East of Africa: An island divided

We’re at a small, roadside cafe – a room that consists of a few wooden planks slung together to form a humble dining area. Our server is a loud, jovial woman in her fifties and seems particularly excited to have a vazaa in her restaurant. She enthusiastically brings out six plates of over-saturated rice and sets them down on a cheap plastic tablecloth. I reach for the aluminum fork in front of me and hang it over the rice as I wait for the others to dig in.

Nobody moves. They’re all waiting for the side dishes of chicken, fish, and shredded pork to be brought – and not one person starts eating until every last plate has been set down. It seems particularly strange because the rice is presented almost as soon as we are seated, and the side plates arrive one by one over the course of fifteen minutes.

I guess I’ve lived for so long in a culture where everyone rushes to eat every meal, that it’s sort of refreshing to sit back and let the food get lukewarm for the sake of good manners.The wait creates long gaps of silence that amplify our language barrier, so we resort to watching a small television in the corner of the wooden room.

On almost every television that I’ve seen in the past few days there have been two faces juxtaposed with one another. The first is the face of a young man wearing a dark suit that seems to be a touch too large for his slender frame. The other appears to be an older, seasoned politician; smooth, polished, experienced.

I inquire about the two men, and receive an unexpected lesson in Malagasy civics.

Everyone jumps in, speaking with angst in short sentences about “the young boy” – the name given to Andry Rajoelina (rah-joh-ee-LEEN-ah), declaring that he’s too inexperienced to be running the country. A valid argument since, at 35 years old, he’s officially the youngest head of state in all of Africa.

Rajoelina was formerly the mayor of Antananarivo, and assumed the presidency after forcing out the elected president, Marc Ravalomanana (rah-vah-lo-mah-NAHN), in a coup.

Ravalomanana is the latter man on the screen. Elected in 2002 and then reelected in 2009, he fell under suspicion of corruption and using public money for personal uses. The outrageous spending included the purchase of a presidential jet billed at $60 million; a move that has ended up landing him a four year sentence in prison.

The popular story is that Ravalomanana came out of poverty by selling yogurt from the back of his bicycle, and eventually constructed the largest domestically owned business in Madagascar.

Rajoelina on the other hand, had a much different path to power. As the son of a colonel, Rajoelina dropped out of high school and worked as a DJ in and around Antananarivo. Eventually, he established his own radio station and married into significant wealth, which opened up the opportunity for him to run for office as mayor of the capital city.

Rajoelina had been serving as mayor for roughly a year when the government shut down his privately-owned TV station. An interview with previous head of state Didier Ratsiraka was set to air, and was cited by the government as “likely to disturb peace and security.” Rajoelina retaliated by organizing a series of protests in the capital. All in all, over 100 protestors died from military resistance, further outraging the citizens of Madagascar.

Before long, Rajoelina gained the support of the military, and was able to storm the presidential palace, installing himself as President and Monja Roindefo as Prime Minister.

There are murmurs around our lunch table that Rajoelina is just as corrupt as Ravalomanana. Some suggest that he’s orchestrating suspicious business transactions with his new power as President. They say that there’s never any real change; just one corrupt politician after another.

A depressing reality, since it’s the lives of the people like the kat-mis who are ultimately affected by the actions of the people in power. Money that could be used to facilitate development is being wasted on senseless, selfish expenditures. Do we see it in the West as well? Of course. But it’s a situation that’s all too familiar in post-colonial Africa. A condition that’s nearly unavoidable in an environment with weak infrastructure, strong military power and individuals possessed by greed.

To hear and see more about the unfolding of the coup, it’s worth watching this outstanding piece from Journeyman Pictures.

Read the previous articles in the East of Africa series here!