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Corruption takes on many forms
A short riff on malaria, bureaucrats, and ghostly forces
Malaria is a deadly disease, one of many that you want to avoid. In fact, there are not one, but five different species of protozoa that cause malaria, all of which are in the genus Plasmodium. Three of the species are fairly rare. One of them is common, and produces malaise and cyclic fever in those who have it, but is rarely deadly (P. vivax). The final one, P. falciparum, moves fast, and once it gets into your brain, often kills. You don’t want malaria at all, but you really do not want falciparum malaria.
There is no vaccine against malaria, so those living where malaria is endemic, or traveling to places where it is, try to avoid being bitten by Anopheles mosquitoes, which vector the disease, and may take prophylaxis against it as well. For a spell in the 1990’s, mefloquine was the prophylaxis of choice for Americans traveling to regions where falciparum malaria was a real risk. Other, gentler drugs worked against vivax, but not against falciparum malaria, at least none that were then legal in the United States.
The problem is that mefloquine is a nasty drug. Mefloquine, also known as lariam, is known to cause nightmares, paranoia, and other delusions. You start on it one or two weeks before going to the malarial destination of your choice, in order to be protected once you are there, such that it has had time to work its way into your system by the time you arrive. This means that it is nearly impossible to separate the effects of the drug, from the reality of being in a new place, where life is far different from where you left. Reality can be difficult to assess.
I spent several field seasons in the 1990’s working in Madagascar. Madagascar is not an easy place to get things done, and it was, at that time, newly re-opened to the West, after decades with closed borders, such that vazaha—white people like me—were a curiosity that many Malagasy had not encountered before.
Walking through the winding, hilly, narrow streets of Tana (Antananarivo), the capital of Madagascar, I feel that I am being followed. Ah—in fact I am. Four, now six, now nearly a dozen young children are ducking in and out of doorways and alleys to peer inquisitively at the strange lumbering vazaha in their midst. They don’t make them like me in these parts. So I am being followed. It is neither mean-spirited, nor dangerous. They want to touch my hair, the likes of which they have not encountered before. They want to touch my boots, the likes of which they have also never seen before. But my sense that I’m being followed, and watched…it’s not the mefloquine after all, although that can’t be helping.
Sitting with friends—fellow graduate students—at an Indonesian restaurant, the proprietor approaches the table. Eyeing the two women disappointedly, he whispers only to the two men at the table. After the proprietor has left, one of our male companions says, shrugging, “He’s invited us to a private museum.” We don’t know what “private museum” is a euphemism for, but are quite sure that it’s not as simple as it seems. None of us ever finds out directly. Later we go back to the same restaurant, all four of us, and the proprietor repeats his offer to the men. Given the ubiquity of what is euphemistically known as sex tourism in Madagascar at the time—in which men, mostly Europeans, come to Madagascar and rent women and girls, often directly from their parents, and those girls’ lives are never the same again, even if they are returned after a few weeks or months apparently intact—we suspect that the men have been offered time with Malagasy prostitutes, of undetermined age, and undetermined willingness. Or maybe that’s the mefloquine talking.
Later, in a bureaucrat’s office, I try to secure the research permits that are required for me to do another season of research on the poison frogs endemic to Madagascar. The smiling man behind the desk speaks in crisp French, clear enough that even I understand it. But the light shifts in the room, a harsh tropical sunbeam creating sudden geometry on the floor, and then the world shifts, and I think I must be hearing things. Did he just ask me for a Land Rover? Yes. Yes, he did. I consider trying to explain that I am but a graduate student, with nowhere near the funds to supply him with the bribe he has been so kind as to be explicit about. Instead, I just reject the offer. Smiling the smile of a disappointed but not yet defeated bureaucrat, he invites me to come back tomorrow. When I return the following day, I am told that he never comes to the office on Wednesdays. I am told this by a woman at a desk that I would swear had not been there the previous day—neither the woman, nor the desk. She invites me to come back tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the mefloquine continues to course through my system, even though I am stuck in Tana, where there is no malaria.
I have brought to Madagascar a thick sheaf of carefully written and translated documents, explicitly for the purpose of acquiring research permits. During one of my visits to this wing of the Malagasy bureaucracy, I am asked to fill out yet another form. This one asks me to provide, in excruciating detail, what it is that I will learn doing the research that I propose to do. I think: If I knew that, the research would hardly be worth doing. But between the language barrier and the bureaucracy barrier, there is no chance of conveying that without causing more delays. So I make something up. They seem pleased with my answer, whatever it was, and invite me to go to an office in a different part of town to get this newest paperwork stamped.
I go, but ah, the man with the stamp has just left. Come back tomorrow. The following day, oh, the man who is authorized to use the stamp is here, but the stamp has left with someone else. Come back tomorrow. Then: Ah, the stamp is here, as is the man in charge of the stamp, but the stamp is in a locked room and, the man with the key is gone for the day. Oh but wait, do you see? There is an open window, high up on the wall. Perhaps someone can climb in and retrieve the stamp. They do. Everyone rejoices. The paperwork is stamped. And I never see it again.
I return to the original office a few more times, each time more frustrated than the last, and trying my hardest not to show it. “You will give me a computer” the original bureaucrat now says, having returned from his Wednesday holiday, and his federally sanctioned but invisible to the hapless vazaha holiday, and his “I was here for an hour on Friday but you weren’t and that’s on you” non-holiday holiday. He no longer expects a Land Rover; now he wants a computer. I smile—learning, slowly, how to play this game—and say “no, unfortunately, I cannot do that.” Finally, we arrive at a compromise. I bring him a bottle of Jim Beam. American liquor is precious, and hard to find in Tana, but surprisingly, not all that much more expensive than at home. This I can afford.
In the end, I am granted my research permits in return for a bottle of Jim Beam.
Is it the mefloquine making me paranoid, or are they really out to get me?
What I dealt with in Madagascar in the 1990’s is practically the type specimen for third-world bureaucratic corruption. In retrospect, it was almost charming. I knew where I stood at all times, and while there was a decent chance that the people wielding the power (and the stamps, and the paperwork) would simply refuse to grant me my research permits, I would then have been able to move forward with that knowledge. There were other ways to get things done, after all. There are always other ways to get things done.
It is easy to say that corruption is bad, but hidden corruption, shadow corruption, corruption that accuses those who see it of being enemies of the people—that kind of corruption is far worse than the corruption that lives on the surface. Ministries of mis-, dis-, and mal- information are more dangerous to democracy than is a bureaucrat engaging in a little quid pro quo.
I would rather have a governmental apparatus that is broken, knows it, and knows that everyone knows it, than one that limps along like a zombie, run by ghostly, unnamed forces who are achieving ghostly, unnamed goals. These forces will assure you that up is down, and hate is love, and that it is imperative that you pretend that everything is fine. It’s all in your head. Nothing to see here, folks. Under no condition will you look at the man behind the curtain.
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I wrote about my research and life in Madagascar in Antipode: Seasons with the Extraordinary Wildlife and Culture of Madagascar, which was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2002. I have not gone back and compared the memories I recount here with what I wrote at the time, which made it into the book. The gist is right for sure. There may be a few inconsistencies in the details.