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Bullocks and cannibals

When the first Christian missionaries in Madagascar spoke of "conquering the heart of the Malagasy people," it was taken literally

The incessant tinny banging of the left-side wheel, the rattle of wood badly joined, the snorting and wheezing of the bullocks, their farts, the cries and tongue-clicking of the cart driver, the slap of his reins on the backs of the animals: here was a world of sounds I had never heard before. The bullock cart advances slowly along the rutted uneven track, throwing me from side to side.

It's noon, the sun is coming down like a load of molten lead. In the region of Marovoay, in the north of the island of Madagascar, I am looking for stories on "tomorrow's hunger." The massive appropriations of land in Africa by multinationals, with a view to growing export crops on it, are the principal threat to the food supply of a continent where nutrition is already a problem.

Of the 870 million people in the world who chronically go hungry, almost a third live in Africa, and the charity Oxfam calculates that, in the course of the last decade, foreign states and companies have taken control of more than half a million square kilometers of African land: as much as Spain. Here, not long ago, a British firm received from the Malagasy government some 30,000 hectares that had always been used by zebu herders. The region is just about on a war footing: there have been confrontations, shots fired and buildings burnt.

White people sometimes carry away a man, a woman, a child — and they never appear again

But now in the cart, the driver and his companion, who is built like a weightlifter, are talking. The tone sounds a bit funny; Tatá, my interpreter, explains in whispers that they are afraid. They are wondering why they agreed to carry me. They are afraid I will steal them. White people sometimes carry away a man, a woman, a child — and they never appear again.

"What?"

"Yes, everyone here knows that white people sometimes carry someone off, to take out his organs, to sacrifice him. Here the company, when it arrived, sacrificed a man to ensure good harvests. Didn't you know?"

Tatá tells me this. I ask him how he knows. There are no secrets around here. People know things. They're talking about it now, they're very frightened. Now it was me who was frightened. I said: "I hope they don't take it seriously, and do something about it."

"Don't worry," said Tatá, and explained: "They think you have some special power. They can't do anything to you. They only hope you don't want to eat them, that you're here for the reason you said."

Some days later it was explained to me that when the first Christian missionaries came to the island, they spoke of "conquering the heart of the Malagasy people," and that this expression of supposedly Christian love was used by the local priests to convince the local people that the Christians would also rob them of their entrails. Since then the suspicion has lingered that white men are inherently inclined to the theft of organs; and even today Malagasy mothers, when they wish to make their children behave, threaten them with sending a bogeyman — a white man — who is going to take out a kidney or some other organ.

We speak, in so far as we can, of culture shock. Or of the confusions that help the process of plundering what we are pleased to call the Third World.

But just now I am scared, and the road seems to be a long one. The bullocks are all humps, legs, horns, backs splashed with water, the slimy manure that runs down their legs, the flies that swarm on them, the dust they raise. The image is exotic and monotonous, two qualities that are not often found together. And I only hope that the illusion of my power will last till the end of the journey: that one legend will protect me from another.

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