July 20, 2019

Madagascar island of ecological diversity

Editor’s Note: “Letter From …” is a monthly column featuring a letter from a Mainer, or person with ties to this state, who is living or traveling far from home. Dr. Michael Talbert of Hampden traveled to the African nation of Madagascar earlier this year to teach pathology as a volunteer with Pathologists Overseas.

Moramora is Malagasy for take it easy. After three weeks in Madagascar, I am finally taking it easy.

I’m sitting at Ambohipotsy, an overlook that was a place of execution in earlier years and where, in 1837, a woman named Rasalama became the first Malagasy Christian martyr during a crackdown on Western influences. A church at the site now commemorates the event. Ambohipotsy is at one end of the highest hill in the bustling city of Antananarivo, popularly known as Tana and the capital of Madagascar.

Madagascar is an island country of 13 million about the size of Texas and located 250 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa. It is of great ecological interest due to its extreme biodiversity. Because Madagascar separated from Africa more than 150 million years ago, it has many endemic species with 80 percent of its plants and more than 90 percent of its reptiles being unique to the island.

Most researchers agree that Madagascar was settled in the mid- to late first millennium by people from what is now Indonesia. Later influences and immigration came from the Arab world and Africa. Europeans began visiting the island in the 16th century, and several unsuccessful efforts at colonization followed. The strongest influences through the 19th century were French and English, and the French ultimately conquered the island in 1895, granting independence in 1960.

The result is an interesting panorama. Tana has an attractive French Colonial architecture and is situated on a series of steep hills separated by wet lowlands used for growing rice. The narrow, cobblestone streets are often crowded with taxis, minibuses and pedestrians. Since it is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, it is hot and humid with rain by 3 p.m. most days. There are many street vendors as well as numerous small shops. Most educated people speak French along with Malagasy while some people speak passable English. English is a major part of education now, so this is changing.

The rural areas are quite different with tiny one-room wood and reed houses covered with palm fronds. There is widespread rice cultivation as well as lush tropical vegetation yielding abundant bananas, pineapples, cassavas and mangos. Occasional cowlike zebu are seen, with larger herds evident in the south. The roads are a challenge with nausea-inducing curves and frequent washouts.

My day starts with an early 5:30 a.m. run in an attempt to beat traffic. The steep hills and cobblestones make quick work of my running shoes and I find that most local runners breeze up hills I labor to climb. Work at the lab starts about 8 with completion of the previous day’s reports. The rest of the morning is filled with teaching. There are two senior trainees in their final year, as well as a new first-year person. We work primarily in English which the trainees are trying to perfect and then translate everything into French. It is a very cumbersome process made difficult by only one person being fluent in both.

Lunch is a decidedly un-American affair. Most businesses close from noon until 2 or 2:30 p.m., and many people go home for lunch with the resultant traffic jam being a part of daily life. The cuisine is a mix of typical French fare and traditional Malagasy dishes. All Malagasy meals feature rice, typically with vegetables such as potatoes or greens, and meat. A full restaurant meal costs $4 to $7, but this is a price beyond what most Malagasy can afford.

We generally have a somewhat shorter lunch and return to the lab for the actual diagnostic work. The tissue specimens received in the morning are described and made ready for overnight processing. Microscope slides from the previous day’s work are ready at some point and all the physicians gather around a microscope designed for simultaneous viewing by up to five people. A mixture of diagnosing and teaching ensues until about 4:30 p.m. when it is time to finish reports and plan for the next day. The lab is quiet by 5 p.m. and there is an opportunity to fetch and send e-mail, the only practical link with home and family. The connection is tenuous, with more failures than successes. Soon thereafter, it is off to the outdoor market for fruit and bread. I particularly like the freshly picked pineapples. Dinner is usually a noodle or rice dish on the stove with a glass of the local wine.

Weekends are free time, a chance to explore Tana as well as visit other areas of Madagascar. There are rain forests, deserts, beaches and mountains to enjoy. The chameleons, birds and monkeylike lemurs are accessible and beg to be seen. But, like every other place, it is the people, the small vignettes of personal interaction, that really make this time special.

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