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.

http://www.justgiving.com/elliestoneley

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This time next week, ash clouds willing, Cambridge will be a very long way away and I’ll be settling into a bed in Antananarivo having met up with Brian Donaldson and enjoyed an afternoon of getting bearings and a first taste of Malagasy cuisine. I will have seen a little of a beautiful city, and experienced some of the extreme poverty of the nation’s capital first hand.

Tana as the city is known is described in Wikipedia as being, “situated in the center of the island (of Madagascar) length-wise, and 145 km (90 miles) away from the eastern coast. The city occupies a commanding position, being built on the summit and slopes of a long and narrow rocky ridge, which extends north and south for about 4 km (2 mi) and rising at its highest point to about 200 m (660 ft) above the extensive rice plain to the west, although the town is at about 1,275 m (4,183 ft) above sea level. It is Madagascar’s largest city and is its administrative, communications, and economic center.”

Antananarivo at sunset (2005)

The description in the Lonely Planet guide introduces a colourful, noisy, chaotic city – home over 6 million of the capital’s 20 million population and has a bustle described by one website as putting the frenzy of New York to shame.
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/shop_pickandmix/previews/madagascar-antananarivo-preview.pdf

However, it seems that the charm of the picture of the sunset over the hill side city hides a very real picture extreme poverty. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world and Tana will be a stark reminder of this according to many of the blogs and travellogues I have read.

So – I sit here now having had a blissfully happy night last night with friends in Brixton – wondering how I’ll deal with arriving there jetlagged, excited and apprehensive.

I flew into Kampala a few years ago, the journey from the airport to the city was beautiful and shocking in equal measure – banana trees, bouganvillia flowers, cattle in the road, people everywhere, lots of green and every other shop a coffin shop – people walking along with coffins on their heads. Uganda is a nation of relative wealth by comparison to Madagascar.

In Madagascar a recent ILO, UNICEF and INSTAT study found that about 1.8 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 years have to work, most performing hazardous occupations. A child born in Madagascar has only a 21% chance of living to the age of 40. Some more facts and figures here http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/country_fact_sheets/cty_fs_MDG.html

So – I’m excited, I’m nervous, I feel daunted and challenged by the journey, and determinted to do all I can do to help people understand that Madagascar isn’t a thriving tourist location, brim full of furry talking cartoon creatures, but is one of the worlds most bio-diverse, beautiful and poorest nations.

I’ve got much more research to do – but if you’re interested I’ve found this link helpful (if you scroll down a little – past the reference to the talking cartoon creatures movie)
http://www.answers.com/topic/madagascar

Interesting also to read the current Foreign Office advice to people travelling to Madagascar and staying in Antananrivo.
http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/sub-saharan-africa/madagascar

http://www.justgiving.com/elliestoneley is where I’m doing my fundraising for the Kitchen Table Charities Trust – you can help by following the link and clicking on the donate button…