Naomi Herbert, Director of International Programmes for the Anglican mission agency USPG, reports on a hidden side of Madagascar.
We know that Madagascar is on the tourist trail, with the most amazing natural beauty and rare animal species. But my recent visits with USPG have taken me to the hidden side of Madagascar that tourists don’t get to see, namely the communities around the corner from five-star hotels that are living in abject poverty.
Driving up to a village on the outskirts of Toliara, on the far southern tip of the island, the first thing I notice is how barren it is. It is dry, dry, dry, with no trees except for a few cacti.
The next thing I notice, just outside the boundary of the village, are the mounds of human faeces. It doesn’t smell because it has dried in the baking hot sun. This is a community that by and large doesn’t use toilets, and there are a number of reasons for this: cultural taboos about sanitation, poverty and a lack of knowledge.
The houses here are a mixture of traditional huts made from tin or wood, and some that are made with concrete blocks that belong to those who have better paying jobs – and some of these houses have outside latrines.
The literal translation of the Malagasy word for toilet is ‘to go outside’ – and this explains the cultural attitude. Indeed, for these villagers, I’ve heard time and again that: ‘God has given us all this land, so why would I go where my neighbour does?’ There seems to be a real cultural taboo around this subject, which means people don’t talk about the issue – however, during my visit, the issue of sickness was raised on numerous occasions, such as diarrhoea and other communicable illnesses.
This might seem puzzling to us in the west. But, as a Malagasy colleague pointed out, the majority in this village currently don’t know anything about how bacteria can spread disease – this is something that needs to be learned. So without this knowledge, to the majority of these community members, their hands are clean and sickness is blamed on something else, such as punishment for doing something wrong or another ‘evil’.
I’ve seen situations like this many times over the years in numerous countries, and I admit I still struggle with it. My instant response is to think: ‘Come on, government, where are your priorities? Why aren’t you digging latrines and stopping communities living like this?’ Of course, I know it’s not that simple.
Secondly, an impulsive response by USPG, or some other agency, to start building latrines wouldn’t solve any problems because there would be no community buy-in. A key principle for how USPG works is that a programme must be initiated by, understood, accepted and owned by a community – if it isn’t, it simply won’t succeed.
An example of this is that if latrines are provided by kind-hearted outsiders but without community participation, those latrines will often be disused or neglected. It is similar with mosquito nets that get used as fishing nets. We cannot apply a western mindset and expect a non-western community simply to agree – and our ways are not necessarily the best!
But happily the church is mindful of all this and they can be the key people in the community to help mobilise initiatives that are truly community-owned.
USPG is working with Anglicans in Madagascar to support training courses at all levels of the church. The training uses the Bible as a starting point for exploring some of these complex issues. As we read the Bible, we ask questions such as: How can the church be of benefit to the communities it serves? One of the most common outcomes is a desire for more social action.
In this way, the church can help shine a light on poverty-related issues, and the community itself can decide whether the priority is to build latrines or set up an income-generation enterprise or other initiative.
The previous time I visited Madagascar, in August last year, I was told how in one parish five children had died of starvation due to famine. Though the drought had been on my radar, knowing it had killed children was devastating.
Madagascar typically has a drought every four or five years. However, global climate change has led to more extreme temperatures and frequent and harsher storms, with harvests failing and fewer years of plenty to bring relief.
So the droughts are continuing year after year, and by the third or fourth year the houses of many families are bare because they have sold all they own to buy food. And famine follows on from the drought.
Input from Malawi was greatly appreciated. We spent a week looking at the situation in South West Madagascar, examining the nature of disasters, how they impact on communities, and what can be done to prepare for disaster.
USPG’s focus in Madagascar is on helping the Anglican Church to develop a disaster preparedness strategy. To reiterate, this is not a case of the outside world, with our own agenda, stepping in to help – this will only encourage a mindset of need and dependency. Rather we encourage churches and communities to focus on those things they already have: their local skills, assets and resources.
One of the assets in the village I visited is salt. This village is on the coast and the water is heavily salinated. There’s so much salt in the soil that you can see white streaks of it in the earth. The salt is collected in a traditional fashion. The people dig trenches that are about the size of small swimming pools. The trenches are filled up with salt water. It then takes about two weeks for the sun to cause the water to evaporate, leaving behind a thick solid crust of salt, which can be scraped off and sold.
The salt is typically stored in 50 kg bags. Then, during the rainy season when rainwater makes salt farming impossible, the salt can be sold for more money to help support the community.
This was a really fascinating trip for me.
I have a passion for the world and especially the Church in Madagascar, which is is a brilliant example of sharing Christ’s love to its communities.