Olina from St Luce, Madagascar - “only someone who is richer, or has money, can be heard in the village.”
Olina, from St Luce, is 80 and still working. She benefited greatly from her parents’ decision to send her to school, where she learnt French, cooking and sewing. Her sadness at her own children’s lack of education is evident – meeting the cost proved too hard. Although she married several times, for much of her life she has been a single mother, supporting her family by tailoring and making bread and cakes, as well as working on the land.
She points out that it is not necessarily the government that is responsible for her community’s situation, but the individual in charge of carrying out policies. Nepotism and corruption are rife: “only someone who is richer, or has money, can be heard in the village.”
Fishermen are powerless to break the middlemen’s stranglehold over prices. These middlemen “get angry” when they advance loans for equipment and some of the money gets spent on food, but, she points out, they “already have money and livelihood choices” unlike the fishermen.
I am Olina, 80 years old… I got married when I was only 16. I had my first child when I was 18, and when I reached 21 I had my second… My marriage did not last… After my divorce, I had to take care of myself. Luckily, life was cheap – 100 ariary was enough to live on for a week…
Since I was divorced at such a young age, I had another relationship and another child. I was a single mother trying to provide for my children, including their education, so my life was a struggle…
People…asked me to sew dresses so that they could sell them in the market… Only a month after giving birth, I went back to my job, and even my baby got used to the sound of my sewing machine and fell asleep on my lap while I sewed… I lacked sleep because I had to work day and night.
“I did everything I could to make money”
Such a rhythm of work had an impact on my health. I felt ill… [The doctor] asked what my occupation was. I said I was a tailor… I [also] baked cakes and made bread. He prohibited me from continuing with both my activities. I replied: “What would we eat if I stopped sewing, and making bread?”…
He suggested that if I had to sew, I needed to find someone to push the manivelle (sewing machine pedal) and my job was just to adjust the clothes to make them right… I respected his advice. [But] after four to five years, I felt completely cured, so I could not resist sewing once again on my own.
I grew older but my work intensified. I did everything I could to make money… I dried fish and brought and sold them in remote villages. I also sold fresh fish in Mahatalaky to make quick money and purchase food for my children…[and] pencils, pens and copybooks, or anything that they needed for school.
“I am grateful my parents sent me to school”
I myself went to school and that is where I learned to design, cut, assemble and sew clothes. I also learned how to make bread, bake different types of cakes, and I am able to cook all sorts of meals. For example if visitors or tourists come here, I am asked to cook for them…
If I had not gone to school, I would not be able to make a living. I am grateful to my parents for sending me to school because if they had not had the idea, I cannot imagine how my life would be. I learned French, cooking and sewing…
My children attended all the primary grades, until they received their first certificate [of elementary education]. Then they stopped because I did not have enough money to pay for their education beyond that. In the past, this CEPE certificate was enough to get around, but now it means nothing… My children ended up working on our farmland and fishing.
Forced to give up tailoring
Even though I am still capable of working, I had to stop due to the mechanical failure of my sewing machine… I could not buy another. The price went up as well, so everything worked together against me… If I had a machine and a pair of glasses, I could still do it…
What I am doing now to make a living is part-time work, weeding some farmland and collecting firewood. These are not the kinds of jobs that generate enough income to live; but since I am still alive and I need to eat, I am forced to do them.
“The entire family had plenty of fish”
In the past, Manafiafy was famous for fishing, especially lobsters… Now, the climate keeps changing and this has an impact on the fish catch around here. Tuna, sardine and many other fish used to be abundant but there has been a decline in their production.
In the past, during the hot season, the village smelt of fish because there were tons of them… The entire family had plenty of fish and everyone was satisfied.
Price fixing and other strategies
What amazes people around here is that fishermen are not the ones who determine the price of their catch… We don’t know if the vazaha (foreigners) do not want our lobsters, or what is really happening. People want to find out the truth. It is hard to believe that foreigners would not want our lobsters, because from time to time they visit Manafiafy and the first thing they ask is: “Are there lobster, and how much does a kilo cost?” So we fix a price and they pay.
But amazingly, when the buyers (middlemen) purchase lobsters in the village, the price [they offer] is different and fishermen cannot fix their own price… Consequently, fishermen are forced to sell their catch, unwillingly…at a cheaper price – because lobsters do not last long so it is better to turn them into some money than to get nothing…
The fishermen’s catch ranges from 100 grams to two kilos per person. Currently, the middlemen impose minimum measurements on the lobster they want to purchase. I think this measure is used to reduce the money that fishermen can generate… The middlemen scrutinise the lobsters and confiscate the smaller ones…instead of giving them back to the fishermen. If they don’t want to purchase them, they should return the smaller lobsters to the sea so that they can get bigger.
Middlemen advance money so that people can purchase lobster traps, large baskets and food. Because people are so poor, they are tempted by the offer because otherwise their children will go hungry. People divide the money destined for fishing equipment and allocate some of it to food.
As a result, people end up with fewer fish traps and the middlemen get angry with the fishermen, because the money was spent on something else. Of course they can get angry! They already have money and livelihood choices.
“Fishermen have no choice”
People fish using wooden boats, without any engine; and the best wood for this is vitagno (large hardwood tree); it is very light and does not sink until it is swallowed by huge waves. Even if it is swallowed by the sea a few times, a boat made out of vitagno will float to the top again.
However, [now] we are forbidden to take trees from the forest. Eucalyptus trees are available but these are not suitable for making boats to be used at sea. They are heavy; only good for fishing on rivers…
Fishermen have no choice but to accept their fate, both pricewise and by risking death on the sea… Many die while fishing… There have been no measures taken to protect the lives of fishermen. No one cares about them.
Issues of government: “it is so disappointing”
If the person in power is good, then some changes happen, but if the person in power is not so good, then nothing happens and people have a long list of complaints…
It is not necessarily the government that is responsible for our situation but mostly the people who are put in charge of the government’s mission. For example, the government provided money to fund projects, but the projects are not finished. Announcements have been made but nothing happens. It is so disappointing…
When there is distribution of food aid or other sorts of help in the village, people have a hard time finding the right person to be in charge. The reason for this is that nepotism takes place. Instead of helping the genuinely poor, food aid goes out to the family members of the person who is distributing it.
The government should look closely at the needs of fishermen and farmers – because there are people who live off occupations other than fishing. Food prices are exorbitant, clothes are so expensive. I don’t care much about clothes because no one has died from not being able to buy cloth, but food is critical for survival. Finding food to nourish a family is a very hard thing to do now.
Poor diets and scarce supplies
Today [if I had young children]…I am sure I would not be able to satisfy their needs because life is expensive. With my income, I may be able to purchase just 10 kapoaka (3.3 kilos) of rice. People are satisfied if their children eat rice porridge.
Supplying rice to the family is a big challenge for people around here. It is the main staple for children. It is true that there is cassava, sweet potato, taro and bemako (edible root, similar to taro), but children usually have a hard time digesting them. Even adults prefer rice but since it is expensive, and there is not enough rice, people are forced to consume other staples.
Children under three do not understand the difficulties that their parents face; every time they are hungry, they cry until they get food… People consume cassava but they do not enjoy it; they lose weight.
“Our health has improved”
Nowadays, people have extensive knowledge and they know how to manage their health. So people use drops to purify the water in the wells and to kill any bacteria that may harm their health…
In addition, the local community designated a few people to manage the cistern. It is forbidden to do laundry around the cistern, because the dirty water may run off into it… I think the use of a cistern has benefited us because our children are healthier now…
Our health has improved since there is a hospital here… Before, people would put their sick relative on a stretcher and walk to the hospital in Mahatalaky. Sometimes, the sick person died along the way. It is the same for pregnant women… Sometimes they delivered the babies before they reached the hospital because they had to walk for 15 kilometres.
Now, people go to see the midwife in the village. She asks questions and gives check-ups. She tries to find out the cause of illnesses before she prescribes medicines… But if people need to purchase medicine, they lack money. And in some cases, when they can get medicine, people sell it again to make money.
Family planning welcomed
This village has a lot of children, but thanks to the government, who initiated family planning, the population growth has slowed down a bit. Life is getting more and more expensive and with many children to raise, it is very difficult…parents are not able to sustain the lives [of many children] and supply all their needs: food, school, health and clothing. The mothers are busy caring for them and thus lack time to work.
Luckily, people in the village received the idea [of family planning] so well, and now a mother waits until her child is six before conceiving another. I am really satisfied with what the government did.
“Only someone who has money can be heard”
[QMM] (QIT Madagascar Minerals – subsidiary of Rio Tinto mining for ilmenite) owns everything, the land, the forest, everything belongs to them. Even our ancestral land belongs to them. Amazing!.. I guess [the mayor] has not sent any reports or complaints to higher authorities, and that is why QMM keeps doing what it wants to do.
If someone, or a woman like me, tries to complain and talk to the mayor, he may say, “What does a woman know about this problem?” I may be treated like someone who has too much to say; women and children know nothing about problems and should not get involved. Even if a man complains, the mayor will not necessarily listen… Only someone who is richer, or has money, can be heard in the village.
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.