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Visions of The Other: Swiss & Malagasy See, But Do They Understand?

Where do Switzerland and Madagascar meet, and what do the people of each place think of those in the other? Eva Keller, in her recently published Beyond the Lens of Conservation: Malagasy and Swiss Imaginations of One Another, in seeking to connect these two places winds up highlighting the disconnect between them. Following, the author offers a brief glimpse into the volume from two directions: from a Swiss classroom looking at Madagascar and from a Malagasy man looking at a national park.

 

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Read the following extract of a conversation which took place in a Swiss classroom with pupils aged between 11 and 12. My questions are in italics.

 

 

What do you know about Madagascar?

 

Takschan: I think there are cannibals there, I think, the people, like they eat the flesh.

 

Why do you think that, where did you learn this?

 

In a film.

 

 

A film about Madagascar?

 

No, a South African film.

 

 

You are talking about people eating other people?

 

 

 

What do the other children think? Is Takschan right?

 

Justin: Yes.

 

 

Why do you think so?

 

Justin: I don’t know, because there are Indianer [American Natives] there.

Marko: About the cannibals, I think there are perhaps cannibals there, because there are surely Ureinwohner [aboriginal inhabitants] who live there, too.

 

 

Is that the same?

 

There is a murmur in the class indicating that not all the children agree with the suggestion that Ureinwohner are the same as cannibals.

Marko: Perhaps some of the Ureinwohner are cannibals.

 

 

What do you think an Ureinwohner is? What do you imagine an Ureinwohner to be like?

 

Marko: Someone who lives in a hut and things like that, and in the rainforest. Without clothes.

Lundrin: I think that Madagascar is not a rich country, it’s more like poor. And because of the Ureinwohner, I also think that there might be cannibals living there.

 

 

What do you understand by ‘Ureinwohner’?

 

Lundrin: People who have grown up there.

 

 

Like you and I have grown up in Winterthur [name of the town where the school is located]?

 

Lundrin: No, not like that, those who were the very first people there.

 

 

What do you imagine the lives of Ureinwohner to be like? If one is an Ureinwohner, how do you think one lives?

 

Lundrin: A little bit poorer than others, in huts, on straw.

 

 

I was amazed at such statements! How was it possible, I pondered, that Swiss children believe to know such things about the people living in Madagascar? And how is this related to the contemporary discourse on Nature conservation?

 

Read the first part of the book and you will find out what I have to say about these questions!

 

In Madagascar, in villages close to a strictly protected national park on the Masoala peninsula in the country’s northeast, an old man told me what he felt about the park:

 

‘And so if it is the nature of this park to imprison this land, I am sure that there will be slavery again very soon from now. The land will be fenced off, the things you need are inside the boundary, and you are left with nothing. “Let them suffer!” That is the park. (…) The time when there are no more slaves just wouldn’t come, upto this day. People in Madagascar don’t have strength. Weare like flowers’, he ended his reflections – perhaps he meantthe delicate flower of the vanilla orchid that, in order to be pollinated,needs to be, and easily is, ‘broken’.

 

If you are curious to understand better what this old man’s reflections on a nature conservation area on his doorstep have to do with Swiss children’s statements about Madagascar, then read the book!

 

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Eva Keller has been carrying out anthropological research in Madagascar since 1998 and is currently a research fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Zurich. She received her Ph.D. from the London School of Economics in 2002 and is the author of The Road to Clarity.