Motor biking carries a frisson of fear and I have had some narrow escapes but I enjoy the sense of freedom it generates even if this feeling is partly illusory. Even though the road demands intense concentration my eyes are free to see and my mind is free to wander and wonder.
Daybreak and early stirrings: there are sounds and smells to enjoy and even distant horizons seem attainable. I press the starter when there is enough light to see. Roads in Madagascar can be atrociously difficult, even dangerous. An enticing, leafy stretch of road may be a treacherous betrayer; I plunge into cool shadows-with a gasp of relief- and find a huge hole yawning, too late to avoid, its awesome depth hidden by shade.
With no electricity in rural areas people get up with the sun and there is breakfast smoke wafting through roadside banana and coconut trees. I sniff: wood smoke, coffee, calamine tea, rice steaming, small cakes cooking…
I am riding my trail bike south-west from the northern tip of Madagascar, this huge and spectacularly beautiful island off the east coast of Africa. Some people tell me it is too risky to be motor biking at my age but neither my head nor heart seems capable of giving much importance to this view.
This is the only African country I know where I can stop and have a strong black coffee on a rural roadside at 6 am. These ladies rise early and brew large cast-iron pots of coffee and tea. They deep-fry bananas and starchy, sugary, small cakes. They set out their fares on a wooden bench and with some wooden stools and a covering of raffia leaves, they are ready for business.
There are familiar sights that never fail to catch my eye and often my breath: a gaily coloured tomb as if death were to be celebrated, three generations of a family breaking stones by the side of the road, children and adults sifting through rubbish in a dump.
Children are walking to school for the early morning shift, often long distances. I delight in their carefree gaiety. They skip along, at times barefoot, with childish laughter giving the lie to Shakespeare’s image of:
“…the whining schoolboy, with his satchel…creeping like a snail Unwillingly to school.
They see me, I see their surprise and prepare for their shouts: ’Vahaza’ meaning foreigner ‘Bonjour’. Their salutations follow my passing. They wear light smocks of whatever colour the school has chosen: white, blue, pink, green, red… I ponder on what their future is in this unequal, corrupt, politically crippled and poverty afflicted island.
The ‘Everywhere’ Animal
In the early morning men and boys drive large herds of zebu to pasture from their night stockades, criss-crossing roads. This iconic Madagascar animal fascinates with its appearance and skittishness. The variety of horn shapes is startling. The perfect form is that of an ancient Greek lyre but they may also grow downwards, upwards or sideways. Straight or crooked they arealways long and sharp. Symbol of wealth and prestige the zebu pervades all aspects of Malagasy life. They are sacrificed to mark life’s big occasions, their fatty hump served as a delicacy to the most important guests. They do the ploughing of rice paddies, are plodded around after the first rains to help break up the clods, pull heavily-laden wooden carts to and from market. Theirs the chief meat eaten, theirs the milk drunk. I pass them warily, careful of their swinging, swaying horns. They are indispensable to Malagasy life and stubbornly unpredictable in behaviour. They are never slaughtered young.
The roads become busy. Women with large plastic basins full of pots, pans, dishes or clothes on their heads are walking to the nearest river or stream. Trailing behind are the children too young for school. Men and many women with hoes are heading to the fields.
I halt to take a photo of men thatching a hut. They stop to watch me, huge grins showing appreciation of this little break in routine. They are using the leaves of the raffia tree. Like all thatching it is long and tedious work and in torrential rain has a short life. Consequently, the glare of corrugated iron can now be seen in even remote villages.
In a field, alone, an old woman is punching holes in the earth with a long wooden stick and placing some type of seed, maybe beans, carefully in each one. She does not look up when I stop,unhurriedly continuing her work. I would have liked to ask what she is planting but my Malagasy does not stretch that far.
Farmers are ploughing paddy fields with their zebus; the rainy season is not far off. Here the dry method of rice cultivation is used, the farmer depending solely on the rain. I watch with admiration the determination of the ploughman to keep the furrow straight.
People sell this and that on all roadsides. It is mango season, so plentiful and cheap that I will buy rather than stop to pick those fallen by the roadside. Children amuse themselves throwing stones to bring down unripe ones as we did with apples as children.
Tentacles of Poverty with many Shapes
I find the numbers of people in different coloured uniforms and the series of checkpoints on the road more than strange – as if expecting an invasion or an uprising. By now, I know that uniforms are synonymous with corruption and what a gleam in a policeman’s eye represents. Already, this breakdown in trust towards the police leads to recurrent public lynchings when criminals are caught.
I oblige the two young policemen, who ask for my papers and are chewing the green leaves of khat stocked in bulging cheeks, to speak in English. Khat, a mild soporific drug, legal in the north of the island, is banned in most countries. I explain to them that in Europe they might be in prison. One is disbelieving but his colleague knows it to be true. I leave them laughing; they do not ask for money.
On my last night on the road, I pay €12 for a simple dinner, a large beer and a small bungalow. The waitress wants to know if I would not take her with me; she is more than a little serious. Any option might, she feels, be better than her present situation. She says she wants to feel the wind in her face.
Extracted from Donal Conlon’s very excellent ibook My Africa, available from Amazon.