Adriaan and I are barreling down a small cobblestone street in a dusty 4×4. Several people narrowly miss the car’s bull bars as they dash across the road, yet hardly flinch when we brush past them. I look out into the mass of people; skin tones are a mix of brown and black. Moderately well dressed people walk next to beggars with torn shirts.
The market we’re passing feels as crowded and energetic as those that I left behind in Hong Kong 48 hours ago, except there are far fewer neon lights and far more visible indications of poverty.
I hang my arm out of the window; the air is noticeably chilly and thin. I mention this to Adriaan and he explains that Antananarivo sits at roughly 4,200 ft above sea level in Madagascar’s central highlands – not quite the hot, dry, barren desert I had somehow pictured.Adriaan is the co-founder of an enterprise called ToughStuff, a company that manufactures solar panels & LED lamps for people in developing nations. He speaks with an air of sincerity and conviction about the company, and tells me that he’s spent over 15 years working in Africa with various organizations, but this is by far the most exciting project he’s seen.
The excitement is infectious, and I realize that I have an interesting twelve days ahead of me as I document and gather promotional material for their launch.
He justifies why Madagascar is an appropriate location to begin ToughStuff’s rollout: it’s the fifteenth poorest country in the world, two thirds of the population live below the international poverty line, and some areas of the 226,597 sq mile island are so remote that they won’t be linked to the electricity grid until 2040 or 2050. I try to take all of this in as we approach the center of Antananarivo.
We pull into view of the tallest hill in the city, where the Queen’s Palace is perched high above the congested streets. Its inescapable presence on the hill feels like a permanent reminder to the masses of their lowly place in the world. The unattainable.
Ironically enough, the palace was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1995. Work has since been done in an effort to reconstruct the building, but today it’s still mostly a hollow stone shell. A grand work in progress; an appropriate symbol for a country undergoing so much political turmoil in recent years.
Beneath the palace, large letters hang onto the hillside in a strange attempt to mimic the famous Hollywood sign. A-N-T-A-N-A-N-A-R-I-V-O. An-tana-na-rivo. It’s an intimidating word if you don’t break it down. Adriaan tells me that most of the locals refer to it simply as “Tana”, but warns me that I’ll encounter plenty of trouble pronouncing other town names and people’s last names.
We exit the car on a main street in the hills of the city. My ears are filled with a buzz of strange language and commotion. Vendors anxious to sell me things call out a word I haven’t heard before. “Vazaa! Vazaa!” they call out.
Adriaan tells me that it will be my new name for the next two weeks; foreigner. After getting my attention, they begin speaking quickly in French – which immediately tests the boundaries of the 8am French courses I took in college.
I stumble through a few botched sentences, and they transition into broken English. We end up meeting somewhere in the middle, as my brain begins to recall the daunting conjugations, precious masculine and feminine assignments, and proper syntax.
It becomes clear that it’s possible to get by with English in Tana, but it certainly helps to know a bit of French if you’re going out on your own.
We make it to a hotel near the center of town called the Radama, named after the first King of Madagascar. It’s a clean, quiet place with a surprisingly reliable wireless internet connection and a hospitable staff.
The room I’m given has a balcony, and I spend a few moments staring out over the city as the sun begins its descent for the evening. It’s a beautiful scene, and I soak it up; anxious to scrub off the last traces of Hong Kong smog to make space for the red dirt of Madagascar.