that come up. I don’t know how people find such expenses with such tiny incomes.

Her story, of trying to make ends meet on her own with five children to support, isn’t unusual in the slightest. I live surrounded by people facing similar struggles, or worse, all the time.

But, for some reason, I couldn’t get her out of my head all day and night. The next day I took her a bag full of durable food products like oil, tins of tomato paste, toothpaste, condensed milk and some biscuits as a treat for the kids.

Story 2: Nadia – the cleaning lady

Nadia is our cleaning lady and nanny for my son. She has work all year round looking after this rented property so gets extra pay from us now she is looking after our son. She works 6 days a week for 5 and a half hours.

For looking after Felix (and washing all our laundry) we pay her €35 per month for her work with us (plus ‘gifts’ of money, food, clothing etc.). A pittance in European terms but a decent salary here for the hours she works and type of work.

She is a wise and positive woman who is supporting three grown children through their studies despite being on her own after her husband died 4 years ago. Unusually for this area, she says she will never remarry – her husband was and will always be her only husband.

She goes home every evening to a house without electricity. She had always had electricity since she was a little girl but there isn’t any at the house she moved to with her husband just four months before he died.

Often she takes the bus or a taxi home (both €0.30) but sometimes saves the fare by walking the 50 minutes without shade. Her children work in the holidays to pay for their own school equipment and fees.

Despite obviously being an intelligent woman she finished school mid-teens. She wanted to start earning to get money to escape from the house she was living in where she was beaten by an aunt.

Story 3: Meva – the single Mum street stall seller with new baby

Similar to Soa’s story is Meva, who sells little fried goods locally every day. Her daily life consists of sitting under a corrugated iron shelter with the sun beating down, surrounded by boiling oil and burning charcoal with her baby crying in a cardboard box beside her.

I can’t reconcile her daily slog with the exhaustion new Western mothers complain of (including me) in our comfortable houses and with maternity leave. She is a single Mum with four children by three different fathers. Contraception is rarely used here so often each relationship brings children with it. Having many children is seen as a blessing – although I can’t believe they really always think that when another one pops out.

She has family in France so her house has had various improvements– including a concrete toilet and shower block. However, I hear that the relationship has broken down so she is getting less help.

She smiles radiantly all day and chats without ever complaining. I pass on to her things of mine or my son for her or her baby son.

Story 4: Cecilie – the single school teacher

Another friend is a single, childless school teacher in a village in the bay. She gets housing (single room from traditional materials) with her postings and a salary. However, sometimes she has to go long periods without pay if the villagers can’t pull together her salary (which is very small).

She has to be financially and psychologically independent. Not only does she have little family back in town but a single, childless woman is often be viewed with suspicion by villagers in a country where your group matters more than who you are as an individual.

I gave her some photos of her I’d printed off and a photo frame that I wasn’t using any more that had cost me €1.50. I know, because I’ve visited her house, that this will be the nicest decoration she has in her house. I also gave her a dress I bought but never wear and my French / English dictionary. As I had some spare I also gave her a packet of soup – which she had no idea what to do with but might just do as supper one day when food is scarce or if she’s ill.

Story 5: Tina – the academic high flyer

Tina is a gorgeous, bright woman in her early twenties from an educated family. She was a student of mine at the University and now teaches me Malagasy. She doesn’t count as either poor or rich by Malagasy standards. She’s been to University, she can earn money from teaching English to Malagasys and Malagasy to the English. Her parents are divorced but both professionals – her mother is a French teacher and her father a doctor living in another town. She was the highest performing student on her degree course and in Europe would be considered a high flyer.

University accommodationNevertheless, living in a poor country with poor infrastructure effects everybody. Most of the University graduates face an almost non-existent job market. Don’t patronise your taxi driver here – he might have a PhD.

Like the rest of her class, Tina can’t graduate as one of their courses wasn’t completed as the teacher didn’t turn up. “Maybe this year” is all they’ve been told. The buildings on the right are the student accommodation at the University.

She also spends considerable time looking after the house and her sister’s new baby, while her sister goes to college. Whilst her sister’s husband is away earning money in a different town she also shares a bed with her sister and her baby.

She has options for the future but nothing like the options if she was in Europe. Yet another example of someone who brings home the unjustness of people’s blanket resentment of immigrants to developed countries. Why shouldn’t somebody like this have the chance to shine in Europe and then either stay there and contribute or come back to Madagascar?

Not that she can afford the airfare of course.

Everybody has a story

So, these are just a few stories of some of my favourite Malagasy female friends – each of them showing resilience to their situation and an unwillingness to burden others with their problems.

I don’t want to over-romanticise the characters I’ve portrayed here. They are not heroines, they are normal women living lives repeated hundreds of time across the world. They all have their qualities and faults.

And, if you find yourself in poverty, you don’t have much choice – you keep getting up every day and you try to make the best of it.

I imagine I would fight as hard in the their shoes but seeing their lives up close keeps me humble.

Malagasy cuisine – a beginner’s guide

In my previous post, The Role of Food in Malagasy life, I looked at how food fits into Malagasy life. But what do people actually eat?

Rice, rice and more rice

No discussion of Malagasy cuisine could get very far without mentioning rice. Traditionally eaten three times a day and the principal crop, a Malagasy will not feel full following a meal without rice. Revolts have happened when businesses didn’t make rice available for their Malagasy staff. According to the International Year of Rice a Malagasy person eats 140 kg rice per year (that’s 0.4kg or 0.9lbs rice per day).

Preparing and serving rice

RiceCooking good rice is as important in Madagascar as making a good cup of tea in Britain or vinaigrette in France or Steak in Argentina.

However, here’s the general rules of rice cooking:

  • Sort the rice using a rice sorter to pick out husks, stones and other dirt
  • Rinse the rice to clean it and get off some of the starch
  • Immediately fill pot with water for cooking and put lid on
  • Place pot on hot fire to get water boiling
  • Sort the rice using a rice sorter to pick out husks, stones and other dirt
  • Rinse the rice to clean it and get off some of the starch
  • Immediately fill pot with water for cooking and put lid on
  • Place pot on hot fire to get water boiling
  • Let water boil vigorously for a minute
  • Turn heat down very low and let the rice steam cook itself.

Meals are normally served with all the food placed in big pots in the middle (either on a table or, traditionally, on a mat on the floor). People used to simply tuck in with spoons however people often now use plates and serve themselves rice and sauce. The rice often forms a mound (or mountain) on the plate and people often have two or three servings, if there is enough.

Where rice comes from

Many people in rural areas grow rice. It’s less common on coastal areas than it is on the plateau (see photos of rice cultivation on

Rice that has been harvested is laid out on wicker mats in the sun to dry – still in its husks. Then, once dry, the rice is pounded in a huge wooden pestle and mortar. The husks are used as chicken feed.

You can also buy your rice from the market from ladies surrounded from big rice sacks full of different varieties. Rice is measured in ‘kapoks’, which are old condensed milk cans. I have never seen a packet of rice here.

The price of rice is currently around €0.14 per kapok (350 Ariary). Most Malagasys like at least one kapok of rice per meal – I like about one third of a kapok. The price of rice is a topic of much discussion and politicians are in trouble if the price goes up too much.

Madagascar no longer grows enough rice to feed its population which is a source of much sadness. Apparently, much of the high quality Malagasy rice is exported and lower quality rice is imported, mainly from Pakistan. I’m a big fan of Malagasy red rice which has more flavour and nutrients than white rice.

The main dish

Gasy meal

The accompaniment to rice is called Kabaka or Ro (in Diego). It is often either a rich tomato sauce or the watery dish, Romazava, but can also be a mild curry (barely spicy at all). Any of these dishes can be made with any meat, fish, seafood or beans.

However they also eat drier foods such as steak, fried fish, dried fish and ‘brochettes’, which are tiny bits of beef grilled on skewers, like mini-shish kebabs – this common street snack came over from Réunion I believe.

There is often some ‘enchary’ or salad, made from either slicing or shredding salad ingredients (including often raw mango or papaya) with some liquid, chopped onions and sometimes chilli peppers.

BredeAn important vegetable product is ‘añana’ or ‘brède’ (this is a French word but French people I know hadn’t heard of it). Essentially añana is one of a few varieties of leaves; including cassava or manioc leaves, watercress and others types of leaves that I don’t recognise. Añana is most commonly served as a key component of the watery dish, Romazava – it can be simply añana boiled in water with salt or a more complex stew with meat or chicken etc. There is also the delicious dish with ground cassava leaves, coconut milk and beef.

Traditional malagasy food was not spicy but Malagasys have developed more of a taste for it – however, the main dish is rarely spicy, chilli being served in jar on the side.

Feeding the family on a tight budget

The skill to feeding your family despite very tight resources comes from making sure you have rice in and then finding anything to be the accompaniment. This can include a single tomato and onion for the whole family, a single mango or boiling scraps of gristle and fat to flavour a stew.

It has become harder and harder to afford protein products. I read in the last edition of the ‘Revue Océan Indien’ (print magazine on sale here) that the average Malagasy now eats 3.5kg meat per year compared to 19.5kg per year in 1961 (and compared to 40+kg for an American and 30kg for a French person). Beef is the most commonly bought meat as it’s the cheapest (5000 Ariary, €2 per kilo).

Malagasy breakfast

Traditionally breakfast consists of last night’s rice reheated. I also suspect there are many people who start the day without breakfast.

Drying fishMorning rice is often cooked in lots of water to make ‘Sabeda’, like watery rice pudding without any sugar. With this, people often eat dried fish (see photo)or mini-meat kebabs.

Another common morning dish is soup – in the style of chinese soup so it is watery with noodles and some bits of veg and meat floating in it.

In towns where many people eat breakfast at food stalls in the street, it is also common to eat a deep fried option, either mukary (like doughnuts), cassava root or banana. Some of the sweet options are baked such as the mukary vary (rice bun) and ‘Good-good’ a bit like bread and butter pudding. Each of these items, plus either strong coffee or weak tea, is 100 Ariary, or €0.04.

Street food breakfastBread is also very common in towns – only available in the French baguette style. You can buy a small baguette 300 Ariary (€0.12) and buy a portion of butter to be spread in it. Many people stop in corner shops to buy a piece of bread and butter, a home made yoghurt and a glass of ‘syrop’ (made up cordial).

Snacks / street food

Malagasys don’t snack much in between meals, apparently all used to waiting until the food is served. So, ‘snacks’ often replace a meal rather than supplement it

mango and chilliPeople often eat fruit that is growing on local trees as a snack. Mango season is a boost to everybody’s fruit intake – this photo shows unripe mangoes doused in chilli peppers. Delicious.

As well as the snacks that are on sale for breakfast, there are also samosas on sale in the afternoons. The mini-kebab ‘brochettes’are also a common street snack, served with some watery enchary (salad) and fried savoury bananas (delicious!).

It is also possible to buy sandwiches on the street with delicious home made fillings.


Desserts are rare although fresh bananas are often offered.

To read more about Malagasy food and find some recipes see the African Cookbook Madagascar page.

Role of food in Malagasy life

Food forms a central part of the activity, rhythm and conversation of daily life in Madagascar.

Its importance is because preparing meals is a lengthy and communal affair, food takes up the majority of income so is appreciated and food is a resource that people can share. And Malagasys like to share

Working together to produce a meal

Cooking outsideThe combination of finding fuel, ingredients and water, keeping a fire going, preparing ingredients and cooking takes considerable effort; effort which is normally shared.

Most of the cooking effort happens in the morning with enough food being left over from lunch for dinner. Fresh rice may be cooked in the evening, some of which is often left for breakfast the next morning.

In contrast to Europe, there isn’t a kitchen for a solitary cook to be tucked away in. Preparation usually goes on outside the house in full view of everyone. In areas with more rain, there is often a separate house just for cooking. Whether inside or outside, you’ll end up involved if you’re sitting around.

So food preparation is also a sociable affair. In a country where many people don’t leave their homes each day to travel far to an office (although some do), food preparation can form the backdrop to life.

Preparing foodThe fact that food preparation is lengthy and on display helps explain why most Malagasys are competent cooks, both men and women. It’s not possible to grow up without being involved in the cooking.

Malagasy cuisine is often delicious although the cooking isn’t in fact that complicated. However, it is all done with basic ingredients and equipment.

There are few labour saving devices, freezers or fridges and there’s no cook-in sauces or packet food. This means planning meals well in advance in order to leave time to find ingredients at least once a day.

On the other hand, Malagasys are used to making do with whatever ingredients they have and can rustle a meal out of a few ingredients.. They would laugh to see Europeans standing in a kitchen full of food saying ‘There’s nothing to eat’.

Chicken sellingIt also means that meat and fish arrives in its animal form rather than pre skinned, filleted and in packets. It is also often still alive (in the case of poultry and goats). So people are competent butchers and fishmongers as well as cooks.

In villages many people are eating rice they have cultivated themselves so it is still in its shucks. Thus an arduous task is to pound the rice in a huge pestle and mortar type affair where the pestle is as high as the person doing the shucking. Even if the rice is purchased ready shucked, it still needs to be sorted before cooking to clear out the chaff, stones and bad grains.

Another key aspect of Malagasy cooking is the equipment used. Most cooking is done over open wood or charcoal fires in front of the house (houses are mainly just used for sleeping). So sourcing of fuel is another necessary daily activity.

Cooking over open fires means that learning to manage your fire for the right heat (and not letting it go out) is an important skill in producing a meal.

Some people who are better off in solid (concrete) houses are increasingly running hobs off gas canisters but this is still very much an the exception.

Nothing is wasted

Pounding bredeFood is appreciated because it’s a valuable resource in a poor country.

According to the Executive Summary of the Madagascar Action Plan, food takes up 70% of family income for most Malagasys, leaving little else for other essential needs.

And food can be scarce for many families – all of my Malagasy friends have known real hunger at some point in their lives.

So, all the effort involved and the value placed on food (nothing is wasted) means that meals are generally lovingly prepared.

This contrasts with many Anglo-Saxon Westerners who treat food preparation as something to be achieved as quickly as possible to put food on the table and where it can involve going to the kitchen and reappearing 20 minutes later with a meal. I’m happy to concede that this doesn’t apply to the French, whose culture, in general, appreciates devoting time to preparing and eating food.

Karibo – the art of sharing

Sharing a mealSharing and being good hosts are important parts of Malagasy culture and you will always be offered food if you arrive at people’s houses anywhere near meal times.

If you walk past someone eating even a tiny meal (or a piece of bread), they will usually cry ‘Karibo’ (ka-ree-boo) which is an invitation to join them. A Malagasy friend of mine asked me to clarify that it is possible to pop into somebody’s house near dinner time in Europe and wait while somebody finishes their dinner without a chair and plate immediately being brought out. When I confirmed this was true, he looked confused and concerned.

Sometimes in Madagascar no explicit offer is made as it is so universally understood that the visitor is welcome to eat. And a visitor accepting food will not make a big thing of it as to do so would imply that the offer wasn’t made with a generous open heart.

And, there is always enough to go around, however many people turn up. The ability to pull of this surplus trick despite relative poverty is the tendency to cook more rice than is needed for a meal and everyone’s automatic ability to spread out the accompaniment according to the number of people.

A Malagasy expression goes, “Even the sunbird (the smallest bird) has enough food to share with 100 people.”

Traditional Madagascar clothing: the lamba

Traditional dress in Northern Madagascar involves wearing the ‘lamba’. The word lamba simply means cloth or clothing but usually refers to the two matching pieces of fabric that women wear – one around the waist or chest and one around the head or shoulders.

Traditionally the lamba would have been all that was worn. Now it is usually seen worn over Western clothing.

Lamba for men

Menagisy chief

In Diego, the lamba is rarely seen on men outside of ceremonies such as ‘joros’ (offerings) and ‘burials’ etc. although it is not so uncommon to see old men wearing it in rural areas. In rural areas on the plateau area of Madagascar, I saw more men wearing them as a matter of course. This man is a village chief from the North of Madagascar – he was wearing a lamba but tried very hard to negotiate my friend’s combat trousers off him.

Lamba for women

Unlike the men, about half of women in Diego town can be seen wearing lamba. Older

women and women from the countryside who are visiting the town almost always wear it. Muslim women of Malagasy origin also tend to wear it.

Lambas on ladiesThere are no hard and fast rules to which women wear traditional lamba and which wear Western clothing. Many women wear a lamba one day and not the next or just for part of the day. Younger more fashion conscious women may wear lambas around the house and just for special occasions but not to go into town. On the contrary, other women wear western clothing at home and put the lamba on to go into town.

I live near the main hospital in town and it seems to be common practice (though not universal) for women to wear lamba when visiting the hospital or doctor. I don’t know whether it’s something to do with showing respect either for an institution or for the ancestors at a time when they might be playing a role in life.

Nearly all women will wear a lamba if there is a death or an occasion where prayers are said to the ancestors. If you see a large group where every single woman is wearing a lamba, it almost certainly means there has been a death.

One item, many uses

The lamba serves so many purposes that it’s hard to know how we manage without them. Here I’ve analysed what expensive products we Vazahas buy instead.

Use of lamba

Western product

Shielding sun Sunglasses and hat, parasol, special sun shields in cars
Carrying child Harness / pushchair / pram
Picking up hot things Oven gloves
Blanket when want a nap Blanket
Cloth for emergency cleaning Cloth, baby wipes, tissues
Carrying bundles of things Bags
Mat to sit on Picnic blanket
Pillow Pillow
Wiping noses Hankies
Protect clothing form dirt when doing chores Apron, overall
Protecting clothing from dirt when outside ?
Wind protection ?
Dust protection ?
Covering dignity whilst bathing in streams ?

Can Vazahas wear lamba?

Vazahas can mainly only get away with wearing lambas at ceremonies otherwise you look a bit of a try-hard idiot. However, due to their usefulness, it is always good to have one in your bag And if you will be spending time amongst Malagasys it’s good to have one for bathing – a Vazaha woman, stripped off to her bikini for a wash, causes quite a stir.

Building a traditional wooden boat in Madagascar

Finished boat 2007Jean has finished building his latest boat named Miaraka (Malagasy for ‘to be together’ or ‘to go together’) . It’s a traditional wooden boat that can use sail or outboard motor (up to 40hp).  It was constructed using methods passed down from older fishermen in his district (follow links to see photos of La Dordogne, Antsiranana).

See all Traditional wooden boat building photos.

He built his first boat when he was 23 years old. He used to do it all by hand but now has many power tools that kind people (usually friends from Reunion island) have given him.

Boats can be built in one of 2 forms:

  1. a ‘V’ shape – better for use with the sail (it cuts through the water better at an angle)
  2. a ‘U’ shape – better for use with a motor (it’s more stable in the water)

Timing and logistics

Traditional wooden boat building, Diego, 2007

It takes about 3 months to build a boat. If you could guarantee having all the parts at your fingertips when you wanted them you could push it down to 2 months at a push. Jean does more than half the work himself working mainly with one assistant (Big Meo – not very big actually but it’s to differentiate him from Little Meo who also works with Jean quite often). He then calls on others from the area to help with odd tasks.

Boats are generally built during the dry windy season (June-November). This is partly because you can’t fish much during this period and also because there’s no rain so the boat stays dry whilst being built

Jean sold his previous boat in August which just gave himself enough time to build a new one before the next fishing season. As soon as the wind dropped – he was out at sea.


The 2007 boat is:

  • Length: 7.50m
  • Width: 2.25m
  • Height at front: 1.60m
  • Height at back: 1.00m

It’s form is in between the V and U shapes mentioned above.

Boat building process

Boat in water 2007
  1. Keel – needs a hard wood that doesn’t float – Jean buys this from a wood merchant in town
  2. Front vertical ‘stem’
  3. Stern – Back of boat –
  4. Four central ‘strakes’ (cross bits)
  5. Guiding rods put in place to give shape of boat
  6. Construct and fit all strakes – this is biggest part of job, takes about two thirds of overall time
  7. Outer planks put in place (imported tacamaca wood used)
  8. Cross beams and seats constructed
  9. Put cord in gaps
  10. Put tar in gaps
  11. Paint inside and out (underside of boat needs special paint to protect against sea creatures attaching themselves)
  12. Launch boat in water
  13. Install mast and sail


Jean built two boats in 2006; one for himself and one for sale. Their lenghts were 7.20m and 8.00m respectively.

Traditional wooden boat building 2006


The 2005 boat was 7.20m.

Traditional wooden boat building 2005

Racial and ethnic groups in Northern Madagascar

As described in ‘Are Malagasys racist?’, race and ethnicity matter in Madagascar. Although it may look as if everybody is a crazy mix, these are the main groups that I have identified.

In Antsiranana, the racial groups are:

  • Coastal Gasys
  • Plateau Gasys
  • White people – Vazahas
  • Chinese – Sinoa
  • Indians – Karan
  • Arabs
  • Creoles

Coastal versus Plateau Malagasys

This subheading, Coastal versus Plateau Malagasys, implies competition and conflict. This is a fair representation of the situation; there is much suspicion and bad feeling between the groups.

In simple terms, the ethnic groups of the plateau are largely of Indonesian origin, so that many people have glossy Asian hair and Indonesian features. The Coastal groups are largely of African descent.

Historically, the plateau tribes, primarily the Merina, dominated the other tribes for three centuries leading up to the French colonisation.

Some of their dominance was based on having a more complex society structure and beneficial relationships with the British. But, their dominance was also enforced by slavery and war.

It is not ancient history by any means and the memories of the coastal people are long and seemingly unforgiving. Their resentment is reinforced by each generation with constant criticism of the ‘bourozan’, the disrespectful name for the Merina, almost whenever there is an opportunity to have the discussion.

In turn, I think it is fair to generalise that some people of the plateau consider their own culture more advanced and sophisticated than that of the coastal groups. Certainly, when I go to Tana (Antananarivo) there are many things that feel more developed than in the coastal regions.

Understandably, there are not many Plateau Malagasys in Diego because they have to deal with feeling unwelcome. If they are here, they tend to be in a secure financial position and have come because of work or through a marriage (normally to a Vazaha, it’s rare for them to marry a Coastal Malagasy).

However, there are extremes of wealth on the plateau with some of the country’s richest and poorest residents. So, as well as the bourgeouis Merina that come here there are also teams of low paid workers working on things such as road projects.

Just yesterday I sat having a drink with a local woman explaining to me why the plateau people were all racist (and uncaring and greedy), at least the pale skinned ones are. I eventually gave up pointing out that she was being racist by saying this as she just kept giving me more examples to prove her case. I have had this conversation many times here.

Vazahas – white people

Vazaha means stranger. Vazahas come from ‘andaf’ which means overseas. The term Vazaha is used almost exclusively to mean white people, or any thing that is not of Malagasy origin, e.g. You can speak Vazaha, listen to Vazaha music etc.

I’ve posed the question of whether foreigners of other racial origin are also Vazahas but, in general, these people would be called African, Chinese (probably covering any countries of Far East), Indian (covering all of Indian sub continent) etc. And mixed race people are just called mixed race (my son is known as Vazaha Gasy – like this site).

If you’re Black British you will just cause confusion. Jean, my partner, wouldn’t see anyone who wasn’t white as truly English when he was in England. It didn’t matter how many times I explained about successive invasions by the Vikings, the Saxons and the French – White people were British and anyone else was African or Indian. Similarly, American Peace Corps volunteers will not be accepted as American if they’re not White (and, Yes, we have all tried explaining the ‘melting-pot’ aspect of American immigration).

Resident Vazahas tend to be French but there are also many Italians, especially on the tourist island of Nosy Be. I suspect we will see increasing numbers of Southern Africans as they are increasingly investing in tourism here. Americans tend to be Peace Corps volunteers or working for an NGO. In Diego, the British are all Frontier or volunteering for something – there aren’t that many of us in Madagascar.


There are many people of clearly Indian descent here as they tend to marry within their own race and religion. They probably dominate the economic life of the Antsiranana region more than the Vazahas. They run many businesses from small shops to major import-export concerns.

Most of the Indians are Muslim, with women often wearing an outfit that comprises of a skirt and a top piece, with head covering in pastel material with embroidery.  For some reason I keep having visions of pastel versions of the Wicked Witch of the West on her bike every time I see an Indian woman on the back of a moped.

The non-Muslim Indians are primarily Hindu.

I interact with people of Indian descent a fair bit; including my French teacher, the older married couple neighbours opposite (rare to find coastal Malagasy couples that have married once and stayed together), and various women at aerobics. It is not uncommon for them to have family in Britain or, like the local tailor, to have lived on Essex Road in Islington himself.


People have come from China at various points over the last 150 years, mainly to help with construction of roads or to escape conflict at home. I imagine that there has been quite a bit of intermarriage because there are relatively few people looking ‘pure’ Chinese but lots of people with some Chinese features.

Apparently, in Madagascar …”there are about 30,000 Chinese, the majority of them came from the Pearl River delta in Canton.”

The first major wave of Chinese immigration to the Indian Ocean was as indentured labour in the nineteenth century, when slavery was abolished. However, many of these people returned to China when their contracts were finished. So most people who stayed are from free immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century.


I had to do some asking about this group as I wasn’t sure what constituted being called an Arab here and, like the Chinese, they don’t seem to be a racially pure group. As with much of coastal Africa, most of the contact with outsiders before the European scramble for land was with Arab traders. Most of the African slave trade went on with Arabs long before the British started shipping people to the New World. Therefore the influence of Arab culture goes back a long way.

However, many Arabs came to Madagascar, mainly in the North around the 1800s – apparently most originated from Yemen. They were especially involved in trade around the Port.

Unlike the Indians, they have intermarried a fair bit (marriage should always be taken in the loosest sense of the word in Northern Madagascar). Muslim men are entitled to marry non-Muslim women as the women take the religion of the man (her whole family is supposed to do this also I understand). So they didn’t need to only marry people who were already practising Muslims.


I had tried without success to identify the true meaning of the term ‘Creole’ here by asking many people who call themselves it, all from Reunion Island. I’ve either had vague or conflicting answers.

By looking it up on the internet, I can now see why there is this confusion.

The Wikipedia page on Creoles says:
“The term Creole…has been applied to people in different countries and epochs, with rather different meanings… and originally referred to locally-born people with foreign ancestry.”

“…in the Indian Ocean, the term denotes someone whose ancestry is so mixed that they don’t belong to the other categories (small white, big white, Indian, Chinese, and so on).

In Reunion island, creole is a more inclusive term that denotes all those born on the island.”

Nearly all Creoles that one meets here are from Reunion, a tiny island 880km to the East of Madagascar (not far from Mauritius) which is part of France.

The people that visit from Reunion tend to be mixed race with some nearer the black end and some near the white end. Sometimes you meet someone who looks 100% white but it’s rare.

There is a high rate of relationships between men from Reunion and women from Madagascar. Men from Reunion appear to make up the highest percentage of foreigners marrying Malagasys and are frequently‘sex tourists’ (or men who pay for sex whilst they’re here on holiday – they may not like being called sex tourists). It’s common for Reunion men to find girlfriends here that they see on repeat visits (and not uncommon for the local girl to have more than one of these boyfriends). If the girl is lucky, the man ends up marrying her and taking her to live there. If the girl is really lucky the man turns out to be a gentleman to her as well (I know of one girl who is desperate to come back as her Reunion husband drinks and hits her).

So, there are a lot of children of mixed Malagasy / Reunion parentage which makes them a whole Indian Ocean mix anyway. Diego is full of visitors from Reunion at holiday times, back to visit family.

Apparently, much of the black racial origin on the surrounding islands, such as Reunion is from Malagasy slaves who ended up there. I also heard (BBC World Service) that a high proportion of the ‘Coloureds’ in South Africa are also of Malagasy origin.

Mouse eats knickers

A mouse has just run over my foot whilst I was getting underwear out of the cupboard. Thus I have now linked two minor events that happened in the last week where I spotted:

1. holes in my knickers

2. a mouse running into our bedroom during the night.

This will teach me for letting my knickers fall to the bottom of the cupboard.

This is just one of the beasties which enjoy sharing our human world in Madagascar. Here are the other top offenders, all impressive creatures in their own right, with my most hated at the top.

Aedes Aegypti Mosquito Enemy number one that inspire me to irrational hatred. They are everywhere, they buzz, they give you itchy bites and they carry life threatening diseases. I’m sure there’s an ecological reason they exist (food for something much cuter I expect). They are amazing only in that they are all over the world so must be an incredibly effective species at reproducing. But this is one time I’d really like the human race to dominate – wipe the buggers out!

I have personal experience of one of the maladies they carry, Chikungunya, which is still giving me joint pain.

Madagascar is well known (amongst cockroach fans) for its large, hissing variety of cockroach, the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach.

Apparently these are not the ones that I sometimes find crawling through the grill over the plug hole in my shower (how can something that big get out of such a small holes?)

There’s something about them that just makes me nose wrinkle and my skin crawl. We don’t get many of them in our house – about one a week. But they are so big and they scuttle – really fast. The only way to pick them up is by your hand because with any other method they run off whatever implement you’ve used and up your arm.

It’s one of the few times I go quite girly and go, head tilted on one side, and ask Jean to get rid of them for me. He points out that I have to learn to do it myself. So far, the squealing and head tilting is working fine for me.

From looking at the Wikipedia pages given above I’ve learned that they can climb smooth glass – which I actually discovered when I looked up from brushing my teeth to find one on the mirror in front of me, waving its antenna smugly at me.

There’s a hole at the corner of my street where they all pour out of at night – cockroach horror movie style.

I’ve had pet rats and think they are splendid animals. But we all know they shouldn’t be running around your house. And now I have a baby boy in the house, I especially don’t want big rats which are partial to chewing little limbs. I’ve seen one run through the area at the back of the house and in the next door neighbour’s garden in the last week.

However, the most memorable encounter with a rat – and one of my most memorable Madagascar moments – was in August, not long after I’d got back. I’d spent the day investigating a smell in the kitchen. I’d cleaned everything. At 6pm we found the dead rat that had fallen and got squashed between the back of the fridge and the grill, thus slowly cooking said rat until all its rotting juices poured out into the drip tray. Gag, gag, gag.

I am delighted to read this article, Plague; a Reemerging Disease in Madagascar, which confirms that:

“In the last 15 years, Madagascar (population 13 million) has accounted for 45% of the cases of plague in Africa.”

Luckily, it’s not in my town – but it’s not far away.

These are one of the most fascinating animals on the planet and I wish no individual any harm. However, it’s their pesky effectiveness which makes them so infuriating. Even if you clean your kitchen so there’s not an ant to be found, drop a grain or rice and it’s a party. And I’m tired of clearing out pots full of ant infested food before I’ve had my morning tea because they’ve managed to find where the lid doesn’t fit properly.

And today’s new entry – mice. I’ve been aware of a single mouse that I have seen over the past few weeks but I think they’re cute and our house in England had them for years. Of course, I know enough about small rodents to realise that this solitary mouse is in fact probably a gang (or harem). So, the traps will come out. Small rodents with a penchant for Marks and Spencers white cotton briefs are getting too close to my precious little boy. Off with their heads!

Should we be nice to children?

In Britain, children are worshiped and considered the most important members of the family. The parents exist to provide for and guide the children, their own needs being second place to fulfilling their children’s needs (or wants).

In Madagascar, children justify much less respect and sentimentality.

Here are some examples of how children are not on a pedestal:

  • Any adult (not just family) can instruct any child to do, fetch anything and the child will do it straight away
  • Children must never walk in front of adults who are sat talking
  • Children don’t join in the adult conversations
  • Children are expected to do domestic chores (and not just the nice ones)
  • Parents don’t spend much more time on their children than is necessary – playing is something done by children amongst themselves.
  • Parents don’t intervene much in children’s disputes (unless it disturbs the adults)
  • Children are the last people to be greeted when visitors arrive
  • Smacking children is normal
  • Children are not encouraged to express their opinions or ask questions
  • Children are not comforted if they hurt themselves – it is either pointed out why it was their own fault or someone distracts them by doing something humorous
  • Physical affection is kept a minimum
  • Children are rarely praised
  • The normal mode of parental conversation is barking instructions, correcting negative behaviour (criticising or telling off) or mocking (Malagasys from other towns tell me this ‘mickey taking’ is particularly a Diego trait)

If you are a sensitive Anglo-Saxon reader (British or American), you are probably sobbing quietly into your hanky by now. I frequently come up with plans to protect my child from unfeeling Malagasys such as raising him alone in my living room, setting up an orphanage where children can be raised in my way and distributing copies of the poem ‘If a Child lives with’ in French and Malagasy (I confess I’ve already translated this to put up in my own house).

I should note that, despite my initial concerns, the two people who have looked after my son, his Dady (Granny) and Zakia, have both been lovely with him.

How is my parenting perceived?

Remember that all Malagasy parents were raised as Malagasy children and so see this as the right way to raise children to be functioning adults. And they’re right because that’s the way society works here. It would be unacceptable for children to impinge on adult lives and Malagasy adults also talk to each other in ways more critical, more directive and more mocking than we consider appropriate.

So far, people aren’t too critical (to my face) about my parenting but I know there will many opinions about over indulgence, over sentimentality and lack of boundaries.

Is it about money?

Boys at RamenaIn England, families spend a fortune on their children – not just toys but food, education, activities, holidays, electronic gadgets, baby equipment – I could go on and on.

The difference in parenting isn’t directly about money – people also don’t see why children need much more than food, basic clothes and a place to sleep. Children make their own entertainment and toys and certainly don’t need after school activities to keep them fit – all the 10 year old boys are ripped with six packs and biceps.

Is it about time?

In England, adults invest inordinate amount of time into their children. Manic middle class mummies attempt to create a constant environment of stimulation with visits to petting zoos, coffee mornings with other mums and children, playing classical music, reading, putting on child friendly videos etc. etc.

People have argued with me that Malagasys are too busy looking for something to eat for their children to be ‘playing’ with them. However, anybody who has visited Coastal Madagascar will know that there’s a fair amount of ‘down-time’. Britain has the longest working hours of any country in Europe – maybe that’s why we make so much effort in the hours that we are with the children.

Son and ducksIn Madagascar, real life is going on all around and children get a lot of stimulation just from watching real life. There’s no need to visit petting zoos when animals are all around. And who needs videos when the adults are carrying on their lives around them. And there are always plenty of kids around providing the best form of entertainment.

However, looking at Madagascar with my English eyes, I do feel that children here lack something by not doing some structured activities lead by adults. My natural reaction is to be depressed by the lack of effort put into encouraging children to have inquiring minds. I heard a resident Vazaha say the other day that ‘The problem with Madagascar is the lack of a stimulating environment for infants.’ It’s an interesting thought although may say more about different cultural approaches between Vazahas and Malagasys than whether they lack a stimulating environment.

Less children, more effort?

I saw Bill and Melinda Gates talk about setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the world’s biggest medical funding charity, trying to cure the world of big nasties, such as malaria and HIV. They commented that the West has been allowed to develop a different parenting model because of our increased confidence that our children will grow up to achieve adulthood. We can confidently invest all of our effort into our precious 2 children relatively safe in the knowledge that they will thrive. In poorer countries, the child mortality rate is still very high and people have more children.

I asked the woman I bought fish off this week how many children she has and she said 8. With 8 children and little money, you have little choice but to let them raise themselves whilst you search for money to feed and clothe them. She could have saved money by investing in condoms but that’s a whole other debate.

Or is it just more French?

After I’d written this piece, I found the following article in the Telegraph by Janine di Giovanni called, ‘Is Maman mean or magnifique?

It describes the difference between Anglo-Saxon and French parenting styles and seems to sum up the situation here perfectly. I’ve yet to work out how to evaluate the effects of French colonialism (only 60 years) on Malagasy cultures. But, by coincidence or learning, the Malagasys are definitely quite French in their approach to children.

Who’s got it right?

Little Robin HoodsAnd Malagasy children do grow up (usually) and they grow up very respectful of authority and rules. And they learn to fulfil the main tasks of life. Could they achieve more if they were given more attention? Probably? Could they benefit from some praise and tenderness from time to time? Well, I’m British so I’m going to shout ‘Yes, show me the love – let’s all hug’.

But could British kids benefit from having a bit less of everything they want, a bit more time freely running outside with other children and a bit more hard graft to do? I think they probably could.

What about me?

I am British and middle class and the child of Anglo-Saxon educationalists. I fulfil my demographic clichés nicely. I devote my time to making my son feel loved and stimulated, monitor his progress against developmental milestones and ensure he is my priority in life (and everybody else’s if I get the chance).

However, I hope that he will benefit from a more physical life here (will he be the one fetching coconuts?), he will have more chores to do (keeps them occupied and gives them a sense of responsibility) and will spend time running around outside with other kids (I’m more nervous about this one when I see what some of the kids get up to but you can’t have it all ways!).

I believe in discipline and boundaries in theory though I’ve yet to demonstrate I can do it in practice. But I had an idea that punishment comes from showing disapproval contrasting with the usual positive atmosphere of praise and love – disapproval isn’t a punishment if it’s the default mode of interaction. I’ve also been watching TV programmes like Supernanny (and anyone else peddling the same ideas) since becoming a Mum so I’m all up for (again in theory) giving the child choices and explaining consequences and following up on them.

But, I know I sound like I’ve swallowed an ‘Earth mother’s guide to raising your child’ and even I have a horrible fear that’s a recipe for a wilful little prince to develop.

Can I learn to be a little more Malagasy and a little more French so my child doesn’t get horribly confused or take his mother for a sucker against all the other bossy adults around him (surely any approach needs to be consistent and in context)?

We’ll wait and see. For now I will go and wrap my son in my arms protect him from any stray harsh words or mean looks that might be blowing around on the hot Malagasy breeze.