A Segregated Global Community

When I came to the remote and isolated west coast of Madagascar, I expected to see very few other vazaha, the Malagasy word for a foreigner that in practice refers only to white people.  I expected to be the sole interloper in the region, alone with the local population in a more or less unadulterated vestige of pristine Madagascar, in the middle of nowhere in a country itself in the middle of nowhere.

Instead, I discovered a large and stable expatriate community in the area.  I lived on the rural northern end of the road between my town, Belo-Sur-Tsiribihina, and the regional capitol, Morondava.  Dozens of other vazaha lived alone or in small groups in the Malagasy towns along the road.  We had American environmentalists, Italian brothers, Polish priests, several German anthropologists, a whole community of Belgian volunteers, and a British ecologist…all permanent residents.  In addition to the regulars, at least one carload of tourists passed through everyday in one direction and then again a few days later in the inevitable return direction.  Some tourists never seemed to leave at all.

Independent of all the foreigners themselves, countless random foreign products also infiltrated the most unexpected places.  Many people in rural Madagascar own a soccer jersey from Europe or a basketball uniform from the NBA.  Everyone loved Bob Marley, Celine Dion, and, oddly, Dire Straits.  The local video club had four American films:  Titanic, The Bodyguard, Rocky, and a documentary about Woodstock.  A few Twix bars sat permanently in the display window of a local épicerie, while a bag of Reduced Fat Chips A’Hoy collected dust in another shop.  When my mom came to visit, she spotted one young man, in a small village in the rain forest, with a baseball cap from the University of Louisville, our hometown and her alma mater.

I always wonder about the stories behind these items, about their travel tales.  For example that Woodstock video, where did it come from?  Who owned it last?  Did it get to Madagascar by boat or plane, as cargo or as personal property checked in one bag or another on one plane or another?  Did it go for business or pleasure, for profit or as a donation?  Is its presence in Madagascar accidental or intentional?  Each candy bar, each soccer jersey, has a story to tell.

I also wonder if places still exist in the world without foreigner people and foreign objects, places without Coca Cola at the corner store and Toyota Land Cruisers on the highway.  The strong presence of the developed world in rural Madagascar, all the expatriates and all the inexplicable products, reflects the new global community and the interconnectedness of all places, six degrees of separation through people and products alike.  Maybe the average farmer in small town Kentucky knows no one with any connections to rural Madagascar.  But perhaps that farmer once donated some old clothes to the Salvation Army and now a young man in a small village on the other side of the planet has a University of Louisville baseball cap.

We live in a true global community with connections between even the most distant places.  However, these connections most often flow in only one direction.  People and products go to Madagascar from developed nations all over the world, but the Malagasy and their products, for the most part, remain in Madagascar.  They wear our soccer jerseys, listen to our music, and drink our soda pop, but I have yet to see anyone on the streets of Kentucky in a lambahoany (the traditional Malagasy body wrap), any record stores that carry Terakaly (the wildly popular Malagasy musician), or any ethnic restaurants that offer ravitoto sy hena kisoa (ground manioc leaves and pork in coconut milk).

We, those vazaha with a sense of adventure and wanderlust, visit the underdeveloped world in a carefree and easy manner.  Then we return to our homes whenever we choose, when we need a taste of luxury, or maybe just a little familiarity.  Very few people in Madagascar, however, have the means to visit our part of the global community with such ease and nonchalance.  No actual walls exist to keep them out, just the artificial barriers of politics and economics. 

The average city in the developed world follows a familiar pattern.  We have gated communities for the rich and urban slums for the poor.  The same pattern also repeats itself on the worldwide scale, with the wealthy enclaves of the industrialized countries and the impoverished outreaches of the underdeveloped ones.  But instead of gates, only economic imbalance separates the one from the other.  We live in a segregated global community where the fortunate sometimes like to slum it for the sake of adventure while the less fortunate remain trapped in their faraway ghettoes of poverty.

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