Tsiroanomandidy, one hundred kilometres west of Antananarivo, is congested with wheeled carts and brightly painted Asian rickshaws, known as pouse pouse – push push – with racy names like Air France and Force One. We quickly find Donnè in the crowd, knowing we need to generate immediate good vibes as tomorrow our life will be in his hands.
A big component of Malagasy conversation is making introductions, opening discursive encounters with long formulaic strands of friendly talk. They call it maresaka, which means good talk. Donnè and sound-man Hery linger on the small talk. But of course we want to know all about the dangers of the road.
“When was the last attack Donnè?”
“What do we do if we get attacked?”
“I have a gun.” Donnè nonchalantly shows us his loaded gun and a pouch of eight bullets. “I get ‘em with this,” he adds, proudly.
“When did you last use it?”
“One month ago. I shot a Dahalo in the foot. Mostly they want zebu (cattle), but sometimes they get desperate and they want money. I try to scare them off. There’s been no bank in Maintirano for a long time. So money comes in by car.”
We set off at three a.m. the next day and immediately learn that alongside the loaded gun Donnè has another form of security: Malagasy gospel music – musique evangelique – that he plays at full blast.
“It keeps us safe,” assures Donnè. “The Dahalo don’t like it.”
The music is basically call-and-response and based on echoes from the ancestors – we, the living, link with them, the dead, in our common fate that we will all meet in a better life. But that collective meeting is of course the work of memory in re-fleshing the dead as they become part of the living, re-membered, their bones turned.
I am brutally squashed in the back, my long legs jammed sideways. There is incessant bouncing, head slams. The engine roars like a raging bull, the tailgate rattles and Donnè riffles through the gears, up-and-down-and-up. We are the living dead, entombed in metal.
Ridges of scrubland are still smouldering from night fires where zebu herders have torched dead savanna grass to encourage new growth
There is a ghostly quality to Donnè’s driving that I have never experienced: invisible, but present. He wants to move so fast that the Dahalo do not see him, yet he engineers a cloud of gospel music for safety, and seems to work the wagon just at the right pace to hover above the worst potholes, gain traction when it matters and dart out of corners.
The sun rises like a ripe peach into a perfectly clear sky as we continue west. The landscape is wide, open and three-day stubbled crying out for a shave.
Ridges of scrubland are still smouldering from night fires where zebu herders have torched dead savanna grass to encourage new growth. The very occasional hamlet only contains three of four huts alongside the road, dust-blasted. There are no windows or chimneys, just a door, some tall sacks of charcoal and a few families eating a breakfast of boiled manioc.
At Andafiha we start to descend to sea level and red earth turns to sand with sharp crystalline rocks breaking through the surface. We are now caked with dust and our dead legs need a chance to stretch. We know every line of Donnès’ gospel hits by now and we, the living, are coated with what we will become – soil and dust infected with songs of praise.
We cough our way into Maintirano long after nightfall, and check into the Hotel Rovasoa, ready to wash our gritty throats with an ice-cold THB beer. We say farewell to Donnè and confirm the dates of our return. He agrees to be back in Maintirano in good time, and heads off to his usual haunt in town to sleep. He’ll pick up some passengers and head back to Tsiroanomandidy in two days.
We set out to the beach at dawn – a fifteen-minute walk through a surprisingly large port town of a good twenty-five thousand people. Compared to the temperature in the high plateau, the difference in heat is immediate. Bright African colours on wall-sides and fabrics meet hardwood fences and sturdy palms.
There are massive mango trees, busy pouse pouse ferrying people for the morning shift and a few Land Rovers that can handle the vicious drive to Tsiroanomandidy. Most of the women wear a thick yellow layer of sandalwood suncream on their faces. They smile confidently as we walk past, but look puzzled at our surfboards, and confirm that they have never seen surfers here.
Maintirano means ‘black water’ and we soon see why. Chest high waves breaks in a brown-red mahogany soup. Much of the west coast is like this due to iron rich silt from rivers, like surfing in a bleeding sea.
We paddle out to wash out the exhaustion from the drive and re-align our spines. Muscle memory kicks in. But our bodies are so iron-like from twenty hours welded into the wagon that we are disappointed with our performances. We quickly pine for the deep reefs around the Barren Islands, far enough out into the Mozambique Chanel to deliver crystal clear water.
We meet Cécile for a late lunch. She explains the community conservation work that Blue Ventures are performing in the Barren Islands:
“There are 4,000 Veso living in the archipelago spread across ten islands.
We are developing a Locally Managed Marine Area, encouraging self-management and preventing industrial boats from fishing inside the 4,000 square kilometres from Nosy Marify to Nosy Lava. You’ll stay on Nosy Andrano. It’s mostly self-sufficient fishing in pirogues, lakanas – dugout canoes – and spearfishing.”