Writing About Africa: Thoughts from the Field

This article is one of a series from my recent Pulitzer Center-funded trip to Madagascar. To find all of my reporting to date with photojournalist Rijasolo from our project, “Madagascar: When the Aid Dries Up,” click here.

Foreign journalists who write about Africa are often criticized for focusing on the bad news over the good, privileging the sensational over the everyday, even for casting the continent as a 21st century heart of darkness. It can be a valid criticism, and one that I and I think most of my colleagues take to heart. Whatever we might say about dutifully pursuing the most newsworthy stories, there is inevitably a strong degree of subjectivity, and ultimately course correction, that goes into deciding what, and what not, to cover. You find yourself thinking hard about what your readers will take away from your reporting—even if only because of their own misconceptions. And you wonder whether you’ve written too many negative stories of late and try to find some more positive ones to rectify the imbalance.

Overall, though, the bad news stories tend to win out. Violent outbreaks and kidnappings by religious extremists easily get more press than local entrepreneurship initiatives and less sensational stories, though that’s not unique to Africa; take a look at the local news in New York. Problems are more obvious than solutions. Editors play a role too. Portraits of everyday life in faraway lands draw fewer clicks than frightful tales of genocide and extreme poverty. When I first moved to West Africa to report, I made the rounds of editors in the States to gin up some interest ahead of time. I got more or less the same response from a few. “Good for you. Let us know if something blows up.” Positive stories about Africa, meanwhile, can be equally frustrating, such as the mindless bandying about of impressive GDP growth figures without heed to what those numbers mean on the ground.

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Madagascar’s Castaway Women

This article is one of a series from my recent Pulitzer Center-funded trip to Madagascar. To find all of my reporting to date with photojournalist Rijasolo from our project, “Madagascar: When the Aid Dries Up,” click here. To read the full article in The Nation, click here.

Maurice Pierre Herynirina holds a photograph of his wife, Solange Razafindrasoa, in an Antananarivo cafe last December. He learned in February that she had died in Saudi Arabia, where she was working as a domestic servant. Image by Rijasolo / Riva Press. Madagascar, 2013.

Annick Andriahsatovo sits at the table before our interview, cooing over her 9-month-old son, Alydioh. Andriahsatovo is 22, with a disarming smile and an easy, maternal air. She also has a nightmare story to tell. In September 2012, shortly after completing her baccalaureate degree, Andriahsatovo—who lives in a suburb of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar—received a visit from a job-placement agency recruiter. The woman assured her that she could make good money working as a domestic servant in Kuwait, and also that there would be none of the labor-abuse problems recently reported in the media.

Andriahsatovo hadn’t the faintest idea how to find Kuwait on a map, but she immediately agreed. Her parents were out of work, and there weren’t enough decent-paying jobs in Madagascar to justify even looking. On November 15, her flight took off from Ivato International Airport. “I was sad to leave my family,” she recalls. “But I had courage.”

Her problems began the moment she set foot in Kuwait City. At the office of the Kuwaiti placement agency, she was “sold” from the employer listed in her contract to a second man, a retiree with a twenty-four-room residence. He wasted no time assigning her an impossible load of chores: cleaning all the rooms, cooking the food, washing the clothes. Her workdays lasted twenty-one hours, and she ate only leftovers from the family’s meals—provided there were any. When her performance failed to satisfy her employer’s exacting standards, he would strike her.

About two months after arriving, Andriahsatovo noticed that she’d stopped menstruating. An exam revealed that she was four months pregnant. Her boss was not pleased. He upped her workload despite her declining physical condition. On April 13, she felt sharp stomach pains. Not for the first time, Andriahsatovo implored him to call a doctor. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” he said dismissively. Desperate, she asked a Filipino neighbor to call a taxi. The next day, at the hospital, she gave birth to twins—the girl stillborn; the boy alive, but more than two months premature.

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A Cursed Land

This article is one of a series from my recent Pulitzer Center-funded trip to Madagascar. To find all of my reporting to date with photojournalist Rijasolo from our project, “Madagascar: When the Aid Dries Up,” click here. To read the full article at Slate, click here.

February 14, 2014

Ilakaka viewed from National Route 7.
Ilakaka viewed from National Route 7.
Photo courtesy Rijasolo

Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.

ILAKAKA, Madagascar—Southern Madagascar is a land awash in superstition—of witches and reincarnation and haunted bridges where children leap out of the darkness to send cars careening into the abyss. As our driver pulls over for the night in the roadside town of Ambalavao en route south to Ilakaka, a once-booming sapphire town, I notice my French-Malagasy photographer Rija’s face turn ashen. He recalls his last stay here, when an unsettling late-night encounter with a delirious old woman ended in her vowing that he would not finish his journey “intact.” A few days later, his camera bag inexplicably vanished from the top of a bush taxi. He has never quite shaken the feeling that he was cursed that night in Ambalavao.

One might forgive Madagascar’s entire southern region for concluding it has been dealt a similar fate. In contrast to the verdant rolling hills of northern and central Madagascar, large swaths of the southern plains are arid and prone to food shortages. Seven in 10 southern households don’t have enough food. In 2009 a coup in the capital, Antananarivo, unleashed a cascade of crises across the country. Since then a series of droughts have conspired with the worst locust outbreak in more than 50 years to compound the south’s hardship. Heavily armed gangs of cattle rustlers now roam with impunity. Banditry has grown so bad that long stretches of national highways are no-go zones for authorities.

Every so often, however, the gods do smile on this forbidding land. Consider the case of Ilakaka. Until 1998 Ilakaka was home to a handful of houses, a few dozen residents, abundant scrubland—and little of particular interest. Then came the gemstone boom. Fifteen years later, with Madagascar having just elected a new president and hoping to finally put five years of political upheaval behind it, Ilakaka is the country’s greatest and unlikeliest boomtown—and a stark reminder of the persistent obstacles of making genuine progress in a blighted land.

The story of today’s Ilakaka begins in the early 1990s. The first significant discoveries of gemstones came in northern Madagascar, fueling waves of migration to the fringes of its vast forests. Meanwhile, in the south, a smaller number of prospectors were collecting garnets to sell to foreign dealers. One batch from Ilakaka, a sharp-eyed buyer noticed, were not garnets at all, but something exponentially more lucrative: pink sapphire.

Word spread quickly. Within a year thousands of ramshackle tenements sprawled on either side of National Route 7. Tom Cushman, a sailor-mouthed American gem dealer who’d first come to Madagascar in 1991, was one of the first to set up shop in Ilakaka. “I was down there in September [1998] and there were only about five of us buying. Buying out of our cars. There was no town,” Cushman recalls. The vibe, he says, was 1849 Sacramento Valley. By early 1999, according to Cushman, there were tens of thousands of people seeking their fortunes. By late 1999 there were 100,000.

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Madagascar, where child prostitution is common, cheap and ‘trivial’

This article is one of a series from my recent Pulitzer Center-funded trip to Madagascar. To find all of my reporting to date with photojournalist Rijasolo from our project, “Madagascar: When the Aid Dries Up,” click here. To read the full article at GlobalPost, click here.

January 31, 2014

MAHAJANGA, Madagascar — At nightfall, the girls gather in small groups along the waterfront and outside the sweaty nightclubs blaring West African pop music. Some are elaborately done up in makeup and colorful cocktail dresses. Others stand plainly in jeans and T-shirts. Most are somewhere between 13 and 17 years old, though they can be as young as 8 or 9.

There is no shortage of demand for their services. Despite an abundance of prostitutes of all ages in the resort town, minors are a popular choice among clients. Whereas an adult might charge about $10, a child’s services can go for as little as 50 cents.

“The Great Island has little by little developed the sad reputation as favored destination for sexual tourists,” stated a December report by Najat Maalla M’jid, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, prostitution of children and pornography involving children.

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Plague highlights public health failings in Madagascar

This article is one of a series from my recent Pulitzer Center-funded trip to Madagascar. To find all of my reporting to date with photojournalist Rijasolo from our project, “Madagascar: When the Aid Dries Up,” click here. To read the full article at GlobalPost, click here.

January 9, 2014

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — Madagascar boasts some of the world’s rarest life forms. Eighty percent of its plants and animals are endemic to the island, including the beloved lemur.

It is also home to a distinctly less endearing organism: a bacteria called Yersinia pestis—or, in common parlance, plague.

The notorious slayer of up to 60 percent of Europe’s population in the 14th century has grabbed international headlines in recent weeks after five serious outbreaks hit this Indian Ocean island nation, resulting in at least 84 cases and 42 deaths.

The outbreaks have spotlighted the perilous state of public health in Madagascar just as the Indian Ocean nation is trying to emerge from a five-year crisis precipitated by a 2009 coup d’état. The ensuing political upheaval coupled with drastic cuts in foreign assistance crippled basic government services at the same time that millions more Malagasy slipped into poverty.

Hundreds of health clinics were shuttered and investments in clean water and infrastructure nose-dived. In the capital, Antananarivo, trash can go weeks, even months, without being collected and rats have become a common sight along the narrow alleyways that coil around the city’s steep hillsides. In the run-up to the recent legislative elections, some candidates took to hauling away trash themselves in a bid for votes.

“What we’ve seen in Madagascar is an ongoing unraveling,” said Richard Marcus, a Madagascar expert and professor at California State University, Long Beach.

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Elections in Madagascar: A nervous wait

This article is one of a series from my recent Pulitzer Center-funded trip to Madagascar. To find all of my reporting to date with photojournalist Rijasolo from our project, “Madagascar: When the Aid Dries Up,” click here. To read the full article at The Economist, click here.

December 30, 2013

SHADED from the blazing midday sun, Justin Mbehosoa Sambon enjoys a brief respite from hacking away at a gravel formation, whose fragments he sells to building contractors putting up houses in the nearby coastal town of Mahajanga. The contractors’ trucks have come less and less often of late. “Time advances, but life moves backward,” he says. His collar bone protrudes from his gaunt frame. Like most of Madagascar’s impoverished population, he and his four children eat sparingly. When asked if he expects the country’s recent presidential election to improve his lot, he musters only a weak shake of the head and a bitter smile.

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