Tuesday, June 30, 2015



Several years ago, I knew a charming accountant of Indian origin who came from Madagascar. Her ancestors were probably 'jahajis'-- or immigrants who left India by ships to seek gainful work in distant lands. Women immigrants, by the gender specific nomenclature of Indian vernacular, were 'jahajins' or 'women of the ship'. My linguistic author friend Peggy Mohan beautifully captures the cultural diaspora of these 'jahajins' in her English novel of the same name. Replete with Bhojpuri phrases mellowed by the pidgin-creole linguistic influences of the far off Caribbean, 'Jahajin' could easily be the story of a large number  of Indian settlers not only in the West Indies, but also in Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Africa and of course, Madagascar.   

But my  'Jahajin' friend from Madagascar did not know a word of Gujarati--the language of her ancestors, though she spoke French, the lingua-franca of Madagascar, fluently. I was intrigued to learn that her aunts and grandmothers, very much like the women of 'Jahajin', had left their remote villages in Saurashtra on small sailboats more than a hundred years ago to seek opportunities in this French island, then known as Malagache. Most of them took up menial jobs, some became small time traders and a few even competed with black Africans to work as labourers on agricultural estates of this large island. Lives of a few enlightened women like my accountant friend have since changed dramatically. She today works for a chartered accounting firm in Singapore and her clients represent a large multi-national conglomerate of German origin. Many others, the Gujarati Khojas, Ismailis and Daudi Bohras have prospered in trade, but for many others, mostly illiterate, life is still a daily struggle.

Human Machines--Man drawn Rickshaws in Madagascar 

As a nature enthusiast, my interest in Madagascar was second only to places like the South American Rain Forests, the Galapagos or perhaps Borneo. So an opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in this pristine island was hard to resist. As a writer of sorts, I was also keen to get a close feel of the people and places of this unknown land. 

My knowledge about Madagascar was limited to what my accountant friend had told me. Later, I chanced to see the TV series on Madagascar made by BBC and narrated by David Attenborough. Admittedly, it is impossible to create in a static blog, the sheer magic of Madagascar's unique wild life, as depicted in this wonderful three part documentary, which must have taken several months or maybe years to complete.

Geologists tell us that several million years ago, when the mainland Gondwana commenced its shift east-northwest towards what is now India, a large piece of land broke off and formed the present island of Madagascar. This separation from the mainland allowed Madagascar to evolve its fauna and flora in a manner uniquely different from the mainland Africa or Asia. Madagascar on one hand has no large predators or apes and on the other, it is endowed with its own  evolved species of lemurs, chameleons, birds, flora and trees not found anywhere else. It is indeed a unique laboratory or observatory of mother earth and nature.

One of the Succulent Plant Species at Arboretum d'Antsokay in South West Madagascar

We arrived at Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar completely exhausted from a long flight via Mauritius. Antananarivo airport reminds you of small Indian airports as they existed in the eighties and the nineties. Ditto the town, though Antananarivo does have its own prosperous localities complete with neat shops, food stores and recreation parks. A bird's eye view of the city from top of a hill, including the artificial lake Anosy and the Mahamasina stadium actually looks beautiful.

Antananarivo- The Capital of Madagascar

But suburban areas outside the downtown are made up of shanty structures and nondescript wooden shacks with a few shops or food stalls here and there. As in India, tourists, irrespective of the colour of their skin, are perceived as highly privileged, gullible people. On arrival, we were handed out statutory warnings not to venture into the streets un-escorted, to 'never-ever' loiter outside after dark and to never attempt taking pictures of the royal palaces. Discarding these somewhat colonial perceptions, we promptly found ourselves surrounded by a motley group of locals as we stepped outside the hotel. But they were a harmless lot, curious to know where we came from and keen to explore possibilities of acting as our local guides (of course at a nominal cost, to be settled preferably in US dollars). Language was a problem as they knew very little English and their French accent was difficult for us.

A Local Butcher Selling his Wares in Antananarivo

Majority of migrant population in Madagascar is a mixture of Austronesian, Bantu, Indian, Arab and Somali settlers. Add to these the numerous persons of mixed blood originating from the colonial British and French ruling class.

Nothing Like A Free Ride on Mom's Back: A Hen with her admiring audience in Antananarivo

From a mere 5 million in 1960, the population in Madagascar has grown by 450 percent to 23 millions in the last 55 years, with a low GDP rate of 2.4 percent. Contrasts in Antananarivo are to be seen everywhere, from well stocked food stores to beggars seeking to scrape a meal somehow.

A Man Pulled Rickshaw Behind a Limousine on a Street in Antananarivo

From the neat downtown you can actually touch the underprivileged, all pervasive ghost town. Once you cross the urban boundary, you are amidst rich vegetation surrounding the bright green rice fields, which offer  a glimpse of one aspect of the country's rich avian diversity.

Children Playing Hopscotch Across Paddy Fields near Antananarivo

Water birds in and around rice fields are easy to spot. During our sojourn we immediately snapped the dark grey morph of the Dimorphic Egret. It exists in grey as well as white morph and is endemic to Madagascar (it extensively breeds here), though it is also seen in the nearby Comoro islands, Seychelles and the coastal belts of Kenya and Tanzania.

The Grey Morph of Dimorphic Egret (Egretta dimorpha)

We spotted the white morph several days later. Experts are of the view that the Dimorphic Egret is a close relative of the Little Egret which is more universally distributed.

The White Dimorphic Egret- Near Antananarivo

In a country of rice eaters where an average person eats over 100 kg of rice every year, productivity in rice fields is of vital importance. Once a net exporter of rice, Madagascar today imports 20 percent of its requirements. This deficit is attributed to poor productivity in rice fields, lack of modern agricultural methods and also, naturally, to sharp increase in population. Much of the cultivatable area lies in the mountain highlands terrains where terrace method of rice cultivation is prevalent. On roads leading out of Antananarivo, you see rice fields grown in narrow terraces along the road. On one such stretch, we were lucky to see a solitary Madagascar Squacco Heron (often also known as Madagascar Pond Heron), a stocky white heron with a characteristic blue bill.

Madagascar Squacco Heron (Ardeola idae)

Madagascar Squacco Heron is an endangered bird that breeds in Madagascar and the surrounding islands. Not more than a few thousand birds survive, due to as rapid erosion of habitat and lack of conservation efforts. Our guide tells us that once upon a time, Magagascar Squacco was as abundant in these wetlands as its cousin the (European) Squacco Heron. Sadly,not any more.

Talk of rice fields and can a kingfisher be far away?. Easily the most adorable bird of any respectable wetland and a darling of all bird photographers, kingfishers exist in more than 90 'avtaars' all over the world. What we had in front of us was a gorgeous Madagascar Kingfisher, a worthy member of the family and endemic to the island.

Madagascar Kingfisher (Alcedo vintsiodes)

The Madagascar Kingfisher is closely related to the Malchite Kingfisher found all over the African mainland. During the course of our travel, we were also to see the Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher, the other kingfisher commonly found in Madagascar.

Madagascar Wagtail (Motacilla flaviventris)

We were to learn that most common wetland and garden birds of the African mainland have endemic Malagiche equivalents with clearly different distinctive features. Likewise, we have a Madagascan Hoopoe and a Madagascar Magpie Robin, both endemic to the island.

Madagascar Magpie Robin (Copysychus albospecularis) with Broader White on Wings

The chirpy grey wagtail of Africa turns up here as Madagascar Wagtail with a white breast and a prominent black necklace around the neck, the Oriental White Eye here is the Madagascar White Eye, endemic to the island and identified quite easily with its very prominent white around the eye.

Madagascar White Eye (Zosterops maderaspatanus)

As we turned back to the hotel, a strange, peculiarly shaped black bird flew over us. This was the Hammerkop, seen commonly in Madagascar as well as in mainland Africa.

Hammerkop( Scopus umbretta)

Hammerkop derives its name from its anvil shaped head and a long beak and is also sometimes named as the Anvilhead. The bird, unlike other birds, participates in strange rituals and builds a very large nest which can be as much as 1.5 metres in diameter. It is made up of ten thousand or even more sticks. It is a 'compulsive nest builder', making upto 2-3 nests in a year, not all of which are actually put to use. Because of its strange appearance and peculiar habits, Hammerkop is regarded as an evil bird in Africa as well as in Madagascar where its presence near a house is not very welcome. Several traditional stories exist about misfortunes resulting from destroying an Hammerkop's nest. Amongst African tribesmen, it is believed that the destroyer gets struck by lightening while in Madagascan folklore, as narrated by Fox Leonard in his book 'The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar', destroying the nest could result in leprosy and other ailments. Thankfully, these beliefs provide a certain degree of protection to this harmless and highly social bird whose abandoned nest provides shelter not only to homeless birds but also to many small animals.
(to be continued)
(Part 2: The Land of Chameleons and Lemurs)
Jitendra Bhatia
copyright 2015 Jitendra Bhatia


  1. Thanks for sharing the Madagascar experience,,well scripted and superb pics

  2. What a lovely insight to an unknown land...well done Jitendrabhai. Rajesh Kapadia

  3. What a great and honest read, thank you for sharing and using real language! I’m just starting out blogging and I’m currently updating my site as I get a better feel for it.
    Maharaja Express

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