Culture Shock: An American in Madagascar

By Nash Wills, Co-Editor

Over this past summer, Alex Marino (MA 17’), Melissa Gaylord (MA 17’), and myself all went to Madagascar for an internship. For Melissa, she was returning home. For Alex and myself, the experience was entirely new and was destined to change the way we would come to look at the world. During the first week of our journey, we drove down south from the capital, Antananarivo, to a coastal city called Toliara. Along the way we were given a glimpse into the culture of this amazing country, and for me, the trip was eye-opening. Although it didn’t take me long to adapt, and eventually fall in love with the country, the first few days were definitely a culture shock. I sent my mom an email during the trip, and in what follows, I want to share it with you.

Hey Mom,

The crew along the journey
The crew along the journey

It’s 9:40 PM here and I’m writing this email from an unusually nice hotel in a nameless town—according to Google maps—along the National Route 7. I just ate spaghetti for dinner, spoke with Lauren, and took my first shower in a couple of days. I’m feeling really good. The past few days of my trip have been some of the strangest days of my life, full of eye-opening and enlightening experiences that only a country such as this one can invoke. Let me tell you about it:

The National Route 7 is the one highway that passes all the way from north to south in Madagascar. It’s barely wide enough for two cars to pass through and is sporadically full of craters, sinkholes, and potholes that look like they were caused by asteroid impacts. The road is winding and climbs mountains, goes through valleys, and crosses rivers as it moves from town to town. There are no speed limits—you go as fast as you can go—and  there are no driving laws. The road is like a river in that all human life relies on it and branches off from it. It is completely essential to the people’s existence because it connects them to each other. A typical scene along the route will include rice farms on your left and right; brick makers cooking clay; Zebu (cows with camel-like humps) pulling the daily rice crops in buggies; Zebu just walking down the road alone; chickens, ducks, and geese wandering in every direction; barefoot men running pushcarts full of everything ranging from wood to coal to water to dirt; women with tremendous baskets balancing on their heads; packs of unaccompanied children either working or going to school…and a simple honk from the car horn is sufficient to part this sea of humanity as we zoom on through. The most amazing part about all of this? Amongst the seemingly total chaos, everything actually works. I’ve only seen a single accident the entire time. Makes you think that they’ve got something wrong with I-20?

Brick makers along Route 7
Brick makers along Route 7

So far we’ve passed through two large cities: Antsirabe and Ambositra. The culture shock of being in one of these exotically teeming masses of humanity is indescribable. Life bustles amongst a setting of decaying French Colonial buildings, of which the majority lack basic plumbing and electricity. I’ve never seen such tightly packed city streets in my life as I have here. Imagine the scene that I described above but times 10. Stepping out of the car into the flow of life on these city streets is, again, similar to jumping into a fast flowing river: before making the plunge I have to take a deep breath and mentally prepare myself to be immediately swept away by the current. The moment I step out of the car, thousands of eyes fall on me—I am the proverbial fish out of water. You could spot me from a mile away amongst the mass of people and it is definitely a strange feeling that you have to just go with.

The extreme level of poverty here is the most difficult part of it all. The moment we stop the car, we are swarmed by beggars, and they are not your typical beggars. Men, women, and children of all ages. I would say that only 1 in 3 people have shoes here, and the ones that do have shoes only wear flip-flops. While it’s terribly sad, it’s also truly amazing. They farm, walk, burn clay, manufacture aluminum pots, run, chop wood, and produce coal all while barefoot.

Fianarantsoa, Madagascar
Fianarantsoa, Madagascar

You may or may not be wondering at this point how we have managed to cover so much ground in a foreign country with such a cardinally lacking road system. Enter Tahina (pronounced Tai-heen), our Malagasy driver. A truly wonderful man, he speaks Malagasy, French, and broken English, mostly in phrases. Thus, our relationship with Tahina, minus Melissa, is coming to fruition over time without the assistance of words. For both Alex and myself, Tahina is the equivalent to a basic life necessity—without him we would be screwed. Whereas back home we only need food, water, and shelter to survive, at this point in our journey through Madagascar, we need food, water, shelter, and Tahina. He knows the entire country like the back of his hand. Everywhere we go he knows the right people and places to go. He is truly our connection to the country. If we go to a new town he knows the hotel owner and gets us a room. If we go to an artisanal factory he knows the people there too and so we get a private tour. When I ask him if he needs a GPS to navigate his way across this country, which is the size of Texas, he laughs at me. (Tahina, if you ever learn to read English well enough and somehow find yourself reading Das Tor; thank you.)

Yesterday Tahina took us to an especially memorable spot, unlike any place I’ve ever dreamed existed: an aluminum pot and pan producing facility. It’s one of the only ones in the country, supplying a majority of Madagascar’s 22 million people with all of their cookware needs. It was one of the most intensely provocative places I’ve ever been to in my life. Let me describe it: We arrive in a medium-sized village outside of one of the bigger cities and turn off the main road down a dirt path that is completely lined by merchants selling fresh produce. The sea parts as we drive to an opening where we park and walk down an alleyway in between buildings. As we walk, the dust from burned coal and dirt begins to build up more and more and the air starts to thicken with ash. The alley opens to a yard of ash, industrious men and children, and furnaces burning aluminum. Admittedly, I feel very awkward and out of place. I can’t bring myself to pull out an i-Phone to take a picture—that type of technology just doesn’t belong in such a place. There are furnaces made of brick that are constantly burning the coal that they use to melt down scrap aluminum which the workers then carry to a team of men who have a molding that they pour the molten liquid into and then shovel dirt on top of in order to compact the cooling metal into what will turn out to be a pot. They stomp, barefoot, on the burning metal and shovel the ashen dirt off the top to reveal the final product.

Antananarivo, Madagascar
Antananarivo, Madagascar

Back home, before I left, when I told people that I was going to Madagascar, the typical response went something like: “Oh wow, just like the movie.” I think that’s very telling, and quite honestly, pretty sad. Most of the United States associates this country with a jolly animated movie that the vast majority of Malagasies have probably never even heard of. Hollywood has blinded people of the reality that it is a country with so much potential and so much to offer, but that is in need of assistance. Due to a number of factors, namely colonialism and a corrupt government, the wonderful people here have been robbed of the ability to subsist sustainably and must struggle to survive daily. All of these experiences are good for me, though. I can feel this country changing me slowly but surely, and I don’t think that I will ever be the same because of it. To truly grow and change, you really have to put yourself out there, and that’s what I am trying to do here.



All photos courtesy of Nash Wills, Melissa Gaylord, and Alex Marino

3 thoughts on “Culture Shock: An American in Madagascar

  1. It’s good to see Das Tor back in action. Thanks for sharing your summer experiences with us Nash. Looking forward to reading more in the weeks to come.

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