It’s almost impossible to summarise the first few days here in Madagascar so bear with what will seem like all sorts of clichés … they are all true of this beautiful, abandoned nation.

The British Embassy in Antananarivo closed in 2005 (a paltry £250,000 pa cost savings by the British Govt just at the same time as the Americans were pumping fortunes into their huge new fortress of an embassy) and then the military coup a year ago means that the international community refuse to recognise the new Govt so there is such little external attention paid to the horrible situation that most of the population find themselves in.

The first evening here was spent in a delightful restaurant a million miles away from the poverty outside, in the old waiting room of Antananarivo railway station (incredible food – coconut curried prawns, tender zebu steak and a large vodka and tonic) with Brian Donaldson the patron of the Madagascar Development Fund and the former British Ambassador to Madagascar and his colleague the charity director general Nicole.

The next day spent in the MDF office on the outskirts of the city; a bustling area with fruit and veg laid out along the street corners and less beggars than the hot and dirty centre of town. Up a dirt track and behind a big metal gate is the humble room that houses a charity making an enormous difference and a huge amount of hard work.

We recorded interviews with Brian, stories of children being given toys for the first time in their lives thanks to BP, schools being built in areas with no electricity, water or existing sanitation thanks to generous individuals, bridges being built to enable zebu carts to cross a river that had previously added 3 extra hours to a dirt track journey to market … life changing projects with small sums of money.

Later that day a wander round the city centre, told off by police for taking photos of the presidential palace, followed by a little girl with one hand withered pleading for coins so she can “mange ce soir” – dressed in rags and with a runny nose caked in dirt, children playing in gutters and bleak looking men standing on corners. A Fanta from a street stall and an overwelming feeling of utter exhaustion heralded an early night.

Tuesday 19th May was a remarkable day – set off early early early from our new abode near the office to a village called Ambohitrakely – we left Tana (a long slow process due to the fume spewing traffic) and wound our way past slums that looked like shanty towns alongside open sewers, bustling streets, men with bare feet pulling carts so laden with boxes you could scarcely see over them, children carrying car batteries (only source of power for many), and women with bags, boxes and piles of everything inbetween on their heads. The only shoes worn seemed to be flip flops, and these often carried rather than worn through the sewers or the mud (pouring rain) to protect them.

The bitumen road ran out and for a while a paved relatively flat road wound through rice fields, past Bougainvillea bushes and endless poinsettia trees. Then rocky red track took over, the 4×4 put through its paces negotiating deep gullies and sharp bends watched all the time by Malagasy children from the beautiful village houses. Often two-story, slender graceful dwellings with chickens running in and out, and a humped zebu outside of some they conceal dark interiors with no power and no water.

It took nearly 3 hours to reach Ambohitrakely – a tiny hillside village with houses made of red mud and thatched with what looked like palm leaves and grasses. The day we spent there deserves full attention of its own but as the photos will show in due course (impossible to upload from the forest near Andisebe where the local has wi-fi via satellite, cable and a dodgy transmitter below the bar) it was here – on a windy, wet, blustery, sunny winter’s day that hope was reborn – a primary school opened and a bridge (which had to be built in order to bring the materials for constructing the school) was ‘officially crossed’, ribbons cut and children’s future made a little more rosy with the promise of an education.

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We made it!!!!!

After an entertaining hour or two in the Cathay Pacific lounge (thank you so much to my wonderful brother) we climbed aboard the delightfully palm tree covered but very cramped Air Mauritius flight from Heathrow to Mauritius. Even the cups, sugar sachets and spoons were bedecked with palm trees.Air Mauritius takes palm trees very seriously!!

Scrumptious food, fresh fruit and lovely lemon flan and then a pretty rubbish attempt at sleep contorted into the oddest of shapes with a swollen knee making for a limit to the possibliities but eventully waking for perfect breakfast pastries and a spectacular view of the bluest of blue sea out of the window, and the really glorious descent into Mauritius airport. Such a tantalising view of the coral fringed lagoons and dramatic mountains and forests. Much greener than I had anticipated and so beatuiful.

27 degrees, bright, cleanly vivid sunshine met us as we got off the plane to go through the transit process – all very simple. 55 minutes later, and with ooodles of legroom. It seemed only moments after that we were flying over very different terracotta coloured hills, terraced hillsides and little ‘fortress’ like villages, circled with ditches and dykes. Then WOOOO HOOOO touch down in Tana.

Almost the first news on landing was that Heathrow had been closed down due to the ash cloud … the smug feeling that we had beaten it on this occaision is still strong!!!

Arrivals was a fabulous affair – about 8 kiosks with nonchellant officials watching the bemused travellers; we were informed we didn’t need a visa as staying under 30 days but then had to go to another counter to get the non visa, visa stamp … all very good humoured and compelling to watch; the absortion of the men with the little stamps, the calmness of the pretty lady signing the non visa, visa … luggage was obviously the last off the plane, so by the time we emerged blinking into the sunlight to meet Brian Donaldson the patron of the Madagascar Development Fund (and chairman of the grants committee of KTCT) and his colleague Nicole, I think they were about to head off thinking we’d been sucked in by the ash cloud.

Brian drove the Landrover to Tana – past butchers stalls with all the meat hanging over the road, people weaving in and out of the very slow traffic on ancient mopeds and bicycles with chickens on the back. Zebu cattle wandered aimlessly by a little confused by all the hubub and children darted to and fro across the road. Colour everywhere – clothes, bouganvillia flowers, painted Coke adverts, red poinsettia bushes, orange dust. We passed a rugby match – thousands of people watching from alongside the road, and a chaotic looking motorbike scramble, clothes drying alongside grubby streams and then the winding streets of Antananarivo, children playing in open drains, shops selling random bits of piping, signs for wifi and pot holes that would fit well into the array in Cambridge. Children with no shoes drying rice on the side of the road, little boys with huge stacks of plastic bottles carried in baskets on their head, optimism, desolation, poverty, a shop sellng video cameras, everything along that one stretch of road.

Through all that we pulled up outside a dark and unassuming hotel on a bright sunny Malagasy evening – our home for a couple of days before Tuesday and project visits out in the countryside.

Proud, overwhelmed, shellshocked, shattered, excited and so determined to do all I can to help in some tiny way – and sticking my toungue out at the dust cloud and saying “ha, beat you this time!”…

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