Saturday, 5 December 2015

The places in between

I'm supposed to teach my students "historical thinking skills."  I'm not 100% sure what that means. I know it doesn't mean memorizing facts from the past. It's more about understanding how the past influenced the present, cause and effect, intended and unintended consequences, contextualizing events, worldviews, who benefited and who gained, and trying to understand the world through the eyes of those who went before.

As with a lot of my teaching, if you can call what I do that, I hope students will find that there is very little black and white in history, just as there is very little today that is clearly 100% right or wrong. Globalization, nationalization and ideologies all have their reasons and their varying impacts on the worlds' peoples, for good or ill.

The Industrial Revolution, for instance. Child labour, atrocious working conditions, terrible living conditions. The end of the feudal system. The end of cottage industries. Urbanization. Increasing employment. The beginnings of organized labour. Public education. Universal suffrage. Human rights.

Stuff gets lost along the way of history and "progress"- whatever that means. Other stuff is gained. The world is always changing and we change with it.
And that brings me to Madagascar.
It is a dreadfully poor place, statistically and in almost every visible way. Poverty is all around you. Malnutrition. Stunting. Village after village made of bricks or sticks. Mile after mile where you don't see even one manufactured product, not even a tarp to protect you from the sun or the wind. Women scrubbing their garments in the river and spreading them to dry on stubble-covered hillsides.People pulling plows by hand. Shops whose sole product is a thermos of coffee and a glass to drink it from.
In a way, it is like stepping back into history, into a medieval era before mechanization and technology and the mass production of goods.  And you, as a wealthy first world tourist, ride by in your air-conditioned SUV time machine, watching how people used to live, back in the dark ages.

The poverty you see is not the result of any one historical event. It may be the result of colonialism, economic imperialism, tribalism and corrupt political systems. One thing you know for sure is, it's not the result of laziness.
Here you see barefoot men running as fast as they can pulling "pousse pousses" -a fancy name for a rickshaw, a device that has been banned in many countries. The men run because if they don't get you to you destination faster than you could by walking, why would you hire them?  And you ask yourself, "Should I hire a pousse pousse?" Because it seems so wrong to be pulled from place to place by a barefoot man when you could just as easily walk. But if you don't hire the pousse pousse, who will? Will the man and his family starve? Because what other labour is there to do?

Here you will children walking along rural and city roads, balancing water jugs on their heads because there is no running water in their homes. Indeed, even most health clinics do not have potable water. You see women and children balancing impossibly huge bags of charcoal. They haul these to their homes or to the market to sell.  Children shouldn't have to work this hard.  But if they don't, where will the heat come from for their mothers to heat their homes and cook their meals?

Here you see the $7 billion Ambatovy mine, a joint venture, 40% owned by Canada's Sherritt along with other partners. It is the largest single employer in the country with a workforce that is 84% Malagasy according to the project's website. It employs hundreds of foreign workers who make significantly more than their Malagasy counterparts. It's a secretive operation, with most of its action hidden high in the highlands around Moramanga and the rest behind a guarded wire fence. Foreign owned companies contributed the capital and the know-how to make the mine work. Madagascar provides the raw materials and the labour force. In exchange for the extraction of raw materials, Madagascar receives 1% in royalties and the employment of many of its citizens.

Yet without Ambatovy, thousands would be unemployed.

The uncomfortable place between right and wrong, past and present, progress and regression.