Saturday, 29 August 2015

Behind the Wall

We just came back from a trip to Africa where we visited a large mining operation. In this operation, ore is mined miles away and the slurry is pumped through a pipeline to the coast where it is processed and shipped to other nations.

The mining operation is owned by a conglomerate of companies based in wealthier nations. They pay the nation a 1% tax on the land where the mine is based and 1% in royalties. They also employ many local people who might otherwise be unemployed.

The mining operation has a residential programme for expat families. These families live in a pristine world behind a concrete wall protected by armed guards, razor wire and electric fencing. Behind the wall, streets are paved and immaculate. Tropical gardens flourish. Lawns are mowed. Pet dogs and cats are well loved. There are beautiful swimming pools, a well equipped gym, an international school, a medical clinic and tennis courts.

Inside the neat as a pin bungalows of the residential village you will find 54 inch flat screen TVs, microwaves, new large fridges, washers and dryers and silent and efficient air conditioning units, modern furniture and all the creature comforts. By Canadian standards, normal, pleasant homes. By the standards of this nation, unimaginable paradise. Residents have gardeners and drivers and housekeepers who come in once or twice a week-or every day should they so choose.  All of it behind steel roll shutters that are locked every night and whenever they leave the building.

It's a lovely compound. The walls keep the outside world at bay.

Just steps outside the gate is a gorgeous deserted wild beach that stretches for miles. We are told it is unsafe for foreigners to walk on without being mugged. After walking a few km down this beach to a near deserted beach bar at a floundering local "resort" we watch the blue green waves crash on the beach. Apart from a couple of fishermen and three or four kids, there is no one.

Next to the camp is the massive modern plant, fully illuminated by night. Reportedly, effluent from the plant flows into the nearby rivers and the ocean. We are told the foreign workers can trust no one. Theft is constant and a cultural norm. The prevailing attitude is that if something is there you want, you should take it. God left it for you. Considering the pittance the mining corporation pays the nation in royalties, maybe the multinationals feel the same way.

Past the plant is the town, more prosperous than any other town we have seen in this country, but still impoverished with bicycle rickshaws and flimsy grass shacks which are supposedly cyclone resistant. Decades of colonial rule followed by a xenophobic communist regime, years of political instability and a recent coup have led to decreased foreign investment and the elimination of most international aid. It is by far the poorest country I have ever seen.

The expats go to foreign owned guarded grocery stores where they buy imported goods. They eat at select restaurants where delicious cuisine cooked by foreign trained chefs. They go to the artisan market with their drivers who watch out for them. They visit the chocolate shop and the fish market and the export quality spice store.

Produce at the market
This, in a nation where 76% of people live on an average daily wage of $1.25 a day. Despite the abundance of fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, malnutrition is prevalent. 50% of kids under five receive inadequate nutrition which impacts physical and mental development.

The contrast between the world behind the wall and the world outside the wall is startling.  Inside the compound, the world is controlled and organized and clean. Outside, chaos. The company has brought money to this town  and the country where there is little foreign investment. There are natural resources in abundance in this nation but the multinationals fear unrest.

I am here as a tourist. As a tourist in the developing world you can stay in nice hotels and eat at decent restaurants and hire taxis for next to nothing. And you know you can do so because you live in a wealthy developed nation where you have a good job. You hope some of your money trickles down to the people and that is how you justify the disparity to yourself- if you feel you need to justify such a thing. Mostly you know there is no justice in this global economy. You know you are not rich because you work harder than an African miner. You are not rich because you are smarter than a third world maid. You are not rich because you deserve to be.

I don't much like this country. There are elements of beauty. There are kind and decent people. But it bothered me to see such disparity. I don't  know if I could live here as the expats do, in a world so separated from the people. The foreigners live so well, yet right beside them are hardworking people who live with nothing. And as much as the expats are safe, they are also imprisoned. The walls that keep the world away isolate them from everyone except each other.

Here in North America we live in our own little paradise, behind our own walls, separated from the majority of the world's people who live on next to nothing while we live in relative luxury. How often do we think of the grass shacks where the people who grow our rice and coffee and cocoa live? Do we ever think that it is likely a child who hauls our produce to market on his back? It's just easier for us to ignore the poverty that fuels our luxury because we don't see it every day.

Friday, 7 August 2015


I arranged to attend a famadihana in Madagascar. We had it all set up and then I became violently ill from a stomach complaint. I'm blaming it on a strawberry but who knows. So we cancelled out.

We weren't really sure if it was appropriate anyway. Would I have appreciated total strangers from another country attending my mother's funeral just to observe Canadian customs? Yet I had read it was something one should do if possible. The turning of the bones. A time of great celebration in this unusual country, where certain tribes visit the family tomb every 7-10 years during the winter months and retrieve the bones of the ancestors. They take the bones back to the village amid great rejoicing. They talk to the ancestors and share their news. The tell stories to the dead. There is music and feasting and drinking that goes on for days. Then the bones are wrapped in new shrouds and returned to the tomb.

My husband wonderers how the Malagasy reconcile their ancient beliefs with their stated beliefs in Christianity. If the ancestors have gone to heaven, why do they need to disinter the bones and communicate with the dead?

Along the road today we saw three famadihana processions. In the first, the bones had been retrieved and the families danced along the highway with trumpets blaming. They smiled and waved. The bones were carried high. It was a joyous occasion.

The guidebook said the if you were invited to a famadihana you should go. If only to revisit your own views about death and the afterlife. In our culture, when we say goodbye to our loved ones, that is the end. We may believe in life after death or we may not. But once someone is gone, we are left with just our memories and personal reflections. After the funeral there is nothing. No communal or formal sharing of memories. No visits to the tomb- if there is one. The dead are gone and that is that. Our ancestors are not venerated through any ritual or tradition. They are only kept alive in our hearts.

I'd like the chance to talk to those who have gone before. To tell my mom what is happening in my life. To let my dad know how proud he would be of his grand kids. To visit with my grandparents. And to share that with my family and whatever constitutes our "village" in modern Canada.

I think the Malagasy understand something we have forgotten. We should celebrate the lives of our ancestors as a community. They made us who we are.