Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world at 228,900 square miles. 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else, and it features a unique ecosystem with staggering natural resources. It’s been the subject of National Geographic specials and very successful (and cute) animated kids’ movies. Contrasting to all of those details, is the fact that the vast majority of the citizens live in extreme poverty and suffer from malnutrition, while the government is in near-constant turmoil.
Cam Cowan is a former attorney, and Madagasikara is his first documentary feature. Rather than bury us in bottom-of-the-world economic data, or frustrate us with details of years of political corruption and upheaval, he allows us to focus on the very personal stories of three women…each woman striving to survive and provide for her family.
Lin offers laundry services for the community. The first day we see her, she makes 28 cents, which just about covers the cost of 2 cups of white rice. One of Lin’s babies died a few months after birth, and she buried the young girl at the front door stoop, so that she never forgets. Deborah began as a sex worker at age 12. She recounts how some physically abuse her and don’t pay. Her dream was to be a lawyer, but now she hopes her kids can get the education she was denied. Tina busts rocks in the local quarry. She spends hours each day under the sun without even the luxury of gloves to protect her hands.
In 2009, Malagasy citizens took to the streets to protest corruption in government. The international community responded by cutting off support. That support accounted for 60% of social services, including food, healthcare, and education. A sinking country sunk even lower. We learn that Madagascar is the only country untouched by war where the populace is now poorer than they were in 1960. In fact, the majority of citizens earn less than $2.00 per day, and 80-90% fall below the poverty line.
As a mother plucks fleas and larvae from her kids’ feet, she admonishes them with, “From now on, tell me when you have fleas in your feet.” We may think parenting is difficult, but my guess is, you’ve never warned your kids about fleas nesting under their skin. The film touches on some of the issues with government structure, but there really isn’t enough time for a deep dive. We also learn about humanitarian Father Pedro, who helps educate and feed children. He’s the subject of Mr. Cowan’s next documentary, Opeka, which is being released as a follow up to this one.
The island’s natural resources are not really discussed here, as the focus is on the people and the daily hardships they endure. There is an undeniable spirit amongst these people, even though it’s a struggle to find hope. Some of the international support has returned, but it’s clear real change won’t happen until the government is structured to support the citizenry and trust is restored. This is tough to watch, but we must.
Madagasikara is available on Amazon Prime.