An essay done by my friend Naivasha Dean of Madagascar. They have more than lemurs in Madagascar.

A Vazaha In Tana

My name is Naivasha Dean and I am an American living in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Life here is very different from life in the States. In fact, almost nothing is the same.

The languages here are Malagasy and French. The French colonized Madagascar, so everybody speaks the language and there are still some French influences and people. Malagasy is a unique, complicated language that the Malagasy speak.

There is a very small American community in Antananarivo, also called Tana, only about 20 families. But there are a variety of nationalities in this city, as you can see if you go to my school, the American School of Antananarivo. Though it is an extremely small school, we have everybody from Germans and Fijians to Peruvians and Russians. The curriculum is American and the classes are taught in English. Everybody has to take French, the only language offered. If they speak French and no English, which is the majority, they receive crash courses in English. Most of the French speakers have come from the Lycée Français, the big French school on the other side of town. My school is situated right in the center of Ivandry, the neighbourhood where most of the Americans have their homes. My house is one of the closest ones to it. Ivandry is a nice neighbourhood, but everybody still has guards posted in front of their houses 24/7, because of crime. Ivandry is what is known as a "vazaha" neighbourhood. Vazaha is the name for "foreigner" in Malagasy. We seem to hear the word wherever we go, whether from the mouths of little kids in the villages, or just from bystanders giving us the evil eye. White faces are still rare enough in some places to cause a commotion. We even call each other vazahas. Most vazahas in Tana have hired help around the house, which is very common here and not at all like in America.

A lot of the Americans that live here are employed by the American Embassy or USAID, which is an aid program. One boy's father is in the US Navy, and he was there to supervise the Madagascar Navy, which consisted of something around 5 small Coast Guard boats donated by the USA. I've heard that since, at least two have been scrapped for parts and two are broken.

We also had a revolution here two years ago. It was a break from the normal and for once we were making headlines across the world. The dictator president, Ratsirak, was trying to suppress the new president, Marc Ravalomanana, and succeeded in cutting off a lot of supplies to Tana, where Marc was mayor. Pretty early on, most American families were evacuated from the country, and soon all were gone. I stayed, because my family does not have any ties to the American government and therefore had no one to evacuate us. In order to finish the school year, we went to school on Saturdays and added hours to our school day. We finished a month early and I had a wonderfully extra long summer in the States, where I return every summer. But for the people who had to stay, like my mom, it was gritty. There was no more salt, flour, rice, sugar, soap, and worst of all, Coke. And gasoline was up to $23 a gallon on the black market, because all supply was being cut off. Everyone was walking everywhere, and the streets where deserted save for the occasional zebu. It was a trying time for the people, but they managed to go about it peacefully enough.

A lot of things seem to be missing here from American life, like movie theatres, malls, fast food restaurants, lots of different kinds of foods, and things that most American teenagers take for granted. There is nowhere to buy nice clothes, and you can forget about American or even European stores. Only three kinds of soda are available, Coke, Fanta, and Sprite (and the gross local brew). Most consumer products, from lip-gloss to razor heads, are unavailable. But it is true that the main grocery store, CORA, has been getting in a lot more products. When I first came here there was nothing. But there is no taxi company, no stoplights, and if you should get sick or break an arm or need surgery, you have to fly to South Africa to get it taken care of.

There is also, of course, a lot of poverty here. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, which is too bad because it would have enormous tourism potential if they'd just pave the roads. The poverty is evident around here, especially downtown, where many people sleep in the streets and beg for money. Even in the nice neighbourhoods, people will come up to the gates (all houses are walled in) to beg. It is a sad sight but people who live here are almost callous to it.

The city is very different too. Most people get around on foot, which is strange because there are no sidewalks. Tana is a big, sprawling city, with many "quartiers" with names like Ambohitrarahaba and Analamahitsy. Taxis and buses are all around, and they are all privately owned. The city is covered in rice paddies. Zebus pull carts along the road alongside the cars and buses. There are tombs virtually everywhere, even in the middle of our school and in hundreds by the sides of the roads. Almost every mound in the earth you see around here was a tomb at one time. Malagasies are very superstitious, and a lot of that has to do with the worshipping of their ancestors. So the tombs that are full of them are very important and may not be removed. They even are very strict about going back every once in a while and "turning the bones", or taking out the bodies and wrapping them in new cloths if one of the family had a dream that one of the ancestors were feeling cold.

Most parts of the city are not pretty in the least, though efforts have been made. One funny sight to see is the notorious "Lac qui pu," a pond downtown that seems to mostly be filled with sewage and other human wastes. It stinks up the area around it tremendously, but this doesn't daunt the Malagasies. They have built a beautiful, small, garden/park all around it, and take their families on picnics to it regularly, ignoring the stink and the objects floating on the scum of its surface.

But there are endearing things about my life in Tana. I need only to walk up the street from my house to one of many flower stands and buy nice flowers for the equivalent of less than two dollars. And the Malagasies are very friendly people. It is also nice to know kids from all different countries at my school, even if there is a language barrier. Madagascar is an amazing country, full of biodiversity and beautiful places if you can make it out of Tana. The beaches are a tropical paradise and the little rainforest that is left is very important. Madagascar is a world apart, most of which I haven't discovered yet. But it is no doubt a very special place.