Birds evolved from the dinosaurs in the Jurassic period and the ancestors of the ostrich were already running around in Gondwana, the supercontinent comprising all of today’s continents of the southern hemisphere, plus India. And when Gondwana broke up 180 million years ago, the ostrich rode across the world: On the Indian plate the ostrich moved to Asia, on the South American one to South America, there it took the name of rhea. Down under in Australia, the ostrich became the emu. In neighboring Africa, the ostrich roamed the vast continent and evolved into four different subspecies: The North African or red-necked, the Somali or blue-necked, the Masai or pink-necked, and the Cape or black-necked ostrich. And in the isolation of Madagascar which didn’t move, the descendants of the ostrich from Gondwana became the elephant bird, three meters high and laying eggs of ten kilograms, the largest flightless bird ever. But as humans moved into Madagascar, the elephant bird became more and more rare, and since the colonial times, it is extinct. Hunting is a nasty human habit. With the worldwide expansion of the super predator Homo sapiens we note another evolutionary phenomenon: Where modern humans appear, the large animals disappear. Or, as the surviving ostriches, they are domesticated and farmed for meat, leather, and dusters. And, when you go on safari in South Africa, don’t forget to go riding on an ostrich. That will then be a black-necked one.

The world’s other flightless bird, the penguin, is not related to the ostrich. Most probably their ancestors were able to fly, and the penguins of Madagascar arrived on the island by boat, on their escape from the Central Park Zoo in New York. And this only in 2005 and in the highly amusing computer-animated film ‘Madagascar’: Fed up with their lives in the zoo, four penguins, Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private, decide to escape and Marty, the bored zebra, joins them. But Marty’s best friend Alex, the showoff lion, Melman, the giraffe, and Gloria, the hippopotamus, together with two chimpanzees, follow the five, trying to convince them to return. At Grand Central Station the animals are ambushed, shot with tranquillizer guns, and sedated. But they were not to be returned to the zoo. Thanks to human anti-animal-captivity activists, they were to be brought by sea to a Kenyan wildlife reserve. On the way, the penguins get free, take control of the ship and head to Antarctica. Their antics on the bridge have the containers with Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria in them go overboard. They are washed ashore in Madagascar. On the island, the four African animals can join a group of lemurs because the lion Alex comes in handy as protection from the local predators, the fossa. Alex, missing his daily steaks at the zoo and getting hungry, attacks Marty, the zebra. The lemur King Julien XIII bans Alex to the predator side of the island, where the fossa live. But without the protection of Alex, the lemurs, Marty, Melman, and Gloria are attacked by the fossa. Alex returns, rescues his friends, and chases the fossa away forever. But the fugitives from the New York Zoo are getting homesick. The penguins who have discovered that Antarctica is inhospitable, somehow find to Madagascar with their ship. They reunite with their friends from the zoo and decide to leave together. The lemurs throw a magnificent farewell party for them and, all on board, it turns out that the ship has run out of fuel. – Three years later, ‘Madagascar 2’ followed and took the troop to Africa. At the same time, a very popular TV series with the penguins started. In 2012, came ‘Madagascar 3’ in which they all join a circus, and in 2014, the penguins had their own film ‘The Penguins of Madagascar’.

There was a second special circumstance under which I moved to Madagascar. In New York in the eighties, I became friends with a Swiss artist who was a painter on a stipend in a loft. Since then, he had started making movies and while I was trying to reform the human resources management of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, we spent a lot of time together. He lived the free life of an artist in Zürich, and when I had time, we would visit exhibitions and shows together, and exchange, debate and philosophize for hours. One day he proposed to film a portrait of me and Bilha, as a Swiss diplomat married to an African, a culturally mixed couple adapting to the changes in their cultural environment, as they move from one country to the next. He submitted the project to the Department, and they not only allowed it but also supported it financially. So Bilha and I did the trip from Bern to Antananarivo under online cameras. The film crew followed us for the first weeks in Madagascar while we were settling in on the ‘Grande Île’. They would return in 2002.

In December 2001 Madagascar had presidential elections and then fell into a political crisis. The losing candidate refused to cede. Didier Ratsiraka had dictatorially ruled the country since 1975 and now, he engaged in sporadic violence and economic disruption, cutting the capital Antananarivo in the highlands in the middle of the island from the ports. But Marc Ravalomanana who had won, had the popular support of the Malgache and the goodwill of the international community on his side. By July 2002, the ‘crise post-électorale’ was over. Ratisiraka fled to exile in France and Ravalomanana started with the reforms he had promised: More democracy, decentralization, and less dependency on France. He introduced English in primary school and opened Madagascar up to anglophone southern Africa. The French Ambassador was not amused, but only weeks later, we were drinking South African wine with the ‘foie gras’ which, very much to our pleasure, the Malgache kept on their menu.

The film team still came twice in 2002, but the storyboard was rewritten. The film was now no longer a portrait of Dominik and Bilha. It had become a documentary on what diplomacy and a Swiss diplomat can do in such a situation: I hosted regular meetings of the small group of the western Ambassadors and the United Nations. Out of these meetings, we coordinated our communication and interventions with the parties of the conflict. The film testifies of this involvement by which on behalf of Switzerland, I was able to make a contribution to the international mediation of the crisis: ‘Der Diplomat – Dominik Langenbacher in Madagaskar’. Ein Film von Thomas Lüchinger. 

Watch film.

I was lucky. Before going into politics, Marc Ravolamanana had done some business training in Germany, he spoke the language and confided to me that his diary business TIKO and wholesale company ‘Magro’ were built to the example of ‘Migros’ in Switzerland. And one of his sons was in a private school in Switzerland. He acknowledged my effort in the mediation of the crisis, and we had met a few times. When it was all over, he invited me to his residence to say thank you. We had an interesting discussion on his political career path, which was mayor of Tana only, and his plans for decentralization in the whole country with which he was facing two problems. One, Madagascar was as highly centralized as its former colonial power France, and two, his Prime Minister was against it. Ravalomanana knew that Swiss federalism was built on the autonomy of the communes and wanted to launch a ‘Plan de Développement Communal’. He asked me whether I would be his advisor on the issue, informal and private. We had a few meetings and I talked with the Prime Minister a few times, but then as things go, they turned their attention to other priorities.

Before I can share with you the special circumstances under which I left Madagascar, you have to learn about a further reason for which, as an African country, Madagascar is so special. Apart from its unique geology, and its very own fauna and flora, there is its human population. Over the tens of thousands of years during which in Africa Homo sapiens migrated throughout the continent and later to all the other continents, Madagascar was somehow left out. Humans only colonized it relatively recently, around 8’000 BC according to one theory and around 500 AD according to another. And the main group of its settlers arrived from faraway Malaysia. Today, genetically and in both theories, the Malagasy people is an almost equal blend of Austronesians and Bantu who came over from neighbouring Africa. The Malagasy language is Austronesian and, sometimes walking over a market in ‘Tana’ will make you feel more like being in Asia than in Africa.

In January 2003, I received a call from Bern. My name had been given for a new job. The federal migration authorities asked for support from the Department of Foreign Affairs for the negotiation of migration agreements, particularly with African countries. Apart from Somali, Eritreans and Ethiopians, Switzerland is a popular destination with African migrants from a number of West African countries and an agreement with Senegal had just gone wrong. In May, after barely two exciting years in Madagascar, I was back in Bern as the ‘Delegate for Migration Dialogue’, a roaming Ambassador negotiating migration agreements. This anticipated departure had two advantages: First, I could get my prostate operated. In my particular and personal opinion, the prostate is a construction of human evolution that should be redesigned. It does not age well, even less so than the upright gait. And second, I was just in time for the opening of my film at the ‘Kellerkino’ in Bern. It ran for three weeks and was rated four stars out of five. When I grow up, I might go to Hollywood. – No, writing about Africa, make that Nollywood.

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