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.


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.

Taking the Mickey

I take pride in the British sense of humour which permeates all aspects of our lives. We enjoy nothing more than taking the Mickey out of each other (mocking) whether on the school playground, the factory floor or the sports field.

I mastered my craft at my school where you either developed a quick tongue and thick skin or you hid in the corner.

So, why has it taken me 2 and a half years to appreciate a similar mocking mentality by the locals of Diego instead of slamming them all for being insensitive critics.

Vazaha watching, a Malagasy passionWatching vazahas make breakfast

As a Vazaha visitor, you become aware that you are constantly being watched. In towns, people are more used to Vazahas so you are being watched only casually out of the corner of people’s eyes (they still notice everything). But, out in rural villages, it’s usually full on staring.

These photos show me visiting a village during a Frontier expedition (I’m the one doing something fascinating nearest the house). This is the breakfast vigil (they arrived just after we opened the door).

Bedtime audience

The people squashed themselves in the doorway the previous evening to watch us get changed and get into our sleeping bags.

We often joked that the way to get rich in Madagascar was to create a TV series called What Vazahas Do. Each week you could show mundane clips of people brushing their teeth or buying bread. And, you could make special episodes of Vazaha’s falling over which would bring the house down.

‘Tsy Mahay’, a Malagasy obsession

Tsy Mahay means ‘doesn’t know how’. Malagasys just can’t help themselves from pointing out that you don’t know how to do something. As a new immigrant, you hear this a lot.

It’s not easy keeping your morale up when adjusting to a new culture and learning new skills. Anyone who isn’t currently generous hearted to immigrants to their own country has no doubt never tried to adapt to another culture.

The Malagasy (or Diego-ite) tendency to laugh and shout ‘Tsy Mahay’ when you’re trying to accomplish a simple daily task, like building a fire or sorting the rice, which is like little sticks of humiliation being poked into your over-sensitive, paranoid white skin.

This sensitivity (with accompanying loss of your own sense of humour) won’t be there when you step off the plane. It will come on once you’ve forgotten that you ‘Mahay’ (know how) to do anything properly, however competent you thought you were in your own culture.

[I have since regained my confidence but probably learnt some more humility – never a bad thing.]

Why do they mock so?

Are they just cruel?
Well, partly, yes. People from Diego are not overly sensitive types – they have been mocked and criticised since childhood (see post Should we be nice to children?). They spend most of their childhood with other children and children, as we know, can be cruel.

Learning by critique
Malagasys don’t teach by praising achievements and gently suggesting alternatives to help people. They pick out what has been done wrong and criticise that. And when I say ‘wrong’, I mean ‘not done exactly the one way that the teacher has decided it should be done’.  I have been told this is also more a French mode of education.

Picture that you have just successfully created flames out of a structure of sticks reminiscent of something you saw Ray Mears build on TV once whilst you were eating your beans on toast (“Why didn’t I pay more attention to Mr. Mears?”, you berate yourself).

You turn round to face your audience (any Vazaha doing anything, normally has an audience) with, what you hope is, an expression of humble pride.

How disheartening when people look at you and then each other and let out the joyful cackle of ‘Tsy Mahay’. Somebody will invariably come to ‘do it properly’ for you whilst the ‘Tsy Mahay’ still reverberates around in chuckles.

Accept that, unless you can perform a task like you’ve been doing it 3 times a day since you were a toddler, you do not ‘Mahay’.

Laughing ‘with’ you (honest)

Laughing at somebody trying to do something is very offensive in Britain (I remember my disapproval as my partner laughed his head off at my cousin’s distressed son who had just had a potty training accident).

I’m being slightly generous here to imply that Malagasys are laughing with you rather than at you, but there’s some truth in it. Or rather that being laughed can be their way of showing that it doesn’t really matter that you don’t know what you’re doing and that you’re still part of the group.

Malagasys laugh to diffuse tensions so there will often be jokes and laughter in the middle of disputes (which can be infuriating when you’re really up on your high horse). So, they are laughing at you, but in a way they’re trying to make everybody, including you, feel more comfortable.

What about me?

Like at school, unless I wanted to spend my time hiding in the corner, I had to toughen up (though I still sometimes get the urge to hide in the corner here). I don’t mock others too much, partly because my language and cultural skills aren’t up to doing it with sophistication. It’s also because many Malagasys already display submissive behaviours around me (because I am a Vazaha) so I feel it’s more my role to be complementary.

But, my ‘new immigrant’ sensitivity is much less and my Malagasy language skills are improving so watch out Malagasys who’ve been chuckling away to yourselves for a couple of years at all my little mishaps – I’m sharpening my tongue and I’m coming for you with all the wit and sarcasm my British heritage has afforded me.

Let the Mickey taking begin.

Small town / fish bowl life

Went to Diego airport today to see friends off.

Any visit to the airport means seeing familiar faces and them seeing you.

I realise I’m already getting used to the fact that this is a small town and your life is on show. In London people would know what I was doing because I told them, not because they saw me do it. So different people could know about my important professional milestones, drunken nights out, visits to the doctor, tripping over in the street, personal relationships etc.

In Diego, it’s always safest to assume that everybody knows everything.

An unsuspecting visitor, used to a cosmopolitan environment, may just see a sea of anonymous faces and not realise they’re all part of a closely linked net.

How are we all connected to each other?

Well, the fingers of large extended families reach far and wide, feeling deftly for information and gossip.

Also, the upstairs, downstairs phenomenon of domestic staff provides both the means of gaining inside knowledge and motivation for sharing it.

The itch to gossip about celebrities, so prevalent in the UK at the moment, is satisfied in Madagascar by gossiping about the better off – Vazaha or Gasy.

In a country where all regular forms of communication are mind-bogglingly ineffective (internet, post etc.) bush gossip, i.e. word of mouth, seems to race around Madagascar with death defying speed and accuracy.

Talking to myself – lonely expat behaviour?

I have started talking to myself in public again. The last two weeks have seen a resurgence of this habit, a behaviour I developed in Madagascar in 2006, but had lost during my stay in England.

I didn’t really notice I did it until I returned to England. I found myself doing it in shops and having to laugh it off when I got noticed.

It took about a month back in England to stop doing it.

So, why has it started again?

Self talking situations

I do it to a certain extent in the house but I’m most aware of it when out of the house. A typical situation might be the market.

Much of it is harmless enough; reciting what I want to buy – a sort of memory aid.

“Right, I need to get potatoes, carrots and beans”

However, it also moves into expressing opinions:

“Ooo, those pineapples look nice. Bet they’re expensive though.”

And it’s often used around some interaction with another person.

“Hmm, she looks like she’s having a hard day.”
“Shouldn’t those boys be in school?”.
“Ah, it’s the man who always tries to rip me off. I know your game mister.”

And sometimes it’s me expressing opinions on Madagascar life in general as I walk through the market:

“Oh my word, could there be any more chaos?”
“As if life wasn’t difficult enough already, they have to make the umbrellas low enough to poke my eye out.”

Etc. etc.

Why do I talk to myself?

I imagine it must give me some feeling of protection and buffer against the stress of being out and about in another culture.

I probably feel less alone and different by doing it (though no doubt look like a fruitcake). By expressing opinions I know my friends would share, I bring my ‘normal’ into the situation. Whereas, in fact, I am the thing that is not normal.

It also gives me a sense of power because I am speaking in a language that they do not understand. So, they can talk about me and I can talk about them. I often do it if being stared at.

Sign of stress?

It would appear to be a coping mechanism which shows that there is something to cope with. This highlights the underlying stress that is part of being an ex-pat. In England, I can switch off because:

  • I blend in
  • I understand 95% of what is happening without having to think about it
  • I speak the same language
  • I know exactly how my behaviour is interpreted.

So I can think about what’s in my head or just the unusual things that happen.

The percentage of things that are becoming automatic and understood instead of confusing is increasing.

However, daily life is still far more tiring than back in my own familiar culture.

The last 2 weeks have also been stressful as I’ve been ill and thus feeling tired and fragile.

Now I am well again, we’ll see if I will stop or whether talking to myself is part of the ongoing stress of expat life.

Culture ain’t just about rice

I found this poster in the library in the Department of Anglo-American Studies at the University of Antsiranana.

I love it because not only does it remind us that we are the strange ones but also it shows how cultural difference goes much deeper than whether you eat rice every day or not. When you first arrive you think it’s all about learning about death ceremonies, how to cook rice and how to wear traditional clothing.

But, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise how I may have been perceived at times when I was acting very British.Working with anglophones

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?