There is the dust on all the faces because there is not enough water even to slake the people’s thirst. Cooking, too, is more important than washing: cassava or rice with boiled sweet-potato leaves; the sweet potatoes themselves are all gone. There are the red lips, as if from lipstick, where cactus fruits have become the staple.Yes, there are the children’s distended bellies and the men’s thin legs. Where there are still livestock, there are the ox carts hauling mounds of yellow canisters from village to village, each canister holding twenty liters of water. There are the prices of the canisters, which cost more the farther the water has been hauled. But where the way to water is particularly long, most of the oxen are already sold or dead. Then you see whole columns of thin, bowed figures, carrying poles on their necks with a canister at each end. From the source to the consumer we have logged five, seven, even fifteen kilometers on the odometer of our pickup. Where do you get the strength? we ask one of them. He sets his forty kilos on the ground and answers: he has a wife and children. From love, then, I think, and I know that that is much too romantic. Where then? It must be more elementary than love.
Are you angry with him? I ask a woman whose husband said he was going to look for work elsewhere because the soil didn’t yield crops anymore. He never got in touch again. Now she lives with three children in a refugee camp near the market in the city of Ambovombe. “Camp” sounds as if there is something. In fact there is the parking lot for the ox carts, around which seventy households have pitched their tents. Tents? Nothing but a couple of poles draped at waist height with plastic sheeting from used rice sacks. When there is no market, the children play football on the square. Many of the children are sick, though: coughs, headaches, diarrhea, or rashes. No wonder, living on a paddock.
No, I am not angry with him, the woman answers; if he loved me, I would show him my anger, but as it is I don’t waste any time on him. Collecting wood every day with the children, selling it at the market and buying my mother something to eat – she is too old to go with us to the woods – I don’t have the strength to be angry. Her income: 1,000 to 3,000 ariary a day, the equivalent of twenty-five to seventy-five cents. That is enough for a little bit of noodles or a little bit of rice with practically nothing else. At least there is a water tap here, just one for seventy households and the livestock, and the owner of the lot is a generous man. Sometimes he gives the refugees some food or brings medicine for the children. Twice a year some organization brings a few sacks of rice. Most of the aid organizations that hurried to southern Madagascar in autumn 2021, after the United Nations declared the world’s first climate-caused famine, have since cut back their work or moved it to the eastern coast, where a series of cyclones came through in February 2022. And the drought threatens to cause famines throughout eastern Africa this autumn, while the available aid money has not increased – although every sack of rice and every ladle of beans has risen in price by one fourth since the outbreak of the European war, which is as far off to the people here as the wars in Yemen or in Ethiopia are to Westerners. And before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the pandemic had already plunged the economy into a severe crisis, while no one had reserves to draw on, not the state and certainly not the people of one of the poorest countries in the world. And in front of the next tent, immobile, sits a frail older man who also tells us his story:
He took out a loan to buy seed, then the crop failed, and so he had to sell his livestock. When the crops failed for the fifth time in a row, he sold his land too and sought his fortune in the city; that was two years ago. Since then, two more harvests have failed in southern Madagascar, normally a fertile country. His wife died before they reached the camp; he misses her very much, he says. The two children who still live with him collect wood in the forest. He himself worked carrying water, but now he is too weak for it. On market days he begs and gets a few ariary or some food. When all the children have gone, if not before, he will stop begging. Then he’ll just stay sitting in front of his tent.
In Madagascar, the ancestors are not dead; they are as present as this table, this neighbor, this tree.
There are the forests that are disappearing; there are the many tree stumps along the wayside, vast areas where there is nothing but stumps left standing. Besides the water canisters, what you see most along the tracks and in the markets are the charcoal sacks. What else are you going to use to cook your rice if there is no electric grid even in the towns, no gas, no running water, no asphalt as far as the eye can see? At a little stand with charcoal sacks we stop. To the right of the track is a nature preserve, which makes us realize what it must have looked like to the left of the track just a few years ago: green with the leaves and the plants spreading between the tree trunks. Now we see to the left a wood that consists more of brown gaps than of trees. A tiny hut with a window-sized hatch through which business is transacted, a back room, and in this tiny building live more than twenty people, we learn to our amazement. Now they all look at us expectantly, from the door, from the window, from in front of the hut, evidently just as amazed as we are. For nine years they’ve been selling charcoal, and by now that is their sole source of income, because they have harvested practically nothing in the past seven years. How much does a sack cost? The equivalent of $1.90, although actually they haven’t sold any in the last month because the charcoal is cheaper further east, where there is still more forest. Next month, they hope, the price will go up again there; all it needs is for something to happen. What’s supposed to happen? I ask. After the cyclones in February, they were able to charge over three dollars a sack; those won’t have been the last cyclones. And what happens when all their land is deforested? I won’t cut down more than half, says the father, so something will be left for the children. And when your children have cut down the other half, what then? Then I won’t be around anymore. Have you never thought about cutting only as many trees as you can replant? No, we haven’t got the money for saplings. When we sell a sack, we spend all the money on rice.
I wonder that the nature preserve across the road still seems to be untouched. And their own woods, aren’t they also threatened? How do they protect them from wood thieves, who must exist, considering the poverty? No, not here, says the father; to us the woods are sacred; we have learned that from our ancestors. People who cut down someone else’s trees will have bad luck. So they cut down only their own future.
There is our shame. Have you any idea why it doesn’t rain? I ask. No, that must be God’s will, the charcoal-seller answers; neither he nor anyone else among the thirsty people has ever heard the term “climate change.” And I stand before them, from one of the countries that produces the most greenhouse-gas emissions, while Madagascar’s contribution is just 0.01 percent. They know even less about colonialism, which marked the beginning of the exploitation of nature in Madagascar, as elsewhere. The war in Ukraine, which has made so many foods prohibitively expensive, is also unknown to them. It is almost a consolation that Covid too is very far away. That word they have heard, and they say: at least that disease is only found in the cities. The fact that tourism has collapsed, and with it the state’s revenues – that is not noticeable either in southern Madagascar. Even before the pandemic, the state invested hardly anything in the south, not in the past thirty, forty years. There is an elite that has taken over the colonial rulers’ looting. Actually Madagascar would be a rich country: it has vanilla, minerals, gold, sapphires; it has fantastic national parks, endless beaches, some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. As recently as the late 1960s the people were full of hope; the educational system, the infrastructure, the gross domestic product, the arts were developing quite well for postcolonial conditions, but that was before most of the mineral resources had been discovered.
There are the bridges that have become redundant because the river has run dry or is just a trickle in which the people bathe, wash clothes, water the livestock, wash a truck, refill the yellow canisters. When you look at the scene from above, the wide, dry riverbed of brownish-yellow sand looks like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, composed of countless little vignettes. Not all of them are scenes of hell; it is beautiful to see the children splashing in the water. And how dignified the people are as they wash themselves, men and women, when there is no privacy to be had; their genitals always covered with one hand, their backs always turned to one another.
There are the fields that have been planted: sweet potatoes, beans, scallions, cassava. The cyclones that devastated the east coast seemed a blessing to the south because they finally brought rain, a lot of rain. Those who could still afford seed planted their fields. And, yes, in many fields you can see that something is growing, if meagerly. If it doesn’t rain before autumn, it will all die again. There are parents who remember how, when they were children, they ate their fill every day.
We talk with a family that has more land than others. How much exactly? The father stretches out his arm and moves it from left to right. None of it inherited. Their vigor, their perspicacity, their love for their profession too shine in his and in his wife’s eyes, which even at their advanced age have a graceful beauty. The family’s hut is made of corrugated steel, not of wood like the others, and is painted red and green. The children go to school; three of them have already finished high school. I may be mistaken, but I think I see their prosperity not only in the orderliness in the hut, the plastic chairs, the clean dishes on the shelves, the suitcases stacked carefully against the walls. No, I think I also see that they are better off by the couple’s tender looks and loving touches. Among the very poor I have not observed any tenderness between adults. But now this family’s livelihood too is crumbling, or is already half destroyed. The next source of water is twenty kilometers away; a canister costs 2,000 ariary; it is brought by ox cart. They need two of them every day, and then they still haven’t bought any food. How are they supposed to pay for it all, and the school fees besides, and the upkeep for the children at university? In their region, not quite at the epicenter of the drought, the last harvest was four years ago now. They have been drawing on their savings for a long time already, and working their big fields all by themselves. They could give up their land and move to the city; they still have the means to do so without ending up in a tent camp; they have relatives there who would take them in until they have made a new start. Why are they still here? It is the land of our ancestors, is the answer, as I expected.
The ancestors, one quickly learns in Madagascar, the ancestors are not dead; they are as present as this table, this neighbor, this tree. And, with the ancestors, the afterlife. The only concrete buildings we see along the track are tombs, and sometimes we discover a whole village living in the middle of the fields for a couple of weeks to build one of these complexes together. The only feasts we encounter are funerals, but only when someone has died in old age, that is, at fifty, sixty years. Then, yes, then the people dance, drink, and laugh. I believe that offers a great deal of reassurance with which to bear the conditions of the present: when it is only the lesser part of reality anyway. So far, the people who flee their villages are comparatively few, and when we asked those on the ox-cart parking lot, all of them talked about going back to be with their ancestors as soon as the sky sends rain again. At most, individual family members go away to earn some money that they can share with those who stay where the ancestors are.
We reach the heart of darkness some two hundred kilometers, or a day’s journey with the four-wheel-drive pickup, from Ambovombe, which has a little airport for United Nations aid flights. That is no doubt why all the aid organizations are concentrated there, and when politicians come, they visit the nearby villages; what they see there is shocking enough. A day later, west of the town of Ampanihy to be exact, we see hardly any of the white jeeps. There are children who no longer play, children who have lost even their imaginations, children who are not curious about the strangers. There is a teacher who asks his pupils to write something on the chalkboard, because we are surprised to hear that they can read and write, one sentence at least. A girl, seven, eight years old, stands up and slowly writes: Kememoho. I realize that it means something terrible by the shocked looks of the others before they translate the sentence for me: “I am hungry.”
There are villages, whole villages, that come to meet us as soon as we open the doors of the pickup. At first I think the inhabitants are begging for food or money when they surround us, but I soon realize that they aren’t familiar with people distributing aid, or at least they aren’t expecting it. We sit in a circle in the middle of the village and listen. They are also unaccustomed, I gradually become aware, to talking about their situation, giving voice to their hearts. But there comes a point, and it would probably come anywhere in the world, at which they speak out spontaneously: when I ask who has lost a child to starvation. In one village, three speak up; in another, fifteen; or they answer that it will happen this autumn at the latest if the rain doesn’t come. I look at the children’s dull eyes, their swollen bellies, the snot on their upper lips because their noses are running constantly, and I don’t have to be a doctor to know that the fear is all too justified. One of these children who are now staring at me motionlessly will die then, or two or three or still more.
There is the story that, strangely, always sounds similar when a child starves to death, and it is quite different from how I had imagined it: the child is not lying down, but sitting upright on the ground, their hands around their knees. Then suddenly the potbelly drops, really, so that from the side you can see it fall, and then the child falls over all at once. If it is daytime, the parents are usually in the bush looking for food, which here consists mostly just of cactus leaves and cactus fruits. Someone is sent to fetch them, but doesn’t tell them right away that their child is dead. The shock, we are told every time, the shock would be too great. Something has happened, they call to the parents from a distance, come quickly. But I knew right away what had happened, says one of the fathers, who ran back to the village.
Some places, there is music, which is glad tidings. With the drought, the culture dies out too; there was nothing besides agriculture and feasts before, and without the one, no one has money for the other. Southern Madagascar is famous for its musicians, but we ask about them in vain. And so it transfixes us like a choir of angels when, on the drive to the coast, we discover a big, yes, almost a huge crowd on a village square, and through the open windows a tinny electric guitar, like a sound out of a Detroit garage, and a breathless beat blow in. Funeral! cries one of my companions, and the other adds, If there is music, you know that we’re back up to the minimum subsistence level.
We get out and make our way through to a pickup truck with two huge loudspeakers mounted above its covered bed. On the bed of the truck are a drummer, a singer, and an ultra-cool man playing security guard. Next to the truck is a diesel generator, its noise being drowned out by the music. But where is the electric guitar coming from? We go around the truck and find the young rhythm guitarist sitting next to the driver, and alone in the back seat the aged band leader, playing wild solos while nevertheless nodding at us as nonchalantly as Keith Richards. Red baseball cap, dark sunglasses, Hawaiian shirt and mustache trimmed thin. The crowd – men, women, old people, children – dance ecstatically, some even spilling their expensive beer. It is the proximity to the sea, we learn, that provides the village with food, a little income, and, because of the income, music.
There is the realization of how little human beings really need: only soil, a wood, a lake, a river or a sea that offers them enough food; after that the superfluous begins, the impractical, the beautiful, making their lives rich. There is the water that the children spray at each other because there is enough of it. There is the perplexity because humanity has more than an abundance of all goods, but distributes them so inadequately. Madagascar itself has enough of everything, but it also has a government that spends 95 percent of its revenue in the capital because it has perpetuated the centralization of the colonial rulers and only survives thanks to Western aid. There would have to be roads, electricity, wells, water pipelines to distribute the goods that there are, if the rain won’t fall. Instead the world community, meaning only the rich countries of course, distributes some money and a few sacks of rice to avoid having to see pictures of starvation and death. And where nothing is distributed, no one is looking anyway. Nonetheless, the question remains, nowhere as dramatically as in southern Madagascar perhaps, why the modern age, of all eras, doesn’t seem to have heard of the future.
On the beach of the tiny coastal town of Beheloka, we meet the fisherman Christophe Germain Mananandroko, sitting between two canoes. Strong build, balding with white hair cut short, a white jersey with the sleeves cut off and the French football association’s FFF logo, Fédération française de football, which coincidentally is the abbreviation of the climate-action organization Fridays For Future. And in fact Christophe, who has some schooling and an old, small smartphone, has heard quite a bit about climate change and knows that the drought very probably has to do with it. But – only the drought? About the same time as the drought began, the wind became much stronger, so that Christophe can only go out fishing twice a week on average, and when he notices that the wind is coming up, he rows back to shore straight away. But many of his younger colleagues are first-generation fishermen and don’t know the warning signs. Just three months ago, two of them didn’t come home from the sea, on the same night. But the sea, the sea – even if the wind doesn’t blow, it’s no longer the sea he knows. Christophe remembers perfectly: when he was young, ten, fifteen years old, he only had to stand knee-deep in the water and hundreds, thousands of fish flurried around his legs. Catching five kilos took no time at all. Now you go out in the water, Christophe says, and you don’t see any fish at all, not one. Even beyond the reef there aren’t many left. The night before last he was out with his son, bright moon and calm sea, put out at eight, back at four, and what did they catch? One and a half kilos, barely enough for lunch for the big family. It used to be that he could put something aside, buy the children a few presents: not anymore; the grandchildren don’t get any.
Christophe remembers perfectly: when he was young, he only had to stand knee-deep in the water and hundreds, thousands of fish flurried around his legs.
Is it because of the industrial fishing? I ask. Yes, there are big Japanese ships out there; they have a treaty with the state. But they’ve been around a long time; the industrial ships can’t be the only reason. So maybe the depletion of the fish is connected with the wind? And the wind with climate change? I don’t know, Christophe answers, but our main problem is a different one anyway. What is it? Our main problem is that the coral reef is almost completely destroyed now, and we did that ourselves. The reef is the fishes’ home; they all throng there; every fisherman knows that. We have one of the longest coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, and now there is hardly anything to be caught there; we have to go farther and farther out to sea to catch anything at all, but out there there’s the problem of the waves; our boats aren’t made for that.
Is there no one who explains the connections to the fishermen?
There are programs to raise the fishermen’s awareness, by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), by Blue Ventures, by the Madagascar national parks organization, but they only explain what the fishermen already know, Christophe says: that’s nothing new; the fishermen already know their lives depend on the reef.
Then why are they destroying it? I ask. Why are they destroying their own future?
There is a new generation, Christophe answers; there are more and more people living in the villages, and more and more of them go to sea because their land doesn’t yield crops anymore. They come from the whole inland region now to catch fish, but they don’t know how it’s done. Cast their nets over the reef; fix them to the reef; anchor on the reef; they even walk on the reef; no one used to do any of that before.
When I was young, let’s say forty years ago, no fisherman ever so much as touched the reef. We didn’t need any WWF; our ancestors forbade us.
And why have the people lost their relationship to the sea?
Greed, Christophe answers straight away, it is greed. Then he tells us of one of the fishermen in the village who has bought special nets to catch more fish, which in turn gets him more money. Of the little that is still there, this man, a neighbor, catches everything and doesn’t even leave the others what’s left. This greed for more and more, we never knew that before, no one among us; we were all more or less equal.
How do you see the future of fishing?
Bad, very bad; it will disappear here completely, I’m afraid.
Don’t the programs have any effect at all?
Nonsense. At the training the people say, “Yes, yes,” and the next day they carry on as they have been.
Then the cause is in the people themselves?
Yes, we’re to blame, we ourselves; we know it and do it anyway. The cause is: the people’s minds are sinking lower.
But the people can’t help climate change, they can’t help that it doesn’t rain; that the wind has grown so strong.
Yes, I know, they can’t help that.
What do you think, then, why is it, I ask, human beings are so clever, just take this smartphone here – mine – there’s so much intelligence in it, in such a tiny device, so much inventiveness, cunning, technical skill. So why are human beings destroying the Earth, although their lives depend on it?
Christophe laughs sadly and says nothing.
Have you really no idea? I insist. I don’t know, myself; I’ve come all this way, from far Germany to here, and I haven’t found any answer.
Christophe takes my smartphone from my hand – it is newer and bigger than his – and he says, look, this device, this has a huge memory. Thirty gigabytes, a hundred gigabytes, two hundred gigabytes?
I am surprised that an old fisherman in a tiny, remote village on the south coast of Madagascar, several days’ journey from the nearest asphalt road – that this man knows the word “gigabyte.” And at the same time I am not surprised, after having heard sharp guitar riffs and racing beats in a still more remote village.
In this smartphone alone, Christophe continues, there is so much more memory than any human being has. But this memory is nothing compared to the memory of nature. The memory of nature goes back much further; it goes back to the beginning of the world’s creation.
There is also the fisherman Christophe Germain Mananandroko, who seems to know more than we do.
Originally published in Die Zeit no. 39, 2022. Translated from the German by Tony Crawford. Used by permission.