Before I give my account of the political strikes, I must provide some context. My context is limited to two sentences, however, so I don’t accidentally break Peace Corps’ policy of remaining apolitical. Marc Ravalomanana has been president of Madagascar since 2002. His success began by starting Tiko, a business that sells dairy products and cooking oil.
The strike came to my town on January 27. A few days earlier the Peace Corps had been sending text messages to warn every volunteer of increasing political tensions in the capital, Antananarivo, and to prohibit us from going there. The mayor of Antananarivo had called for the anti-Ravalomanana strikes. A string of lootings, fires, and gunshots happened in the capital before anyone in my region was roused to action. The only way we were affected by the strikes was when the rioters cut our news outlets by setting fire to the national radio and television stations.
On January 27 I finished giving an exam that afternoon and was walking past the director’s office when he called me over and said, “The Tiko store is giving away all its food. You should go get some yogurt and cheese.” I walked home and told my neighbor, Jean-Louis, about Tiko. “What?” my other neighbor said. “Jordan, do not go to Tiko. The strikes are here.” I listened to her, so instead of going to get free cheese I went home and graded a few tests. Then I heard a large group of people cheering. I ran behind my home to my neighbors and found them looking toward my middle school from around a building corner. Next to the middle school was a national radio broadcasting station, and it was there where a mob had gathered.
“Jordan,” Jean-Louis said, “Tiko has been burnt down. They burnt it down!” Just then the Peace Corps called me and told me to pack an emergency bag in case I needed to evacuate my village. Commotions like the one in my village were happening all over Madagascar. I returned to my front door and saw the mob moving to the sea port, which is a mere twenty second walk from my home. A man stood on top of the entrance roof and hovered triumphantly over the mob of men and women young and old. The gates were pulled open and the mob rushed inside cheering. As I threw together a bag of clothes, valuables and mementoes, bangs and crashes came from the mob forcing open the iron storage units in the port. BANG! Cheers. BANG! Cheers. Soon afterwards men began emerging through the gates with sacks of brown sugar and vanilla on their backs. The loot was handled in a variety of ways. Some men set the sacks onto their bicycles and wobbled home, while others’ families ripped open the sacks, stuffed bundles of vanilla into their shirts, and walked away. A Renault 4 drove up with ten passengers inside; the people jumped out and were soon replaced by sacks. The atmosphere was lighthearted as if the village had transformed into Disneyland’s Downtown U.S.A. Much of the mob were onlookers, and they strolled throughout the port watching their fellow townspeople steal millions of dollars of domestic produce.
A white car labeled “POLICE” drove up and out came three men in army berets and camouflage garb. The crowd of people did not give them a second’s notice. With semi-automatic rifles in their arms, the military men walked around for a while, watched the lootings, returned to the car, and drove off. My village was lawless.
For three hours the port was looted until every last gram of sugar and sprig of vanilla disappeared. At its end it was already nighttime and I was talking on the phone to my girlfriend. Then a few gunshots were fired from the road in front of my house. I quickly turned off my bedroom light, hung up the phone, and lay silently on my bed with a whistle in my hand. I’ve never been more scared than I was at that moment. In a haze of tiredness and fear I thought of what I’d do if the shooter were to come to the vazaha’s house—the vazaha who probably has lots of money and electronics in his house: I’d blow my whistle, alerting the neighbors; I’d duck under a table; I’d sit in my cement-blocked shower to avoid any bullets; I’d remain motionless in bed and hope he would give up and leave; I’d lay on the floor; and dozens of other thoughts. After seeing the military shrug off the lootings at the port, would they do anything to stop a shooter? All the excitement wore me into a deep and uninterrupted sleep.
The next morning I awoke and was astonished that I’d fallen asleep at such a time of terror. I opened my front door and saw that people were leaving their homes and walking around. It was safe outside. I took my bike and leisurely rode through the village. It had the aura of a morning after a night of hard drinking. Most stores were closed, and the townspeople, usually boisterous and jolly, were disconcertingly subdued. We looked at the village and at each other in a new way and were incredulous that people among us today were the same people who had rioted here yesterday.
The military had now appeared and had stationed themselves in groups around town. They announced on the radio that they would shoot anyone holding a gun and anyone attempting to loot local businesses. They also enacted an 8:30 p.m. curfew and would be searching people’s homes for sugar and vanilla. Around noontime they broke the town into segments and forbid anyone from traveling among the segments. I could not eat at my regular restaurant for lunch because it was outside my neighborhood’s boundaries.
Since there was a media blackout, nobody knew what was happening outside the village. Rumors spread that Marc Ravalomanana had either resigned or was murdered, riots had attacked foreign-owned shops in Sambava, a few people were killed in Andapa and Antalaha, and Tiko stores throughout Madagascar were ransacked and burned. We only knew that a 200-liter drum of cooking oil fell on a woman’s foot and severed it and that our Tiko had been reduced to ashes. We also knew that the gunshots in the street were from a gendarme who had fired his gun to scare everyone into their homes.
Last weekend most Peace Corps volunteers packed their bags and consolidated to towns throughout Madagascar. My girlfriend is safe in a village outside Antananarivo. I write to you now from a hotel in the SAVA region, where five other volunteers and I are staying until the political situation either fizzles out or intensifies. If it’s the former, we’ll return to our sites; if it’s the latter, the Peace Corps will fly us out of the country to mainland Africa. In mainland Africa our futures will be uncertain. We could return to Madagascar, continue our Peace Corps services in other countries, or simply go home to the United States. For now, we wait. But please know that we Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers are presently out of harm’s way and are crossing our fingers to return to our sites soon.