Thursday, February 5, 2009

Political Crisis

I know there hasn't been too much in the international news, but many may have heard that there's a bit of a political crisis ongoing here in Madagascar. I need to write this without expressing my personal political views so I'll try to give a brief impartial account of what's going on with a bit of my own personal ground level reporting of the situation (don't get too excited...recall that I live in the boonies). So last week, the mayor of Tana (the capital) called for a general strike, which turned into a call for a new government and, over a couple days, into a contagion of looting and burning in many of the bigger cities around the island. In the capital, the state television and radio stations were burned, a number of supermarkets were looted and burned to the ground, and there have been up to 100 deaths I believe (a few shot amidst efforts to stem the chaos, many more found charred in burned buildings).

The president has been accused of undemocratic behavior; it was highly unpopular when he bought himself an airplane, he's been accused of monopolizing many industries (such as dairy and cooking oil, I believe he owns many of the supermarkets that were targeted as well), and there have been other unpopular business dealings (like potentially leasing a large area of land to South Korea). The violence quickly died down, but now everyone has to deal with the ensuing economic effects and continued obscurity of the political situation. In the economic sphere, some have lost their jobs, such as the supermarket employee I met last night who was visiting a PCV to see if she could borrow some English books: all her materials for learning English were destroyed as the supermarket burned down. Not sure why she kept them stored at work, but nonetheless she wants to keep studying while she waits to hear if she can work at the company's factory while they rebuild the supermarket. Banks were closed for a bit, gas stations ran empty, Peace Corps advised us to stock up on food. The prices of major commodities such as petrol, rice, and cooking oil have already increased (I suppose as work and transportation are interrupted, the resultant scarcity of such staples drive their price up – you economists can now go ahead and tear that sentence apart). Politically, it's still very unclear to me what is going on. Last Saturday, the mayor declared himself in charge of the country, which I believe was a huge shock to the Western media coverage (the little that there was). The 34 year old mayor, who looks a boyish twenty-something, is also constitutionally too young to be president. But, after talking to some folks here, they say that his words were misinterpreted to mean he was calling himself president, when what he was really saying was that he's taking charge of the situation to democratically arrange a new government. He called for a 'Dead City' on Monday, Feb. 2, in other words, for everyone to strike, but I've heard most people in Tana appeared to go back to work. The President has since fired him based on dereliction of duty, he's refused to step down, and has planned another rally this weekend (I believe he plans on announcing an interim government, and if that doesn't draw crowds, the famous Malagasy pop singer he's invited to perform probably will).

To summarize what I've heard expressed by people in my area of the country, I'd say that while recognizing the president did a lot of good for the country in terms of infrastructure and education, they sympathize with the mayor's accusations. I've read in Western media coverage that the 'old politicians' (such as the current president's predecessor, who's uncle was also president during the socialist era) are manipulating the situation, using the mayor as a fresh-faced young charismatic figure to get the crowd riled up (as a former disc jockey, I suppose he's well-qualified for the role). But people I've talked to seem to think the old politicians are just following behind the mayor. It's hard to find an opinion on a solution to the ongoing political stalemate. I'm told that people don't want this conflict; they are sick and tired of these power struggles that hit the poor the hardest and force the country to 'start over' right when things are about to take off (from a development point of view). I hear from many that they want the two major figures involved to sit down and talk, but then I'm also told that this won't help because the constitution needs fundamental changes and they need a new leader altogether.

There was an interesting 24 hrs for me, in which all the radio stations were down, my phone was dead, there was no electricity in my district, and consequently no way for anyone to reach me. Of course, I wasn't worried. I was safe and sound in my quiet, little village. You can imagine my surprise then, when at 10pm, the middle of the night here for me, a couple acquaintances came to my door in whispers telling me to lock up, not to answer the door to anyone during the night (duh), and to carry a whistle to call for help just in case. Why? What was going on? They answered, and I'll translate directly, "There are thieves coming from Tana in the President's cars." Before, I could ask for a bit more clarification, some far off neighbors started yelling for help. The two women looking out for me went sprinting into the darkness back to their homes, and their kids. I quickly locked up as I heard some cars pass by (which is rare on any day, but particularly unusual when it's dark). I let my adrenaline run for a bit, though there was still that little rational voice in my head telling me that there was nothing to fear. The daylight brought some more clarity to the evening's episode. Turns out, there were a few guys who stole a huge truck belonging to the president's dairy company filled with stolen food supplies such as rice and flour. They were from my area so accordingly returned home with the goods. I was busy asking people all morning if they thought the men were making a political statement by stealing a truck from the president's company. When I found a few hundred people gathered to raid the abandoned truck, hoarding off their share of the stolen staple foods, I realized I was asking a very silly, irrelevant question, showing how totally out of touch I still am with real poverty. This wasn't political; these were poor people taking advantage of the lapse in order to steal some basic necessities…turned into a bit of a Robin Hood 'take from the rich, give to the poor' affair in my book.

So all in all, my only real, constant fear has been the possibility of getting evacuated. I've been worrying that I'll be sent home when I feel perfectly able and safe to continue here. But, I know there are a host of other factors Peace Corps has to consider even now when the violent aspect has disappeared, not to mention the things beyond their control (I am after all working for a US government agency). For now, I have been 'consolidated' to a larger city to ease evacuation if that becomes necessary. I hiked out of my site again to the nearest volunteer a few days ago. I was told to remain there for a few days until being told to move into my current location. In that particular town, I made the 'vazaha' or foreigner count a total of three (the other two, the PCV and an Italian missionary) so I guess I shouldn't be surprised when people stopped me in the street addressing me by name. My name and line of work had been announced over the local radio shortly after my arrival. It's not surprising that during those few days of complete idleness coupled with the unwelcome prospect of evacuation, I started to drive myself a bit crazy so I embarked on a little solo hike. A couple girls around my age said hello to me on my way up the first hill. I asked them the 'gasy equivalent of 'what's up' and one girl responded, 'nothing, just watching you.' I chuckled and continued on my way. Two hours later, I passed them on my return and they invited me in. First, I was eating boiled cassava with the two sisters outside their hillside home, soon I was drinking orange classiko at their eldest sister's house in town, later I was eating a mashed banana and rice concoction at their parent's mud, thatched home an hour's walk outside of town. Oh, I was also given all the beans we had picked together from their field. But, of course, what I ate is not important. I'm simply shedding light on an example of the kindness and openness of these people; the kind of thing that makes me love being here.

Of course, there are interactions that I find less than agreeable. But I realize that they are probably not attacks on me personally, but at what I represent to them. I've only just begun to understand the cultural/psychological impact that the more than sixty years of colonization has had – at least in relation to my individual experience as a white foreigner. For example, there's little harassment in my town, but when I hiked to the town nearby, I immediately began to encounter such greetings as 'Bonjour vazaha.' (Hello foreigner). I am too new here to be as annoyed by it as other volunteers are. Sometimes it can be used in jest, but for the most part it's meant in a derogatory way, which I can perceive from the tone and know, simply because people I trust tell me not to respond when people say that to me. My current reaction is to ignore it or to say 'Hello Malagasy.' Then, there are also many requests for money and gifts, often singling me out to beg because it's assumed that I have a lot of money. But sometimes, people ask for 'fruits of the road' or gifts when you return to town and this might be culturally appropriate here. It's still awkward for me because of course asking for gifts is considered quite rude by American standards – what American kid hasn't learned that when they want something, the last thing they should do is beg their parents for it? While visiting the little village of the parents of my new acquaintances, about twenty kids stood watching me hidden behind corn stalks. As I approached, they fled with fright…later, one of new acquaintances found it pertinent to point out that the kids are afraid of me because of the colonial history. Yesterday, I went to the bank and was waved in front of thirty or so patiently waiting Malagasy people before me. That was highly embarrassing. I didn't want to cut the queue as if I were special.

So I can classify three types of disagreeable interactions I have encountered thus far: being insulted (e.g. vazaha), being feared (e.g. by some children), and being given preferential treatment (e.g. at the bank). All are results of a colonial past in my opinion, and not to be taken personally. Plus, for every fleeing child, for every person asking me for money, for every testy adolescent with a sly comment, there are the genuine cultural exchanges such as the day spent with my 'new acquaintances' that by far outweigh the few negative interactions.

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