Hugo Pettit takes on Madagascar

I’d never been to Madagascar and knew barely more than what the Disney films depicted. Despite being keen on learning about a place, its geography, culture and having a basic itinerary, the trip was a last-minute decision, leaving us at the mercy of a friend who runs a lodge on the island for a tourism company called 'Madagascar Classic Collection' (MCC).

After our flight from the hectic capital, Antananarivo, we jumped on a smaller plane to Fort Dauphin, a French Colonised port with a history of piracy and Elephant Birds. Our friend drove us 50km down a dirt road towards our destination by the coast, giving us a chance to enjoy Madagascar's hugely varied landscape.

90% of MCC’s employment is Madagascan and they place huge importance on rebuilding the local infrastructure and integrating guests and locals. MCC has helped locals focus not simply on extracting cash from tourists with cheap tatt, but on quality. What they create and offer tourists feels more like an investment. The weaving, wood and silver work (from local sources) is truly stunning. I don’t know whether it was the lack of irresponsible tourism that had created harmony with tourists or whether they were just purely lovely people, but I have never felt more welcomed into a community and able to take photos as they carried on with their lives.

Being wary, but under the advice from my friend who had been living amongst the community for a year, I spent a day just walking the paths through villages and feeling like I was being welcomed in. I had the Leica SL with me, and although it may not be the smallest body of the Leica range, with the 90mm lens, it was the perfect camera. The longer focal length and the smallest lens in the range made it relatively inconspicuous while having total faith that what I was shooting was going to portray what I saw on the day. The auto-focus is fast and precise and the SL has an amazing sensor and dynamic range that allowed me to do justice to the beautiful contrast between light pastels punctured by the dark weathered skin of the local fishermen. 

Life in Madagascar is simple, meaning local communities rely on the landscape and people around them. Everything outside the cities and towns comes from the land or sea; if you live inland, you farm the fruit, vegetables or Zebu (local cows), if you live by the sea, you fish. When the sun comes up, you get up, when the sun goes down, you go to sleep. The way that the local Madagascans live and eat is a daily trade of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. Members of each village are sent to either the coast or inland to collect food from local markets at its source. In our local village, the fish market was at 11am every day. This meant that the fishermen were out on the water before sunrise every morning, regardless of the weather; they had to fish, they had to trade, they had to eat and there is no easy way of preserving fresh food.

Even on the calm days, the sea was rough. I consider myself a waterman but cannot comprehend how they paddled their single wood carved canoes for 6 hours a day and caught some of the biggest fish I’ve ever seen with a hand line and handmade hooks. It was a display of pure skill and endurance. At 11am, judged purely by the height of the sun, the boats start to return back to the shore from every direction. Some boats had 2-3 guys, while others up to 7-8, boasting sails made from rice bags. As the boats come in, the village started to fill up with those hoping to buy fish for their respective communities. The market was short and hectic, the boats were pushed up the beach by the fishermen, a crowd gathered around each boat as it came in and fish were bought within 3 minutes of being landed. The fish were then hoisted up onto the shoulder of the buyers to then be delivered home. As quickly as the boats came in, people disappeared from the market, heading home to escape the heat of midday and get the fresh fish back to their friends and families. 

It was a spectacle, a sight to behold but one that was part-and-parcel of daily life in South-East Madagascar. I felt honoured to be able to witness it close up and be able to document an integral part of living here. As tourism inevitably increases in Madagascar, it’s nice to see it’s in good hands. It’s not an easy or cheap place to get to, but one of the most idyllic places I’ve ever been, due to the people their stunning landscape and a true sense of adventure.

I’ve travelled to some remote places and far prefer destinations that don’t have a tourism structure on which the locals are dependent. This is when support for the local community and pride in the local traditions rather than the exploitation of their labour is key. When you find somewhere it’s being done right, it’s a place to treasure.

A destination doesn’t just have to be beautiful because of its natural landscape, it is just as much about the people.

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