Epilogue: Madagascar

Had a good time in Madagascar. Like other countries in Africa I’ve been in – if you consider Madagascar as part of Africa – there are lots of natural resources here – fish, fruit, vanilla, rosewood, rice, salt and an array of minerals. It’s size is bigger than California and smaller than Texas, with about the same population as Texas (30 million).

The country is sparsely populated in much of its interior area from the capital Tana in the center to the western coast on the Mozambique Channel which divides Madagascar from Mozambique.  The coastal areas have population centers, with lots of country in between with no people. That’s my impression from driving from Tana to Morondava, and then flying back from Morondava to Tana.

Like Ecuador, the coastal small boat fishermen here say that foreign trawlers – apparently Chinese boats – are scooping up the fish and they’ve seen their near shore catches steadily decline. We had a hard time just getting a few fish from the fishermen we worked with to dI o salting demonstrations, even coming up empty in Morondava looking for suitable fish in the markets on our last session.  I got home on Tuesday and there was an article about trawling and the Chinese as one of the first things I saw in our local news.

Malagasy fishermen primarily use dugout canoes with outriggers and a sail and paddle to fish. They paddle the canoe when they aren’t at sail, and when they are at sail, use the paddle as a rudder to steer. They are, as a people, master mariners- even the women and kids.

As I concluded my workshops in the third community I worked in, I had my doubts that any fishermen would take my advice. But it’s very hard to know just parachuting in here, as my Peace Corps friend Jeff Langholz calls it, and not being around long enough to know if catches are better at other times of the year, or not.

I had dinner with an embassy worker last night I met on the flight to Madagascar. Doesn’t matter from what country, really. He and I discussed Madagascar. When we talked about tipping for services, he seemed relieved when I told him I usually tipped at 50 to 100%. He said it’s one reason he doesn’t like going out with his embassy co-workers, who mostly all make over the equivalent of  $100,000 US dollars and have their luxurious housing paid for, because they “caution” him about tipping too much because then “everyone will expect that of us”. It reminded me of a veteran fishery manager in Alaska who cautioned me about making a website for trollers so they could get opening information at any time because then the fleets he managed would expect that of him …. as they should. Anyway,  this isn’t like tipping  $50 for a $40 meal. This is tipping $1.25 for a $1.25 meal. My new friend grew up in a rural area and a minority in his home country, and he said he didn’t really fit in at his embassy because money “had no value” to him. Nice to meet a kindred spirit so far from home. Although, of course, it’s easy for both of us to say money has no value when we have plenty of it – at least enough to meet all our needs and then some. And we’d both acknowledge that.

I have to say I did get some comeuppance this morning. I’m staying at a different Radisson than the Radisson Blu I stayed at, and can see from this one, in Tana. At the Blu, breakfast was included. I asked at the desk when I checked in last night about breakfast and they said it started at 6. I assumed it was included in my room like the other hotel. When I went to breakfast about 745, I was surprised it wasn’t bustling. I was the only one there. Seemed odd, but I got a plate, and served myself from a similar selection as the Blu Hotel’s smorgasboard of selections of breads, cheese, eggs, Malagasy rice and zebu beef, yogurts, and fruit juices. Only one other patron came in for breakfast while I was there. After my second cup of coffee, I left a 10,000 Ar tip, and headed out. They stopped me at the register. Now, I understood why there were no customers in the restaurant: breakfast was 45,000 Ar. THE most expensive meal I’ve now had here. My dinner last evening was only 24,000 Ar, and that was one of the most expensive meals I’d had, as we’d been eating Malagasy food at the excellent Hotely Gasy across from our hotel in Morondava for 5,000 to 7,000 Ar per meal, plus 4,000 for a non-alcoholic 65 cl Fresh beer if we got that.  To say the least, I was a bit flustered and embarrassed, but luckily had brought just enough for the tab after already leaving the tip. Luckily, I stashed a piece of wheat bread and chunk of cheese from the breakfast table in my pocket for lunch. I’m calling it even….. When I told my supervisor here, he said the staff was mistaken and I was later reimbursed.

As I leave this assignment, I seemed to always be glad I came but depressed at the state of affairs. I have fewer answers to “development” than I did when I started 30 years ago, and at the same time, the same answers. Real development – standards of living improving – are only going to come from within the countries. The more money that comes in from outside for “projects”, where people drive $100,000 land rovers to a village to tell farmers how to increase their wage from a dollar a day to two dollars a day with these new sparkly tools and seeds, just aren’t working. And they haven’t worked for 50 years.

Now, the only projects many are interested in are those that provide new shiny things for free – like the 3 smokers we saw in good condition and obviously unused, as 2 were laying on their sides with parts perhaps scavanged for other purposes,  and a third had the door open, with no fish racks or evidence of a recent fire. Giving stuff to people just hasn’t worked. It might work while the “project” is there, but then it’s another white elephant. They are all over Africa. It’s just created more dependency. And then I wonder if that’s just what our government wants – if countries feel dependent on the US, they’ll support us geo-politically if we need it. Or at least not support Russia or China or whoever.  Perhaps our governments also know that if countries like Madagascar become developed, with higher standards of living and disposable income, then they’ll compete with the resources we currently use – the rest of the world can’t be as consumptive as the US and the west because the world’s resources simply won’t support it. Not that I can see anyway, with our dependence on non-renewable oil to fuel our entire entire economy, from producing all our food and fertilizers to grow it to flying me half way across the world to here. I guess renewable energy might allow more world citizens to join our debauchery, but not in my lifetime, for sure.

We know many of the governments of many of the poor countries are corrupt. Leaders who came in with little and make little on the books become among the richest people in the world over time. The government services systems are corrupt. That lots of the USAID money goes into corrupt pockets it was never intended for. And our answer is to just send more. Because THIS time. THIS time. We’re gonna do it right. It’s gonna work. And then it doesn’t.

I’m always for humanitarian relief aid when people are starving or there’s a disaster and we just need to get food and water or other assets to save lives. But development. Over the long term. After the “project” that was to supposedly support self-sufficiency leave?  It’s just not working very well. It doesn’t have a good track record. And the countries just seem to get poorer.

The best “project” I’ve ever seen was with the fish farmers in central Liberia. Their association had 50 members. These farmers – men and women – were kicking ass. Growing a fish called African Bony Tongue. Taught to them by a man from Guinea, their neighboring country. They saw other farmers funded by western NGO “projects” that provided tools and maybe food to build ponds, with ponds half built and with no fish because when the project ended, so did the farmer’s incentive. The Bong Association members had been taught by a fellow African, which may have inherently told them that if this guy knows it works and he can make it work, then we can understand it and it will work. They were far ahead of me in fish farming technology, and I couldn’t help them there. We worked on the same fish quality and business planning things I work with the coastal fishermen now. I hope they’re all still doing well. I’m betting they are.

It’s one reason I like volunteering for Farmer to Farmer. The same talks and practicals I do on fish quality and fish business practices I do in the countries I visit I would do with fishermen in Alaska or anywhere else. The fishermen and (usually) women fish processors and sellers can then either use the information in their businesses or continue as they are now.  The decision to change things to make more money – and at minimal to no cost initially – is up to them and their only incentive. I don’t give away anything but my experience – save for some samples of smoked canned fish I buy from Chris and Seth. And sometimes some salt and fish and maybe jars for demonstrating fish salting or kelp pickling at the insistence of our NGO host – even as I resist this as I think that stuff should be donated by the fishing groups we work with, and that was the case in Ecuador. But certainly, no infrastructure or durable goods.

And it’s certainly not all bad here. While people have few material goods, less food security, and even less economic security, they are not unhappy. I loved watching the 12 year old boys running with free spirits down the slope of the beach towards the ocean, doing a flip at the last minute into the water.  Three young girls, their dresses blowing in the wind, walking and chatting as they crossed the big sand bar at low tide towards their mothers out at the water’s edge, fishing or washing clothes. Or the kids in Kimony, making eye glasses out of the new growth on a tree that had sort of little lilac flowers growing from it. Or the kids in Menaky, who made a toy airplane out of wood, complete with propellers that spun wildly in the wind. These kids are all raised by the village in the security of the village. They make their own fun. No worry about them getting run over by a car or tempted with drugs or addicted to their video game. Everyone knows them and they know everyone. There’s a joy in that many never know in our nuclear family culture.

As I wake up for my next to last day here, I’m glad to be getting back home. A month away from home gets trying in the last days. I really do love where I live, and find myself missing it after a short time away.  But I also notice after such a depressive mood getting back to Tana and wondering how much good I’ve done or if things will ever get better, I find myself already getting ready for the next assignment. Thinking about how I can improve my workshops.

Libby came in here with perhaps less experience than me with taking care of fish, but with way more experience in the country and as a dynamic presenter, she really had her group engaged. I have to stop worrying so much if what I’m doing is necessarily “appropriate”. She pickled some kelp and then everyone tried it. Seems as though they liked it. Will they start pickling kelp?  Maybe not. Do they know they can eat kelp now and it tastes ok? Yep!

I have lots of things in my presentations I can do practicals with fishermen. Taking care of fish on the boat. How I clean fish. Making fish burger. Making pet treats. Salting fish. Smoking fish. Pickling fish. Canning fish. Drying fish. Fish guts for poultry feed (which I learned this trip in Menaky when the ducks fought over the guts).  Making a long line. I’ll try to do more hands on next time, if I can. Just doesn’t seem to be time sometimes, as fishermen are fishing and women are selling.

The final debriefing with our program overseer was a let down. A lot of skepticism – “what, you can eat kelp?  Malagasy will never eat kelp” when we were looking at bringing in some chefs on another assignment to show people how to use the kelp they sell for 30 cents a kilo as a cash crop. Lots of work for 30 cents. If they had another market or knew how to prepare it themselves, then they’d have another market, or use as food, at least, when things got tough. Hell, things are already tough. Or when I talked about salting fish for preservation to use later, as was done here for decades in Alaska, sending salted salmon fillets in barrels all the way back to NY City, where they were made into smoked salmon and lox. The leader said she saw fish salted in a turtle shell once as I said, and it was really stinky and I could tell they thought this was another bad idea. And selling fish directly to customers whose names and cell numbers they collect when they sell at the market or to the businesses along the way to the market – just like the business I have run here for 20+ years. Well, that’s not gonna work here. We sell bad fish in the market and that’s just the way things work here. Or talking about how the smoked fish contract for three times the market price the fishermen in Bentania got that they were patting themselves on the back for when I came through for the briefing at the beginning turned out to be a contract for fish all the same species and size – something fish farmers might produce, but not how catches in a coastal artisanal fishery rarely, if ever, happen. Fish are all different sizes and several species.

That was in the morning and left a bad taste in my mouth. We stopped by the CNFA office, and I got to meet the Tana staff with Stan.  Then he sent me on to the airport with the driver, Richard. On the way, in a city of 5 million people, we are stopped briefly in traffic on a two lane road. Someone yells “Mark!” and I look over, and going the other way is Lansa, my driver for the last month!  We yelled hellos until traffic moved and then went our opposite ways. That put a smile on my face and put me in a better mood.

At the airport, we waited in the mid day heat, but here at elevation in Tana was much cooler than out on the coast at sea level, so it wasn’t too bad in the shade. When I finally go through, and go my ticket, I waved to Richard, who was waiting to be sure I got to my plane, and he waved goodbye. Then I was handed a small submarine sandwich and bottle of water, walked up the stairs and down the hall to security, where they promptly told me we couldn’t take the water through security…..and that put another smile on my face on the start of the way home.


Twenty two or so years ago, I was at a meeting for the Juneau Economic Development Council, I think.   I can’t remember what the meeting was about. I was working for the McDowell Group. Meilani Clark was sitting next to me, and I can’t remember who she was working for. We struck up a conversation, and I told her Eric had helped me find a troller,  and I was commercial fishing for salmon. She grew up in Juneau, and asked me why can’t she buy fresh fish off the boat in this town?  And that was the start of the Alaska Wild Salmon Company, and we’re still selling fish.

I probably knew more than most rookie fishermen here about the legalities of selling my own fish, having just quit from the Dept of Fish and Game at the time as the troll fishery manager. I had a lot more to learn about taking care of fish and marketing fish. That was two decades ago.

I was in Amsterdam, and half way home from Madagascar.   I’ve been on a USAID Farmer to Farmer program assignment, working with the small boat fishermen in Madagascar on fish quality and marketing.

As I sat at my gate, waiting for the plane to Seattle, a guy walks by. I know him! I think. Then he’s gone around the corner before it registers, and he’s gone. Then it does register. That’s Melani’s husband, I think – and if I remember right, he’s Dutch, so that makes sense he’d be here.

A forty-ish year old asks to take the seat next to me. He’s from Oregon, been working in Europe for 15 years, and is heading home for good this year.  I asked him about his time in Europe, and he says it was good, but he saw that the people he’d worked with weren’t very aggressive at getting more business or being the best. They were happy with where they were at, and while he didn’t disparage them for that, he wanted something more. I told him about seeing someone from Juneau, and when I looked up as the time got close for boarding, I spotted Juneau man.

As soon as I asked him if he was from Juneau, my face registered to him, but I was not in the right place. I told him the story above, which I’ve probably told him before, and we chatted for a good while about his meeting Meilani in Laos backpacking, and their early life spent in the Netherlands before settling in Juneau.

The last 16 hours or so of the trip from Amsterdam went by surprisingly quick. I first watched the longest movie on my seat screen – Schindler’s List – which I’d never seen before (yeah, I don’t get out much). I thought I sort of knew the plot, but realized I didn’t after watching the movie. A good choice. Then I watched documentaries on NXIVM (again, never heard of it, as I don’t get out much, like I said) and one on Bo Jackson (which, of course I do know, as he’s still one of my favorite athletes of all time, both for beating Alabama while at Auburn, and for being so humble. And, I guess, because he’s a fun guy from rural Alabama like Charles Barkley).

In Seatlle, all was normal again. My Alaska Air flight was to leave from Gate C18, so I got over there after clearing customs. When time got closer to leave and they hadn’t changed the marquee to our flight, I got nervous, and found they had changed the flight to gate N 17. Like I said, all was normal again. I think this gate change thing, entailing taking the subway across the airport complex, happens more often than not.

I made my plane, and slept. Hard. Most all the way to Ketchikan. Then on to Juneau. Three cabs waiting across the street. Good. My luggage showed up, and when I got outside, there were no cabs across the street. Dang it. Then one shows up to drop someone off – can you take me to town?  Yep. Get in. Quickly!  I can get fined 300 dollars if I pick up here!  And off we went.

The lady was clearly an immigrant. Hispanic from her accent. And very nice. I’d put my facemask on for ride home, and she saw that after a few minutes and thanked me for doing so. First thing I did when I got home was to make a fire in the woodstove.  I went through the mail Sara left for me before leaving for Hawaii a few days ago.

I went to bed about midnight and got up at 7 am. Made a fried egg with cheese and a bagel and coffee. I went back to bed and slept til 7 pm. Second day of jet lag is always the worst for me. But good to back in my own bed in my hometown.

Andry the interpretor sitting with kids looking at phone

Andry the Fishermen

Andry the interpretor sitting with kids looking at phone

My interpreter, Andry, has been with me now for a month. He’s suffered through my show of google slides on fish quality and marketing for three workshops, and by now, he could just do it by himself without first me talking in English and he in Malagasy.

I knew he liked to fish from the first days we met. But it was not until the last few days that he told me his grandfather has 8 fish ponds, and that not only does he like to fish, he sells the fishes he catches. He does all freshwater fishing. Mainly tilapia and big ass eels from what he tells me, in the river near his home, as well as tilapia and maybe carp from his grandfather’s fish ponds.

I brought a heavier duty collapsible spinning rod this trip, as I wished I’d had one in Ecuador. We didn’t get to use it much, but I knew from about day 2 I’d be leaving it with Andry. I showed him how to cast in Belo sur Mer, and he spent a whole day casting from shore. I didn’t bring the right tackle for casting, and he didn’t catch anything, but he was thrilled to have the spinning rod, as he just uses a cane pole at home.

When he told me he sold fish, that gave me a little spark. After working with three groups of fishermen, all who say catches are bad and getting worse, I wasn’t sure how much help I could be giving them tips on taking care of and selling fish if there’s no fish to catch. Andry fishes in freshwater, and it sounds like maybe that fishery is better, so maybe he will be my unintended benefactor of this training.

He loves kids.  He showed kids some videos on his phone in Menaky.  Then handed them all 10 cents in their local currency so they could buy some candy.

It seems like the coastal ocean fishery here may be doomed. The catches are going down, people use mosquito nets for fishing to catch the smallest of fish, the foreign trawlers are fishing offshore, and from what I’ve seen (not seen, really) there’s little stock assessment and even less enforcement of laws, if there are any laws to protect the health of the fish stocks.

Many of the fishermen and market women expressed interest in fish farming. I’m not sure it would work well here on the coast, as the soil is sand so it won’t hold water. Using pond liners or building concrete ponds might not pencil out as cost effective in comparison to fish value out of them. And are there any feeds available. It wouldn’t be prudent to use any fish based fish feeds as then they’d just be taking fish out of the ocean to feed their fish on the land. The ocean along this stretch has a big surf, so I don’t think you could hold cages or net pens to grow salt water tilapia either.

Fisherman on boat in madagascar


The older I get, the more respect I have for African farmers, and now fishermen.  Sometimes – maybe most of the time – we in the west may look down on those who use the old ways of fishing as “backward”.  But really, they are 10 times the mariners we are now with our fuel driven motors, our GPS navigation, our auto pilot, and mechanically driven machines for retrieving our fishing gear.

Malagasy fishermen practice the mariner skills lost generations ago in the north.  Not out of some folksy reflection on the past, but as their way of life.  They live much of their lives 6 inches below the surface with 12 inches of freeboard in their canoes, some that are not 2 feet wide.  They put their sails up each day to get where they are going, then may anchor and fish over the side with a hook and line hand line, or set a small gillnet and haul it by hand.  All out on the big ocean.

Watching them paddle is also a joy.  They know how to paddle on just one side of their canoe, using a sort of J stroke at the end of each sweep to keep the boat steering straight- something I’ve never mastered.  Lots of purely innate courage and skills these fishermen still have.  When the fuel runs out or we kill ourselves fighting over it, it’s somehow a comfort to me to know these people will continue on as they have, and maybe get their turn at running the world for awhile.

fishing boat on ocean fishing boat on beach in madagascar Fisherman on boat in madagascar

Salt and Seaweed Day

Today, we bought 6 kilos of fish just caught in the morning, and 6 kilos of salt. The salt was big grain, so we used a mortar and pestle to make smaller grains.

I helped one of the wives clean the fish, then showed them how to salt the fish in layers.

Everyone else was out working, so we were done for the day. When the boat didn’t come for awhile, we wandered down to the beach to check out the red seaweed farm.

Ladies were planting new lines by taking larger pieces of seaweed off lines, separating them, and then replanting the smaller pieces on new lines.

The same wife I helped clean and salt fish was there, and Andry and I helped her plant a line. We sat in the sand in the water, and the Indian Ocean was warm. I chatted through Andry about how we plant Alaska kelp, and soon we had our line planted. The lady said before we started, and just in passing, that she paid 400 ariary to plant a line, and when I asked for our money, she said she had to dock me 100 ariary for eating some of the seaweed. Tough boss.

We went back to the landing and watched beautiful sailboat after sailboat sail in, on their way, apparently, to the salt mine at the head of the “inland sea” to haul salt.  When our boat arrived, two others asked to go to town. An old, somewhat feeble Pa with a tattered bucket hat, and a middle age man in good health. I put the Pa in the padded middle seat in front of the steering console – the most comfortable seat on the boat – out of respect.

When we got back to Ecolodge, 3 Frenchmen came in at the same time in a guided canoe with outrigger with a PILE of fish. The biggest was about 50 lbs. A couple were bright red.

Then, the French husband owner of the Ecolodge showed up in their side by side ATV. I thought to pick up the fish. But no – they had a man who needed medical attention. Four men carried him to the boat I just got off, and away they went. To Morondava I assume, but not sure. I later found out it looked like the man had an appendicitis.

I helped the Pa off the boat, and went up to look at the fish. Then the Pa comes with his his hands out. First I thought it was to thank me. Then I realized he wanted money. As always, I never know what to do in this situation as in all the crowd of people, I stand out as the big white guy. I thanked the Pa, took a photo of the fish, and walked up to my room to get out of the situation.

They covered the fish on the beach, at least. But the fish weren’t bled and not cleaned. And had been in the sun. The red ones were bloating.  I was the only one who cared, of course. Apparently they will send the fish on ice to Morondava to sell.

Mark and women on beach cleaning seaweed
Mark and women and kids salting fish in Madagascar

Tuesday’s question of the day

Another great session with fishermen in Mekany today. The ladies were selling little fish they’d dried by the gobs to a buyer who had arrived, so it was just us men for the most part. We talked about the fishing business – avenues for sale, different fish products, planning for the big catches when prices would plummet by salting their fish to smoke them later and sell them at higher prices. We also showed them a weather app, windguru, and a chartplotter app, Navionics.

Then came a question that really got me tongue tied:  are you rich from selling all the fish?  I would always say I’m rich – because I have everything I need, I’m healthy, and all the money all need for the rest of my life. About anyone who knows me would never say I’m rich. I have a little crappy house, drive a crappy car, heat with wood, drive an old truck and about everything I have I bought used. To anyone sitting in our meeting under the shade of a tree, who make less in a month than they pay me in per diem for a day, and who were selling their dried fish for 30 cents a pound today, I’m a gazillionaire.

So, I uhmed and aaahed and didn’t really have a good answer for them. And that, I think, is how it should be. Because maybe there is no good answer.