Since the change of government in Madagascar in March 2009, the country and its economy have been perched on the edge of a very steep cliff. The United States has repeatedly threatened to revoke Madagascar's AGOA eligibility which would destroy at least half of the textile industry here, eliminating as many as 50,000 jobs and returning perhaps as many as 300,000 people to poverty. AGOA - the African Growth and Opportunity Act - is a US law passed in 2000, mainly for the benefit of the petroleum industry, that allows thousands of African exports to enter the US duty-free. Thanks to AGOA, in petroleum-free Madagascar, a quarter billion dollar textile industry blossomed over the last decade.
My colleague and friend John, who heads the exporters' association here, went to Washington in April to plead Madagascar's case with the US Trade Representative's office and other government agencies. Their advice was to put pressure on Madagascar's clan of Hatfield-McCoy politicians, get them to play nice and return the country to constitutional government as soon as possible. Barring that, it would be game over for Madagascar.
Me, ever seeking windmills to tilt at, got involved in the fall of 2008 with the creation of an American Chamber of Commerce in Madagascar. When only one other American citizen showed up at a crucial steering committee meeting, I wound up as president of our newly formed association. Then came the events of January, February and March 2009 and quite suddenly I found myself talking politics and economics with folks at the highest levels of business, government and civil society in Madagascar. When the US said it would not talk or deal with the folks who took power in mid-March, my involvement grew even more as unexpectedly I found myself an intermediary talking to both sides but on behalf of neither.
It was a bit more than I volunteered for, and volunteering is what I have been doing.
The last ten months have been among the most stupefying and frustrating of my life, and I am someone who has worked for the US government and so am familiar with stupefaction and frustration. Despite trying every trick in and out of the book, and the impending demise of US-Madagascar relations, the pleading, lobbying, petition gathering, press conference holding, late night telephone talking that John, I and others had engaged in had advanced the prospect of saving the country's economy not a millimeter.
We would hold our last stand in Nairobi, at the annual AGOA Forum, at the beginning of August. Hillary Clinton would be there. The US Trade Representative would be there. Members of Congress would be there. Everyone who was anyone, plus a lot of nobodies, would be there. We would make the case one last time.
However, when John went to Washington in April to make the case the first time, bureaucrats were unmoved by his six-foot several inches height, thinning straight hair, and pasty white complexion. Despite his having invested 20 years in developing Madagascar's textile industry, they said he didn't look like the Malagasy people he was pleading for - who are generally somewhere between the complexions of sandalwood and ebony and rarely taller than 5' 5".
So before heading off to Nairobi, we began our own star search among the country's 100,000 textile workers.
Ideally she would be a she. She would speak some English, but not so well as to avoid entertaining hesitations and faux pas. She would be a mom and the only provider for her extended family. She would have years of textile experience, beginning on the factory floor. She would have a palpable sense of desperation because she, like everyone else in the industry here, would have no idea where she would go, how she would earn a living or support her family if AGOA for Madagascar were revoked.
A handful of phone calls later, we found her. Felana. A twenty-eight year old single mom of an eleven-year-old boy. The sole support for her younger sisters. Ten years experience in textiles from the cutting tables to middle management. Decent English made even better by a blushing hesitation. Cute as a kitten and not a lot bigger.
She had never been out of Madagascar.
The seriousness of the situation was made clear by the transitional Ministry of Foreign Affairs getting her a passport in less than 24 hours.
We met at the airport. She had never been on a plane before.
We've seen the movies. The ones that take the Big formula and reverse it. Thirty Going on Thirteen, Suddenly Seventeen and probably some others in which an adult suddenly becomes a wide-eyed youth. Hollywood has made it entertaining. Watching it in real life, in real time, was incredibly charming.
So many things that we take for granted, John and I found ourselves thinking about and explaining to Felana. As the flight attendants explained the emergency procedures before take-off, Felana hung on every word. She was remarkably cool but in no way indifferent the way a too-cool teen might be. Whatever John and I might explain - like the route the plane would take, where the toilets were, how she could have whatever she wanted to drink and as much of it as she might like - she would take it in as though we were explaining some new scientific theory, and then she would burst a tremendous irregular smile that at once indicated she got it and that whatever it was was too funny, silly or incomprehensible to really be true.
Although there was no ball and no pumpkin was transformed into a coach, Cinderella's adventure was certainly no less miraculous than Felana's.
In Antananarivo, and in all of Madagascar, there are very, very few miles of more than two-lane roads. Leaving the airport in Nairobi, we were soon stuck in some of the city's notoriously bad traffic, on a six-lane highway. How was this possible? Where was everyone going? Is that their type of local bus? Why was the driver sitting on the wrong side of the car?
Madagascar has exactly one building more than 20 stories high, and it was only just completed. Nairobi has dozens. Antananarivo ("Tana") is one of the world's most difficult to navigate cities, with no parallel roads and impassable rice fields still penetrating right to the heart of town. Downtown Nairobi is a grid pattern. While most first-time visitors to Nairobi might find it chaotic and crowded beyond belief, Felana couldn't get over how disciplined and well-behaved everyone was. She and John checked into the Nairobi Safari Club, an up-scale hotel, with tourists and businesspeople dashing every which way. She'd never been in a hotel before. She'd never dared to enter the Carlton or Colbert, Madagascar's two higher-end hotels.
Despite having gone pretty far on a high school diploma and six months of college, I don't think she'd ever been in a place that had running hot water before.
John explained the breakfast buffet; "You take whatever you want and you can go back as many times as you want."
John and I made the decision to bring someone with us only on the Wednesday before our Saturday departure. The registration deadline had long since passed. On Monday, when I inquired about registering Felana I was told it would be impossible. With Hillary Clinton arriving the following night, all of Nairobi would be on high alert. Sorry, nothing to be done.
Fortunately, the folks organizing the conference were a wee bit behind on the details. Badges hadn't been prepared for hundreds of participants. The following day, we just showed up and told the security folks Felana's badge still wasn't ready. In we went.
Despite being a middle manager, she had never been in a situation where business cards were called for and didn't have any. I took her to a Kenyan equivalent of Kinko's where, yes, they could make them while we waited. Felana, like most Malagasy, has a family name about thirty syllables long and so it took several proofs before the Indian manager of the shop got the spelling right. Each proof gave Felana a chance to ask if she could add something more. Her phone numbers in Tana? Sure. Her personal email address? Why not? How about a flag of Madagascar? No problem.
Twenty minutes later, she had the cards, with the flag, correct spelling and all.
"My grandmother is going to be so proud of me," she said to me as we left the shop.
At every possible opportunity, we drilled on the critical points. That Madagascar was on the verge of an economic meltdown. That the Malagasy leaders didn't care about their own people. That it would be people like her, Felana, single moms, young women, who would suffer any sanctions. We went over and over how and when she should hand out her new business cards.
"Hi. I'm Felana from Madagascar," she would repeat, extending her hand. "Nice to meet you."
At the Forum she must have appeared as exotic as a lemur because quickly she had a coterie of people, okay, men, saying hi to her at every opportunity. Had the conference lasted a month, her dance card would not have had a free spot.
At a cocktail party, we cornered a Congressman critical to our campaign. I found myself trying to explain the Byzantine complexities of the US government, with our different branches of government, the battalions of congressional aides, the lobbyists (half a dozen of whom were present in Nairobi) to Felana, and while I'm not sure I succeeded, she succeeded beautifully.
We had a meeting with three incredibly hard-nosed staff members from the US Trade Representative's office. They had told us specifically not to bring any Malagasy workers. We brought Felana anyway. The transitional government of Madagascar had been disinvited from the conference itself, leaving John, Felana and me as the only attendees from Madagascar, the second largest non-oil player in the AGOA world, among the 1,500 people attending the conference. In our meeting, we placed her directly across from the USTR bureaucrats, people who clearly take their dialysis with ice water. And even though Felana said not a word in our two-hour meeting, the point was made.
Putting her, and those like her, out of work would be like killing Bambi's mother. Again.
We got her in to all the luncheons, each one catered by a different Nairobi five-star hotel and held under a vast tent holding 120 tables for ten. Madagascar is all about rice and perhaps, depending on one's economic status, a bit of meat. Here were regular four and five course meals. Delivered by white-gloved waiters. Salad, soup, main course, dessert, anything you wanted to drink and as much of it as you would like. Heavily starched white linen everywhere. Cutlery on all sides of several plates.
At a cocktail, we struck up a conversation with a very rotund, very chatty, panting Sikh from Mumbai.
"Why does he wear that?"
"On his head."
"Because they don't cut their hair. Ever. It's their religion."
"Yes. His hair is longer than yours. Only his wife sees it."
"No. She's just never seen anyone like you. Our Indians in Madagascar are all Muslims."
"Come," he said, taking her hand and stroking his beard with it.
Smiles all around.
"You know, in our religion, that is prohibited."
She recoiled. In Madagascar, something that is prohibited, or fady, is very very taboo.
"Don't worry," he laughed. "For you, no problem."
The following morning, despite trying every possible angle, we could not get Felana into the plenary session that had the President of Kenya, the Prime Minister of Kenya, the Vice-President of Kenya, the Foreign Minister of Kenya, Hillary Clinton, the US Trade Representative, and the US Secretary of Agriculture all on the same dais. This time the security was tight.
But by the afternoon we had finagled her a badge and that evening we took the elevator boldly to the eighth floor of the Intercontinental where Hillary Clinton would be attending a meeting to announce a new trade accord between the US and Mauritius.
We arrived early enough to get seats in the second row
In a kind of "seen one, seen 'em all" discussion, John had had to clarify that we would be seeing Hillary Clinton, not Bill Clinton who was in North Korea at the time.
"She's already here somewhere. When everyone is ready," I said while gesturing to the mob of television cameras and photographers, "they will call her."
"Can I get a picture?"
"I don't know. Maybe. You see those men?" I said gesturing to the square-built fellows with the curly transparent wires going in their ears. "Bodyguards."
"So I shouldn't stand up quickly?"
"That would be a bad idea. You see how they hold their hands?"
"That's to hide their weapons."
By the time Hillary arrived, the small room was strictly SRO. I translated her speech, reminding Felana that this was the woman who Barack Obama had only narrowly defeated and that maybe this was the woman who could still be the first female president of the United States. She was seated no more than ten feet from where we were seated.
"And you were here," I said without needing to add that everyone else in the room was a journalist, minister of government, secretary of government, or some type of titan of industry.
"My grandmother is going to be so proud of me."
That afternoon, we were able to break away from the conference for a few hours. Felana had to get gifts for her boss, grandmother, mother and son. Her son was under the impression that everything outside of Madagascar was free and so was expecting Felana to bring him back an Es-Pay-Deux. It took me a few seconds to noodle it out. I didn't know what an Es-Pay-Deux was. "SP2." Sony Play Station 2.
He would have to settle for t-shirts.
Madagascar has nothing that westerners would recognize as a mall. Tana's two, one-story shopping centers had both been looted earlier in the year. I took Felana to Westgate, Nairobi's latest shopping center, a place as modern and impressive as any multi-story mall in a mid-size American city.
She wanted a coffee. We sat down in the middle of the atrium at the local equivalent of Starbucks. The menu had two pages of coffee drinks, hot and cold. We settle on an iced cappuccino.
After much stirring, she took a sip.
"It's so cold," she said as if expecting that ice outside of Madagascar would not be cold.
I explained that anyone with a laptop could come to this coffee shop and surf the web for free.
"Where are the wires?"
"There are no wires."
Felana uses a computer and the net at work everyday, but not without wires.
"No wires? How does it work?"
"It's a radio or something. We'll have it in Tana soon."
I looked up "escalator" in my cell-phone English-French dictionary. It turns out that in French the word for escalator is escalator.
"What's the other one called?"
"What other one?"
"The other one. The one coming down."
"It's the down escalator."
"The down escalator?"
None of us had brought a real camera to Kenya. With our cell phones we had taken pictures of Felana at the airport, Felana in front of the "Welcome AGOA delegates" banners, Felana by the sculptures of elephants in the shopping centers, Felana with the Congressman, Felana with the Sikh, Felana in front of the huge promotional poster announcing the imminent arrival of "Ice Age 3" at the multi-screen cinema in Westgate (there are no regularly functioning cinemas left in Madagascar). But what she really wanted was a picture of her on the escalator.
We made a jerky video with my phone camera.
"We can never have this in Madagascar," she said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because all the Malagasy will just come to go up and down."
With John and Felana leaving to return to Madagascar the following morning, there were still many things to do and explain. It was, as has been said many times, like living something for the first time, but through someone else's eyes. Yes, she could take all the little bottles of soap, shampoo and conditioner at the hotel. Really? Really. They are like gifts. You are sure? Yes, I'm sure.
But not the towels. You can't take the towels.
We discussed again and again why everything in Kenya was two to five times more expensive than in Madagascar. And why a cell phone chip that is pretty much free in the Madagascar (and comes with a new phone and an hour of calling time to boot) costs at least $25 in the United States if not much more. We talked about the drive-in movie theater we passed on the way into town from the airport. We drove past the Nairobi Arboretum. A park for trees? I explained that several times from several angles. A park for trees. Nope. Couldn't make sense of that.
Still, by the time we left, Felana was nearly a cosmopolitan, confidently handing out her new business cards and approaching the breakfast buffet without hesitation. One day, however, John and I had to leave her to her own devices and the waiter's question had stymied her.
Did she want black coffee or white coffee?
She thought the waiter was trying to trick her. White coffee? Madagascar grows coffee. She knows what color coffee is.
They went back and forth until it clicked. White coffee. Café au lait.
In the taxi, on our way from the shopping center to the function with Hillary, she said to me, "If I asked for white coffee in Madagascar, people would think I was crazy."
Then she threw back her head and laughed.
Her grandmother would be so proud.
On December 23, 2009, following the unanimous recommendation of the AGOA evaluation committee, President Obama decertified Madagascar from AGOA eligibility for 2010. Meanwhile, outstanding examples of democratic process and rule of law such as Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya remain AGOA eligible.
As a result of this decision, Felana and tens of thousands of others like her will soon be out of work.
Not one member of the seven-person AGOA evaluation committee visited Madagascar during 2009 to assess the situation in person.