Rice, Bricks and Houses

Rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet, brought from Indonesia by the first settlers. In the highlands, where there is a dependable water source, terraced rice paddies fill the valleys and some slopes. Even in the middle of Tana, the largest city, the bottomlands are dedicated to rice paddies and the streets and houses climb up the surrounding steep slopes. When we flew south out of Tana, we could see the green paddies between the red hills where forests once flourished. Further south, the land grew drier and gray scrub replaced the productive fields.

Rice Planters

Later, as we circled back to Tana by land, we stopped to watch rice farmers at work. After Rivo explained what they were doing, he called out to the women in the fields to get us permission to photograph them. They laughed and posed, even mugged for our cameras, not at all shy. They were transplanting the chartreuse shoots grown from seed in the nursery fields nearby. In another field, a man skimmed a huge paddle over the flooded mud surface to level it for planting. Everyone was knee deep in the muck. Moving around looked exhausting.

All the rice is planted at the same time so that when it matures, the birds will be dispersed among all the fields and no one farmer’s crop will be stripped. The paddies are kept wet until just before harvest to keep down weeds and to allow the plants to absorb the dissolved nutrients. Then they are drained and let sit for a few days. When rice is cut near ground level the leave the roots in the earth to decay and nourish the next crop. Malagasies get one to three crops of rice a year, depending on the location. Researchers are looking for ways to increase the yield, but cost-effective answers elude them.

Brick Kiln

After harvesting several crops of rice, the soil can be used to make bricks. The residual roots provide organic matter and if needed, straw is worked into the mud. The bricks are molded, left to dry on the field and then loosely stacked six or eight feet high with air vents and spaces for fuel. After baking for two or three days, often using rice husks for fuel, the bricks are used to build the two and three story houses common in and around Tana. Animals occupy the ground level of the homes, and the family lives in the upper stories. There are few chimneys, because the people let the smoke from their cooking fires fill the houses for mosquito protection. Lung disease is a serious health problem.

Years ago, houses were built of local hard woods. In the mid 1800s, a fire leveled almost all of Tana, and the queen decreed that houses would be built of brick. Looking around that paddy-filled valley, I found it difficult to imagine there were ever trees for anything, especially houses.