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Atlantic Abroad
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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • Heaven in a Ballotin (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, August 13, 1997).

  • The Tentative Tourist (C. Michael Curtis, Spain, July 30, 1997).

  • The Sausages of Wrath (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, July 16, 1997).

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

    Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

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    August 27, 1997

    On a recent trip to Antananarivo to sort out interminable visa problems, I was thunderstruck by actual patches of green grass, six newly imported traffic lights, and buildings covered with fresh paint for the first time in a generation. The reason for the flurry of activity is that as September starts Madagascar will host the Third International Francophone Games. And although the publicity claims that this congregation of athletes, storytellers, and folk dancers is simply a celebration of the French-speaking diaspora, the underlying theme is the fight against both Americanism and the globalization of the English language. On the home front the French political class has been waging an open and unsuccessful battle against the onslaught of Heinz Ketchup, McDonald's, Disney, and the Internet. The French refuse to accept that English is the language of computer technology and air-traffic control, of fax machines and satellite links, of diplomacy and art. As American products, services, and ideas continue to penetrate new geographic areas, more and more people communicate with one another in English -- which is why the French came up with the idea of funding a sports competition limited to French-speaking athletes.

    And what will the hundreds of Quebecois, Haitians, Congolese, and others see when they debark in the squalid capital of this neglected island? Madagascar is one of the ten poorest countries on earth. The displaced families of Antananarivo live off strewn piles of meager Third World garbage, sleep in the tunnels that link sections of this hilltop city to one another, and fish for protein in the great river-like sewer that evacuates waste from the city center. Seventy-five percent of the population of 14 million live in absolute poverty, 91 percent have no electricity, 68 percent have no access to potable water, and 30 percent of the nation's infants are severely malnourished. As far as the environment goes, the magnificent rain forests of the eastern escarpment suffer the highest rate of deforestation on the planet. Madagascar is an unmitigated disaster zone, and I have spent the last year criss-crossing this brick-red island trying to find out why.

    Madagascar was chosen to host the French-language games because, oddly enough, "Mada" has more French passport holders than any other country in Africa. Most of these 20,000 nominal Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, however, have never seen France; some don't even speak French. During the first North Korean-inspired reign of Admiral Didier Ratsiraka (1975-1991), French was banned from schools and public functions. But in a grand comeback after a short exile in Paris, Ratsiraka regained the Presidency in February of this year -- and now, suspiciously, French is back in vogue. By financing the games in Madagascar, France and her tenacious bureaucrats have the chance to be treated like front-runners in the new world order. The games also give Ratsiraka a chance to divert national and international attention from his not-so-subtle political maneuvers. And that is what these games are all about: influence, image, and France's last-gasp effort to make an impact on Africa and retain a little of its long-lost prestige.

    The Malagash have spruced up Antananarivo considerably. The army closed down the biggest outdoor market in the Third World (the famous Zoma) and years of excrement and black bile have been buried under a layer of asphalt donated by the Japanese. Whole apartment complexes have been requisitioned and semi-rehabilitated to shelter foreign guests. A brand-new stadium dominates a long-neglected quarter of the city. Reading the French sections of the local newspapers, you would think that the Third International Francophone Games were the most closely followed, most renowned sporting event in the world. But as an American married to a Frenchwoman, with two dual-nationality kids, I can't help wondering if the Malagash aren't putting their eggs in the wrong basket. Because while the Malagash are all relearning French, the French are learning to speak English. Like it or not.

    John Robinson is a freelance writer. He is currently living in Madagascar as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.

    From The Atlantic's archives:
  • "Otherwordly Madagascar" (January 1996)
  • "Madagascar Proverbs" (March 1927)

    Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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