Cowboys of Madagascar
The anthropologist Luke Freeman joins a group of young Malagasy men on the cattle trail.
As a socio-cultural anthropologist, I’ve lived in Madagascar for more than three years and I know the people, the language and the culture well. The cattle drives undertaken by young Malagasy men have fascinated me ever since I lived in a remote rice-farming village in the central highlands.Select
This gives an indication of how much the Malagasy love cattle. They are potent symbols on the island and it is common practice for young men to trade in them prior to marriage.
To fulfil my ambition, I headed for the frontier town of Tsiroanomandidy looking for a group of drovers with whom to share life on the road. Here I met Vonjy, a young man who had spent most of his life driving cattle across the island.Select
Our destination sat in the middle of nowhere, abandoned in a landscape of wide plains, where nothing grows but tall, swaying savannah grass. Undulating hills dip and rise to the horizon, the monotony broken only by the broad red scars of soil erosion. There is often no sign of life for miles. This was the land we were to cross with our herd of 52 zebu steers, the long-horned cattle found all over East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.Select
Far off in the darkness glowed the orange rings of bushfires lit to burn off the old dry grass and bring forth new green shoots. Ground that seemed flat in the daylight became treacherously uneven on a moonless night. Some of us formed a line either side of our cattle as we struggled to keep the herd together, shouting warnings to the drovers behind us. On one occasion we stopped to discover that two of our steers had disappeared.Select
The next morning we awoke, dew-damp, on a cloudy hilltop, not far from our destination. The cattle mooched slowly in the tall, wet grass. It was just dawn, but a woman and her daughter who had walked 16 kilometres to set up shop were already selling coffee and cakes wrapped in leaves.
Tsiroanomandidy hosts the largest cattle market in Madagascar. Every Wednesday, a huge cloud of dust hangs over the town, raised by the hundreds of cattle pressed into the wooden corrals.Select
This was an easier journey, a slow wandering over the highest peaks of central Madagascar. The head drover was a laid-back languorous man who didn’t raise an eyebrow when he heard I was joining his team; we nicknamed him the President. Our somewhat haphazard meanderings through the hinterland came to a sudden end when, passing through a village near Firavahana, the President found a buyer for his cattle. It would take a couple of days to sort out the paperwork, so Vonjy and I decided to leave him to it.Select
From there, we got a lift 400 kilometres by road down to Madagascar’s second biggest cattle market at Ambalavao, where Vonjy had more family in the trade. We joined them on another cattle drive up through the central highlands along Madagascar’s main north-south road.
The highlands are the most crowded part of the island; every last hectare of land has been carved into neat rice terraces that scale the hillsides. From here, our journey took us eastwards into the forest.Select
I learnt that such minor hardships were easily overcome as my body became conditioned to the rhythm of the road: walking at cattle pace, prodding and coaxing the beasts; listening to the drovers’ soft talk.
If there’s a lesson to be learnt from the young men with whom I travelled, it’s just how simple travelling can be. Over the hundreds of kilometres I travelled with the drovers, I never heard a cross word or an argument. You don’t need a whole lot to be happy on such a journey.