East of Africa: City of the Thousand

In Antananarivo, the French colonial influence is everywhere: spired churches sit atop the city’s prominent hills. Pretty jacaranda trees line Lake Anosy, which wraps around a war memorial statue in the center of the water.

A large defunct train station sits negelected at the end of a wide boulevard. The sign below the grand clock spells the city’s old French name: “Tananarive”. Horse-drawn carriages and 1960’s Renault and Citroën taxis jam the stone-covered roads, with crackling radios blaring out a french news broadcast.

In this sense, Antananarivo feels like a fractured, soiled apparition of Paris.

But unlike most of the capital cities in Southern Africa, Tana was already a major city before colonization. Around 1625, King Andrianjaka conquered the twelve sacred hills of the city and established it as the capital. He named the city Antananarivo, “City of the Thousand”, because of the thousand guards that were kept to watch over the new establishment.

After the French captured the city in 1895, they remodeled many parts of it to host the growing population and improve transportation for trade and manufacturing. The population of Tana expanded from 100,000 to 175,000 by 1950, which has since exploded to a staggering 1.4 million people after independence in 1960.

The surge in growth, an unstable government, and a struggling niche economy has left many on the streets.There’s undoubtedly a strange beauty and exoticism possessed by the city, but also an almost equally dark and heavy atmosphere in the streets.


Mothers with small babies wrapped on their backs come and walk alongside me for several street blocks, holding out their hands and saying in a hushed, raspy voice: “le medecin pour le bebe, s’il vous plait”. Their requests need no translation, but I’m rarely able to justify the act of handing out money on the streets in a foreign country.

Local people refer to the beggars as the “quatre-mis” or “kat-mis” for short. In post-revolutionary France, society was broken into three estates, with the poorest being in the third estate. The Malagasy slang term evolved out of the connotation that the beggars were below even the poorest of the third class. The forgotten ones. Useless to society. The lowest of the low.

I finally find that the only way to halt their pursuit is by stopping, and looking at them eye to eye, and regretfully shaking my head. It’s easy to keep walking and pretend to ignore the quatre-mis, and just as easy for them to keep following and keep begging. In that sudden moment of acknowledgement, there’s suddenly nothing left to say – nowhere left to go. We are two antithetical souls staring at one another on a busy sidewalk.

The mother turns around and walks away. I stand in the same spot, waching as the baby on her back bobs up and down with every step. The lump in my throat lodges a little deeper.

I decide to walk up a network of small streets to see the Rova – the Queen’s palace. A young man who claims to be a college student approaches me and says that he’ll show me the way, which I know will end with me handing over a couple thousand ariary (a few dollars) for his guidance. He’s pretty knowledgeable, and I have no problem with paying in exchange for historical information, so I walk with him through the neighborhood.

He tells me about the fire in the Rova, the mixed up political situation, and the riots that took place this past February. When I press him about his studies, he admits that he’s not yet a student but is saving up, and giving impromptu tours to help fund his dreams.

On the way back to the hotel, I deliberately take as many side streets and small alleyways as possible. I pass a group of boys playing on a half broken fooseball table, and practice a few more words of French.

Ahead, a busy Sunday market is closing for the day, and vendors package up scores of textiles, shoes, and cheap Chinese electronics. A large taxi-brousse fills its rows with as many people as possible, for the last ride of the day.

Eventually, I find my way back to familiar streets just in time for another Tana sunset, and take a moment to look out over the twelve sacred hills now painted in an orange glow. It may have started as the city of the thousand, but it’s now the city of a million; with requisite scars to bear from such growth.

East of Africa: Arrival

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.

Follow the East of Africa series, all throughout this month – here. If you missed the introduction to this series, check it out here.