In Search of Rain­bows

When a long drought broke over the forests of south­ern Mada­gas­car, Alexan­dra Fuller was trans­ported back to her child­hood in Africa—and given an in­spir­ing glimpse of hu­man re­silience.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS -

Travers­ing the dry soils of south­ern Mada­gas­car to a re­mote river camp is a les­son in hu­man re­silience and be­lief in Mother Na­ture.

THE RAINS CAME LATE to Mada­gas­car this hot Novem­ber. It’s the same story the world over, of course: weather in­ter­rupted, dis­turbed. “Usu­ally, it’s rained by now,” said the driver who met me at the air­port in An­tana­narivo, the cap­i­tal, as if apol­o­giz­ing for the heav­i­ness in the air.

I un­der­stood: there’s no long­ing like the long­ing for rain. I was raised by farm­ers in south­ern Africa; I know that in this part of the world ev­ery­thing, ev­ery­thing, de­pends on a few cen­time­ters of top­soil, and the fact of rain. More than 70 per­cent of Mada­gas­car’s peo­ple, the Mala­gasy, are in­volved in agri­cul­ture, and nearly all of those are sub­sis­tence farm­ers: rice mostly, but also corn, sweet pota­toes, cas­sava. In other words, al­most ev­ery­one you meet is land-stitched, wholly ori­ented to­ward the cloud­less south­ern skies. They live in the sea­sons, never in spite of them.

I was on my way to the Man­drare River Camp, a bush camp in the south of the is­land, to see Mada­gas­car’s iconic, im­per­iled spiny and low­land forests—and the lemurs that in­habit them. Af­ter a night in An­tana­narivo, I took a twin-en­gine over dry, peach-col­ored riverbeds and crum­pled, for­est-stripped moun­tains, the plane’s shadow a gray speck drift­ing across it all.

This was re­mote­ness on a cin­e­matic scale. Tiny vil­lages of just a few wooden build­ings sur­rounded by breadths of coun­try, vast be­yond de­scrip­tion. An empty, ap­par­ently un­peo­pled ter­rain where foot­paths ran like veins through­out the bro­ken wilder­ness and sharp lit­tle sil­hou­ettes of cat­tle emerged against the ribbed red soil.

Man’s im­print on the land looked so hard­won, yet at the same time so breath­tak­ingly frag­ile. Mada­gas­car was one of the last large land­masses on the planet to be­come in­hab­ited by peo­ple. It’s pos­si­ble to trace hu­man­ity’s 1,200-year-old foot­print on the is­land al­most as it hap­pened: first came Aus­trone­sians from the Sunda Is­lands in out­rig­ger ca­noes, then Bantu, Arab and Euro­pean im­mi­grants. The is­land’s large mam­mals were the first to go, all of them hunted to ex­tinc­tion by the 18th cen­tury, and the forests cleared. Now less than 3 per­cent of the coun­try’s for­est re­mains, and its re­serves of indige­nous wildlife are pooled into tiny pock­ets, like the one I was go­ing to see.

Aside from the rain, and the as­so­ci­ated threat of cli­mate change, the is­land’s ma­jor pre­oc­cu­pa­tion was cor­rup­tion: that other man-made dis­as­ter, a metaphor­i­cal drought that, in this part of the world, never fully breaks. Many Mala­gasy ac­cuse their pres­i­dent, Hery Ra­jaonari­mampianina, of graft and crony­ism. Mada­gas­car is still rich in nat­u­ral re­sources, they ar­gue, so why are most of its peo­ple so un­be­liev­ably poor?

Coin­ci­den­tally, across the Mozam­bique Chan­nel in south­ern Africa, Zim­babwe’s long­time dic­ta­tor, Robert Mu­gabe, had just fired his vice pres­i­dent. There would soon be trou­ble in that house, it was clear.

We fly into other peo­ple’s storms all the time, and their droughts. We might ar­rive at the dawn of an un­bid­den po­lit­i­cal mo­ment, or at the close of one. And we carry with us our own his­to­ries, our own in­ter­nal storms. The eyes of the trav­eler are never fresh, but rather re­freshed. We see new places through old lenses, and are re­newed by the see­ing. That’s the dis­turb­ing, re­ward­ing work of travel: to re­turn to the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor that con­nects us all, which is to say the soil that nour­ishes us, and the free­dom to be nour­ished by that soil.

THE MAN­DRARE RIVER CAMP re­minded me of a clas­sic East African sa­fari camp: the as­sid­u­ous staff who were nearly tele­pathic in their care; the spring leaves of the tamarind trees that pro­vided a king­dom of shade in that rain­less heat; the clouds of but­ter­flies, orange, vi­o­let and white. I’d seen some­thing like them be­fore, but not for decades.

In the early morn­ing, and again in the evening, we walked—a pho­tog­ra­pher, a lo­cal guide and my­self—in the nearby forests, one pro­tected by the com­mu­nity, the other two by their sanc­tity. The two sa­cred forests are the sites of tombs, the do­main of an­ces­tors. In nei­ther could the lemurs be dis­turbed, and there were fur­ther stric­tures: no point­ing, no lit­ter­ing, no tak­ing any­thing away.

The An­tan­droy—the name trans­lates to “peo­ple of the thorn­bush”—are a south­ern com­mu­nity 600,000 strong that watches over and pro­tects th­ese ar­eas. They are no­to­ri­ously ir­re­press­ible, hav­ing re­sisted French sub­jec­tion in colo­nial times. It wasn’t dif­fi­cult to imag­ine why. Any­one who can make it in this eerily beau­ti­ful place and emerge so soul­fully at­tached to the land would have to see its spiny forests as a refuge and not, as the French did, as a bar­rier.

At night, I sat out on the edge of the river­bank and watched the stars of the South­ern Hemi­sphere trace across a sky so dark it seemed drenched in black­ness. On the op­po­site bank, some 50 me­ters away, I could count the vil­lage fires. At dawn, chil­dren brought con­tain­ers to col­lect wa­ter at shal­low wells in the riverbed, around which the last of the dry sea­son’s sweet pota­toes were be­ing har­vested in lit­tle gar­den plots.

Ev­ery day, clouds gath­ered like bat­tle­ships to the west, but by dawn the next morn­ing, the skies were again cloud­less. An­tan­droy el­ders blamed the drought on some­one break­ing fady, or taboos. There had been mis­chief some­where, they said.

I’d been think­ing about this on our fi­nal af­ter­noon in camp, as clouds gath­ered, tall as moun­tains, above the dry, sandy riverbed. As usual, there were rum­blings—the same

An­tan­droy el­ders blamed the drought on some­one break­ing fady, or taboos. There had been mis­chief some­where, they said

dread­ful teas­ing of the past few weeks. Then, sud­denly, the un­mis­tak­able musk of rain on hot soil. There came the plop­ping of a few sin­gle drops, then a sheet of wa­ter. I watched chil­dren tear out from the vil­lage across the river into the down­pour, arms up­stretched to the sky.

I ran like that into the first storms of my child­hood. Is there a bet­ter way to greet rain? A dou­ble rain­bow across the sky be­hind a huge baobab—surely that had to be aus­pi­cious? A baobab, of all trees: that grand, an­cient wit­ness to an age, stand­ing metal­lic pink in the rain.

An hour later I heard news from my child­hood home: Robert Mu­gabe had been put un­der house ar­rest. Just like that, a line scored through his­tory, the old tyrant wheeled out. The im­me­di­ate fu­ture was un­likely to be much eas­ier for Zim­bab­weans, but in that coun­try, in that mo­ment, there was ela­tion. And here, on the banks of the Man­drare River, as the world was washed all the way back to the be­gin­ning of time, there was ela­tion too.

It had to be only a mat­ter of time be­fore both things could ex­ist in one place: the end of tyranny, and the end of drought. Un­til then, I’d been re­minded of an in­deli­ble child­hood les­son. We live in the sea­sons, never in spite of them, what­ever ideas to the con­trary we trick our­selves into be­liev­ing.

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