I spent about 45 days in a lovely Malagasy village called Ambohibola as a volunteer for WWF. Next to Ambohibola is the better known village of Androka, a charming place where most of the 15,000 inhabitants are Mahafaly farmers. Being a WWF Volunteer, I was treated with respect by everyone – WWF has been in the area for a while – and had the honour to meet many warm and interesting people whom I am physically incapable of ever forgetting.
Funnily enough, Madagascar shares a common history with Lebanon. We were both former French colonies and we both seem to have corruption from the high top down to the low bottom. One example: as I was leaving, a police officer at the airport tried to blackmail me by asking for money in broken French in exchange for keeping quiet about my overweight luggage. I noticed more similarities every day, from the bad electricity to the useless traffic lights. But hey, their internet is way faster despite Madagascar being among the economically poorest nations on earth. But enough ranting like an amateur, let me level up.
Androka and Antsikoroke – another village close to Ambohibola – are among those villages that have seen women leave for work in Lebanon. I had the fortune, or rather misfortune, to find out that two of these women are now missing. The Androka woman was supposed to return home three years ago and the Antsikoroke woman was supposed to come back 12 years ago. Shocked yet? Let me continue. The Androka woman at one point stopped sending money home for no known reason, while the woman from Antsikoroke never even contacted her family. You may think that I am jumping to conclusions by suggesting that both women are probably enslaved or dead. But what if I told you that 17 Malagasy maids died in Lebanon last year, and many more, from different nationalities – a Human Rights Watch report put it at one per week – die or go missing every year? What if I tell you that foreign domestic workers are not covered by Lebanon’s labor laws (The Kafala System)?
We are basically telling Malagasy women and others that if you leave your country and come to ours in search of money to feed your families, expect to be treated as sub-humans.
Back to Madagascar. It only took me a few seconds to hit rock bottom when I was talking to an elderly man in Androka. He was the grandfather of the woman who had been missing for three years, and when I told him where I came from, he stopped talking. He could not look me in the eyes. He lowered his head and went back inside his house. Mr Cheban, our translator, did not know what to say as I stood there blank-faced. He tried to console me – we had talked about the issue of women going to Lebanon as maids the day before – but could not find the words. I repeat, he tried to console me. It was my fellow citizens who have caused this suffering, and it was one of that woman’s fellow citizens who was trying to make me feel better.
When I say that the man was the woman’s grandfather, I do not necessarily mean biologically speaking. In traditional Malagasy culture, ancestors are literally worshiped and the elderly are treated with the highest possible amount of respect. Any old man or woman can be called grandmother or grandfather. So an elderly man lowering his head to a 20-year old is something unheard of.
I could not describe the feeling of shame that I felt at that moment towards my so-called fellow citizens of Lebanon. I simply did not know what to say. I could not justify it in any way, because my country is part of a gigantic crime that involves millions of people. The situation that foreign workers have to endure in Lebanon may be better in some cases than the slaves of Dubai – I’ve had the opportunity to see them as well – who are left with cleaning the floor behind the rich shoppers and driving them around, but we can simply give no excuses.
For those who think that the solution to this is to simply allow it to go on while trying to treat the workers better, allow me to quote Oscar Wilde who wrote in his brilliant piece The Soul of Man under Socialism that:
“Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, [..] the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life [..] coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralizes. They are perfectly right.”
I can’t describe how warm I felt when I was around the people in Madagascar. Despite speaking only a few sentences in each others’ native languages, we were still able to bond quite well. I left the country with warm goodbyes and “come back soon” wishes. I already plan on going back.
The differences that every culture exhibits are dwarfed by the universal similarities that we all share, despite how convinced we are of the uniqueness of our own culture. The pathetic titles we give to each other all serve social roles and have no actual substances independent of context. And the reason why Malagasy, Ethiopians, Filipinos, people from Sri Lanka and others come to Lebanon for work is simply because they do not have enough cash in their pockets. That is it. As a Lebanese, you have nothing whatsoever that makes you more special. You are simply luckier. You got the easier role in our globalized world. So get over yourself.