Country Focus: Madagascar
Antipode: Seasons with the Extraordinary Wildlife and Culture of Madagascar
By Heather E. Heying
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
About the author: Heying is a zoology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington. Antipode is her only non-academic publication.
Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is located off the southeastern coast of Africa. Ninety percent of its animal and plant species are endemic, making it a zoologist’s wonderland. Intrigued with the idea that Madagascar is her antipode—a place located diametrically opposite of her then home of Santa Cruz, California—field biologist Heather Heying travels to the country’s rainforest to study Mantella laevigata, a type of poison frog that has never before been profiled. She watches these little amphibians for hours at a time to find out how they mate, reproduce and survive.
Unearthing a substantial frog population is Heying’s first, but far from only, concern. 1990s Madagascar is more or less jury-rigged together. The only sure things are glacially paced bureaucracy, unreliable transportation, unending dampness and a monotonous diet of rice. Basics like healthcare and electricity are often not available when she needs them. A lemur bite, the theft of all her money, and a falling tree all threaten her ability to stay and see her research through.
This is the stuff of an epic sufferfest. Luckily for frog aficionados, Heying is not easily daunted. Unluckily for readers, Heying’s prose never rises above adequate. One of the few English language travelogues on Madagascar, Antipode is intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Buying rice is the central activity of provisioning yourself in Madagascar. It would be an absurd understatement to suggest that rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet. The Malagasy are intensely proud of how much rice they eat. Every meal that a Malagasy eats consists primarily of a plate piled high with slightly sticky rice. The market in Maroantsetra is dominated by the rice vendors at rickety tables, neatly lined up, with umbrellas overhead.There are so many rice vendors, it is difficult to make a choice. The slight variations in price mask vast differences in quality, if you believe the experts, which is to say, every Malagasy who has eaten the many subtly variant forms of white rice. Questions from the vazaha are gross, tactless, uneducated. “Is there any brown rice?” “How can you tell the difference among the rices?” “Does it really matter?” Brown rice, with the husk still on, increasingly the rice of choice among gourmands in the First World, is low-class, not pure, somehow sullied. If you have to ask about the differences among rices, you are perhaps not fit for the job of choosing your own rice. And finally, of course it matters, for rice is central; if one does no care about rice, what is there left to concern oneself with?