The Hottest Place in Madagascar
Amboasary Sud is a town just over 70km west of Fort Dauphin in southwestern Madagascar. A hot and dusty place that sees little rain, the Mandare river just outside the town provides a lifeline for the local population, both town and country folk alike.
It was here I was to meet a curious man with whom I would be spending a few days in the bush as he continued his pastoral work in the countryside outside Amboasary Sud, which I have been told is the hottest place in Madagascar. I had met pastor Honora the previous year as I took the taxi brousse up the southeast coast of Madagascar from Ford Dauphin to Vangaindrano 250km on a hard road further north. I had also gone with him to the ghetto of Antananarivo that previous Christmas as he paid a visit there which turned out to be one of the saddest afternoons I had ever spent.
He had subsequently given me his contact details and said if I ever wanted to visit him again he would be happy for me to join him as he continued his work. So this is how I ended up in a rural commune outside Amboasary Sud and got to see at first hand life in this region of the country.
The pastor wasn’t hard to spot as I got out of the taxi brousse from Fort Dauphin as he was dressed in an all-white ensemble of hat, flowing top, baggy trousers and leather shoes. We took some bikes and pedalled over the bridge crossing the Mandare and westwards on the hot, dusty and potholed road past vast sisal plantations. The trip took about 45 minutes, the last 15 minutes on foot pushing the bikes beside us as the track was too sandy to cycle.
The rural commune has the feel of a small village about it with huts in clusters on the side of the sand track with one shop and two churches. The protestant church is located near the small shop and the Lutheran place of worship is about a five minute walk up a small incline. The Pastor gives his sermons in the Lutheran church but says his teachings are from a number of different religions and mentions Catholicism and Buddhism. I can certainly see the Buddhist element with all the male members of the congregation having tight cropped hair, some even shaven to the skull.
During the course of my stay I got to see how difficult life is in this bone dry part of Madagascar. There has been a drought here now for many years and the land has almost turned into a dustbowl in parts making it easy to see why it has been called the hottest place of Madagascar. The tracks off the main road are just sand and hard to walk through while dust blows through the village when the wind picks up. Nevertheless the people here find a way to grow maize, sweet potatoes and cassava which is known locally as manyok. These form the staple diet of the much of the population with dairy and meat products at a premium.
Staying in and around the village the whole weekend I was sometimes taken aback at how kind the people were towards me, always concerned that I had water or quick to point me to a more shady spot to rest once the sun had changed position. This is the one of the toughest places I have seen in Madagascar with a diet virtually devoid of protein and plentiful in hard work in the sunshine. This harshness of this kind of life can be particularly seen in the older people whose lean lined faces almost tell a story of how harsh life really is here. These same people smile and shake my hand first thing in the morning when I emerge from my hut and last thing at night before I go off and sleep.
The churches in the village really stand out because of their size compared with all other buildings. Built of bricks and mortar with sturdy roofs they dwarf the huts made of wood whose one room often houses a whole family. On Sundays the churches really come into their own with the protestant church floating out lovely harmonies from 10am right into the afternoon.
I was in for an altogether different and odd experience than a just run of the mill ceremony. Early on Sunday the pastors flock gathered in the village with more arriving from surrounding areas throughout the morning. Immediately recognisable by the white flowing garments worn by both men and women but the real standout was that all the men and boys had shaven heads giving them the look of Buddhist monks.
Inside the church it was baking hot with no seats. Everyone sat on the floor on mats or around by the walls. The first thing to be done was to hand the collection basket around. Everyone put some money inside but the basket appeared for a second time moments later where another donation was required. Afterwards the pastor began to speak with his fine speakers voice starting as an oration but turning into fire and brimstone after a few minutes. As the atmosphere in the room built I thought I could hear what sounded like an animal somewhere give a little whimper. I put it out of my mind but it happened again a minute later. Then again and again. Suddenly the realisation came to me that it was members of the congregation making these noises. The whimpers got louder and turned into sniffles followed by intense crying. I was really taken by surprise here but then people started to crawl around on their hands and knees in tears shaking hands with each other. At this stage I was wondering if there was something stronger than vegetables in my breakfast this morning and I was imagining the whole thing. A quick deep breath and look around made me realise this weirdness was all in the here and now
As quickly as the crying started it stopped and everyone returned to a state of calm until the pastor got into his next round of fire and brimstone and it started all over again. After 3-4 rounds I got used to it but was glad when the ceremony was over and I could get some space.
That evening the pastor suggested I go back to Fort Dauphin next day saying it would be too dangerous for me to continue with him to the next place. Originally we had planned to do a week or more together but I had been doing quite a lot of writing during the weekend and I may have made the pastor and his wife suspicious so I felt as it was less of a suggestion and more of an order.
I wasn’t that keen on continuing with the pastor anyway and put up little argument. I was however grateful to have seen life in a village that otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to experience in the hottest place of Madagascar.