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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.

Ravalomanana called for peaceful demonstrations. People marched in the mornings down the Avenue de l’Indépendance: 50,000, then 100,000, then 250,000 people. They opened each rally with Protestant hymns. There was no violence, no rioting, no looting. Policemen and women came in civilian clothes, bringing their families. Then they all went home for lunch. Before they went home, they cleaned up the main square. The demonstrations continued for two months.

There was a clash when a Ratsiraka partisan rallied supporters in a different part of town to march on the Ravalomanana demonstration. Hanta watched it on television. The Yoghurt King’s cohorts were led by pastors and by ‘exorcists’. A vanguard of youths from the old President’s rally surrounded a few of the women exorcists, made them kneel down on the ground, and were probably about to beat them up, when a girl who did karate whirled in among the youths, fists and feet flying. The boys were so taken aback that they let the exorcists go. It was all live on TV. ‘Great theatre,’ Hanta said.

Admiral Ratsiraka retreated to the port of Toamasina in his home province, supported by the governors of other coastal provinces. His men blew up bridges and erected blockades on the seven roads into the capital. When the ensuing fuel shortage did not bring the new Government down, his men dynamited electricity pylons by the main dam in the rainforest, briefly depriving whole sections of the city of light and pumped water. His daughter Sophie, in a camouflage jump suit, went around paying off his impromptu militia. A change from last year, when she threw a party in a nightclub and wound up dancing on a table to celebrate the fact that her personal bank account had topped – no, I won’t say how many millions of dollars, because the amount changes every time I’m told the story.

At least 80,000 of the 100,000 jobs in the free trade zone were lost. The only people making any money were Ratsiraka’s militia at the roadblocks. They charged a ‘tax’ for getting fuel across. The most precarious bridges, where there was no detour through the river-beds, were promptly manned by porters who carried litre bottles of petrol across rickety planks to trucks waiting on the other side, over and over, at each bridge. Fuel reached the capital at three, five, ten times its price at the ports. Coastal provinces that supported the Admiral lost their economies, too. Thousands of containers of goods lay on the docks at Toamasina with nowhere to go. Of course, tourism disappeared altogether, and ecotourism – lemur and bird-watching holidays – had been one of Madagascar’s chief sources of foreign exchange.

The new President finally accepted that force would be necessary to retake the provinces. Town after town fell to his soldiers without a shot being fired. In the far north, at Antseranana (Diego Suarez), Coutiti, one of Ratsiraka’s henchmen, held out until 1 July. He chained seventy people to the fence of his compound as hostages, mostly itinerant traders who had nothing to do with the conflict. They were all freed when Ravalomanana’s troops marched in. Coutiti now faces trial.

During the six-month crisis, stones were thrown, shots fired, radio stations trashed, oil barrels rolled onto runways to stop planes landing. In all, though, there were fewer than a hundred violent deaths. The biggest battle left 13 dead, seven on one side and five on the other, and a woman caught in the crossfire. In Fort Dauphin, General Soja, an elder statesman on the Ravalomanana side, said to the leading politician in the other camp: ‘Let us stay calm, and not destroy our beautiful town. Whatever happens to this country, it will not be decided in Fort Dauphin. If your President wins, you will obviously gain power; if mine does, I will. Let us wait and see.’

The real toll does not get counted. Ordinary people did die, most of them children. There were no medicines; prices of staple foods soared; families’ incomes dried up. Flu broke out in a rural part of the central plateau, causing hundreds of deaths. ‘Mystery Killer Virus’, one tiny headline in England said, over a snippet of news. I called the Institut Pasteur to ask about it. The flu strain is well known: anyone in the West who got a flu shot this year or last year is already immunised against it. The real killers are poverty and malnutrition. Under the Admiral’s rule, Madagascar had become one of the poorest countries in the world, possibly the poorest not in a state of war. In the early 1990s, per capita income was $200 a year, though it crept up with the advent of the free trade zone, to about $300. Two-thirds of the population live on less than a dollar a day. Now, after the crisis, the World Bank estimates that the economy will have shrunk by a further 15 per cent in 2002.

Foreign powers have a lot to answer for. The outside world did not recognise Ravalomanana’s Government until 26 June, Madagascar’s Independence Day, when the United States and several others did so. Among African leaders, Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, acknowledged that Ravalomanana was the democratically chosen leader. The Organisation of African Unity, however, in which Ratsiraka was one of the longest-standing participants, would not abandon their old friend – this in spite of his making himself very unpopular by hiring a dozen notorious French mercenaries to try to bolster his sagging troops. Their plane was turned around in Dar-es-Salaam.

France dragged its heels. The French have a long tradition of supporting the Catholic coastal population against the people of the plateau. They also had many business connections with the old Government. In the end, US recognition of the new Government seems to have forced France’s hand, or perhaps it was the debacle of the mercenaries. A week after US recognition, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs flew out to sign agreements. He addressed Marc Ravalomanana as ‘Monsieur le Président’. Two days later, the old Admiral flew away to take up residence in his apartment in Neuilly.

Now that the crisis is over, it will probably take six months for tourism to pick up again. Meanwhile the hotels are open, but empty. Hanta and the others are having lunch at a restaurant near the church. I tell them I’m writing. I don’t want to go anywhere outside this hotel today. Bruno, the only waiter, asks what I want to eat. Zebu tripes à la mode de Caen, perhaps? No, thanks. I wind up with what I suspect Bruno will have for his own lunch, the freshest mackerel I have ever tasted.

You should really go down to the beach, he tells me. Everybody in town is there. This is the third day of a mackerel run. All along the beach, people are swimming because it’s Sunday. They wade, he tells me, with fine-fine nets to catch the little fish, little like sardines. The little fish come in to shore because the mackerel chase them. People in pirogues, dugout canoes, catch the mackerel. Sharks chase the mackerel to where the pirogues catch them. All the butchers in town are angry. They can’t sell their beef. Most of the beef is three days old, now, because for this three days fish is so cheap.

Outside the hotel is a different world. The white sand track from the hotel door leads past tiny huts made from driftwood and old oil-drums. A plank shelf in front of one of them offers four cherry tomatoes and five small onions for sale. Another has a bowl of fried bread-balls, another 20 tamarind pods in five little heaps. As I go by, a woman hastens to offer a prize left from the days when there were tourists: a two-gallon Aepyornis egg, laboriously pieced together from shell fragments left on the beach. Aepyornis was Madagascar’s ten-foot-tall Elephant Bird, the heaviest bird that ever lived, extinct by human hand in historic times. Maybe it was the original model for Sinbad’s Roc, which Marco Polo claimed lived in Madagascar. It is, of course, forbidden to export Aepyornis eggs, even mosaic ones. I wish I could buy it, though. The woman has her four-year-old daughter hold it up to me. The child’s arms barely meet round the shell.

I go down to the water past the Baie des Singes Hotel, a pretty array of modest thatched cabins. Nice place, but the name is wrong: Madagascar doesn’t have monkeys. If it did, we wouldn’t now have its unique and precious radiation of lemurs, relicts of the ancestors of monkeys, apes and human beings. Eighty or ninety per cent of all the species of plants and animals on Madagascar are endemic to the island-continent. They would have no truck with aliens such as monkeys. Furthermore, the hotel sign shows a couple of fat ringtailed lemurs swinging in a hammock. Ringtails don’t live in Fort Dauphin. (Most Malagasy have never seen a wild lemur: lots of people assume that all lemurs have ringed tails, but ringtails are only one of the forty-odd lemur species.) Every species occupies its own part of the country. The few forests left around Fort Dauphin, on the wet south-east coast, hold chocolate-brown lemurs with orange beards. The snazzy black, white and grey ringtails live over the mountains to the west in the spiny desert, or in riverside forests such as Berenty. Tomorrow, after this Sunday in town, Hanta and I and the three students will be back in Berenty Reserve, watching them. Lemurs have their own politics, their own squabbles, their own concerns. The organs of extreme aggression and extreme trust lie right at the front of their mouths – razor-edged upper canines for slashing enemies, lower canines and incisors shaped like the teeth of a comb. Triangle and Square-Tail are grooming partners, maybe mother and daughter, who cuddle together to tooth-comb each other’s fur. The two heads move like reciprocating pistons in the pleasure of mutual massage. Triangle’s baby sometimes has to share its mother’s back with Square-Tail’s baby, as Triangle turns into a combined pram and playground.

At the end of the road, cerulean sea. Long, long rollers of white-fringed waves. A beach crowded with people. Girls swim in underpants, in torn T-shirts, in skirts with the waistband pulled high to cover their breasts. Young blades strut, showing off even to me. (I flatter myself I could pass for 60.) One leans casually on a bicycle as if it were a Porsche, while girls hover and giggle around him. Some wear Ravalomanana sweatshirts: the President’s handsome face beams from their chests. Boys leap the waves, or play football with inflated plastic bags tied off with string. One game boasts a rubber beach ball, red, yellow, blue, which is better than the plastic bags even though it’s punctured. Half the people on the beach are children, most of them wearing nothing at all, sand on their buttocks where they sit to build sandcastles, sea-water pearled on the artful braids of their hair. Out to sea, the blue water is dotted with pirogues pulling in ever more mackerel.

Children crowd round me, squealing: Vazaha! (‘Foreigner’). A voice in English: ‘Remember me? I’m Folo. I used to be a waiter at the Dauphin Hotel when there were jobs.’ A voice in French: ‘Remember me? I’m Niella. One of your students gave me money two years ago to help with my first baby. Look, here’s my second child. I really need more help now, because the baby has no father.’ The baby is a little girl, six months old, in a frilly white dress with her ears just pierced. She doesn’t have earrings yet, just loops of dirty string tied through the holes. Her teenage mother used to sell bracelets and hand-embroidered tray-cloths outside the hotels. But now there are no tourists.

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