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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
Writing for Madagascar's president
By Luke Freeman
Antananarivo, Madagascar

One night I was a dusty cowboy surviving on dry meat and rice, sleeping on a bed of straw on the starlit plains of western Madagascar. The next evening I was dressed in a dark suit and flying over the same plains in the presidential jet.
A cowboy herding zebus in Madagascar
Luke herded zebu cattle 300 miles to market

By nightfall I was sleeping in the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa.

This bizarre double life of extremes began after I won a travel bursary in 2003, which gives first-timers the chance to make a radio programme.

Taking research leave from my job as an anthropology lecturer in London, I set off microphone in hand to Madagascar to live the life of the young cowboys who drive herds of long-horned, hump-backed zebu on foot across this vast Indian Ocean island.

Tough men

I already knew the country well, having spent a year trying to learn French there as an undergraduate, and later living for two years in a remote rice-farming village where I conducted anthropological fieldwork.

Cattle crossing a crocodile infested river in Madagascar

In that first year I taught English to a dynamic young businessman called Marc Ravalomanana; on my second visit I learned the Malagasy language and culture in depth.

These two things were to coincide dramatically on this, my third visit to the great red island.

The cowboys of Madagascar are incredibly tough young men, living 12 months a year on the ancient cattle tracks.

I joined a group and we drove our cattle 300 miles to market over dry plains and through dripping forest, along lonely tracks and national highways.

We carried with us only basics: a blanket, a cooking pot, dry rice, perhaps some meat, and a plastic sheet to make an impromptu tent.

Self-made millionaire

This material simplicity is largely born of poverty. Madagascar is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world.

London-based anthropologist Luke Freeman
I spent two months alternating between driving cattle and lunching with ministers
Luke Freeman
Since gaining independence from France in 1960 it has struggled economically. From 1975 to 2002 it was ruled almost continually by one man, Didier Ratsiraka.

He pursued a policy of nationalist Marxism which left Madagascar isolated when the Soviet Union collapsed.

After losing the presidential election in 2001, Mr Ratsiraka eventually left office, but only after bringing his country to the brink of civil war.

He was replaced by an inexperienced politician and self-made millionaire whose dairy business had become the most successful company in the island.

The new president was Marc Ravalomanana, my former English student.

New shoes

On the first day back from my first herding journey, covered in red dust and smelling of straw and cattle, I received a telephone call from the presidency: "Be here in 40 minutes, Dr Freeman, the president wants to see you."

Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana
Teach me to speak like [Kofi Annan]
President Marc Ravalomanana
I hurriedly borrowed a suit and tie and took a taxi stopping off on the way to the palace to buy some tidy shoes.

My former pupil was pleased to see me and immediately asked me to write him the keynote speech he was to give in English the following day to a World Wide Fund for Nature conference.

Not wanting to refuse a president, I hastily got down to work and the next morning rehearsed the speech with him, and coached him in body language and intonation.

That afternoon he delivered it to a standing ovation. He was delighted. He had often been criticised for his inability to speak in public.

From then on he wouldn't let me go and I became his chief speech writer, even in Malagasy.

He took me on tours of the island in his helicopter, while I hurriedly wrote speeches to be delivered to enthusiastic crowds.

Job offer

I spent two months alternating between driving cattle and lunching with ministers, as a presidential adviser.

At the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, as the president and I sat together behind the Malagasy flag he asked me to become his director of communications.

Madagascar's presidential palace
Luke Freeman may yet take up a post at the presidency
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had just finished speaking.

"Teach me to speak like that," he said.

Although he may be politically inexperienced, 54-year-old President Ravalomanana is no hothead.

He had established his dairy business by taking quick decisions and seizing opportunities.

He had seen in me somebody who could solve his communication difficulties and help him address the English-speaking world, with whom he is keen to forge political and economic alliances.

On a domestic level he had found someone who knows the Malagasy people from the bottom up, and who, unlike him, lives with cattle drovers and rice farmers.

He saw my use to him before I did.

It may just be that the cowboy who wandered in off the plains could be the person to help him.

Luke Freeman won the Journey of a Lifetime Award, a travel bursary funded by the BBC and Royal Geographical Society.

Economy woes spur Malagasy unrest
16 Jun 04  |  Business
Madagascar resurrects old currency
09 Jul 03  |  Business
Profile: Marc Ravalomanana
11 Mar 02  |  Africa
Country profile: Madagascar
20 Jul 04  |  Country profiles

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