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Sirily: working for foreigners

Sirily from Ilafitsignana, Madagascar - “Fishing activities give people more flexible time to work around their house [whereas] I must work every day, otherwise I won’t receive a full salary...”

Sirily, in his 40s, describes the highs and lows of his working life, identifying the factors – personal and external – that have led to changes in his standard of living. Ill-health, often brought on by hard or dangerous work, has meant lean times, but when he was younger, good harvests and fish catches always allowed him and his wife to get “back on track”.

As his parents became older and unable to help with childcare, life became tougher. At the same time, pressure on fish stocks was beginning to affect availability. When he and his wife lost their farmland they also lost their opportunity to grow food. Now, he says, “I work for a foreigner” and he describes the risks of being wage-dependent.

Sirily also talks about culture and the problem of outsiders’ lack of respect for local traditions. He implicitly acknowledges that bowing to social pressure to give his father a good funeral had a huge economic impact on his family.

My name is Sirily. I have six children: four sons and two daughters…

When we were younger, life was good and cheap… Farming was successful because there was enough rain. Crops were abundant and some were left to rot because people could not consume them all. Now, farm production is poor due to the lack of rain and people go hungry…

My father sent us to a Catholic school, here in Ilafitsignana… Later on, our school was transferred to Ambinanibe…

I took the certificate of elementary education twice and failed. Finally, I told my father that I wanted to stop because I was late to start working. My father wanted me to continue my studies… In the end, my father accepted my plan.

Building up resources

I was hired by an elder in the village to raise his cattle. I told him I wanted my salary to be a cow per year… After a year, another person hired me. I worked there for two years… [then] I got another job… After my fourth year, I had collected four cows for my father…

I then started to farm. I had to slash the forest to clear some land… People kept asking me what I would do with my crop, because I had planted many cassavas…  I brought them to Ambinanibe to sell… I suggested to my father that I purchase a cow with the money and [together] we purchased a temboay (young cow) for 4,000 ariary.

Marriage and responsibility

When I was around 18, I was interested in ringa (a local game)… I was still young so I just did whatever I wanted…and so my father decided to find a wife for me. I told my father that I was still too young.

He did not agree. What could I do? People in the past respected what their parents said, so…I married, but because I was still young, 20 years old, I was only married for a week then I left to do military service.

My wife remained in the village with my parents. During my military service, I was punished very often because…I went missing many times, sleeping outside the compound. My father took pity on me and decided to get me out of there after eight months… When I returned home, I had to face my responsibility to look after my wife.

We did not have a child until after a year of living together. I farmed and fished to generate income to support my family. My fish catch from the river was abundant…

I believed I was strong enough to fish at sea as well. So I asked some of my relatives in Ambinanibe, because they already had experience of sea fishing, if they would accept me as a team-mate…They welcomed me warmly and we all started fishing sardines together.

I noticed that the income I made from sea fishing and selling sardines was higher than from fishing on the river. [Then] my cousin suggested that we explore lobster catching as well. After catching lobster for only three days, I could purchase a cow… I continued catching lobster and fishing at sea for another year.

Rewards bring danger

One day, we had an accident…and nearly drowned… I did not work for some time until I had recovered. Then I went back to catching lobster: I was diving… [Once] I was so tired, I slipped and fell down hard on the rocks. I lost all my catch and my tools.

I decided to check out the place where I used to fish, on the river. I saw a lot of people doing very well there. So I said to myself, “Maybe I should go back to where I was safe, because fishing at sea is very dangerous.” That is how I came back to Ilafitsignana…

Say fotsy (species of fish found at the river mouth) were the fish we caught… Women had a hard time lifting their baskets because they were always full… Now many people know how to catch them, so their number has decreased a lot. In addition…the size and type of fishing nets [have changed], which impacts on sustainability.

Working together

Then we had a son; with two children I had to increase my income… I fished and I continued to farm. A new species of fish called mazy came to shore. People were excited about catching them.

I gave money to my wife to purchase mazy so that we could sell them.  I decided to add our [other] fish to the catch and sell them in Fort Dauphin, for greater profit. I told my wife that it was important that she and I worked together…to improve the quality of our lives…

I would go to Fort Dauphin early in the morning to sell our fish. I was tired, but I strove to make it a success. As a result, we had money but we were short of sleep… I could not keep up with my farming activities so my wife and I had to hire some people to work our land… and we had to ask our relatives for help with planting rice.

Then…we started catching shrimp…and we all had success.

Father’s death brings hardship

The working pace I imposed on my life…took a toll on my body… Sometimes I had to stop working for two weeks to treat myself and recover.

My hardships intensified when my parents were older and my father passed away. Throughout the time I was working, my parents raised my children. I left my children with them, and my wife and I worked. But now my father is not with me any more, and my life has changed.

I had to conduct a ritual for the funeral of my father… I had to slaughter several cows…in order to respect our traditions… Everything we had built up was gone with him. What we did avoid was negative comments from our neighbours, who could have criticised what we did for the funeral of our parent.

Overcoming setbacks

We had to work hard before my family got back on track… I fished using nets. It went well until I was diagnosed with a cyst… Finally, my wife decided to take me to the hospital [for] surgery and I remained at home to recover for six months.

Luckily, I had taught my wife how to collect fish and to do other fishing activities… If we had relied on my activities alone, we would have suffered a lot, since I was incapable of working. Then we had our third child. I still felt too weak to fish, so I told my wife to continue with her work.

During that time, we heard that QMM (QIT Madagascar Minerals – subsidiary of Rio Tinto mining for ilmenite) had talked to our village chief, saying that they needed employees… I said to myself, “Maybe that would be an opportunity for me…since I cannot fish any more.” Unfortunately, the position…only lasted three months…

After fishing [again] for the first time in a long while, I was reassured that my surgery did not give me any worries… I told my wife that our lives would be back on track… Shrimp [were still] abundant but fish production had started to decrease [and] not everyone who fished was successful.

“Now I work for a foreigner”

Now our land has been taken from us, given by the government to QMM. [At first]… fishing seemed to be rewarding enough because the majority of fishermen got hired by QMM, so there were fewer people to fish and that was how I could manage to make quite a good catch…

Later, QMM started to build the port. They dynamited the mountain nearby and COLAS (a French construction company) started the road building. These activities have had an impact on our lives…

Now I work for a foreigner… If we [do not have a job] our family suffers, because there is no money to bring home at the end of the month… Fishing activities give people more flexible time to work around their house [whereas] I must work every day, otherwise I won’t receive a full salary…but the problem with fishing is that the catch is unpredictable, and depends a great deal on sea conditions…and so we have a hard time nourishing the family.

“People have to be pushed to the limit to risk anything”

Money now is allocated for food alone and is not enough to cover other needs. People do not even have enough money to purchase all the food they need…

[In the past] the money generated from fishing and farming was saved, and was not used to purchase food or medicine… And if anyone was sick, we would collect medicinal plants to treat them. This is no longer possible because these plants were appropriated along with the forest…

Now everything costs money…  It is very challenging to find money to pay for the doctor and the treatment… People cannot borrow money from their relatives or neighbours any more because they don’t have land or crops to use as collateral…

In the end, people wait till the last second, until the patient is dying, before they decide to bring [them to] a doctor… People have to be pushed to the limit to do or risk anything, because of the lack of money. In the end the treatment costs more, because the illness takes time to heal instead of being treated at the beginning.

“Our land lost its sanctity”

Rivers have an important role in our lives. For us in Ilafitsignana, people have the Vatovondrona river, where they perform their ancestral traditions… People also have a special place, called Mahalatsa, where they conduct ritual ceremonies [or seek] help… For example, someone who had a sick child went there to pray…

People made a pact that any time their prayers came true, they would come back and donate money to the togny (a traditional stele, where people pay respect to their ancestors).  People would donate hundreds of thousands [of ariary] to show their gratitude, or sometimes bring sheep and slaughter them. But recently, the stele was destroyed, by unknown people; as a consequence, our prayer place lost its value. I think that is why foreigners could enter our area, because our land lost its sanctity.

Profound consequences

People did receive money from QMM in return for their land but the money was not enough for everyone. My grandparents have many children, and the land that was taken belonged to our ancestors, not to a single person, so anyone descended from that ancestor had to receive some of the money. Since we are Malagasy we have to respect the notion of having a large family…

People’s hardship would have been less if the money offered by QMM was accompanied by other means [of making a living] such as pieces of land, where people could farm to back up the money from QMM. Unfortunately, the money has been the only resource people have to hand, so I am afraid it is now almost used up.

What makes our situation worse is the lack of rain… I don’t think the presence of these foreigners is related to the lack of rain. I think it’s God’s decision whether the rain comes or not. But I think in the end the consequences of land appropriation by foreigners affect people’s lives more deeply than they could ever imagine…

The source of our drinking water, a well, passed down from generation to generation, was affected by the dust from dynamite explosions… [People] complained…to QMM. Then QMM built a water standpipe in each village… But even kids just playing with these standpipes can break them…and no one can fix them…

For the benefit of our future generations, QMM also built a small school in the village.

Relocation brings new tensions

Some tensions occurred when people from different places were forced to live together in one location. Before, only related family members lived together in one hamlet, but now these people have to live together and get used to one another’s presence as neighbours.

Raising livestock is very challenging as well because there is not enough space… A lot of people purchased cattle after they received their money…many cows die because they go hungry… Ironically, grass grows within the land appropriated by QMM yet it is prohibited for local people to let their livestock graze there.

“Our children seem not to have a bright future”

My children will suffer more, because [at least] I received a bit of money from QMM but they will face tougher times. People in Ilafitsignana are the poorest of the poor. So our future generation will need some assistance. I think they will need some farmland. Even if parents nowadays send their children to school, they lack enough money to pay for their education all the way to the higher grades…

Some people still have money from QMM’s payment and some others were hired to work for QMM. However, if QMM stops hiring some day, then our hardships will be exposed… Our children seem not to have a bright future.

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.

Project

Sirily: working for foreigners is produced as part of the Pushed to the edge oral testimony project.

Testimonies

Constand: middlemen control everything

Olina: money talks

Fanja: forest is forbidden

Sorahy: education is crucial

Kazy: rains aren’t coming

Zanaboatsy: needing the forest

Sambo: life goes on

Jean-Claude: we are not livestock

Rosette: story of change

Bruno: hotter and hotter

Say Louise: when hardships started

Sirily: working for foreigners

Key themes

Background to the region

The project and partners

Rivers and the sea

Forests

Land and compensation

Farming and food security

Environmental change

Livelihoods

Economic conditions

Health

Cultural and social change

Communications and power relations

Local development

The future