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.
I’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
Last 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.
Nevertheless, 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.