And a comfortable security. French military units remain here. Public-housing projects are numerous and well maintained. “Only Communists want independence,” said Charles Henri Robert, a 22-year-old student. “Not an important group. We will remain French.”
Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, did not remain French, and the loss was harsh. With 9.4 million people—the Malagasy—it ranks second only to Sri Lanka as the most populous nation moated by the Indian Ocean. I found it a land of emerald foliage, and red earth steep as the hills of Italy. To me Madagascar seemed the most beautiful, and perhaps the most baffling, land in the area.
I arrived on an Air Madagascar 747. Just a year earlier this same great plane had been welcomed to local use with a blood sacrifice: A zebu bull, its hooves tied, was ceremoniously killed at Ivato airport to ensure successful voyages.
The capital, Antananarivo—city of a thousand warriors—is a cubist arrangement of stairs and streets. This was the highland capital of the Merina people whose monarchs ruled Madagascar from a hilltop palace until the 1890s. French elegance dressed later facades, and through the years many a French colonial retired here. Today, though France still provides considerable foreign aid, there are changes: For example, there’s the empty, scorched Hotel de Ville, the city hall wrecked in uprisings of 1972. Tree-rimmed Lake Anosy reflects a French monument to the dead of World War I, but across the street, grounds of the Presidential Palace look besieged: girt by barbed wire, guard towers, and armed soldiers wearing jungle camouflage with red berets.
Madagascar is now ruled by President Didier Ratsiraka, who characterizes his regime as “Christian Marxist.” The president, however, does not have time to attend Mass; he has been busy building socialism with the abundant help of Eastern-bloc nations.