Local life in Central Madagascar

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Published: November 8th 2023

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A girl spinning silk from wild cocoons using her thigh in AmbalavaoA girl spinning silk from wild cocoons using her thigh in AmbalavaoA girl spinning silk from wild cocoons using her thigh in Ambalavao


Notice the maternity arrangements

A significant part of the motivation when traveling anywhere is understanding daily life. For the next leg of our trip we have driven North on the main N7 trunk road from Ambalavao to Fianarantsoa in the central Highlands and then down the escarpment that splits Madagascar in half to Manakara on the East Coast.

We had a morning in Ambalavao and luckily it was Wednesday. There were local workshops to visit making paper using a technology introduced by the Arabs and silk weaving using cocoons harvested from the wild. The big attraction was that it was market day.

The market was vast, filling every available street. I had to walk in a constant stoop to avoid overhead canopies. (People are fascinated by my height, it makes them smile, and I have yet to find a taller Malagasy). You could buy anything. There were natural medicine shops (do you want to make sure your next child is a boy?) and hawkers selling fake drugs. I have never seen so many spellings of ibuprofen. Unfortunately few locals can afford the real thing.

A highlight was the weekly Zebu cattle market. This attracts sellers from all over Southern Madagascar who spend

Medicines for sales at Ambalavao marketMedicines for sales at Ambalavao marketMedicines for sales at Ambalavao market


I have never seen so many spellings of Ibuprofen

days/weeks walking their excess stock to Ambalavao to meet the traders who come South from the capital, Tana. There is no auction. Each seller registers his cattle (the Zebu each get an ear tag) and then they stand around a piece of open ground in small groups whilst their owners try to keep the cattle from mixing together. All negotiations are one to one. The Tana buyers load the larger cattle they have purchased on to trucks. The calves are sold to others for growing on. You can just wander round (Jane was very brave!) and purchase one if you have a spare 500 Euros.

We drove on to Fianarantsoa a few hours North. We took a taxi from our bland hotel to the ‘Haute Ville’ with its French colonial cobbles and six churches. The area is somewhat faded and they are working hard to restore some buildings. It would have been a great view across the city and surrounding paddies but we are on the cusp of the wet season and there was a steady drizzle. In a cafe I met an English traveller, one of the very few we have met using local transport (minibuses). My knees

JeanBe showed us around Ambalavao marketJeanBe showed us around Ambalavao marketJeanBe showed us around Ambalavao market


The photo shows two key modes of transport:
1) Carts with wheels run on old brake pads and steered with a steering wheel
2) On your head

would not stand it nowadays.

We returned to the upper town that evening to a restaurant, La Riziere, staffed by local students learning hospitality skills at a Catholic college. We discovered that it trains a lot of the employees in the ‘western’ hotels. It was a fun meal (the one place we have had three courses) and the waiters were very attentive. We communicated with our ‘pidgin’ French. Fianarantsoa is the home of Cote de Fianar wine so we tried a glass each of the red and the white. It won’t win prizes but it was not undrinkable. By the end of our meal it was bucketing down. Luckily we had pre-booked a taxi as finding one would have been a nightmare.

The next day as we drove out of the city it was clear that there was going to be a big rally for the incumbent candidate for the upcoming presidential election on November 9. People in his orange colours were converging from all directions. It seems he has a pretty good hold on the media. Each town we have visited has a row of wooden notice boards labelled 1 to 13. This was for the original

The Zebu market in AmbalavaoThe Zebu market in AmbalavaoThe Zebu market in Ambalavao


The building in the centre is where the sellers register their cattle

list of presidential candidates (some have since dropped out). In most cases all the boards are blank and if not there is a single poster, under number 3, for the incumbent. It was only two days ago as we got closer to Tana that we saw any posters for any opposition candidates.

The original plan had been to take an old Swiss built train to the coast. This was closed so we drove down over the escarpment to Manakara on the East coast. The road twists near where a large waterfall crashes off the mountain. It was another 4 hours to the coast. The power of the Indian Ocean was a contrast compared to the calmer Mozambique channel on the West coast with waves crashing over the ancient breakwater opposite our hotel. Unbelievably, it did not stop some fishermen in their dugout canoes risking the choppy seas.

We understand that it was half term week and there were a few Malagasy families enjoying the beach and local hotels. The week includes November 1, all souls day in the Catholic calendar so there are lots of family parties to celebrate and pray with ancestors.

We walked up the

The chef at the 'hotely' we ate at in AmbalavaoThe chef at the 'hotely' we ate at in AmbalavaoThe chef at the ‘hotely’ we ate at in Ambalavao

beach road past the coconut sellers and bicycle rickshaw drivers toting for business with the rollers crashing in from the ocean. There were hollow concrete buildings left over from the colonial era.

There is a new bridge over the river that connects the barrier island we are staying on with the main town. The last Eiffel designed bridge had a ten ton limit and we were told that it did not survive a thirty ton lorry trying to use it. That evening we took a bicycle rickshaw to a restaurant in town. I helped the driver push Jane up the bridge ramps and got in for the descents. With three on the rickshaw and my weight these descents were quite exciting and we narrowly missed a local crossing the road with the single break squalling in agony as we hurtled down the slope.

The next day JeanBe had arranged for a local guide Benoit to take us on a boat trip along the Pangalanes canal which runs for 400 miles up the East coast, another legacy of the French. Benoit had been an English teacher but he can clearly earn more as a guide.

The boat was

The waitresses who served us lunch at the 'hotely' in AbalavaoThe waitresses who served us lunch at the 'hotely' in AbalavaoThe waitresses who served us lunch at the ‘hotely’ in Abalavao


Madagasys seem such an attractive people. Maybe it is because more than half are under 20 years old.

a long narrow dugout canoe with cross pieces for seats. There was a canopy to protect us from the sun. For our trip it served to catch the English drizzle. Two lithe young men using paddles provided the power. It was a peaceful way to observe the local life. Around Manakara the canal route takes advantage of the river which snakes along the coast in Manakara and during our trip we only took a short excursion up a man made section. Several pairs of locals fished at the water’s edge using fishing nets converted from mosquito nets supplied by NGO’s to reduce the incidents of malaria.

The banks were peppered with fishing villages whose houses were mostly wooden on low stilts with roofs made from dry palm leaves. Benoit explained that these are destroyed or damaged by the increasingly regular cyclones which hit the coast in January or February. The locals are evacuated to the schools and churches in the main town when the storms come in. They then rebuild and repair their houses afterwards.

We stopped off at a farm making essential oils. Eucalyptus oil was an important treatment for COVID in Madagascar. As is typical the

People pouring into Fianarantsoa for an election rally as we drove out to ManakaraPeople pouring into Fianarantsoa for an election rally as we drove out to ManakaraPeople pouring into Fianarantsoa for an election rally as we drove out to Manakara


The incumbent candidate’s brand colour is orange and he has distributed many T-shirts around the country

business was owned by ‘an outsider’ in this case a Malagasy Merino lady from Tana.

We stopped at one village which was geared up to sell souvenirs to tourists and Jane was quickly mobbed when we showed some interest. Meanwhile one of Benoit’s team had barbequed us a lunch of fish and crayfish bought from another village at the mouth of the river.

It was an impressive feast which we shared with JeanBe and our driver Rico and which ended our stay in Manakara. We sat picnicking on the ground under grey skies and light rain. It could have been England….except for the palm trees overhead and the white sandy beach in front of us.



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