Notes from a rural study site

Notes from a rural study site
Antenina Commune, North-Eastern Madagascar, 6 February 2015

Every time I come to the field in Madagascar (and by ‘field’ I don’t mean the capital Tana or any other urban areas), I get the sense that I am witnessing more extreme poverty than the trip before. Last summer (European summer not Gasy) I spent a couple of weeks in one of the most difficult rural areas anywhere in the world that I have worked in, and it was not very far from the bustling town of Moramanga. I thought I wouldn’t see more extreme poverty than in those villages, from where you could actually see the town of Moramanga glow at night. Those villages had nothing in terms of facilities – no road, no electricity, no mobile network, no proper drinking water, no toilets, no school, and where there was a primary school, no teacher, or teacher that the parents themselves had to pay for, payments mostly being in-kind, ranging from a cup of rice to a few dry twigs for firewood that their children carried when they walked to school every morning.

After two and half hours of walk from Antenina commune centre, most of it steep uphill climb, we finally got a glimpse of our study site.

After six months or so, I am in another rural area in the north east of the new protected area called CAZ (Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena). This is properly a rural area – it took us 5 days just to arrive at the centre of the study fokontany (smallest administrative unit in Madagascar). The village where I am writing these lines is another 2.5 hours from the fokontany centre, and now, I feel like this is the village with most extreme poverty that I have witnessed anywhere – including in the previous field site south of Moramanga. Strange thing is that this place appears extremely fertile and blessed with perfect weather for all kinds of fruits – banana, avocado, jackfruit, pamplemousse (pomelo), oranges, lime, lemon, other local citruses, coconut, breadfruit to list some of the fruits that I have seen myself. I am sure there are many other crops that can do equally well here.

Despite the favourable climate and the fertile land the people are living in such poverty that it almost beggars belief. Almost all children appear malnourished – and there are loads of children per family here; there seem to be no variety in the diet – just rice, and when there is no rice, they probably survive on whatever fruits is available in the season. The place is so remote that it takes at least 5 hours’ walk to go to the nearest market – either in Sahambala, a neighbouring commune or in Antenina – their own commune centre.

Mother at twelve: One of the households selected for the interview has a middle-aged man as the HH head, but there are also quite a few small children in the house, the youngest only one year old. They are all being looked after by a teenage girl who is definitely not old enough to be the mother of those kids – not even the youngest but she is a mother to them for all intents and purposes. As the interview progresses, we find out that the man has one son of 18 who has already moved out and established his own farming household. The man says his wife is only 23 years old, who couldn’t have been the mother of the 18 year old or even the teenage girl looking after the kids. He says the girl looking after his younger kids is his daughter and she is 12 years old. So we guess that the two older kids are from his first wife and his present wife is his second. The teenage girl obviously has quite a lot of work and responsibility on her young shoulders – not only looking after her younger step-siblings, but also cooking and keeping house. The man’s wife has probably gone to work on her farm or on somebody’s farm for daily wage.

Father at thirteen: In this poverty-ridden village, kids grow to become adults pretty fast – in fact they are forced to work and act like adults while still kids so they end up becoming ones sooner too. What that means for the girls is that they become wives and mothers while a teenager, while the boys become man and husband still a teenager. Usually, this also means boys seek girls who are a few years older than themselves so that they are able to make their house and bear kids. In one such case, we interviewed a 28 year old man whose wife is now 32 years old (and looks a lot older), and they have 8 kids already, the oldest being 15 years old, the youngest less than a year. The man has been a father since 13, while the wife a mother since 17!

Elites among the poor: When we talk about ‘elite capture’ in community development projects, especially in rural areas in developing countries, we are talking about a handful of people/families who either because of their existing social, political, economic power are able to appropriate most of the benefits from such projects or divert the project in a way that benefits them more. What about the village where every household appears extremely poor? Will there be elites among the poor? The answer is almost always “Yes”. In this village too, I see a few families that wield greater power – political, social, economic than the rest and are capable to benefiting more from what comes their way than the rest. A simple example is that of the village chief, we as outsiders have to first visit him and get his consent to work in the village, this simple act already puts him at an advantage as we have to rely on him to arrange the logistics for us in most cases, including a place to sleep, cook and so on. What then happens is all the economic benefits that accrue due to our presence in the village – through our hiring of cook, guide etc. – are captured by the village chief and his family. His wife cooks for us partly, while they have also found another lady – possibly related to them – to cook for us and generally look after our welfare. The village chief acts as our guide, and local assistant, organising interview appointments etc. The only other economic benefit from our presence goes to the village kiosk owner, who I would consider another village elite as there seems to be only one kiosk that all the villagers rely upon, and the family that run the kiosk appear pretty well off by this village’s standards. Yesterday, I got all my t-shirts washed as I am planning to give them to some of the really needy people in the village, but I know I can’t rely on the people looking after us to give them to those who need the most, so I’ll have to find a way to give them out to the really needy ones that I have seen in the village.

Resources without value: This village certainly possesses abundant natural resources – from large rivers capable of producing power and providing irrigation to fertile fields that could produce a wide variety of crops given the favourable climate. However, none of these resources are exploited at the scale that would make difference to peoples’ lives here, not even a fraction of these resources. There is no road linking the village to a market so all the produce are either consumed by the producers or are wasted as they cannot eat all the seasonal fruits they produce and they have no way of preserving most of what they produce. There is no electricity, no health centre, and government doesn’t exist in any shape or form here. Only this morning we met an injured man who was going to walk one whole day to another commune centre to see a doctor. Without the means and markets to exploit the natural resources, the “wealth” that these villagers have has no value, and that they are not able to bring about any meaningful change in their lives here, and continue to live in extreme poverty.

Social scientist with interests in environmental and natural resources research and advocacy.

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