On our first evening in Tana, it was delightful to sit in the comfortable dining room of Hotel Colbert and enjoy a good dinner. For those of us around the table, it’s what we consider normal life. Good food. White napkins. Upstairs, clean sheets and plenty of hot water. Normal life if it’s what is normal for you.
Of course, it’s not what is normal for everyone. Madagascar, like the US, has a mixture of economic classes. From what I can see so far, the country has a small but wealthy upper class and a small middle class, but most of the population falls in neither category.
The thin upper crust was on display one evening before dinner in the lobby lounge of the Colbert. As I sat pecking away at my MacBook and taking advantage of the wi-fi connection, I saw three youngish women walk across the lobby and greet two friends who were already seated. Each was dressed in elegant silks and had the latest sunglasses and mobile phones. They swept through the lobby as if they owned the world, as they probably do, or at least a local slice of it.
There was another reality and it was right outside the hotel’s front door. It’s what constitutes normal life for most of the citizens of Madagascar, and it encompasses many different worlds. These other worlds begin to appear in the windows of the mini-van as you travel from the airport to the city center. Some people are living in the middle of rice fields in small huts the size of a garden shed and, on the street, men and women of all ages are hawking whatever they can – newspapers, guides, baskets, vanilla beans, whatever. Small businesses line the streets and often are so small they are just counters open to the street with a few dozen items for sale. People are spilling from the sides of the street into the traffic. It’s a scene that could be seen in any number of third world cities.
The world most Malagasays inhabit is not one of white napkins and plentiful hot water, but that’s not to say that they are poor since what it means to be poor has so many definitions and nuances.
I am told that there are some parts of the country where most people have a hard time getting enough to eat. Hunger is one definition of poverty most of us could agree on.
The world of the capital city, Tana, was filled with what we could call an urban lower class swelling the city beyond its capacity to deal with the population. Aspects of the same crowding can be seen in Bangkok, parts of Hong Kong, Beijing and dozens of other similar cities.
However, a capital is a whole country. What would we find in smaller cities? The scene changed significantly when we flew to the provincial center of Maroantsetra. The city as a whole appeared to be even poorer than the capital, but the people did not seem so. There was more space and open air. Many of the people we encountered in Maroantsetra would be considered poor in the sense that they do not have electricity, computers, cars, or the many gadgets we take for granted, but the reality is that most of those we saw were healthy looking, neatly and attractively dressed, friendly, and full of warm greetings and smiles. They make a living here and there, now and then. They are surrounded by their extended families and the families they grew up with and their parents grew up with. Are they poor? Well, it all depends on your definition of the word.
An older man in the US once described to me what it had been like for him to grow up during the Depression in a very small town far from any big city. He had three brothers and sisters and his mother had been widowed when they all were still kids. Life was not easy. He realized later that he had grown up poor, but, as he explained to me, he hadn’t known it at the time because everyone else was more or less in the same situation. It was normal life for them, but they had enough to eat, clothes to wear, close family support, school, church, and fields to play in. They were’t poor in the ways that mattered.
Certainly, some ways of being poor (hunger) are genuine. Other states of deprivation (not having private tennis lessons, ski vacations, the latest laptop, all the latest clothes, and so forth ad infinitum) are more attitude than poverty.
We tend to visit countries like Madagascar and focus on all the ways that the people we encounter have poorer lives than we do. Doing so is supposed to make us thankful, and perhaps it does, but it’s not really a great way to learn because it presupposes the conclusion. An alternative is just to think about the ways in which our lives and those of the people we encounter are similar and different, not better or worse, or richer or poorer.
It seems to me that it’s much better to approach people as individuals to be engaged rather than specimens to be studied. The more we engage with real people, the more we are likely to find that we have quite a bit in common. I found that to be true in our many visits to China and Southeast Asia. Observing people is no where near as interesting as interacting with them, however haltingly due to of the constraints of language. Fortunately, smiles are international.
After all, each one of us arrives on earth in the same condition: newborn brains without much more than the basic software. World-wide, the most important resource is also the most easily renewable – the greenest – and it’s kids. Kids don’t arrive programmed to be Malagasy or American, Christian or Muslim. Kids are not predestined to be Ivy League freshmen or inner city drug dealers. They just arrive on the scene, full of whatever potential they have been blessed with in their DNA. The rest is up to the people who teach them combined with their innate talents and determination. A kid has to be taught to excel in school or do drugs, to play on the baseball team or join a street gang, to fulfill his or her potential or squander it. Regardless what we learn to be, I suspect that in the end we have much more in common than not.
In Maroantsetra, we spent quite a bit of time walking through the community and environs. Yes, the roads, such as they were, were dirt and the houses on each side were more like shacks than anything we would consider a house. Yet, the people we saw greeted us cheerfully and spontaneously. They appeared to be happy in their lives though their lives are doubtless as complex as our own.
Of course, Madagascar is a big country and we are seeing only bits of it. Fillmore Street doesn’t tell you much about the hills of Tennessee or the realities of the Mission, so it’s important to keep things in perspective and not be too sweeping in one’s conclusions.
It’s a process of learning for all of us. The future of Madagascar will be determined by its young people. Their vision will be formed through formal education and their personal experiences, which include their encounters with us. I am proud that one of the primary missions of the Biodiversity Center of the California Academy of Sciences in Tana is to educate Malagasy students in the biosciences. It is the right thing to do. It’s a way to change the world for the better. Kudos to the scientists at the Academy who have made it all happen.