Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Meet Alex and Akany Fitahiana

Being Dutch, Thanksgiving does not mean anything to me. But when my American friend Shannon McAfee said she'd organize a Thanksgiving lunch for 250 street children, I was happy for the opportunity to help.

There are many many street children in Tana, and it breaks my heart to see their dusty faces, snotty noses, poor-teethed smiles, and sad eyes. Most seem to have lost the innocent look of a child.

This is how I met Alex (26), a very special guy. A former street child himself - his pretty but poor mother was abandoned by his rich father in a not so pretty way, taking away all the possessions in their house and leaving the children on the streets. He got lucky, a stranger (?) met him and decided to pay for his education. Alex managed to finish his secondary school diploma and studied IT. He then found a job as an assistant manager, making a decent living and with his first earnings he opened, at the age of twenty, his centre d'acceuil Akany Fitahiana to help some of the the thousands of enfants de la rue.

Alex with Malala (16), 
her dad's a drug addict

Alex with Tanteroka (13)
 born on the street
Alex is now 26. His center provides education, life skills and occasional meals for 255 children between the age of two and sixteen - he started with 18 kids. He also finds hosts families in the neighborhood where the homeless children can stay for the night. 

Soleine's helping to serve a Thanksgiving meal - no, not turkey
Most kids were up since 6 AM...waiting hours for the feast to start

Pretty girls, but oh so serious..

These are hard times in Madagascar. Since the crisis started in 2009, the transitional government hasn't provided much support to the underprivileged. The center is on the brink of closing down. They're in need of pretty much everything: proper toilets, lights, school materials, toys, clothes, underwear, tooth brushes, food, soap; you name it. 

I am going to keep in touch with Alex, see what I can do to help.
You're welcome to help too!

The typical sad look of a child that has never known innocence

At least we managed to make this one smile...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to Talk Yourself into Someone's Bedroom

Today I have discovered the best way to talk yourself into someone’s bedroom! Just kidding, or… not really. I just completed my first field trip in Madagascar by visiting a dozen rural bedrooms in and around Maevatanana. 

For my work as a consultant for PSI, an American NGO, I am involved in the monitoring of a large mosquito net distribution campaign. PSI is distributing more than 5.5 million nets all over Madagascar, in 6 days.  The campaign is part of a world wide effort to roll back malaria, financed by USAID, Global Fund, and others.

It sounds pretty easy, right? Just go door-to-door and hand over one net for every three people in each house. Well, it's not really. 

Firstly, there are no records about the number of houses or how many members each household has. That makes it hard to plan logistics. 

Secondly, it’s not enough to just hand out mosquito nets; people need to know why they need them, how to hang them up, and what to do with the packaging which is contaminated with insecticide, for example. Also we need to know exactly how many nets have been distributed. We cooperate with existing authorities, such as health centers, village chiefs, and community agents. They all need to be informed, trained, compensated, monitored, and supervised. 

To give you some stats:

  • Number of mosquito nets (think: importation, boarder formalities, storage, transportation, distribution) : 5.5 million
  •  Total population (think: inform them when to get it, how to use it – not for fishing or as curtains!):  13.329.250 people
  • Number of locations: 72 districts divided into 11.131 divisions (think: some of them are two days walking distance from the distribution point, a pack can weigh up to 30 kilos)
  • Number of community agents: 41,134 (think: equip all of them with forms and tools for the campaign).
  • Total campaign costs : around USD 8M, excluding the costs of the nets. This comes down to one dollar and 45 cents per net which last 2 years, or less than a dollar per person.

Get the picture? It’s big. My humble task is to help with the monitoring, making sure the records are kept and that data are being entered and analyzed (think: databases, computers, typists) for the final report.

I had to go see for myself how this is all working out. And you know what? In the region I went it worked out G-R-E-A-T.  All the households I visited- by surprise - had their nets hanging happily. At all the sites I've seen people buried the trash ‘comme il faut’. 

Of course, the real impact in terms of  malaria reduction can only be measured after some time, and there were many logistical and political hiccups to overcome during the distribution, but my impression still stands: NE(A)T.

So, sleep tight Maevatanana, don't let the mozzies bite!

Sleep well, US and European tax payers, rest assuredyour money has reached the poorest of the poor, the 'farest' of the far, all the way on the mystical island of Madgascar (it rhymes!).

66 packs of 50 nets and 174 packs of 20 nets still in stock

Community mobilizer in rural commune

Children under 5 yrs are the most vulnerable to malaria

Bags are taken off the nets and buried before distribution, to prevent nets from being sold

En route to yet another bedroom!

Blue is better than white, as white is for covering the dead.

For the first time in his life he will sleep under a net

During the day the nets are put up

Boy resting in his parents bed

Sleep tight - Maevatanana, don't let the mozzies bite!

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Coup - Putsch - Overthrow

It's done. For the first time ever in my life I stocked up on food. Well, that is to say: I bought items that I don't immediately need. I am talking about two packs of sugar, an extra pack of butter, a kilo of flour, 12 liters of water for example. Ha ha, I know that won't last us very long. I also got other 'essentials' like movies and red wine. There happened to be a wine promotion at the Jumbo; these supermarket managers sure are clever.

I felt so bad with my huge cart stacked with groceries. I'm just not a bulk person. Growing up in a family of eight you'd think I would be used to it, but I am not. We lived walking distance from the Albert Hein Supermarket in my village, and almost every day my mom sent me out to buy a few quick groceries, never the big quantity planner either. Obviously here it feels even worse: the lady before me at the vegetables weighed one single banana. One! Compared to her my cart was obscene.

Our 'essentials' to help us through the 'coup d'etat' :-)
Anyhow, the reason I am doing this is of course: The Coup! Yes we had a real 'coup d'etat' here two days ago. At least, according to the media. Suddenly I got emails and FB message from all over the world - we happen to be global citizens - asking us about the coup. The bizarre thing is: we don't know anymore than you do! The referendum itself was calm, we all stayed home and read on the internet  that a group of 20 military guys declared a coup d'etat. I did not know it was so easy to do. Honestly, I don't really understand the intricacies and the whys and the whos, and if I did I would not blog about it anyhow.

 All I know are the personal consequences for us, so far
  • My field trip got cancelled, real bummer
  • We're not supposed to go near the airport, for fear of attacks on the army camp close by
  • I just bought an embarrassing amount of groceries
  • The first-ever US Marine ball in Tana which was supposed to take place this Saturday, has been postponed. Major backlash for the beauty parlors tomorrow!
  • We can't plan anything ahead as nobody has any information about when or if the .. hits the fan
Lastly, a thing that really bugs me is this: In English we use the French word coup d'etat, while the French use the German word 'putsch' (what kind of a word is that anyway?). So, would it only be logic that in German they use an English term like overthrow? But they don't, they have their own German word, Staatsstreich. Not logical, people.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Morondava Avenue of the Baobabs

Here's another article by my guest writer. 

The majority of visitors to the region of Madagascar come here solely to see one of the most famous natural sights in the entire African continent: the Avenue of the Baobabs... and rightly so. After all, these trees, which have straight trunks that can reach a height of 30 metres, are a stunning sight which looks particularly magical at sunset. 
Perhaps the most famous of the trees is the one named 'Les Baobabs Amoureux' and, although situated a bit further away from the main avenue than some of the largest trees, it's worth making the journey to see it. There are organised tours you can take that will show you the major sights, or you can hire a bicycle and attempt the lengthy bike ride between the beach at Morondava and the avenue. If you do decide to do this, make sure you take a decent cycle repair kit as the roads aren't in great condition and the track is sandy for the final few kilometres as you approach the trees. 

There is, however, so much more to this region than just the Avenue of the Baobabs. Morondava itself is a laid back beach town that promises relaxation and gorgeous weather in equal measure. With white sandy beaches and crystal clear seas that are perfect for cooling off in after a day of sunbathing, the town is the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of some of Madagascar's larger towns and cities. 

There are a number of small hotels and restaurants dotted along the beach, with many owned by Europeans who made the trip out to Morondava and never returned. Similarly, there are a few American and Australian hoteliers who have managed to transform their establishments into destinations a far cry from the sort of Sydney hotels or New York hotels they've grown up with. These hotels and restaurants tend to serve the traditional Malagasy fare you grow to expect whilst touring the country (the prawns here are amazing) but also some decent pasta dishes and meat dishes. 

Accommodation can be slightly more expensive here than in other parts of the country, partly because of the stunning surroundings and partly because the town is so small, so make sure you do your research carefully before booking. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Referendum

The interim government in Madagascar is organizing a constitutional referendum next week. I believe this is a step in the right direction, as it had previously been postponed 'indefinitely' for lack of a constitutional draft.

The main reason for the referendum is a proposal to decrease the official age to become president of the country from 50 to 35 years. This is so that the current interim president, former mayor and DJ in his mid-thirties, can be elected in next year's election. Kind of funny, don't you think?

What is less funny is that the prelude to the referendum always seems to have go together with riots. Indeed, there are demonstrations and troubles in Tana - though it's still on a small scale.
We get messages through the French Embassy to avoid certain areas down-town.

It causes major traffic jams in a city that is already hyperly jammed. This week it took me an hour-and-twenty minutes to get to work. I can now join the ranks of the millions of Dutch people who spend more than 50 minutes per day to travel to work. I just read this week that the Dutch officially have the longest commuting times in Europe (OESO -2010)!!

Also, the Americans advise us to stock up on milk and cooking oil. Internationally however, nobody seems to know or care, and googling 'riots' and 'Madagascar' only brings up pages from 2009 and 2002. So I take it it's not that serious; well, who knows? Should I run to the supermarket and load my cart with milk?

I don't know. I'm thinking...if we're out of milk, we'll drink something else. Beer for example :-). Beer never runs out in a country. Because that will be cause of serious rioting! 

Friday, November 5, 2010


The French influences in Madagascar are obvious and omnipotent. Of course they ruled for many years, and still today there are at least 15,000 French living in Madagascar - more than in Algeria, Cote d'Ivoire or Senegal.

I'd like to write about the positive influence of the French in Madagascar.  It has four letters: E-P-F-D. Everybody knows the French love their food.
French influence in Tana

When we get invited by French friends, the meals last long. It's like dining in a 4-star restaurant, with an entree, plat principal, fromage and dessert, or EPFD as I call it. When there are other French guests the dinner conversation turns around what they like to eat, where the best artichokes are from (Bretagne), how awful the lamb meat in Madagascar is (true), where to buy the best strawberries (nowhere), who makes the best French bread in Tana (Divina bakery), and how to make an excellent rillette de porc (with pig head, love and patience).

After a year-and-a-half of rice and beans and beans and rice in Belize, where the culinary highlight of our week was Sunday lunch in a Chinese restaurant, we are really truly enjoying the food in Madagascar. The choice of charcuterie (cut meats), cheeses, fresh crispy baguettes, duck meat, fois gras... all the good French food has been well adopted here.  Of course you have to dig deep in your pockets but there's always the local variant for which you pay half or less.

Made in Madagascar
One good thing I noticed is that eating well seems to be contagious! Not a culinary person by nature to say the least - I'am more the bread and peanut butter type - I do enjoy trying to eat better and more varied, also for my daughter's sake. French kids are exemplary, they munch on artichokes and raw courgettes with vinaigrette, they eat crab and prawn!

There's only one problem I'm having with all this fancy French food and good eating habits. No, it's not the calories, it's not the fact that I have to go to three supermarkets to buy it, or the time it all takes to cook (read: have it cooked)...it's the fear to receive the French! I am not sure if I am capable to do the EPFD thing!