Soarahy from Petriky, Madagascar - “In the past, people did not have to worry about finding ways to sustain the lives of their families. Now it is the primary thought that each individual has.”
Soarahy, 50, is struggling just to feed her family. In the past, “the rice harvest was a special moment” and fish catches provided more than the family could eat.
Nowadays, survival “is the primary thought that each individual has” and her own stress and tension are evident. All her traditional sources of livelihood – farming, fishing and making tsihy (woven mats) – are precarious. Even when she catches fish, she can’t afford to eat it but sells it instead to buy staple foods. While she insists people do not want to “sit and wait for donations”, she wonders what they can realistically turn to as livelihood options.
Single mothers are the poorest of poor, she says, and she sees education as crucial. Although she “really enjoyed” an adult literacy programme, like “most elderly people”, she had to drop out as she had no glasses to correct her failing eyesight. She is happy that her children are able to go to school but is “worried sick” about their future.
My thoughts are about finding ways to make a living. I farm and I raise livestock but my activities are not successful…
I asked myself: how can I sustain my life if my farming activities do not yield as expected? I tried all sorts of possible methods but still I was not successful. I shared ideas about planting sweet potatoes, cassava and peanuts with other farmers, but that did not change the poor results I was having.
I am worried now about my life and my children’s lives. How will I be able to raise my children?
Challenges and worries
Nowadays, men have a hard time making their activities a success, let alone myself as a woman… In the past, people did not have to worry about finding ways to sustain the lives of their families. Now it is the primary thought that each individual has.
In the past cassava and sweet potato crops were abundant. It was the same for rice crops. I remember people harvesting rice paddies and their production was very high… These days, most rice seedlings do not grow…
I also had another occupation in the past. I wove mats at night, since I farmed during the day. My life was so successful because of my work and my husband. It was easier for me to do my work because I was still married and got help from my husband.
Fish are now a luxury
In addition to farming and weaving, I also fished. My catch was good. My family could not consume all my catch in one day and we had to dry the fish so that we could save them for the next few days. Since my catch was good, I decided to sell some of it in Manambaro…our fish sales helped me to purchase clothes…
Now, when I make a catch, about two to three kapoaka (three kapoaka equals one kilo) I don’t want to cook them… I walk to the market in Manambaro to sell them… Then with the money I make, I purchase a kapoaka of rice or cassava. Obviously, I don’t make much and therefore I am not able to provide enough food to nourish my children.
How many times have I caught fish and…had to deprive [my children] of such a luxury because I preferred to sell the fish in order to buy staple food? Also, just 10 fish would not be sufficient for us, unlike staple foods.
“These days it is as if nothing works”
In the past, when I was younger, I helped my parents with the household activities as well as with farming activities… Children enjoyed those moments with their parents.
I pounded rice paddy and sold it in the market to make money. A kapoaka (one-third of a kilo) of rice cost 10 ariary when sold at Manambaro market. This price, if compared to today’s, sounds ridiculously low, but it was a lot of money at the time. Children ate to their satisfaction in the past.
The rice harvest was a special moment, and it took days. Each person filled up their granary. My children do not believe me…that a measure of rice only cost 10 ariary and that rice was abundant in the past. Paddy fields that once yielded 20 hazo (40 large baskets) of rice, now yield just one large basket… Peanuts are [another] main crop that once grew well around here – but these days it is as if nothing works…
What can we do? It will be hard for us to sit and wait for donations. As human beings, we must strive to do the best we can to find food, grow crops and make money… Most of the time when I am at home, I am worried sick thinking about what the future will be for my children.
I have nostalgia for the past…when people had plenty of food and were very successful in their activities… Even voapiky fruit is not available any more. It is amazing that such a fruit, which served people in the past, exists no longer.
Dependence on the forest
Voapiky is a wild fruit…found mostly in Petriky Forest. The fruits are for eating and the vines are for weaving baskets and lobster traps…[and] household items such as baskets, spoons, plates and pots. During the right season, people collected the voapiky fruits to supplement their other food, such as rice, cassava and sweet potatoes…
People in my village depend on Petriky Forest. That is where people get the food or materials that they need for their daily lives. Men, and even some women like me who do not have a husband to rely on, search for vines…
I used the vines that I collected to make fish and lobster traps or baskets and I sold them in Manambaro. Before returning home, I had to purchase food with the money I made…if I came home with empty hands, my children risked going to bed hungry. During the dry season, everyone relied on the forest to supplement or complement the food available in their households.
“The river that sustains our life”
The Eloha is south of Petriky Forest… [it] is the river that sustains our life in the village… Along its banks…vendra (type of tall grass) grew well… Usually women collected these vendra and they wove them into baskets and mats. That is the activity that most women did as their contribution to the household income. Unfortunately these vendra are almost extinct now because of wildfire…
I notice that children have a hard time understanding that resources were available in the past, easy to find, and that life was cheaper, easier and enjoyable. Currently, people have to walk to Fort Dauphin to collect vendra, but I am too busy…as I spend all day trying to find food for my children. I have to focus on farming to supply my family’s needs.
From time to time, I do purchase some vines for weaving (mahampy) in the market. The tsihy (mats) and baskets I make are for sale… and the money supplements my crop production to support my family. I stopped buying clothes and other items because providing food is more important right now…
The best moments in life have passed for me. From now on it is a struggle… Thoughts are always turning around in my head about ways to provide food for my children.
“People have changed from farming to fishing”
Because farming depends a lot on rain, crop production is not as reliable as fishing. In addition…one has to wait at least six months before harvesting crops, as opposed to fishing, where one can bring fish home [that day] if successful.
I have concentrated my efforts in selling patsa (small shrimp) at Manambaro market. Sometimes I brought 10 kapoaka (3.3 kilos) of patsa to sell and made 1,000 ariary… Lately, the supply of patsa has decreased and I am only able to bring a maximum of 5 kapoaka to the market. I do not sell at Fort Dauphin market because it is farther than Manambaro. Since I don’t have the money to pay for a bush taxi to go to Fort Dauphin, I prefer to walk to Manambaro…
The price of fish has increased but the volume of production has decreased, and along with this, the cost of living has increased… People have changed from farming to fishing…[and] there are restrictions on collecting vines. Therefore, people are reinforcing their fishing activities, which has an impact on its sustainability.
Men fish using nets and women use large flexible baskets. Most of the catch is destined for the market…people prefer to sell it in order to generate money and purchase staple foods.
“I wish I had a radio to ease my worries”
I love listening to the radio [but] I cannot afford to purchase one. I wish I had a radio to ease my worries…[and] so that I could listen to the news. I dream that after working on my farm I would come home and listen to it.
If I had money I would purchase what my heart tells me… It is obvious that those with money can satisfy their desires… The picture I had was that after my working day, I would come home tired and relax in my bed, listening to the radio… But since I am a single mother, I set aside my desire…
What makes me happy now is that my children are able to go to school in the village, just like any other children… People in the village made many requests in the past before the government finally agreed to establish a school in the village. It was built of raty (forest products). Local communities participated in the construction first, then the government decided to help.
Two years later…QMM (QIT Madagascar Minerals – subsidiary of Rio Tinto mining for ilmenite) came to our village and…they rehabilitated the school and changed it to brick. Everyone contributed…the community provided labour and local resources… I told [my children] that my goal was to see them succeed since I did not have the opportunity to finish school… My three elder siblings had the opportunity, but I was responsible for helping my mother take care of my younger siblings…
Recently, there began a programme for illiterate people in the village. I decided to participate. I loved studying and I really enjoyed it; unfortunately I had to stop because I have bad sight… I needed glasses but I did not have a pair. Most elderly people who signed up dropped out due to poor vision.
When I was [studying], I was elected president of the adult students. This showed the interest I had in studying.
There are many students [at the village school], about 100. These children are motivated. Every year, some of them pass an exam that lets them study in higher grades in Manambaro.
Right now, one of my children studies in Manambaro, where he is preparing to take the BEPC (secondary level exam). I pray to God that he will succeed. I can’t imagine how happy I will be when he passes his exam. He has made two attempts. I gave him the courage to continue because most of my children have stopped studying…
I am hopeful that my children will succeed. My dream is that they will be able to find jobs according to their qualifications. If my children get jobs, I am sure they will have a better life and can take care of me.
“Every single plant needs water”
My complaint is the lack of rain, because it delays the planting of rice. The serious problem people face right now is that the season for planting tsipala rice (a species of rice, very popular in the south of Madagascar) has passed. This will accentuate food insecurity because the next cropping season will be affected… People are supposed to plant rice by January but due to the lack of rain, people were not even able to grow the seedlings…
After the tsipala season, people plant various things such as cassava, sweet potatoes and tomatoes… If farmers cannot keep up with irrigation, then their tomatoes will not grow properly. [But] irrigating tomatoes on a large plot of land is difficult to do, so most people depend on rain.
In addition to the tomatoes, people have also been given some green vegetable seeds to plant. But still, every single plant needs water. People make an effort to irrigate their garden vegetables and they have planted up to 40 plots.
The government service agent came to us and distributed these seeds… We are asked to form a farmers’ group. Five people in each group received a donation of seeds. One of the five persons represents the group and also receives farming equipment to facilitate our tasks. Then there is someone who is in charge of managing all the equipment. The government agent monitors our progress.
“Losing the edge against hardship”
Due to the difficulties encountered by each family, more and more children are separated from their parents, especially their mothers; [they] are left behind at the village while their mothers spend their days collecting fish and other resources.
I am losing the edge against hardship. I wish the government would offer me a job so that I can fulfill my duty to raise my children. Not just men can work for the government – women also can. That way, women can become independent as well.
I think the reason many people are candidates for various government positions is that they need jobs to sustain the lives of their families… That is the primary thing that I need right now, because I can still work and I am ready to do any job to provide food for my children.
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.