Coconut oil, cradle cap and connectivity

My child no longer smells of olive oil which I was using to treat his cradle cap (and which my mother hated for making her lovely grandson smell dirty). Now he smells of coconut oil extracted by his Malagasy granny from coconut trees planted by his Papa.

So, now he smells like a tropical, Indian Ocean boy.

How to make coconut oil
Incidentally I have discovered how to make coconut oil. Coconut milk is heated for a long time until the oil and the cream separate and the oil is spooned off the top. For those coconut novices, coconut milk is not the liquid which comes out of a fresh coconut – that’s coconut juice and is a refreshing sweet drink. The milk comes from grating, soaking and squeezing the flesh of the coconut. Mmmm – just the thought of coconut sauce is making me hungry,

Quick aside that it was quite confusing deciding what terms to use for Fred’s family members there because Granny in Malagasy is Dady which is what we’re calling her.

To connect or not to connect….
When we talk about slow connection speeds in developing countries, people in the West may not realise just what we’re talking about. I had to wait around a minute just to switch between internet windows or to scroll up the screen. I was in there for 90 minutes and I sent 2 pre-written emails, updated my Facebook status and left 1 message on a friend’s Facebook wall.

This does not bode well for my internet related ambitions….

Stu (ex-Frontier staff who has been in Diego as long as me) has pointed out that it would make sense to get a phone line put in to the flat and get the internet. I think he is wise and have started investigations.


White woman breastfeeding in bar

Breastfed in public today and I’m still trying to interpret all the social signals to see how appropriate it was. I went into a bar (usually frequented by girlfriends looking for boyfriends and vice versa, and the odd tourist group attracted by the terrace).

I sat in front of the TV, facing only the two bar women. I also covered myself up so no bit of breast was ever on show. However, I was aware this was unusual if nothing else. A young man came and sat down next to me afterwards without smiling once. Was this a classic Malagasy indirect way of saying that I shouldn’t be doing that? Or did he just want to look at the motor racing? So hard to tell.

Jean gulped when I told him but wouldn’t tell me it was actually wrong – not good though I’m guessing.

Malagasy women can be seen breastfeeding fairly often. I think a key difference is that women here take their children with them on errands a lot less than we do in England. The children are always left with someone else. And if women do have to be out of the house for a long time, they are usually relatively poor and selling either fruit from the market or bits of food by the side of the road. The other place I’ve seen it is outside the hospital when women are waiting all day if someone is sick.

So, maybe me breastfeeding in public doesn’t fit with my status as a white woman with a nice apartment not far away. And, from experience I’ve learnt that life is easier in Madagascar if my behaviours fit with people’s expectations of my status.

Settling in ups and downs

A relaxed English morning
I wake just before 6am to feed Fred. Jean is up and about to leave for his driving practical test.

The morning is spent in surreal suspended reality with BBC world on for two hours 8-10am and the place to myself. The charms of the apartment are definitely outstripping the negatives and I’m delighted with our (my) decision to get our (my) own place. I go back to sleep next to Fred for yet more lovely sleep.

Jean is out till 1.30pm leaving me time to look after Fred, to unpack, to enjoy my morning ablutions free from prying eyes and convert music files on my new laptop. I even sit down to read at one point. Despite my concerns about being here, it feels like I might just have a relaxing time and as if this is real life starting after the limbo of the time in England.

A unsettled baby afternoon
Fred is unsettled and fractious all day, my best guess being the heat because he seems to calm down when stripped off and when outside with a breeze. It makes the afternoon particularly unpleasant with Jean impotent to help and us being unable to do anything except keep him calm. Sleeping seems especially difficult for Fred during day which is just like many people when in hot countries for the first time.

A depressed evening
Fred finally fell into a deep afternoon sleep at around 5pm in his buggy. Jean was concerned about mozzies but, with the fan on, I thought it was OK. But suddenly everything went black. A power cut. We thought we were by the hospital so we couldn’t have a power cut.

By the light on my mobile phone we found a candle and, with a bit of effort, put the sun/bug mesh onto the buggy. Fred slept right through the whole thing and looked snug all wrapped up in his darth vader –esque vehicle.

Once he woke up, he was fractious again for the next hour. Sadly, we had to put him in a full baby-gro to protect him from mozzies, which he hates in the heat.

We took Fred outside, sharing the lack of light with our neighbours also outside. Does it matter that my baby is screaming? Doubt it – Malagasys are very tolerant of noise, not realising that right to peace and quiet is considered sacrosanct in my homeland. Fred was somewhat calmed by the passing wobbly beams of yellow light as the taxis rattled past.

The darkness of the power cut burdened the hearts in the house. Jean is annoyed that he is paying good money for a flat with power cuts when he has a house for free not far away with the power still on.

Thankfully Fred went to sleep relatively easily. Jean and I had a depressed supper of boiled eggs, chorizo that I brought from England and bread. Sleep did not come easily and I lay in the blackness listening to the sound of a room filled with mosquitoes. We under our badly fitting mosquito net and Fred in his travel cot cocoon. I resent Madagascar for not allowing me to see and touch my darling son from my bed. I resent Madagascar. I shed a tear and push Jean’s hot heavy body gently away.

Night time calm
At 11pm I awake still in darkness and listen to the mosquitoes and Fred stirring. When I realise Fred is not waking up but I am not sleeping I get up – just to escape from the claustrophobia of the mosquito net. By candlelight I start tapping away at my laptop on battery power, writing an account of my stay in Madagascar so far and planning future writing.

The power came back on at midnight. My mood quickly lifted as the fan blew the mozzies away and light allowed me to move freely. I could charge my phone (so having emergency light) and charge this laptop.

Say what you will about development, all hail electricity.

Madagascar – we’re back

Well, here I am. Back in Madagascar. Or should I say ‘Here we are’ because, for the first time, I come back to Madagascar as a package that includes Fred. How will I adapt to life here after 11 months away and now that I have the mindset of a new Mum

Flying alone with a baby
The journey was harder than I expected physically but easier mentally. I was surprised how little help I received at any point as a sole adult travelling with a baby. I had to collect my 46 kilos of luggage at both Paris and Tana airports and check them back in at a different location. I was only just able to manage all the hand luggage. I had everything I needed for Fred in one bag and all my electrical items in another. Helpful strangers were vital but hard to come by. Fred got used to being held airport staff.

However, I am aware that my situation is self inflicted and privileged, both in being able to travel and being able to have so much stuff. Westerners have so much stuff.

I’ve seen Malagasy women travelling for hours squashed into the back of a bush taxi. They have the wisdom that only one item is really essential when you have a breastfed baby which is some kind of nappy change.

Racial kaleidoscope at check in
At Paris the queue at the Air Madagascar check in desks is my first contact with Madagascar. The beautiful and unmistakable Malagasy people. They are unmistakable not because of a single distinct set of characteristics but in their combination when in group. No other country on earth offers the same mix of Africa and South Asia. The range is from dark black African with tightly bound hair to the palest Indonesian with glossy straight hair. En masse they are a kaleidoscope of all the shades and combinations in between, with bits of white man, Chinese and Indian mixed in as well. Like a Benetton advert without the white or pure oriental people.

Complications at Tana airport
At Tana airport, I was generally last at everything. Last off the plane, last to join the visa stamp queue and last to join the visa queue. For the first time on the trip I got special treatment as one official spotted Fred slipping off my hip in a mound of blankets and waved me to the front. Somehow I was still the last one to pick up my baggage.

I’m sure I don’t have the right visa for Fred. I needed a transformable visa if we are to apply for his Malagasy nationality. The embassy in London told me to get this at the airport. But at the airport they could only give a 3 month tourist visa. When I discussed this he told me I should go to the embassy in Tana (which embassy I don’t know as they British one has closed. When I said I was going to Diego straight away he told me to try and sort it out there, looking at the floor knowing he was just batting away my problem. At this time, I wasn’t going to argue and just went to get my baggage.

For once, I paid people who carried my bag a euro, whereas normally I fight against anyone helping me. And if they force their help upon me, I give them a suitably small Malagasy amounts. In the check in queue a Malagasy woman was shouting at baggage carriers for all trying to help and her white husband for giving them money. I sympathised with both of them.

At Diego airport I was greeted by the new airport terminal. It’s still a simple one storey building and there’s no automatic luggage carousel but it’s newer. Luggage is wheeled in on trolleys and put on the bench of rollers by staff. Tickets are checked. By the exit, taxi men try to holler and catch everyone’s eye to grab that fare into town.

Has Diego changed?
The yellow taxis of Diego rattle back to town carrying their cargo of money spending tourists, to pump some blood into the local economy, and locals returned from exotic locations (usually Tana or France). Our driver, forewarned of his nervous new-Mum passenger, crawls into town at 20kmph, giving me ample time to absorb the sights of Diego life, at once familiar and strange.

Nothing has really changed – I notice that I am surprised to see hobbling stray dogs, whereas only 11 months before I was surprised to see white people being led round the park by their well fed, well groomed pooch chums.

However, as we near Place Kabary, my neighbourhood, I notice a new place for renting 4x4s and motorbikes which has replaced the lovely place that used to sell crafts far cheaper than any other store. Clearly no head for business.

Next to this is a café. I wonder why this little pocket of investment has happened and then spot another new addition, the Tourist Office, something Diego has sorely been lacking.

The roads look better too but there is still a metre square pile of mud and rubble in the middle of a main thoroughfare. Maybe blocking a hole of similar size.

As we pass the local square, men who hang out there discussing politics, life and women, watch the taxi go past. I am back in a land where I am something to be watched.

My new Vazaha flat
We arrive at the new apartment, just around the corner from Jean’s house in the Dordogne, where we lived before. My first impression is one of relief that’s it not worse and disappointment that it’s not better. It looks dirty and threadbare.

Ruth’s flat in Madagascar

A smiling young lady is there, Zakia, our home help ‘thrown in’ for the price.

Dino, one of Jean’s assistants, soon turns up with vegetables and starts preparing lunch.

The rest of the day is spent with me unpacking, me getting a delicious sleep in and Jean running backwards and forwards to the Dordogne to pick up bits and bobs. I’m aware that I have to sweep out mice droppings from the bed, and evidence of woodworm from the cupboard but know that these are small issues in Madagascar and that this house is a luxury.

I have a better night sleep than I’ve had in ages – mainly because Fred only wakes up for one feed which I think might be due to the smothering heat.