The Stuck and the Unstuck: A glimpse at a land lacking opportunity

I am obsessed with the tiny house movement. I spend hours scrolling through Buzzfeed pictures of tiny houses, watching Netflix documentaries and short YouTube videos and daydreaming about my future tiny house with solar panels, an outdoor compost toilet, a cozy loft bed and bookshelves cleverly built into the furniture.

Being in a developing country, like Madagascar, I find myself looking jealously at the tiny bungalows and houses like these:

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It’s exactly what I imagine for myself. (A tropical version, at least. I usually picture a snowy hideaway.) There’s the one-room tiny house, the solar panel, a modest patio and a scooter to zip around town on. And the occupants live a simple life of accomadating tourists, fishing, surfing and sitting together on the porch.

As I sat outside the bungalow next door on the night of my stay in Mahambo thinking about these things, I realized the difference between me and them: Opportunity. I might wish to live the same as them, but most likely they wish to live like me (or at least the me that represents middle class America). I have the opportunity to live like them. I can live small if I want to. But they can’t choose to live big. They can’t travel abroad, scour their country for a job or put away money towards a down payment on a big house.

Even though I thoroughly enjoy camping, I’ve always found it a bit laughable. It’s like we’re playing at being poor. Here, let me wander into the countryside, sleep in an unstable shelter, cook a meager diet of macaroni and canned fish over an open fire, poop in a dirt hole and wash up in the nearest pool of water, because it feels good to temporarily shed the burdens of “convenience culture” and put some distance between me and my gaggle of things

But that is the real level of poverty for many in Madagascar. (Not all. Many have cellphones  and other modern technology and housing. Plus, there’s a middle class.) That is what they’re given when they’re born and it’s nearly impossible to depart from.

I know, as an American, if I ever find myself unemployed, hungry or on the brink of homelessness, I can go to the government for help. If I can’t find a job, that actually means I can’t find a job that suits me. I can always suck it up and apply to take orders at McDonalds.

In Madagascar, it’s extremely hard for people to find jobs – any jobs at all. I have talked to several of the local crew that Mercy Ships has hired as housekeepers and translators and they are especially thankful for their job and quite nervous about what will happen to them when the ship leaves.

They tell me that you must have connections or special favor with someone to get a job in their country. It’s not just a run-to-every-storefront-with-a-resume-and-wait-for-a-callback kind of situation. And if you want a higher-up job, such as working on an airline or for the government, you have to pay people off to get a position. Basically, the people who already have money can get jobs.

The ones who do land a good job and work hard at it and support their families, they get harassed and even attacked for it from people – even family members – who are jealous.

A man from Sierra Leone told me about witch guns. He said it’s dangerous to get a good job because people who have them are often shot with witch guns. Juju men make witch guns with bullets of lead or sugar and use them against people as a superstitious, sinister weapon meant to kill.

During my regular shift one day on the ship, I was mopping the floor with my Malagasy coworker and chatting in a mixture of broken English and charades. He talked about the job corruption in Madagascar and his face turned somber as he said how his brother once  had an important job in town. His brother went to a bar one night and someone put poison in his drink. The man who did it was never arrested or punished and when my coworker came home that day, he found out his brother was dead.

His mom told him not to cry.

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