Human Journey

Gifts and Politics in Madagascar’s Capital City

Daybreak over Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar. Photo by Cara Brook.

Young Explorer Cara Brook is in Madagascar studying the spread of infections diseases to humans through bats consumed as bushmeat. 


After a homeless summer spent bouncing with my backpack from one $5/night hotel to another, I’m finally moving up in the world. Between my week-long escapades into the field, I return to the Malagasy capital, Antananarivo, to heat-treat and aliquot my precious bat sera (everything from hair samples to blood samples) before storing in the -80*C freezers at the Institut Pasteur-Madagascar (IPM).

New Home, New People

Instead of a dingy hotel room, I now live in a shared house of inspiring expat scientists and NGO workers, located in lively Antanimena, one of Tana’s more central neighborhoods. And in a testament to our newfound legitimacy as real scientists, Christian, my Malagasy collaborator, is now an official IPM intern with keys to the labs and a living stipend to boot.

It’s a curious and fascinating world to move in, and I sometimes marvel at the extraordinary chain of events that have led me here. Sur terrain, my life is beans and rice and Malagasy flashcards, and I watch the sun rise and set and the Milky Way span the night sky through the hours in between.

I forget that French—and let alone English—is even a thing in Madagascar. But in Tana, je parle français tout le temps, and my diet revolves around mangoes and watermelons and yaourt maison. I attend meetings and stay up long hours on our slow internet; occasionally, I even play ultimate frisbee.

As with expat communities the world over, I find that every new person I meet knows everyone I have already met, and though it seems insular and disconcerting at first, people are astonishingly interested to hear about my work and keen to offer contacts and guidance and support.

It’s occidental fall and, therefore, grant-writing season, and I find a whole host of Madagascar conservation NGOs—Madagasikara Voakajy (MaVoa); Arongampanihy, Culture, Communication, et Environnement (ACCE); and Mitsinjo just to name a few—are eager to review my countless grant proposals and pledge collaboration on my plans to initiate a community-based bat roost monitoring project in the Mangoro River Valley next year.


And there are old friends to call on, too, for Madagascar—and Tana specifically—is beginning to feel very much my second home. Voadalana is the Malagasy tradition of gift-giving after travel, and everyone wants something from America-land.

I try to save money by passing off free Princeton T-shirts from intramural sports to those more demanding and less sincere, but for others—Christian and his fiancée, brother, and mother—I am careful and thoughtful with my gifts: an Indiana Jones-style leather field hat for Chris to replace the floppy, broken thing he wore all summer; a Nike track jacket for Avotra, his fiancée, a Ralph Lauren polo for Princey, his preppy little brother; and though it broke my bank account even at the half-off sale price, a Brooks Brothers sweater with the Princeton crest for Christian’s mother. I want to give them something they really are not going to find in Madagascar.

The Political Climate

Politics these days are messy in the Eighth Continent Capital—Madagascar just held its first elections since the 2009 political coup, and though observers from the EU, UN, and African Union have all been lauding the process as fair, not one of Christian’s family members cast a vote. “You didn’t vote?!” I was incredulous and outraged.

But Chris shrugged his shoulders apathetically. “Your name had to be on a list that was registered, and when we got to the polls, none of our names were on the list,” he explained. “My mother screamed at them, but it did no good. Besides, how do you pick from a list of over thirty candidates anyway?”

It took two weeks for Madagascar to tally the votes but the results are now in—well, sort of. Jean-Louis Robinson, the candidate backed by former Malagasy president Marc Ravalomanana, appears to be leading with ~35 percent of the vote, his nearest rival, current president Andry Rajoelina-supported, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, tallying only ~16 percent.

But since neither candidate earned over half of the total vote, the two will run off for the final election in December. “They said at the polls that we can vote in the December election,” Chris laughed. “But I will wait to believe it ‘til I see it.”

Read Cara’s entire blog series

My name is Cara Brook, and I am a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute for Basic Research at UC Berkeley. I study the role of bats as reservoirs for some of the world's most deadly emerging viruses, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. I bridge field ecology, cellular immunology, and quantitative epidemiology to investigate this question, at both within-host and population levels. I blog from my field site while tracking down fruit bat viruses in central Madagascar. Tonga soa --Cara E. Brook is the recipient of two research grants from the Nation al Geographic Society.
  • Mialy

    The tone of this piece is just so wrong!!!!! Madagascar is where you find amazing and healthy food, more than enough good clothes and so many other opportunities. And you don’t even need to be rich to afford those! You foreign writers should be more careful when you are trying to describe countries or at least go talk to more than a Christian! If I am in the US, should I also only write about unemployment rate, debts and expensive healthy food? Come one guys… Just a thought from a Malagasy citizen really tired of this kind of writing!

    • Cara Brook

      Hi Mialy,

      Please see my reply (above) to Adam. I am so sorry for causing any offense, and many apologies for my misplaced comments. I hope I’ve removed anything offensive to you…Please read the rest of my blog series for proof that I really do love Madagascar–I met only to highlight the complexities and difficulties it faces, same as any other place. Thanks for your comments and best to you, Cara

  • Adam Willard

    Haha, Mialy sort of has a point. You put a very negative spin on something that honestly isn’t negative. I bet you can find your Ralph Lauren polo and your Brooks Brothers sweater in the fripperies in 67 Ha. But I bet you’re not looking there since you’re fitting in so well with your expat crowd in Tana. Haha! Well, sorry this is sort of a trolling comment – but with your short time in Madagascar so far, it sounds like your tone is taking a turn for the worse and I hope it’s not from being around so many expats. That crowd will lull you until you fit in, but it has nothing to do with real life in Madagascar. I just have to say I agree with Mialy. (From an American expat living in Madagascar, but NOT in the expat community – in fact, far removed from it.)

    • Cara Brook

      Hi Adam and Mialy,

      Many thanks to you both for your comments, and apologies for anything offensive in the post. Looking back on the article, I agree with you fully, and I removed what I hope are the more offensive lines in it. If you read the rest of my articles, I think you will find that I do know a very different Madagascar from the expat world, though obviously still have a lot to learn…In truth, I feel very much the same as you about the misplaced values of expat life in Tana, but it is tricky to say those things, as well, without offending…Better, I think, to stick to writing about conservation and science. Anyhow, many apologies, and I hope you do not judge too harshly. I love Madagascar dearly, but–like so many other places–it is, indeed, complex…


  • robert mcintyre

    salama cara,i seem to have read two articles today about your work in madagascar and i don’t care who you talk to you do good work with only good intentions.I also love madacascar and its people who couldn’t like just carry on with being a scientist and your contribution to this world is MAKING a better world for the children of tomorrow no matter what race creed or colour.

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