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Date : 26th November, 2014
Time : 1h 51’ 56” (Slowest 10k yet)
Total Distance Run to date : 400 km
Run map and details : http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/640878956
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Madagascar’? Animated animals who like to “move it, move it”? Perhaps, if you watch the BBC, David Attenborough’s unique voice describing the 101 species of lemurs to be found on the island?
Everyone I’ve talked to has a cuddly, animal centric image of Madagascar. People don’t really come into it – but you sort of take it for granted that the humans are living happily on their Indian Ocean island paradise surrounded, no doubt, by exotic flora and fauna.
And there’s plenty of truth in that image. Madagascar is a huge country (bigger than France) with 5000 miles of coastline, plenty of natural beauty and resources, and a climate in which just about anything will grow. In addition to lots of wonderful wildlife. I was also met by great hospitality and friendliness throughout my stay.
However, the first clue that life might not be perfect for the average Madagascan came during one of my interminable airport stopovers. A headline came up on the TV screen ‘Madagascar : 50 die of the plague’. The second clue was on the back page of a leaflet they give everyone on the flight into Madagascar. The message was ‘ Say no to child prostitution’. The third clue was in the open rubbish tips on the side of the road as we inched our way along the clogged streets of Antananarivo to my guesthouse.
That night over dinner, as a huge storm crashed outside and the lights went out over Antananarivo, my prior ignorance was confirmed. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, its development hampered by a political crisis (a coup that wasn’t recognised by most of the world) between 2008 and 2013. Both aid and foreign investment were largely put on hold. Elections were held in late 2013 and the country has returned to growth in the last year or two but the World Bank estimates that 82% of the population still lives in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 / day).
And what of the specific concerns I’d picked up on my journey? Here’s what my dinner companions had to say. “Yes, people have died from the plague. But it’s not such big news here because people are dying of all sorts of extraordinary diseases”. “Sex tourism is an issue. Madagascar is Bangkok for the French.” “I’ve seen dogs and children fighting for scraps in the rubbish tips.” And these were comments from people who care enough about Madagascar to have chosen to make their lives there.
On a more positive note, Madagascar was probably my best running route yet. I was picked up from the guest house at 5 a.m., and Bill and Patrick took me up to Ambohimanga. To quote from Wikipedia “Ambohimanga is a hill and traditional fortified royal settlement (rova) in Madagascar. The hill and the rova that stands on top are considered the most significant symbol of the cultural identity of the Merina people and the most important and best-preserved monument of the precolonial Kingdom of Madagascar and its precursor, the Kingdom of Imerina. The walled historic village includes residences and burial sites of several key monarchs. The site, one of the twelve sacred hills of Imerina, is associated with strong feelings of national identity and has maintained its spiritual and sacred character both in ritual practice and the popular imagination for at least four hundred years. It remains a place of worship to which pilgrims come from Madagascar and elsewhere.”
As well as its cultural and historic importance, Ambohimanga is a great place to run and our circular 10k route was exceptionally beautiful. Our time of 1h 51’56” was, by about 50 minutes, my slowest 10k to date. The time was partly due to a number of steep climbs that had to be walked. Partly due to frequent stops to admire the view and take photos (see above). And partly due to the fact that I couldn’t really run at the beginning. My knees had locked up and the available painkillers weren’t strong enough to unlock them. (In case you’re wondering, despite the hobbling, I didn’t hit le mur.)
It was a memorable run and would have made an ideal final image of Madagascar. But that came on the journey back to the airport as we crawled through the centre of Antananarivo. 3 kids hung onto the car window for ages begging and pleading (presumably) for money. What do you do in those situations? I recalled advice that you shouldn’t give anything to anyone because you could literally be mobbed. And other advice that, if you want to give, you should do it though properly structured charities. But there’s a part of you that thinks that, for an amount of money you’d hardly notice, you could make someone’s day – or week.
I’m writing this having been back in the UK for three weeks and I still think about Madagascar a lot – more than the other countries I visited. I’ve rarely, if ever, been to a country where my expectations and reality were so at odds. I think I’ll always be marked by the experience.
Huge thank yous to Bill and Patrick for all their help and support during that experience!