Alison Jolly

I woke up a little bit jealous of Wendy. She told me yesterday that a baby lemur had jumped right into her lap. It was Triangle’s baby, a precocious extrovert. Triangle, named for her high-peaked white brow, is the troop’s alpha animal; her infant is fearless. The troop was taking a siesta on the forest floor of the Berenty reserve. The hot afternoon sun filtered down through layers of emerald tamarind leaves (a cliché, but an unavoidable one: Crataeva new leaves are chartreuse, Celtis leaves are viridian, but tamarind leaves against the sun really do glow like emeralds). Triangle and Square-Tail dozed with their black and white ringed tails flung over their shoulders like feather boas. Infants bounced down from their mothers’ backs to play on the leaf-litter. Month-old ringtails look like miniature adults: the same black and white clown make-up and soft grey fur. You might expect their stubby little tails to be fluffy nothings, but they are striped as formally as a zebra crossing. They are only the size of two-week-old kittens. When a kitten would just be finding its feet, ringtail infants play at hop-and-pop like children’s toys with springs in their tummies. The hops usually carry them onto another lemur, which can make it hard for the adults to get any sleep. When Triangle’s baby jumped into her lap, Wendy, a student from Kansas newly arrived in Madagascar, was taking earnest notes on her clipboard. To the infant, she was just another troop-mate.

Wendy sat with her mouth open. The infant perched where it had landed. Triangle opened one eye, but made no move. After a few moments, a half-grown male juvenile, a one-year-old, came up to Wendy, nose forward, clicking dubiously. Triangle’s baby took the invitation and popped into the air again, this time landing on its brother or cousin, who carried it back in the general direction of its mother. I’ve been watching ringtailed lemurs off and on for forty years. A baby has never yet hopped on me. So I’m jealous. But I’m also impressed by the trust it displays.

At breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel le Dauphin, in Fort Dauphin at the south-east corner of the island-continent, I’m the only person sitting among tables and chairs for fifty non-existent visitors. The core hotel staff stay on, so I am served as usual with French bread, warm croissant, café au lait and Fort Dauphin’s speciality, rose-pink papaya. The terrace is set about with hibiscus and orchids. A ten-foot poinsettia tree holds both cream-coloured and scarlet flowers over my head. In front of me spreads the great fan of a Traveller’s Palm, symbol of Madagascar. Wendy, my colleague Hanta Rasamimanana and Hanta’s own two students have gone to church to hear the singing, and there’s nobody else around.

For the first half of 2002, Madagascar had two rival Presidents. The new man, Marc Ravalomanana, claimed that he had won the elections of December 2001 outright. Ravalomanana is often called the ‘Yoghurt King’. He is a self-made millionaire, head of Tiko, the largest Malagasy-owned private business, which makes and markets yoghurt and soft drinks throughout the country. The Yoghurt King promised government reform: honesty, efficiency, even cleanliness. As Mayor of Antananarivo, the capital, he had led a much-needed campaign to clear up the town’s rubbish.

The previous President, Admiral Didier Ratsiraka, admitted coming second with only 41 per cent of the vote, but said that his challenger had gained only 46 per cent, not an overall majority, so there should be a run-off between them. Madagascar has grown used to widespread election fraud since the Admiral first came to power in 1975, so no one will ever know what the totals actually were. In any case, the Yoghurt King won five out of six provinces, and overwhelming support in the capital.

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