How to listen to someone

How do you show that you’re really listening in England and Madagascar?


  • Make eye contact
  • Make listening noises (aha, yup, indeed)
  • Ask questions


  • Look at the ground
  • Remain silent

Thus an English person listening to a Malagasy could be perceived as:

  • Wanting to speak themselves
  • Trying to dominate
  • Being disrespectful
  • Intrusive by asking questions

And a Malagasy listening to an English person could be perceived as:

  • Bored
  • Trying to indicate you should shut up

I’ve had some excruciating nights out with groups of timid Malagasys where I’ve kept trying to instigate conversation by looking everyone in the eye (thus assuming the dominant position), asking questions and filling silences. At the end of the night I’m wondering why nobody else was helping me create a group dynamic and they were probably intimidated the whole night.

As an English person this has also caused problems in my relationship with my partner. I cry out frequently ‘Are you listening to me?’.

Public speakingOnce you get used to everybody looking bored it can be quite liberating when you’re speaking in public because it means that there’s no point assessing body language – you just keep rambling on and on and on (Malagasys like a good long speech).

The Village leader in the photo kept talking for about an hour as life went on around him. As you can see, he’s enjoying himself.

I’m good at rambling on (as this blog will testify) and choose to interpret people’s bored expressions as respect…and not boredom. Must remember not to do this when back in UK.


Minor annoyances of Madagascar

Munched linen dressCloth eating bugs

Sorted through a bag of clothes I’d left here yesterday, to discover that they too had been decimated by some clothes eating bugs.

I’ve no idea what they are so I attach a photo so that someone can tell me. Whatever they are I watched with smug satisfaction as the ants cleared away dozens of them in less than 3 minutes – ant Christmas apparently.

Luckily the orange dress that they were most partial to was one I got made whilst recovering from Chikungunya (type of Dengue Fever) so it was much too small. Especially as I got pregnant a month later and, unlike Malagasy mothers, gained some pounds (see post You are so fat).

Cloth bugs and ant

Power cuts

It’s been a bad week for power cuts. Saturday evening we lost power at 6pm for the next 13 hours. Sunday it cut at 7am for the next 25 hours. Last night we lost it at 6pm and it’s still not back on at 7.15 the next morning.

And the internet café was off yesterday at different times when I went up there so I had 2 wasted trips.

I don’t suffer too badly because of my laptop which has a decent battery and contains my music, films, games and writing. And we go to bed here so early (mixture of having a baby and natural rhythm with darkness) that the lack of light isn’t a disaster. However, I don’t like waking to breastfeed a baby in mosquito filled darkness.

Flip flop wounds

Two days ago I was delighted to get a rare chance to walk somewhere without my son but disappointed to get blisters on the top of both feet from my supposedly sensible flip flops (thongs to Americans).

Being the tropics, both of these minor afflictions are now infected and oozing puss and blood. Out comes the betadine (iodine). I was told it is best to dilute iodine rather than use it neat otherwise it kills all the white blood cells trying to fight the infection. Not sure that science is correct but less is more was the conclusion.

[Note (added November 2007) it took 2 months for these wounds to heal and have left sensitive ‘stains’ on both feet so I still have to be careful with shoes that touch the affected areas.]

Begging and other ways to get money

Madagascar is one of the poorest counties in the world, positioned 164 out of 177 countries for GDP per capita and 143 out of 177 for its Human Development Index (Madagascar’s Human Development Index 2004). So you would expect to see people begging (we do in London after all).

But, in Diego, begging only happens under rare circumstances.

In other parts of Madagascar begging is much more common, most noticeably from my travels in Tana and Tulear, though not as aggressive as in many other poor countries.  In Diego, when you hear the cry ‘Vazaha’ from children it’s normally just for their own amusement, in other places it almost always leads to a demand for money or presents.

Friday charity

Friday is giving day – a Muslim tradition. Thus the very poor, mainly the elderly, walk politely around town, especially the Indian and Arab shops pausing near people in the hope of some small change. They don’t pester and they always express thanks.

Because everyone is poor to a greater or lesser extent, people need some justification for receiving these alms. As I said, this is usually old age.

This system seems to work very well as you pass the rest of the week without expecting to give to anybody. Even on Fridays, it’s so polite and unobtrusive as to make giving a real pleasure. I know it should always be a pleasure to give but normally it gets all mixed up with trying to work out why that particular person is more deserving of money than the next person or you feel harassed. Not so here.

People look after each other

As said, everybody is familiar with poverty to some extent. Not having anything for the evening meal doesn’t make you very unusual here. So, you’d have to be really in dire straits to resort to begging. On top of this, if you did find yourself in crisis, people from your family or neighbourhood would take you home and feed you or get you through whatever crisis you were in.

And, because it’s a small town, you can’t fake your crisis. If you were attempting some kind of fraud it would be considered theft which is punished most severely.

There are a few known people whose begging is tolerated (but ‘managed’) and these are a small number of mentally ill people, harmless enough to themselves and others to be wandering around. I’ve noticed street vendors giving them food to eat as a matter of course so the community keeps them alive (and enjoys the entertainment their antics provide).

Other ways to get money

The lack of begging does not mean that hard graft is the only way to make money – far from it. Money is interlaced with every single interaction here and financial morality is much more fluid here than in the UK.

Life here is a series of negotiations in which everyone is a business person, taking their cut where they can. Sometimes this gets into territories that we would call ‘conning’ people – but it can be hard to draw a line between honest and deceitful business. I’m not a businesswoman in Europe, but I suspect that people with business in their blood understand this mentality more than I do.

Getting money out of Vazahas

Vazahas (white people) are always a target. Most Malagasys don’t have any understanding of the Vazaha way of life but they know we have money. And, although I’ve heard many younger travellers bemoaning that they don’t have much money, they really do compared to most people here.

At the beginning I tried to imagine every Vazaha walking around dripping with money and gold to help me understand the Gasy obsession with Vazahas and our money.

Charming money out of tourists is helped by the cheerful personalities, warm smiles and good looks of the locals.

Normal ways for trying to get money out of Vazahas includes:

  • sex
  • ‘love’
  • ‘friendship’
  • stories of hardship or desires to better themselves through a scheme (these may be true)
  • charging higher prices (this isn’t conning – nothing has a fixed price)
  • facilitating products or services (where you can cream a cut from the buyer and / or the service supplier)
  • buying and selling

These techniques are not reserved exclusively for Vazaha and are also used to a lesser extent on other Malagasys (apart from sex which is used an awful lot, but for different prices).

Why not beg from the rich?

Despite the other ways to get money, I still don’t understand why people don’t beg more from tourists, resident Vazahas or wealthy locals. The wealth gap is often enormous and, in the case of tourists, they are unlikely to know whether a case is genuine or not.

Long may it remain begging free

I am in awe of the people here for not begging when they are faced with such an immense wealth gap. As a resident Vazaha I can regularly be seen spending or wasting the equivalent of a week’s salary on some trivial fancy (this week it was a small packet of Fruit and Fibre cereal).

Maybe begging will become a norm in this region but I hope not, for the sake of the people who live here and for visitors. A major attraction of the region is the relative safety and relaxation that tourists can move around in. The worst thing that happens is usually fatigue from being over-‘charmed’.

It’s depressing, alienating and tiring being on the receiving end of begging, or very unreasonable conniving, however understandable it is.  Even in Diego, I get tired and frustrated just knowing that many people are wondering what they can extract from me with their ‘charm’.

However, being around people who, in the main, respectfully get on with their own lives, even in great poverty, fills my heart with warmth and admiration for local people. It can turn one-time tourists into repeat visitors and, more importantly, ambassadors for the county. How sad for everyone if that were to change.

Our new car

New bling carWe are the proud owners of a new car, a Diego classic Renault 4.

Currently it is Diego taxi yellow, with lots of ‘Bad Boy’ attachments such as headlight covers that look like seductive eyelids, shiny silver windscreen wiper attachments, blacked out windows etc.

We will be removing most of these and repainting it, to a more sober finish.

Why choose a Renault 4?

We chose this against a more glamorous Golf that was on sale because of its ability to tackle any road and ease of repair.

It’s known as the poor man’s 4×4 and can get anywhere that the bigger, shinier 4×4 vehicles can go. And I will mainly be wanting to get to Montagne d’Ambre (Amber Mountain) and Ramena, both of which require 4×4.

Also the cars are such a part of Antsiranana life that spare parts and expertise are plentiful.

Buyer and seller

Grown men crying

For some people of the Dordogne district (Jean’s district), life has been on hold for two days as they have watched the three ‘Anne of Green Gables’ films. Grown fishermen have been wiping tears away and taking Jean aside to say how great the films are.

Ha – and they like to laugh at us for being over sentimental and soft.

I brought the films with me as a slightly embarrassing but greatly coveted collection to watch to soothe my soul whenever Madagascar culture shock was grating on my nerves.

Nice to see that good ol’ Anne Shirley can touch the hearts of the most hardened Malagasy. I wonder what else I can get to inspire tenderness amongst the locals….full boxed set of Little House on the Prairie would be good.

You are so fat

A big topic of conversation has been how FAT I am… Some people have said it to my face and others have said it to Jean.

“Oh she’s been eating cake” “Oh she’s been eating too much sawaba (sweet dish with coconut milk)”.

It doesn’t really work to say “Well I’ve had a baby” as local women don’t tend to get fat. I noticed a local woman breastfeeding her baby, 1 month younger than mine. She pulled up her top to reveal a flat stomach. I chose breastfeeding tops that open only at the breast to keep those rolls of fat covered

To put this in perspective for Westerners I am at most a stone (14 lbs or 6 kilos) heavier than when I left. This is not unusual for Western women who have had babies.

But a splendid source of conversation for Malagasys.

Most English women would be horrified for someone to say this about them. Luckily I am used to Malagasys commenting on weight and am not sensitive about it. If Malagasys come into contact with Westerners a lot, someone normally needs to point out that it’s not acceptable to talk about someone as fat.

It’s not that fatness is revered here – people appreciate a fit, slim figure in both men and women. It’s just not seen as such a highly sensitive issue. Also people point out things that are obvious but undesirable (such as spots).

Getting fatter
I expected to lose weight here but I seem to be gaining it. This is a mix of not being very active, Jean cooking big meals and me sucking condensed milk out of the can. I read today that condensed milk has 8 tablespoons of sugar in one can.

Can I possibly claim that I’ve just swollen up with the heat?

Sorting things out

A treat for ants
My precious commodity from home of breakfast cereal was this morning attacked by ants. I’d looked at my box of cereal last night and thought ‘Hmm – the ants will find that. Must put it in something’.

Well, I paid for my fingers-crossed approach as I spent an hour sorting through my cereal flake by flake squashing all the ants. All safe now – phew (the cereal not the poor ants).

Car negotiations
While I was fixing my cereal, Jean was involved in the next stage of negotiations with the owner of a car we might buy. It’s me that’s going to buy it but I’m not involved at all in the discussions – best leave it to the Malagasy men – vazahas always likely to pay a higher price and I don’t understand the subtleties of Malagasy negotiation. They’re currently playing hard ball over the price.

Shower head
Jean found a shower head in his stuff that fits perfectly onto our shower pipe. Reminds me of my war era Dad – always managed to find spare parts lying around.