Saturday, December 13, 2008

#1 Entry - November 2008

As this is my first entry, I feel obliged to give a short introductory history of the 8th Continent.

Madagascar is the 4th largest island (after Greenland, Papa New Guinea and Borneo) that was first settled 2000 years ago by a Malay-Indonesian population. It still blows my mind that the dominant theory (which I think Jared Diamond agrees with) holds that these people from Borneo (closest linguistic link) sailed directly here across the Indian Ocean. It was hundreds of years later that East African populations crossed the Mozambique Channel to settle here. Later, Arabic and Indian groups migrated here as well.

The first Europeans (Portuguese) arrived in the 1500's, but failed to colonize the island because of hostile populations on the coasts. There was a state of anarchy for a while - a safe haven perhaps only for pirates. The Malay-Indonesian 'merina' people created a centralized kingdom, and its legacy may be the relatively homogeneous language of Malagasy spoken throughout the island. Madagascar was ultimately colonized by the French (1896-1960). The British always had some influence here - there are Christian faith remnants of Welsh missionaries. I think it is interesting to note that in the late 1930's the Nazis stated in their Final Solution that Jews would be transported to Madagascar. The island would serve as a massive ghetto under the authority of Heinrich Himmler. The so-called 'Madagascar Plan' became an impractical solution for the Nazis by 1941 because of the British Royal Navy's command of the seas. Anyway, following 'independence' there was a messy era of socialism (or Kleptocratic rule by a French backed dictator). Now a market economy, Madagascar still has occasional political crises (the latest in 2002).

Today, Madagascar, is one of the poorest countries in the world (I believe ranked 143 of 177 on the UNDP human development index). I am always interested in what makes some countries rich and others poor so I am curious to find out more about why Madagascar is so poor. Certainly, there are geographic factors - relative isolation = high trade costs and the environmental degradation has had its impact as well (a ridiculously high percentage of the forests here have been cleared - It is quite evident even from the tiniest bit of the highlands I have seen so far). Other immediate factors for poverty include the lack of infrastructure and poor educational system. But, it seems to make the most sense to me to blame the political history - the colonial history, the usurption of wealth by the ruling elite, and the political coups that stagnate the economy every time it has potential to take off (e.g. 1992, 2002). The new president, Marc Ravalomanana, seems to be talking the right talk (emphasizing the importance of the environment, e.g.) so maybe the future will be bright. He has made English the country's 3rd official language after Malagasy and French - probably to keep in step with the globalized world. Later, a more micro-level look at my personal experiences.

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