Hilary Bradt, co-founder of Bradt Guide, was recently awarded Madagascar’s equivalent of an OBE. She reveals her love-hate relationship with the country’s roads…
The distance from Ivato Airport to the centre of Antananarivo is only 12km but the journey can take two hours by car. Is there anywhere in the world with worse traffic – or anywhere else where being stuck in a jam is so utterly absorbing? Two such journeys stand out from my recent trip to Madagascar: the same route, different things to observe.
Heading for the airport on a sunny afternoon with plenty of time in hand, I stared out of the window as the smart buildings of the centre gave way to the mosaic of rice paddies. In Antananarivo this staple food is grown on the irrigated plains right up to the hills on which the old town is built and the eternal cycle of planting and harvesting plays out before the gaze of the passing motorist. Families wade knee-deep in water to replant the young rice from the nurseries, then dry their clothes along the dividing strips of land. A broad track runs along the high retaining bank above the road, throwing the life of this alternate city into silhouette against the sky: zebu cattle being driven by whip-wielding youths, kids bowling hoops made from bicycle wheels, women carrying huge loads on their heads, babies on their backs.
As the paddy fields gave way to houses and shops, our progress slowed to a crawl. Then we stopped. Just what the vendors were waiting for? Would I like to buy a fly swatter? Dusters? Perhaps a brace of chickens? A boy poked a jam-jar of tropical fish through the window, and a man suggested, in mime, that a charcoal-burning stove was just the thing to brighten my life. A fellow with a thick black moustache propelled himself up the lines of stationary cars in a wheelchair. He paused by us, smiled and saluted.
Moving at walking pace again, we passed a line of shacks selling the necessities of life: vegetables, solar panels, batteries, bolts of cloth, underwear, mini-dresses. Strings of plump sausages and obscure meats dangled from the butcher’s hook, along with a ghoulish pig’s head.
Another slow journey, this time from the airport. And this time the hold up was not cars, but people.
I’d been observing a woman in an orange and red lamba (sari) walking along the edge of the paddy, a look of quiet expectation on her face.
We passed her, then she overtook us. Soon she was ahead and mingling with the crowds that had spilled across the road bringing traffic to a standstill. What was happening? A fight? An accident? Then we heard music: the blare of brass, whistles, drums. It was a famadihana!
Madagascar’s bone-turning ceremony usually takes place in rural spots, but this was the last permissible day of the year for an exhumation: 30 September. We inched forward and the crowd grew boisterous, waving through the car window. The trumpeters competed for noise rather than melody. Drums added to the din. Then we passed the ancestors being celebrated: three bodies raised aloft; two were wrapped in traditional raffia mat, one in a plywood coffin – perhaps the bones were now too deteriorated to be contained in a mat. All three would enjoy their tour before being wrapped in a fresh shroud and returned to the family tomb while the guests got on with the feasting and dancing.
With presidential elections being held at the end of 2018, candidates are promising to relieve the city’s congestion. Perhaps fortunately, it’ll never actually happen.