I have been visiting Antalaha, a little laid back town in north eastern Madagascar, for just over a week now. On its surface, and on the strength of its outwardly run down and seemingly abandoned buildings, Antalaha strikes you as a town in sharp decline.
The supposedly dilapidated Governor’s residence, for example, an edifice of a colonial past, leads one to incorrectly assume that the infrastructure of the colonial period was squandered by an incompetent post-independence leadership.
And yet a closer and deliberate engagement with the people and the culture of Antalaha reveals a vibrant, happy, bustling and cultural place and, most of all, a quality of life that is, in some respects, far superior to what I have observed in many Western cities and, certainly, in many East African towns that are comparable in size.
People just seem unusually happy in Antalaha. The beachfront, patronised by both younger and older couples, is exceptionally pleasant. Various bars operating in different parts of the city over the weekend are busy with patrons responsibly enjoying their local alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, karaoke, disco music, kebabs, and so on.
Young teenagers, male and female, seemingly walk freely in this town, during day and night, and with neither the fear of accidents nor of abduction nor any kind of other physical harm.
I haven’t seen an askari guarding the premises of my hotel, nor seen any at the larger or smaller hotels in the various areas of this little town. In fact, I haven’t seen a single gun since I have been here.
I walked by the local police station and I was struck by the evidently bored policemen, and the absence of motor accident relics, and domestic disputes, and suspects arrested for petty crimes, and crammed cells, which you will see at nearly every Ugandan police station.
In fact, over the several days that I have been here, I haven’t witnessed a single motor accident, and yet motor traffic is perhaps just as busy as in Busia, my home town, where random road accidents are unnecessarily the norm.
Gender norms also seem extremely fluid in Antalaha. Men and women, young and old, ride around on mopeds, and this, in many ways, unsettles mainstream notions of gendered spaces and relations that playout at the expense of women in many Ugandan communities.
Women dress very skimpily, and yet the evidently nonexistent sexism, and nonexistent objectification of women’s bodies, suggests that women’s rights, and especially their standing in the society, are at odds with what we tend to associate with Ugandan gender norms.
I visited the local hospital and was just as struck by the presence of several empty, and yet neat, hospital beds. It could be that people here seek healthcare from the various non-formal healthcare providers, rather than from the district hospital, and yet what seems more plausible is that the burden of disease and medical conditions are simply lower than what I am used to seeing displayed in Uganda’s health facilities.
Several debilitating social conditions existing in many parts of Uganda yield a quality of life that is highly wanting and, in many respects, in sharp decline.
In some sense, Antalaha reminds me of the profoundly important work we still need to do in our own Ugandan communities, the development gap that we need to close, and social issues we need to address, in Uganda. The common stresses pervasive in many Ugandans’ lives, and how they manifest, is more or less taken for the norm. Visit any Ugandan hospital and you should be shocked by the number of boda boda accident victims lying unattended to.
Something is fundamentally wrong with our community life, our community spirit, our sense of public duty, and our responsibility to each other, especially in many Ugandan cities and towns.
Mr Lumonya, PhD, is the academic dean,School for International Training, Vermont, USA.