We rode the last few miles to the river down sandy tracks through the bush. It all seemed so remote, which is why we were surprised to be greeted by a mob of children and a few adults at the river bank. They stared at us unabashedly while our guides conducted mysterious negotiations and then, with the help of a couple of young men, proceeded to load the two boats. Occasionally someone would tell us to “come over here,” or “hold this,” and the children would gleefully take up the chant, “over here, over here, over here! Hold this, hold this, hold this!” When it was time to load the tourists, Ludo called me by name, and so we set off to the sound of “Denise, Denise, Denise, Denise!” ringing out in the African dawn.
Our trip down the Tsiribihina River was a relaxing float on flat water. The most challenging aspect was making sure not to tip the wobbly pirogue (traditional dugout canoe). Our guide and support crew set up camp and cooked delicious meals every day. We observed the passing scenery—mostly farms and pastures—of this nearly roadless region of the country, and asked Ludo stupid tourist questions about the people we saw.
We camped on vast sandbars left by the previous rainy season. The Tsiribihina is short, but wide. The name, Ludo explained, means “Do not cross,” because the river swells to unnavigable dimensions for half the year. That advice doesn’t apply to the little, motorized ferries and freighters that put-putted up and down this water highway from dawn to dusk. The river is the main conduit for scores of villages.
We were quickly learning that there are people everywhere in Madagascar; or at least, that’s what I was discovering every time I tried to find a little hidden spot to take a pee. There’s barely any cover, because it’s all been cut or burned or eaten by zebu. You find the best spot you can, offering cover on two or three sides. You scan the area in all directions. No one in sight, good. No sooner have you dropped your drawers than you hear voices, or whistling, or worst of all, Salaam, Madame. Ack!
Our first campsite was at the head of a gorge, supposedly uninhabited because of the rugged terrain, but before the pirogues were unloaded the local kids were there to check us out. The elders arrived soon after to chat with the guides and crew in Malagasy. It sounded friendly enough, but one of the men carried a shotgun, which he sometimes waved around excitedly as he smiled and laughed. Ludo reassured us; he was a friend. In fact, we gradually came to understand that the eldest member of our team was there mainly because he knew the elders of every village up and down the river and could ensure that we’d be welcomed.
We were up at dawn and on our way shortly after sunrise. No sooner had we rounded the end of the sandbar than we spotted a family of white sifaka lemurs still sleeping near the tops of some tall, leafless trees. We slogged across loose sand to get as close as we could, and snapped a few photos, while Ludo told us a bit about their behaviors. They would become more active, he said, as soon as the sun had warmed them. Karel was ready to go, but I insisted we stay a little longer. We had a clear view of them, and they were beginning to stir—I pointed out that photographing arboreal animals in the wild doesn’t get any easier than this, which was a priceless opportunity. Sure enough, in a few minutes the lemurs were stretching and grooming, and then they were off, making spectacular leaps from branch to branch until they disappeared into the forest.
We spotted many birds, a few chameleons, and some crocodiles on the rest of the river trip, but no more lemurs. Further down in the heart of the first gorge we saw signs that people were moving into the area and cutting down trees, which may have frightened the primates away. Ludo also speculated that it was about the right time for the females to be just giving birth or carrying newborns, and they often withdraw for a few days during that time.
A brief side hike in a community-owned natural area led us to a lovely waterfall and pool in the limestone canyon. On our way back down, we encountered a group of men working on maintenance in the park—they were literally washing the rocks, probably to clean off the treacherous, slippery algae and keep the trail safe for tourists. There were only a few other visitors besides us, but high season would begin very soon.
Back in the pirogue, our guide handed us a couple of oranges in a bowl. Ordinary oranges in Madagascar, we’d discovered, are rather sour, hard to peel, and contain enough seeds to start your own orchard. Also, we’d just eaten lunch and weren’t hungry, so I set the bowl on the floor of the canoe and forgot about them.
Late in the afternoon we pulled in at a village. This was clearly a permanent town (as opposed to the seasonal, “nomadic” settlements we often saw), with steps cut into the riverbank and some concrete buildings among the other huts. We were instantly mobbed by children yelling vazaha, vazaha—the Malagasy word for white people, strangers, or foreigners—who happened to have just ended the school year the day before. I was immediately taken in hand by two of the older girls, Madeleine and Sansoé. The girls chatted away in French, showing me the sights, and giving the smallest children turns at holding my hands as they paraded me through the town. Would I like a skin treatment (the women make a facial mask using avocado)? Did I want some food? They asked about my dress (a beach cover-up that I was still wearing after our visit to the waterfall) and my earrings and my hair.
At the top of the hill the “street” ended abruptly between two tobacco curing sheds and opened onto a smoking field. My escorts halted and declared, “Fermé.” I was struggling to keep up with their French, but I sure understood that. For the children of this place, this was the end of their world—and yet they were quite aware, the world was so much larger.
I tried my best to ask a few questions, just for the sake of connecting with these girls, in my limited French. “Quel est votre place favorite?,” I tried. What is your favorite place? They pondered a moment, then said, “Les Mandarines!” Huh? Was that the name of a shop or club or salon? They were talking excitedly about les mandarines, and leading me back through town. “Je ne comprend pas,” I told them.
They tried, but I just wasn’t getting it. Meanwhile, I noticed the other children seemed more agitated. As we neared the pirogues, I tried distracting them by taking photographs. They love hamming it up for the camera, then seeing how they look.
At last, we reached the boats. The girls pointed at the two green, bitter oranges in the bowl on the floor. “Les Mandarines.” I looked up, and found myself surrounded by dozens of eager, expectant faces. Even if I doled out one segment per child, there wouldn’t be nearly enough. To give them to the two girls would lead to fighting and disappointment among the rest of the children. “Je suis désolée, mais ce n’est pas possible. Il n’ya plus d’oranges pour les autres enfants.” I’m pretty sure I was mangling the French badly, but they got the gist of it, and looked devastated. They started pleading and arguing. I looked around desperately for our guide, but he was nowhere to be found.
Fortunately, Karel had just arrived at the riverbank, and saw the pickle I was in. “How about a song?,” he suggested. Bless his heart, he pulled his guitar out of the dry bag, and a few minutes later we were leading the kids in “Black Horse and a Cherry Tree,” always a fun song for audience participation. Even some of the adults joined in. It saved the day. Ludo appeared in time to record it, and he was positively beaming with pleasure by the end of the song.
As we said farewell to the villagers, I told Ludo about the oranges and asked if we had any more in our food stocks to pass out for the children to share. “No,” he said, “but don’t worry about it. Even if we had a hundred oranges, it wouldn’t be enough, someone would get left out and it would do more harm than good. You really did something wonderful. So many tourists ask the kids to sing them a song. This is the first time anyone has offered to perform a song for the kids. They loved it. Even the adults were singing. You have no idea what a nice change this is from their everyday routine. Don’t worry, you did something good here.”
In spite of Ludo’s reassurances, I was chastened by the realization that an orange I considered hardly worth the effort of peeling could incite a frenzy of desire in these children, and that a song, played for them by two clueless tourists, might be the most exciting thing to happen there in months.
This entry was posted in Madagascar, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa