The Hills of Betafo
Imerina: The ancestral lands of the Merina people that is situated in the high plateau of central Madagascar
Betafo: The name of a small town near Antsirabe whose name means ‘place of many roofs’
Vakinakaratra: The region surrounding Betafo and a word that loosely translates to an open valley in the mountains
Rano Mahery: Cold and clear water that is collected directly from the source high in the hills of Vakinakaratra and used for circumcisions
Rano-drazana: Fresh water from the mountains that is regarded as a gift from the ancestors.
The RN34 runs through the center of Betafo creating a hectic thoroughfare that is choked with exhaust and the clacking of old diesel motors. The road, like all Malagasy roads, is dusty and narrow and filled with life. Bush taxis and private cars (usually in equal numbers) run slalom courses between vendors, mechanics, vegetable sellers, ox-carts, children, and old women drying rice on the road surface.
There is a small road from Betafo that trails up into the hills that overlook the terraced valleys of Vakinakaratra. It is a road I have driven past dozens of times in my travels in Madagascar and a road that I can safely say, I have never traveled or even noticed before.
It begins on a downward slope as the market ends on the western side of town. The road is dirt and deeply rutted from countless oxcarts that have passed over it in the last hundred years. The road quickly winds around a small bend where women sell two cent pieces of sugar cane and then it turns into a path as it quickly leaves behind the clatter of engines and honking horns. The path continues to run downward toward a small lake where men cast nets from hand-hewn boats and drift in and out of the sun light as thick clouds pass by overhead. The disappearance and reappearance of the sun creates a dense and heavy light that is perfect for pastels, oil paints, and photography.
On the southern side of the lake we crossed a small bridge made of meticulously quarried blue-granite blocks that are cracked and pried from the hillsides by hand . Near the center of the bridge four elderly men stood close together quietly conversing about the land and the newly planted crops in the hills above. They were wearing traditional hats (hand-woven fedoras with cloth hatbands) and the long white shirts that are common in the rolling hills of Imerina. As we passed they greeted us formally in their local dialect and made a few comments about the beauty of the land and the afternoon and wished us well on our way without the self-consciousness that often leads more urban folk to speak to foreigners in French.
Just past the bridge the path veers to the left and starts to climb up into the hills that open and spread above Betafo. The path loosely follows the downward flow of rano-drazana as it is diverted over and over again on it’s way through the countless terraces that flow down the surrounding mountain side.
As we climb higher the path cuts deeper and deeper into the earth leaving the small houses high on the embankments where children and elderly women peer down at us and offer quiet greetings as we pass. The path occasionally flattens out and small villages crop out in the same way the blue-granite stones jut out from the hills that surround us.
The intricately terraced fields, fed by the crisp mountain water, are constantly in rotation and will occasionally be left fallow and turned into bricks that are the same tawny red as the land they are dug from. Because of this the houses appear deeply rooted in the ground that created them create the sense that the entire earth is their foundation.
We continue to climb up to where the water comes quick from an outcropping of broken rocks high on a hillside. The water here is known as rano-mahery and is collected and used for circumcisions. The fields nearest the water source are steep and contoured to match the land and steppe down with grace. Small patches of cabbage, carrots, onions, and potatoes spread down the mountainside surrounded by curated little canals that can be opened and closed with a few deftly placed shovels of earth.
Beyond the water source the land flattens again and much bigger fields spread out over the land. There is water here as well. It passes between the fields and the trail turns into a footpath that follows the edges of the canals.
The sun is setting as we arrive at our destination and as we settle in the stars begin to appear. At first a quiet smattering of glimmering dots in the canopy but as evening alighted on the high plateau the stars rushed in like a school of reef fish glinting and flashing in the deep dark of the heavens. We stood near each other and wordlessly watched as the milky way unfolded itself and stretched from horizon to horizon like a skein of raw silk hung out to dry in the night sky.