Where in Madagascar are you from?
I come from Ambositra (a small town located 3 hours to the south of Tana). I am a proud Betsileo girl. Actually, my Dad originally comes from Ambositra. In Malagasy tradition, the family (wife and children) belong to the homeland of their husband/father, and we have to be buried in their homeland (unless the girls get married, in which case they belong to their husband’s homeland).
Most of the family traditions in my country are ruled by a patriarchal logic. So while I have never lived in Ambositra, I have spent holidays there once or twice a year. I speak a little bit of the Betsileo dialect but with the Tana accent. What a shame!
We are a highland ethnic group of Madagascar, the third largest in terms of population, and our name means “The Many Invincible Ones”. We speak a dialect of the Malagasy language, derived from the Barito languages. It is actually spoken in southern Borneo too! I’ve always wondered why the other Malagasy tribe mock our manner of speaking, and now I know why… it’s a bit like the French who make fun of the Belgians and blondes!
The Betsileo occupy the south of the Madagascar plateau. Our traditional territory extends from the Mania River in the north to the Andringitra in the south. Most of the Betsileo region lies within the boundaries of the Malagasy province of Fianarantsoa, the capital city of our region.
We are excellent woodcarvers and well-known for our large wooden sculptures. The Zafimaniry in particular, a subgroup of the Betsileo, are considered to be the last repository of traditional knowledge regarding the wood-based architecture and decorative arts that once predominated across the island. Zafimaniry woodworking knowledge was added by UNESCO to the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2002.
Ambositra, my homeland is also called ‘Madagascar’s capital of crafts’. If you take the RN7 to the south, you will see craftsmen and their colourful artefacts made out of raffia along the side of the road in of Ambositra. We also produce a well-known very strong artisanal alcohol called “toaka gasy” or “galeoka” (fermented sugar cane), which people are forbidden from selling in Madagascar without official permits.
Traditional dress consists of Betsileo loincloths (for women), “malabary” (traditional dresses worn by men) and “Satro-Bory” (little hats in straw or raffia). We are also known to be big partiers and it is essentially in this region of Madagascar that the ancient tradition of Famadihana is still practiced. Famadihana literally means ‘exhumation’. It is a very symbolic tradition full of hidden meanings (which is also practiced in Southern Asia).
Why did you choose to come to South Africa to do your internship, and why Jenman African Safaris?
I completed High School in Madagascar and chose to further my studies in France. I am currently completing my 3rd year in Management of Leisure and Travel. As part of my course I have to do a 5 month internship in a company of my choice. South Africa sounded like the perfect country to do my internship! Actually I am convinced that South Africa’s touristic development is the ideal one to bring to and adapt in Madagascar…
I always wanted to choose a company outside of Europe to do my internship. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to do so, as the duration of all my previous internships was too short to plan a long distance internship! So I waited impatiently until this year to finally find my ideal internship! “Why an internship outside Europe?” all my teachers asked. Because my greatest wish is to come back to Madagascar once I’ve finished my studies. I would like to settle down and contribute to developing Madagascar’s tourism thanks to all the knowledge I’ve acquired in Europe. Maybe I could own my own tour operator company or mange a private lodge. I do believe that Madagascar is full of opportunities and I am here to grab them!
So… why Jenman African Safaris? I have been influenced by my Dad’s work – he is the General Director of Madagascar National Parks. But I never meant to work in or study tourism. I’ve always dreamt of being an architect! You would laugh if I tell you that I couldn’t stand my Dad talking about the environment when I was younger (you know how teenagers feel about their parents). I only really became aware of the environment and conservation etc. when I saw a bushfire in one of the most famous National Park in Madagascar (Ankarafantsika National Park, close to Mahajanga in the West of Madagascar). I couldn’t understand the purpose of burning forest. It was shocking!
There are a ton of tour operators in South Africa, but specifically I was looking for a small tour operator which really understood what Africa was about. A company with strong values of conservation, who really knows what ecotourism is all about. I was looking for this Tour Operator for months (since September) and I was about to call my teacher and ask him to find me a rescue-internship in Spain, when I bumped into a Jenman advert for an internship! I went through the website and was totally convinced that Jenman African Safaris was the perfect opportunity to grab! I emailed Antoinette and here I am! In this awesome city, in a fantastic dynamic team!!
In South Africa, we have the trademark “Proudly South African” – what makes you proud to be Malagasy?
What makes me proud to be Malagasy? Being an island gives Madagascar a kind of uniqueness. It is totally different from any other place in the world. We may be part of the Indian Ocean Islands but it’s not just a piece of earth surrounded by sea and made of sand. I am amazed and proud of the diversity of my country. Everywhere you look, there is diversity. Even in our facial features. We don’t look the same in the North and in the South…even in the North we have different faces. We are a blend of such different nationalities that Malagasy may look like a Malay or look like a Mozambican… it is an awesome melting-pot.
Our language is both unique and plural. It’s a smart mix between Malay, Swahili, French and even English! But we are the only country in the world that speaks it! And I am always learning new things about my country. It’s too large to see everything in a lifetime. We share traditions but each tribe has its own traditions as well…
And I feel home everywhere I go. Even if I don’t always clearly understand a specific dialect, I feel at home and at ease everywhere. It’s seems strange to say that sometimes I can’t understand what some Malagasy as saying. In fact I have decided to learn the southern dialect as my boyfriend is from the South! It’s like learning a foreign language!
I think it is not necessary to say that we are lucky to have a unique natural heritage! I love the smell of the forest after the rain, the diversity of all these little critters in the vegetation…
And there is always a feeling of happiness in the air! I don’t know how to explain it but everybody is always smiling and cheerful! When I go on holiday in Madagascar, we always go by car. And wherever we stop, villagers invited us to eat at their place. Whatever their social background, they are happy to have us in their town or village. Even the most modest homes greet us as if we were princes… And it’s incredibly refreshing to spend time in Madagascar, especially when I am exhausted and tired from the stress in France. Everything is so slow “moramora” (slow pace in Malagasy!) here. We take time for everything and we have time to do everything. In a nutshell, I am really proud of my culture.
The food in Madagascar is so delicious and healthy. It seems strange to say, but I only discovered what spices were in France when I was 18! It’s fantastic how food is so tasty in Madagascar. I only realized it once leaving Madagascar for France. We don’t need to add spices to our food (maybe just pepper and pimento) as all the taste is kept in the cattle manure! Laughs. Seriously, we just add onions, garlic and tomatoes… some regions in Madagascar which have Arabic influences cook using spices, but in the Highlands and in the South we don’t. Where else on earth are you going to find a crayfish as big as your forearm or a prawn as fat and tall as your index finger? And all for a good price! Don’t invest in slimming creams either, stay in Madagascar 2 months and eat rice twice a day, bio vegetables everyday and tasty zebu-meat free of hormones and you will lose weight.
On a more serious note, in the past years we have heard a lot about political unrest in Madagascar – can you give us an insight? How does it affect people’s lives and in what way would it affect travellers.
Madagascar and politics! It deserves a book! The political unrest dates back to our independency… I would say the same for most African countries, mainly the old French colonies. With a totally objective point of view I will try to explain what the unrest is really about. It is almost a tradition in my country to have a so called “revolution”… every 10 years we expect political troubles. We are used to it. Only foreigners and tourists fear it.
Regarding the last political trouble in Madagascar, I would say that it is due mainly to a conflict of interest. Our former president Ravalomanana has really developed Madagascar. He gave the country an opportunity to open up to the rest of the world. The problem is that he mixed his personal interests with the government budget. He owned a very powerful food chain and mainly changed all the commercial rules so that he could have a monopoly on the market (he had a monopoly on everything actually). The only person who had the power and the courage to blame him and get him out of his place was Rajoelina. He is young, handsome and well liked by the people. Rajoelina quickly became the mayor of Antananarivo (the headquarters of Ravalomanan) and that was the straw that broke the camels back! Each of the parties had too much pride and too much love of power. The young Rajoelina has established a provisional government which has to last 15 months until the official presidential elections. Currently we are waiting for international recognition of Rajoelina as president… to be continued.
A few people know it (apart from the politicians) but Madagascar is really a mine of wealth. The political unrest is not only about a fight for a place at the head of the country, but for all the keys to the unexploited wealth of Madagascar…
People deal well with this situation. As I said earlier, we are used to it. We may be poorer than 2 years ago but we have an incredible capacity to keep faith. We are well known for our eternal smile, no matter what happens. We have this ancestral belief that we are a blessed country –even if what is going on right now doesn’t really show it! We try to keep our head held high no matter how things are going. Everyday life is harder and more expensive but it’s always the same home sweet home!
Often travellers from more developed countries such as North America, Europe & Australia come and visit Madagascar. For a lot of our travellers – responsible tourism and social sustainability is very important – what in your opinion can travellers do to travel responsibly. What really works and is welcomed with open arms by the people of Madagascar?
As far as I am concerned, I feel that improving literacy in Madagascar is especially important. There are a lot of children who are eager to learn more and being literate is a way for them to learn about the country they live in. It is also an opportunity for them to be part of this country… it is up to us to be the change in our country. Helping a village to build a school or buy books would be a great help.
Additionally improving people’s everyday lives by providing waterholes for their villages, especially in the South of Madagascar, would be very beneficial. There are a lot of associations and foundations which work in this way…
Travellers don’t have to invest a lot of money. Malagasy people really appreciate it when people are sincerely concerned about their condition and their everyday life. Collecting and donating old things, toys and unused clothes is also a good idea.
Give us your Top 3 must-dos when travelling to Madagascar.
Firstly the Tsingy of Bemaraha in the West of Madagascar! It’s an amazing experience and sensation to be above these rocky peaks! There are a lot of circuits but travellers have to try the circuit where you have to cross a rope bridge suspended 70 meters above rocks into the void… or try walking on the top of the Tsingy and have a view on the whole massif with all the peaks, and finally visit the underground caves and rub bats!
Another place to go is Andringitra National Park, which is located in the South East. It houses the Boby Peak, the highest peak in Madagascar. Nature, tradition and mystery surrounding Andringitra make this park a mystical place to explore. There are great stops and camping sites during the ascension to the peak (natural pools, hidden trails etc.). There are about 4000 steps (I’ve tried to count!), the air is pure and the nature so quiet, and the morning haze on the mountain gives terrific scenery! It’s a bit like a pilgrimage.
Finally, an incredible diving place in the coral reef; the National Park of Sahamalaza in the north just under Masoala! The water is hot and the sea is shallow so it’s seems that you can touch the coral and fishes!
Do you have a secret tip for us that you won’t find in any guide book?
It is sometimes a pity to be a traveller in a country were the local population doesn’t speak English or French very well. French is one of our official languages but when it comes to dealing with a local vendor to buy a souvenir for example, they only speak Malagasy. Travellers have to keep in mind that local vendors know that foreign travellers have a high purchasing power. Be sure that they are aware of the exchange rate.
So when buying traditional artefacts it’s safer to bring a guide… He will be able to bargain with the vendor if the price is too high. Travellers will have better opportunities to find bargains in smaller local markets rather than the bigger tourists markets.
It is important to greet the vendor in Malagasy… they are always sensitive to this and will bring the price down immediately by a few Ariary! Don’t be afraid to haggle over the prices and to suggest a third of the price announced! Saying that you have already been in Madagascar and that the price was cheaper then shows that you’re not a silly traveller!
For those who are afraid of mosquito bites, you’ll have to take gallons of anti-mosquito unless they want to bankrupt yourself by buying it in the local supermarkets. Instead buy coconut oil; it smells good and is economical. It’s a local mosquito repellant and you can find it everywhere!