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 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:
- 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.