The circumstances under which I got posted to Madagascar were a little bit special. But then, when we talk about Africa, Madagascar will also take a special place. Returning to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs after my tour of duty as the UN Coordinator for Somalia at the end of 1999, I had missed the round of ambassadorial appointments for the following year and found my name in seventeenth position for a possible future appointment. That would normally not bring me out of Bern before at least three years. And above that, I was made the coordinator of a human resources reform which had to do with appraisal of all diplomatic positions in Bern and in all the embassies abroad, and adjusting salaries with transfers and promotions, with assessments and career options – short, all the things that were always criticized as being dealt with in an opaque and secretive manner. The secrets were kept by the top of the hierarchy of the department, the same people for whom I was now to design a reform that would make everything transparent and comprehensible. This was mission impossible. One night, I had a dream in which I found myself in the overgrown and rambling jungle with a pair of garden shears in my hand and the State Secretary and the Secretary General to whom I reported on the project were shouting at me from the top of a tree that they wanted a French garden or at least an English one and hyenas were laughing and snapping at me and snakes were hissing and a leopard was timing me for its imminent attack.
In the morning, I knew what I would do. In the yoga class I took while running marathons with the New York Road Runners, I had experienced the benefit of ‘The-hard-and-the-soft’-method. I think it’s actually a wisdom of Zen meaning something like, ‘you can only be hard and strong if you can be flexible and soft’. So, I hired a consultant who normally worked with businesses and the military, and a consultant who normally worked on social and psychological issues. The hard and the soft. Together we would give the two Secretaries the full package of the reform. In an administration, top-down, status and authority, hierarchy and ranking, dominance and power, influence, and control, are on the hard side. Bottom-up, communication and cooperation, teamwork and resilience, interpersonal skills and openness are on the soft side. Taken together, these are the features of social organization amongst humans. And to work, they have to be in the proper balance for the concerned group. I was surprised to see how much afraid of the soft the hierarchy was. First, the reform and my team pushing it, were a nuisance to them and then, a growing threat. They wanted to preserve the hard without learning to be soft. Barely a year into my work as the enforcer of a reform no one wanted, I was asked whether I would be interested in becoming the head of the Swiss Embassy in Antananarivo. I would only be Chargé d’Affaires but they needed someone who knew the Swiss Development Cooperation, and how to operate in a country where the Swiss were retreating from a heavy engagement in development cooperation. Ten years earlier, I had closed the SDC program in Kenya, due to corruption. In Madagascar, the Swiss development program had been cut due to murder. In the summer of 2001, five years after the fact, Bilha and I arrived in Madagascar, ready to discover a curious world of its own and a murder mystery.
When they produce their Africa-shaped keyring and necklace pendants for the tourists, the artisans of Africa have a problem: What do they do with Madagascar? Mostly, they just leave it out. Even in the very first of CNN’s emissions of ‘Inside Africa’, Madagascar was missing in the logo of the program. And true, the vast island of Madagascar does lie ‘outside’ of Africa: 500 kilometers off the East African coast in the Indian Ocean, in the southern end of the Tropic of Capricorn. Tectonically, Madagascar was never a part of Africa. In the Jurassic period, South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia were all together in one big landmass, a supercontinent called ‘Gondwana’ – with Madagascar in its middle. And as Africa, India and Antarctica started drifting apart, they left the block of Madagascar behind. First, a deep fault split Africa off Madagascar and then, India split off and drifted north to dock onto Asia. Madagascar was never recognized as a continent of its own, but over the last 88 million years, evolution there took its own insular path.
Some, but by far not all the exotic animals we find in the fauna of Madagascar date back directly to Gondwana. Together with countless smaller reptiles, the voay, the Madagascan version of a crocodile that outlived the dinosaurs, is such a contemporary of Gondwana. But the voay faced early competition from the invasive, larger, and more aggressive Nile crocodile. First the voay was ousted from the western half of the island and relatively recently, it disappeared altogether. The Nile crocodile, of course, is still at home in Madagascar. The most famous reptile of Madagascar stemming from Gondwana, however, is the chameleon. There are over a hundred species of the enigmatic lizards on the island. The biggest chameleons get to be the size of a house cat and come in the colors green, turquoise and yellow. The smallest are smaller than your fingernail and are of a mousey grey.
Madagascar had already been standing alone for over 20 million years, when the asteroid crashed into Earth. This was the extinction event for three quarters of the global fauna and flora, and with them, the dinosaurs. Among the animals that survived, there was a group of small, nocturnal, arboreal, insect-eating mammals. And from these, only about three million years later, the first primates developed. There were two kinds of these first primates: The tarsiers with a dry nose and the lemurs with a wet nose. From the dry-nosed tarsiers came the monkeys, then the apes and then we humans. And when we humans followed the tarsiers’ line for our evolution, we made a good decision. Not because of the wet nose of the lemurs but because of their gait. Earlier, I had complained about the upright gait Lucy introduced us to when she came down from the trees. I take it back. Things would have been worse, had we followed the lemurs. Throughout the millions of years of their evolution, the lemurs stayed wet-nosed lemurs. And basically, in the trees, as vertical clingers and leapers. Even the most terrestrial of them, the ring-tailed lemurs, do not spend more than a third of their time on the ground and then, on four feet. Lemurs miss the foot adaption to go upright and when they try to walk on their two long and strong hind limbs, it turns out to be something between leaping and tottering – with the fallibility of a one-year-old and the grace of a ballerina.
The lemurs of Madagascar dispersed from Africa, accidentally crossing the Mozambique Channel on rafts of vegetation. And while the lemurs in Africa were overtaken by their brother tarsiers and extinguished by their predators, the ones in the isolation of Madagascar over the millions of years, thrived and evolved into many different kinds. They remained a rather small species. Today, they range from the tiny, thirty-gram mouse lemur to the nine-kilogram Indri. But until shortly after humans arrived on the island, there was a lemur as big as a male gorilla. The lemurs are considered to be the world’s most endangered mammals. In twenty or twenty-five years most of them will face extinction. Now, it’s not that apart from the crocodiles and Homo sapiens, Madagascar didn’t have any predators. There is the fossa, a cat-like carnivore. At eighty centimeters length and eight kilograms of weight, it is already the largest mammalian predator on the island. For sure, the fossa is not the reason for the lemurs’ likely disappearance. Nor is it the Nile crocodile.
One morning in July 1996, the three lemurs of the manager of the Swiss Development Cooperation for a multi-million road development program, were leaping around freely in his house and garden. He held them as pets and had left the house without locking them in their cage. This had never happened before, because unattended, three lemurs can wreak havoc. The same day, the manager was found in downtown Antananarivo, in his Land Cruiser, strangled, with the rope still around his neck. Cold-blooded murder. Their mammalian brain immediately told the three lemurs that their master had been killed in a way not even the cold-blooded crocodiles kill. The reptilian brain of the human who did it had used tools and received support from the cortex. Building roads is a costly matter and there is a lot of money to be made if you can get a contract for only one trunk road. Once built, roads connect and open up towns and whole regions. They change the livelihoods and business opportunities of people. Some will welcome these changes, others not. Interests are at stake. In a poor and corrupt country like Madagascar, road construction is a sensitive and sometimes dangerous business. Our Swiss manager may have done something wrong in the eyes of someone, or he found out that someone else had done something wrong.
The Swiss government reacted swiftly. It quit the governmental development cooperation and offered judicial assistance for the investigation and prosecution of the crime. Over the following years, the Malgache and Swiss police lead a number of unsuccessful joint missions, and in 2002, I had the pleasure of presenting to the government of President Ravalomanana the final report of the Swiss Federal Police. It was ready to accept dismissal of the case by the Madagascan authorities. This is not an unusual end to mutual judiciary assistance in crime cases, in Africa. Weak government institutions, political and business interests, organized crime, and corruption create an environment in which it is practically impossible to administer justice, as it is done in western countries. But the newly elected president did not want to leave the matter there, he had won his election on a ticket for change and combatting corruption. In early 2003, he blamed his predecessor’s government for the failure and relaunched the investigation. To this day, without results. With the Swiss media, the case is very popular because, like in a serial, every few years there is a new lawyer working on it ‘pro bono’ for the widow of the murdered manager, and presenting a new twist or turn. The last time I checked, there was a new Swiss request for legal assistance pending in Tana, and the murder may not have been about dubious Malgache interests in the road construction business but rather about a brothel run in Morondava by a former employee of the Swiss Development Cooperation.