In the ancestor worshipping religion practiced across Madagascar’s 18 tribes, the zebu – a species of domestic cattle originating in South Asia – is integral to marking life’s milestones.
When a child gets its first haircut, the clippings are stirred into zebu back fat and eaten by family members with a rum chaser; when a boy is circumcised, his mother and sister prepare a zebu feast to win the respect of the village; and when a person dies, their memorial stone is crowned with a zebu horn and consecrated with its blood.
“People in rural areas who can’t afford zebu can’t do anything,” said Tsina Endor, head of volunteering at Madagascar-focused NGO Azafady, who gave a series of lectures onboard Peace Boat last month. “Some people in the south say they only work to have zebu; they don’t care about having a good house or wearing good clothes, they just want to get zebu so that they can do the work their ancestors want them to do.”
Around 73% of Malagasy people live in rural areas, surviving mostly on subsistence farming. Zebu are prized for their labor, their meat, and their milk, which can sustain a child should its mother die, but they also serve a spiritual function. Ceremonial zebu sacrifice appeases ancestors and atones for fady – a broken taboo in Malagasy culture. But absolution does not come cheap: zebu cost around $150 per head during the lean season and double in price towards harvest time. “In the rural areas of Madagascar, zebu are people’s bank,” Endor said.
Sometimes called the eighth continent, Madagascar is rich in endemic ecology and culture – of which zebu reverence is one aspect – that blends African, Indian, Arabic and European influences. However, the country is also one of the world’s most impoverished, and ranked 155 out of 187 in the 2013 UN Human Development Index.
After a coup d’état in 2009, Madagascar plunged into one of the worst economic crises in its history, and access to foreign aid and preferential trade terms such as the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) were cut. For five years, the country hobbled along under an unconstitutional transitional authority.
With government in tatters, civil society was left to pick up the slack. One such organization, the award-winning charity Azafady for whom Endor has worked for since 2005, aims to alleviate poverty, develop communities, and conserve the biodiversity of the highly endangered forest environments in southeast Madagascar.
In the rural areas in which Azafady operates, poverty is especially acute. In Anosy, where the NGO conducts the majority of its projects, over 90% of the population live on less than $1.25 per day. Years of little or no state investment in basic service delivery have allowed extreme poverty to worsen and in some villages, as many as four out of every ten children die before their fifth birthday, primarily due to inadequate water and sanitation provision.
Although isolated villages like those in Anosy urgently need help, they are often the most difficult to provide for. Adherence to traditions such as prizing zebu and avoiding Fady (taboo) is at its strongest in Madagascar’s rural communities, and development initiatives sometimes contravene local customs: it is taboo to discuss sex within the family, for example, which is a clear obstacle to Azafady’s HIV and AIDS awareness programs.
In some villages it is taboo for women to speak at community meetings, and Endor has to outwardly defer to male elders in order for her public health recommendations – such as installing a long-drop latrine – to be implemented. “We have a saying, if a woman speaks too much she is like a clucking chicken. If I don’t know where I should stop, I will be treated badly. I should not speak a lot in public otherwise I will be compared with a chicken,” Endor said.
In recognition of potential conflict with traditional culture, and the necessity of challenging it, Azafady’s name translates as may it not be taboo to me.
Hery Rajaonarimampianina’s election in December 2013– deemed free and fair by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – heralded the reopening of various channels of foreign aid, trade and diplomacy, and was hailed by many as a boon for Madagascar’s development.
However, almost a year after the end of Madagascar’s political crisis, the country has made scant progress. Brian Klaas, a Claredon scholar at Oxford University, has argued that the political parties of Rajaonarimampianina and his rival Dr. Jean-Louis Robinson lacked real political platforms, and were ‘little more than ways to legitimize individual candidates with the illusion of a broader movement.’ “Opposition parties are supposed to challenge the ruling regime, exposing poor policies and proposing better alternatives. Yet Madagascar has a silent opposition, so this has not happened,” Klaas wrote in his essay Fair-weather opposion: Personality trumps principle in Madagascar.
Although Azafady has no political affiliation and works with local governments to fill unmet needs, Endor says that she personally feels that flimsy politics have hampered her country’s development. “There is no real opposition,” she said; “the word opposition is used to get what people need: protest, then when you get benefit, stop protesting.”
According to Endor, the state of education in Madagascar is one aspect that has changed little since the election. Around half of Malagasy children do not attend school regularly, and in rural areas like Anosy where education and health are particularly underfunded as many as 70% of people are illiterate.
Inadequate school infrastructure, tough working conditions and the non-payment of state salaries has led to a shortage of teachers. Some parents contribute to a kitty to supplement teacher incomes, however for most even an extra couple of dollars per month is out of reach.
Endor said, “Some of our volunteers were thinking of giving money, paying an extra $20 to $35 per month to each teacher, but we said if you have that possibility why not make it sustainable?”
Through its Lavasoa project, Azafady supplied five schools with photovoltaic panels so that teachers could exact a small fee for charging cellphones and radios on school premises. The extra income supplemented the teachers’ salary enough that they could afford to stay in the rural area and teach, and provided a cheaper source of energy for the community than the unreliable diesel generators that would usually be lugged to local markets. The photovoltaic panels also generated electricity for previously unlit schools. “The panel belongs to the school, so if the teacher leaves, the replacement teacher will be able to use it,” Endor explained.
Although the election result has thus far made little impact on education in Madagascar, initiatives like Azafady’s Project Sekoly which build literacy could end up impacting future elections. Election ballot papers are currently marked with two fingerprints instead of voter name signatures on account of the country’s high illiteracy rate – a system Endor said was vulnerable to fraud.
While Endor said that the corporate social responsibility initiatives of some private investors in Madagascar were more concerned with ticking boxes than making a lasting impact, Azafady’s sustainable, locally sensitive projects helped the charity win Best Volunteering Organization at the British Youth Travel Awards at the end of 2013, a personal coup for Endor who is Azafady’s first Malagasy head of volunteering.
Before disembarking from Peace Boat, Endor regaled passengers with a final story from Madagascan lore: the Malagasy word for zebu is oombi, which means ‘does it fit?’ The story goes that King Andrianampoinimerina, who would unify Madagascar’s highlands and coastal region, was so taken with the animal that he ordered his subjects to herd them all – a near impossible task. Oombi? The King asked each time a new animal entered the pen – ‘does it fit?’
Like her grandfather, who fled to the city to avoid an arranged marriage, and her mother, who went back to school after conceiving at the age of 13 to become a pharmacologist and eventually a local political leader, Endor has had to both contest and work within cultural expectations to succeed with Azafady. In the vein of King Andrianampoinimerina who undertook the near impossible task of uniting the highlands and the coastal region, Endor’s great achievement has been neither deferring to or breaking with Malagasy culture, but making it fit.