White wonder – deep ruts

I was told by the regional health director that foreigners rarely go where I went. He said the gesture was very much appreciated. It had touched him that we’d made the effort. He assured me it would have touched the staff of the three health centers we had visited even more.

I had noticed that older kids gaped at me in wonder and younger kids were scared to death seeing me, this strange white creature. In the capital or even regional capital of Fianarantsoa white folks are not given any special attention, but in Ikalamavony, Fitampito and Mangid I was a rarity.

Development projects refuse to go to these ‘zones enclavees’ as they are called. Visits would take days and supervision or control would be nearly impossible. The place we visited had not been supervised even by people from the regional office in two years before we had started out leadership program.

It took us 9 hours to cover about 90 kilometers on the impressive sounding Route Nationale nr 42. Along the road were faded signs that the World Bank was working on infrastructure. What infrastructure I wondered? Where did all that money go? We are always being pushed to show the result of donor investments, but here the accountability appeared to be missing. Nothing to show except for a few paved meters here and there. What if I took a picture of the sign, and then the road, and then send it to the World Bank in Washington, with a note that would say, Messieurs….?

We were mostly going in 1st gear in our landcruiser, and this while (a) we had a dependable landcruiser, (b) we each had our own seat (local bush taxis would have 20 people squished into the same space) and (c) it was not raining. Still, even under these great conditions, it took us all day to get just to the district capital. We had to get out multiple times when the car had to tackle steep hills covered with large rocks, or traverse mudflats. In the US we would have called the road not navigable.

Occasionally there would be short stretches of ‘goudron’ (asphalt),  50 or 100 meters, and I would quietly rejoice, but it never lasted and I learned to ignore these as signs of better times to come. Even the people we met, the overflowng bush taxis (it was not until 4 hours into the trip we met the first car) and trucks that went the opposite direction, would say, ‘oh yes, asphalt is near.’ Sometimes it wasn’t until an hour later that we saw the short stretch. What is considered near here is quite different from my ‘near.’

I marveled at the small ‘charrettes’ basically wooden platforms loaded with bags or tires or vegetation. They have small wooden wheels, rarely rubber tires, and are pushed up and down the ruts. Now there is what I would call a challenge. We buy a very fresh pineapple from a man pushing such a charrette that is on its way to the big city market. When we bite into it, later that evening, at a Chinese restaurant, I taste the labor that went into this piece of fruit.

I learned we had traveled through a ‘zone rouge’ a place where bandits attack cars. We would have been full of bounty with our computers, camera, printers and other gadgets, and me with my dollars, but we were left alone. Other cars would drive in convoi. the first car would have written on its windshield that it was the first in a convoi – we would huddle on the side of the road, waiting for the car with the sign that said ‘last.’ In the first and last car were gendarmes with guns. Such a contrast, this lovely land with its bright green rice paddies and smiling and waving people in their colorful clothes, men-height wild lupines and lantennas, the houses that come right out of children books, and then these men with guns.

This is the same road that people are transported over when there is a medical emergency, as there is no facility other than in the regional capital where emergency operations can be done. I tried to imagine what that would be like – even under the best of circumstances (no rain), if you had an acute appendicitis or the need for an emergency cesarean. It would be hell on earth. Many people don’t survive it, if they go at all, dying a horrible death.

Our driver and the the men I had hired over a year ago as consultants would scout the road ahead for fresh tracks, as if we were following wildlife, to see which way to take when we arrived at a fork. Sometimes we took a wrong turn. There are no signposts. You’d have to ask people, but sometimes there are no people in sight. You take the wrong turn, you have to retrace your steps – such a waste. What a metaphor for life!

We arrived in the mid afternoon in the district capital, which has a name that I could only remember because it kind of rhymes with Kalamazoo (Ikalamavoony, with the ‘I’ and ‘ny’ not really pronounced). The name means: beautiful yellow girl. I wondered about that. On the coast the Asian influence is clear and maybe one Chinese or Malay merchant came through and settled here either with his beautiful yellow daughter, or he made one. The Chinese/Malay, unlike the Indians, have completely merged with the local population, creating quite stunningly beautiful people.

We had another 3 hours to go to the remote health center we had promised to visit. We calculated that we would have to return in the dark. This is not advised, but what to do – we had come so far. And so we decided to push on. Our local guide had disappeared but luckily the district health chief and his wife offered to come along and guide us, sitting in the back of our cruiser after we removed our luggage.

This was more than generous. Would I offer to go for a 3 hours out and 3 back over a dirt track on my Sunday off? And so we went, another interminable ride, a track less exacting than the one we took previously, but still with lots of obstacles and crossing of inundated bridges where (I was told) caimans hid on the banks. The sun was starting to go down. The wide prairie was beautiful, with soft mountains at the edges. It looked a lot like parts of South Africa.

We arrived at the furthest point of our travels and were received by the chef of the health post, his wife and baby (screaming at the sight of me). He was ‘seul au poste’ which means he is the only doctor wide and far. Most of the doctors in such faraway places are young, in their late twenties or early thirties – often the first real post out of school. He is not supposed to, nor equipped to do surgical interventions and has to sent people on to the regional capital we had come from. People rather go home and die.

My colleagues had asked the doctor to arrange for a meal for us as we are way beyonf hotels and restaurants. We ate in the house of the Commune President. His women prepared the meal. We paid for it, as we had invited ourselves. People are dirt poor and can use the little extra our presence provided. We sat at the family dining table and had our usual mountains of rice. I am eating rice two or three times a day now. Usually the rice is served with a bowl of watery bouillon with a small piece of a chicken floating in it. One pours the bouillon over the rice, making it soggy.

I was given another bowl with some unrecognizable piece of meat in it, in addition to my chicken piece. My colleague explained that this was a special piece of meat to honor the white-haired white lady from afar. I asked what it was. There was much laughter when they explained that this was the ‘derriere’ of the zebu – which I took to be the anus. My colleague assured me that it was very well cleaned and that I could not refuse it.

Earlier I had already eaten zebu hooves, or at least the cartilage of the hooves which were plopped in the noodles that came from a package. It is good for you, said my team mates – it contains collagen and it very good for old people. I bit into the not very attractive pieces of thick material, with a few hairs still attached. It was better not to look as the texture left enough to the imagination. Good for my ankle arthritis I thought, complementing the cortisone shots, the PT and acupuncture, and cleaned my bowl.

We’d eat in the kind of road side eateries I would never have gone to had I been by myself or a group of tourists. Although my daily allowance is several tens of dollars, I am spending an average of 20 cents for breakfasts and just about a dollar for lunch and dinner. Here you can still live easily for under 5 dollars a day, which is of course a fortune for the locals.

After we returned over the prairie back to the district capital we had been on the road for 14 hours in first gear. We slept at the convent as there was no other place in town to stay. The cost of our lodging, simple cells, was 4 dollars and 31 cents for the night. I got to have my own cell, with two beds. The bed was hard and consisted of a bunch of slats covered with a thin foam mattress, a mosquito net, a pillow stuffed with tiny pieces of foam, a small towel and electricity till 10PM. The toilet was outside and didn’t flush. The communal shower I didn’t even try. The sisters are not used to put up travelers. Our MSH accountants at HQ insist we ask for a bill, there was none to be had. The place is for novitiates. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live there forever. I supposed one can get used to it. Compared to the usual family lodging, altogether on a mat on the 2nd floor of the house, this would be the most luxurious a girl would have ever lived.

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