A tale of two grannies

Two grannies in DiegoToday’s tale is a travelogue of an unusual trip from Diego to Sainte Marie, with my baby son Fred, my Mum (white Granny), Jean’s Mum (black Granny)

So, 3 women set out on the same journey with a collection of objectives.

  • To visit your birthplace and family
  • To meet new family
  • To indulge in relaxation
  • To see another part of Madagascar
  • To scout Sainte Marie out as potential future home (this is a vague notion of mine and a more serious consideration for Jean’s Mum)

What a privilege to be travelling with my son and his two Grandmothers – especially on such an exotic trip. Fred doesn’t realise how lucky he is now but I’m happy that he is loved already so much by the people close to me.

We piled into our car and another taxi to get to Antsiranana airport – which has been improved during my stay in England. There’s two check in desks, an information desk (a rare thing indeed in Madagascar) and sliding doors.

Air Madagascar customer service

Nil points – when in doubt, lie

I had one experience with Malagasy customer service that would have once tried my patience much more than it does now.

Air travellers with small children now normally have the right to keep a pushchair / buggy with them right up to the plane door. It is stowed and then returned to them when they arrive at the next airport. I have done this before with Air Madagascar.

I had pre-packed my buggy this time to save time. The check in desk insisted on checking it in and putting it straight in the hold. They claimed it would magically appear at Tana if I spoke to ‘someone’. My experience on any international travel indicates this is not likely – and in Madagascar even less so.

As a response to my insistence, a man said he’d phone Tana and disappeared. I told the lady I’d return in 10 minutes to find out who they’d spoken to and what I needed to do at Tana. When, to her dismay, I did return, she told me I should go and speak to her boss, the man who had disappeared ‘to phone Tana’. He then told me there was no need to phone Tana and then went on to explain that people getting their pushchairs depends on the amount of flight traffic.

So, the bald fact is he’d lied about phoning Tana and was now making up Air Madagascar policy. I don’t know for a fact that he was wrong but it was already clear he was not an expert on the Air Madagascar pushchair policy.

Anyway, instead of the seething rage this might once have produced, I only suffered mild, amused disapproval. I realise that he may be breaking my code of customer service but I was also making many Malagasy cultural faux pas (I still make them all the time but I’m more aware of when I’m making some of them).

Firstly I was expecting to receive full customer satisfaction. Secondly, I kept driving at a point when it had become obvious somebody didn’t know what to do – to Malagasys, my insistence at this point is justification enough for the man lying, it was the acceptable thing to do to save everybody’s face. Thirdly, Malagasys don’t have pushchairs so my insistence that it was a necessity for a 5 hour stopover at Tana, is incomprehensible.

Thankfully, I avoided the major faux pas of losing my rag and criticising, as this is not the Malagasy way. So, I left the situation ensuring that the man’s professional status had been respected and by making a joke so we could all laugh together and know there are no hard feelings.

Mille points – gold star to him

The male air steward on the plane needs special commendation for his enthusiasm for his job and determination to love each and every customer. I have never seen an air steward who doesn’t at least look a little jaded – not this chap – job satisfaction all the way. He assured me my buggy would be no problem (he didn’t actually appear to help me at Tana but at least this gave me confidence to keep trying).

A chill at Antananarivo airport

The staff at Tana airport were very helpful although I did have to continue to be the insistent traveller. I got the buggy. Sat in the shade outside the airport, there was a surpisingly chilly wind which saw black granny reaching for her huge cardigan and white granny smiling, though still having to put a scarf round her shoulders.

Madagascar developing in small and big ways

I hate to trivialise the march for development, but I couldn’t help noticing that the toilets were clean and had toilet paper and soap. Small things like this give outsiders an impression of development, which is a plus in itself. I haven’t yet worked out any more complex analysis of Malagasy economics but little things add up.

As if to remind us just how far development can take you, the TV in the departure lounge was showing a non-stop infomercial for some flab wobbling, muscle toner. I suspect the majority of the Malagasy population is a long way from being customers.

Sainte Marie – plane lands, moods lift

I’d talked all week about Ile Sainte Marie as a tropical island paradise but what we’d find in reality was far from certain. Anyone who’s heard of Madagascar usually oos and ahs about the exotic, lush, mysteriousness of it. The reality of much of what I have seen is very different, and not that amazing.

So, as we came into land with our wheels skimming turquoise water and our wing tip floating between a white sandy beach and lush tropical vegetation, things were looking promising.

By the time we walked out of the terminal with our bags my Mum and I were already declaring that Sainte Marie is lovely. ‘Wait until you see the roads’, Jean’s Mum said.

What’s worse – the car or the road?

Any emotional buoyancy soon withered when we saw our transport, a battered minibus without seat belts that brought back horrible memories of previous dances with deaths in a taxi brousse with my Mum.

It was the first time I was taking Fred in a car without a car seat – I told the driver I was very nervous so to go slow – although this was also for my Mum’s benefit, who is a nervous passenger, to say the least.

Then it wouldn’t start and required a push start. Mum’s mood was blackening – I would be more zen if she wasn’t there but I know how car transport can worry her.

Poor Jean’s Mum had been terrified of the flight. We were more scared of the car journey (more faith in science and statistics?)..

Mum had had to close her eyes during the ‘bridge’ crossing of the bays south of Ambodifotatra. I had kept my eyes open, mainly to plan how I would evacuate myself with my son, before going back to rescue my Mum and Jean’s Mum, if we ended up under water.

All’s well that ends well

As nearly always, we arrived safely at our destination. Things were definitely looking up. Our hotel is a gorgeous little place nestled in a secluded bay, and it is a gorgeous tropical little bay.

Looks like we’ve found our tropical island paradise after all.


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.

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

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.

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?

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.