Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the impact of human land development on biodiversity and how it could potentially spread infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. Cara will focus on bubonic plague in small mammals and henipaviruses and lyssaviruses (two strains of viruses) in bats.
“Mitovtovy James Bond,” says my colleague, Christian Ranaivoson, laughing as our taxi bumps along a dusty alleyway in the hot and dusty southwestern town of Morondava, Madagascar. We’ve left the Merin highlands for a brief spell to do reconnaissance on some bat-borne disease research we have planned in the upcoming year, and we’re in the land of the Sakalava Menabe now.
It’s Madagascar still but a whole different Madagascar from that which I’ve come to know these past few months—a land of dry heat and mosquito nets and sunsets over the Mozambique Channel. They call akondro (bananas) kida here, and trondro (fish) are fia, and these they eat in abundance, pulled straight out of the ocean and fried on the beach. Women wander about in brightly colored lambas and little else, and eery baobab trees tower overhead, and everywhere, the people whisper about dahalo.
Dahalo are the infamous Malagasy cattle thieves, and they arose originally in a sort of rite of passage in the southlands of Madagascar—a man could not take a woman’s hand in marriage until he had proven himself by stealing a neighbor’s cattle.
But what began as a boyish game has developed into a national crisis, as gangs of dahalo ransack villages, murder gendarmes, and drive stolen cattle en masse from the South east to Tamatave for forged documentation and then north to Antananarivo for sale.
And while the southern lands of the Bara people are still the hottest region for dahalo activity, reports of cattle thieving and growing gang-related violence have spread across the Malagasy countryside in recent years, and the western lands of Morondava are one of the new red zones for insecurité.
Even up north in Ambohitantely we received reports of dahalo activity. The director of the reserve would not let us conduct research along certain roads in the evening hours, and we were advised to stay overnight in Maharidaza and commute to neighboring villages rather than risk the insecurité of camping directly in some of them. “Do you think the zébu we ate at the funeral was stolen?” asks Evaline. “Angamba,” I say. Maybe.
Out here in the Menabe, we hear reports of nearby fokon’tany (commune) presidents being murdered, store owners being robbed, and a few of our Peace Corps friends have even been ousted from their sites and relocated to safer places. We’re safe enough asking our bushmeat questions in the Morondava meat market, but our taxi driver still dashes along the side roads to avoid the gendarme checkpoints and asks for a 1000 Ariary bill to bribe every policeman we pass. Corruption is rife, and the land is lawless and fascinating.
Evaline sits on the beach at dusk reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, which tells the story of a young woman hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. “And what about the insecurité?” asks Christian, peering over her shoulder. She and I look at one another and shake our heads in response. “America’s a very different place from Madagascar,” I say. “We just don’t really have dahalo at home.”