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.
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.