How a great man of Madagascar influenced my life as an expat
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I have always had great admiration for my grandfather from Madagascar, something which, I think, has determined my life as an expat.
When I went back to see him for the last time, I realized that he had also been a great man for his country.
My reflections on the family in these COVID-19 times
I’ve been thinking a lot about family relationships recently. We are all so far apart from one another, it sometimes feels like we have become disconnected from those we love the most, and we end up not knowing them so well.
My childhood and my relationship with expatriation
I grew up as an only child until I was 11 years old. And then, the greatest gift anyone could have given me: a little brother and a little sister. I immediately loved them like the apple of my eye.
Although it may seem incomprehensible to some, the love of a big sister is often comparable to that of a mother. Except that, when there is a big difference in age, the younger ones are generally too small to remember this period, so they don’t share this feeling with their elders. For them, we are what we are: the big sister. Because when they started to have lasting memories, the eldest was no longer there. She had gained independence and had left the family nest.
I left France to live abroad. And also because I needed to regain my status as a person without adult responsibilities. But by walking away, I realized that I didn’t know my own people well when I saw them again. They had grown up and separated by distance, I didn’t know them as adults. I remember reading my little sister’s blog one day, and seeing how she wrote so well … I was sad not to have known that sooner. And sad to have lost precious years with my family.
To succeed in life: what does it mean?
I have often wondered if my grandfather realized this when he sent his children to France, thousands of miles away. He says he didn’t. Like me, he thought sending them abroad would open the door to success in their lives.
But succeeding in life is such a complex concept… because it depends on the meaning you give it.
However, we are evolving… And what was important yesterday seems futile today.
What success meant to me as a student
Before, we’d had this in common. It was the only time I’ve ever asked him for help, and perhaps the most important time. Because being able to finish my student year in Ireland was a turning point in my life.
Although, in fact, I hadn’t needed his help to go there. I had worked hard the summer before and had saved enough money to be able to afford the trip. And it was also thanks to the relentless efforts of my mother, who managed to secure me a scholarship. All of this allowed me to leave.
But he did also give me a slight nudge that helped me finish my year of study with fewer financial worries. The cost of living, and of food especially in Ireland, was exorbitant at the time.
I will never forget the time when I called him from a phone booth to tell him that, like him, I very much wanted to succeed. And for me, at that time, succeeding meant finishing my year abroad.
Today though, I see things differently. And when I spoke to my grandfather in 2018, I understood that, in the end, he too harboured doubts as to the meaning of success…
But what we were both quite sure about was that health is paramount and too often taken for granted. It is the only certainty we drew from our conversation of the meaning of success…
Expatriation: living far from one’s family
Paradoxically, being an expatriate has uprooted me a bit.
My mother had no choice but to leave Madagascar. Indeed, for my grandfather, sending his children to France to live abroad was a reason to feel proud. As a result, my mother did not understand why I wanted to leave my country voluntarily… My parents weren’t forcing me, quite the contrary…
Expatriation: a way to succeed?
I don’t know who was right in the end. Would I have been happier if I had stayed in France? Would I have had a more “successful” life?
As my father would say, there’s no point asking yourself these kinds of questions, because we don’t know how our life would have turned out if we had taken a different path. We only have one life, so we will never know which may have been the best decision…
But I can’t help it. As years go by, the distance is getting harder and harder to bear. And even though I am only a few hours away from my parents, I have not been able to see them because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
So imagine how a child or a teenager who goes to the other side of the world must feel…
When I spoke to my grandfather about this, he explained to me that for him, it was a chance he had wanted to give to his children. Maybe that’s why I always believed that going abroad would open up doors. Unwittingly, he had had a great influence on me.
The different meanings of success
However, success is not just that. With the passage of time, the distance is weighing on me more and more.
I would like to spend as much time as possible with those I love. Being able to know little details about them, such as their favourite colour, their favourite dish, their daily life … The little things I do not know about most of the people I love…
When I returned to Madagascar in 2018, I was shocked to see the precarious conditions in which my grandpa was living with his state of health … But that was his choice. He told me he wanted to stay at home, nowhere else. Even if his city and his home were clearly not adapted to his serious illness … His priorities had changed …
Getting to know my grandfather better
I had time to have several conversations with him.
Unlike previous times when he had always been on the road for work.
Yes, my grandfather was one of the most influential businessmen in Madagascar.
My grandfather’s legacy
When I travelled the country, I was surprised to find that most of the people I met on the way said they knew my grandfather. They told me that they had worked for him in one way or another at some point in their lives. And my Pépé (my grandpa in French) – Jean – had sometimes even helped them set up their businesses.
His success as an entrepreneur impressed me. I wanted to know how he had started. When I went to visit him, he was so happy to see us! But at the same time, he was very embittered by the reproaches his family had made against him. He didn’t understand, he said he had done everything for them. When I told him that life in France was far from easy, he didn’t get it. For him, coming from a poor country like Madagascar, being in France was an opportunity in itself. Therefore, one had to find the means to succeed.
I saw the difficulties my parents had faced, and I know they did their best, so I wondered what my grandpa was talking about. And during my last big conversation with him, I understood how he had found success with his different businesses. Telling me his story reminded me that the cultures of Madagascar and France have absolutely nothing in common. And I think that like me, he sometimes overlooked this gap.
He taught me an important lesson in entrepreneurship. But he also taught me one thing about family relationships: that by losing the connection with his children, he had almost forgotten who they were.
And for me, this is something he has clearly always struggled with across the distance …
But if I measure success in terms of family relationships, then my parents really did a much better job!
As they say, no one is perfect and we are all different. And as I said in my article on exclusion and racism, it is our differences that make the beauty of this world!
Sharing with my grandfather
When my grandfather enjoyed better health, I took the opportunity to talk to him. For me, the most beautiful thing was to share with him.
During his visit to Barcelona a few years earlier, I showed him everything about my expat life in Spain: where I lived, where I worked, where I liked to hang out. So it was his turn to tell me about him now.
Because this time, I was at his home. And I knew very well that it was probably the last time I would speak to him.
I wanted to enjoy every single moment, even if it was almost “missionimpossible” due to the difficult family context. But that didn’t deter me. I only cared about spending time with him. To make up for lost time, something completely impossible, I know…
So on May 14, 2018, I took advantage of the thread of the conversation he had started, about the beginnings of another man, to ask him how he had started his work life…
I had never seen him so enthusiastic when telling a story … His story …
Before going to bed that night, I decided to write down everything I remembered. Because I know very well that words fly away but writing remains…
How my grandfather started his empire in Madagascar
Here I try to use the same terms he used, his own words to tell his story.
His first job
He was about 11 years old.
He started working as an assistant driver thanks to his sister’s husband.
But after a while, his hands got too damaged, and he fell ill with a fever. The job was too hard for an 11-year-old child, so he stopped.
Back to school in Miary
His mother – Isabelle – made him special teas to relieve his pain. Once he got better, she sent him to the Miary school for 2 or 4 years: the Indian school.
When he finished school, he applied to work as a civil servant. He was 86th on a list of about 150 candidates (like him, I have a very good memory for numbers!).
In the colonialism era, there were a lot of public service jobs.
But after giving it some thought, he decided that he didn’t want to be a slave of the state.
His second job
So he went back to his sister’s house to again ask for a job as an assistant driver. But since he had given this up only a few years earlier, she made him understand that it would not be right. He replied that he was joking, but that he really had to work, because he did not want to end up being a civil servant.
He managed to find work with an Indian businessman, but left after two years when his boss accused him of ruining him, which, according to my grandfather, was nothing but a lie.
But he could not prove this, and the Indian declared that he owed him more than 80 million Malagasy francs, and that if my grandfather did not pay, he would take his mother’s house as compensation.
His beginnings as an entrepreneur
Fortunately for him, my grandfather had an uncle who believed in him. The trust he showed him made him cry and gave him the courage to fight to save his mother’s house.
His mom trusted him too, and gave him everything she had: her cart filled with over 700 pounds of peanut plant and two zebus. She said he could sell everything except the zebus.
My grandfather agreed to the conditions and took the opportunity to try his luck and find a way to get the money the Indian man wanted.
Before leaving, he asked his uncle to estimate the value of the cart to get an idea of how much he could sell it for.
The first thing he did was give a Frenchman he knew all of the peanut plants so that he could plant it on his land for the time being. Then he tried to sell his cart. An old school friend helped him. When he asked him how much he thought it was worth, his friend said it was worth twice what his uncle had estimated. But when he could not sell it, he asked his friend if he could pretend to be a member of his family. And thanks to that, he managed to sell his cart for four times the price his uncle had given.
With this money, he bought 17 young zebus.
He heard that he could sell them more expensively in a city that lay 170 km as the crow flies, 250 km by road. There was a very well-known beef / zebus market there.
His journey and his encounters
He decided to go alone, although his uncle had offered to accompany him.
Luckily, on his way there he met a man who was kind enough to house and feed him, and sometimes even to escort him.
The region lacked oxen so they fetched a good price.
He continued his journey, alone with his oxen, like a shepherd. Then he saw a fire in the distance and as he approached, he saw it was some people cooking, who generously offered to share their food with him.
He downed the food in one go, he was so tired and hungry from his walk.
On his travels, he met a Comorian with whom he bonded through religion. The Comorian asked him for his religion, my grandfather replied: “2% Catholic and 98% Indian”, something I’d had no idea about, knowing that he had raised his children as Catholics.
He had read the Koran and sympathized with it.
The Comorian knew all the buyers of oxen.
In the end, my grandfather decided to leave all his oxen in this gentleman’s courtyard, whose friends came directly to see them. One of them decided to buy the entire stock and suddenly my grandfather had already half of what he needed to clear his debt.
My grandfather’s resilience
His mother cried with joy when she heard the good news.
He then looked for other ideas to find the rest of the money he needed.
His peanut plant was on the verge of dying and he had to find a solution.
His mother introduced him to a trusted young man from Ambohimahavelona with a view to enlisting his help.
Unfortunately, his peanut plant had been scorched by the sun. Then, one November or December morning, at 3 a.m., a cyclone hit and destroyed everything…
At 5 a.m., he decided to go on the road again. His uncle said he thought it risky and advised him to stay and regain his strength, but my grandfather decided to leave anyway.
The cyclone had killed 7,000 oxen. He decided he would locate them and recover their meat and skin.
By selling the skins he had collected and dried, he managed to make about 200 million.
He was able to repay the man who threatened to take his mother’s house, give her money, and start a business.
To conclude, he said that he had succeeded thanks to his faith which had not wavered even in the most difficult times. And to his prayers, which had brought him much luck, he said.
I never knew that my grandfather was a believer.
The lessons I learned from his stories
Passion for entrepreneurship
My grandfather was passionate about his work.
From the moment I asked him to tell me how he started, I saw stars in his eyes despite his illness. All of a sudden his voice took on a different tone. I felt his passion.
His network of contacts and his capacity to bond with people
He also had an important network which he managed to build through friendship, trust and love of religion. His ability to bond with the people he met on his way was crucial.
Finally, he also knew how to help people, and by helping them, favours were often returned to him.
His faith or his luck
The luck factor was also important, and he recognized this, but said it was thanks to his prayers.
In my opinion, whether you are a believer or not, if you want to succeed in an undertaking, you have to have a degree of “faith”. Call it what you like: faith as in self-confidence, faith in the universe like optimism, or religious faith. It’s an important pillar that keeps you going, no matter the obstacles.
The support of his family
He also had the support of his family. His uncle, who believed in him, was a very important factor psychologically. If your family believes in you, it is a game-changer. The support of his family is something that moved him deeply. And I think that’s also why he helped the people of his country so much.
His mother also gave him everything she had, and without this huge boost, things would surely have been very different.
Take care of your health
She also took good care of him, because he knew: if he fell sick, he would not be able to continue… And Madagascans have an excellent knowledge of plants and their benefits. Something we have lost here in Europe …
He lived a long time with his illness without medication, because he was too old to endure the risk of invasive therapy. And he often reminded me of the benefits of herbal baths like the katrafay, which he would take after long days on the road to relieve him of all his pain.
He was also very brave, walking for miles. He could count on the kindness of the community, the villagers whom he met on his way who fed and offered him shelter, without expecting anything in return.
Learning from one’s mistakes
I, too, have learned from his mistakes. Although he was quite stubborn, he was capable of recognizing his errors; in particular how he had sought success at the expense of family closeness.
He also realized that he had sometimes trusted the wrong people, causing him to have false prejudices, as he realized very late in his life.
“The real drama is distance and the fact that people don’t know each other” – Jean Cocteau
Cognitive power and emotional intelligence
What impressed me too was his great memory. He remembered every single detail: the dates, the numbers, the weights, amazing! He was over 80 when he told me this story. It was also a great asset in his life.
He even remembered the village where I had booked him a hotel near Barcelona, almost 10 years later!
I remember, moreover, that he was very observant. During his weekend in Castelldefels, he laughed affectionately at me, noticing that I had this tendency to touch my face when I think. It is a quality, which I have not inherited, but I do try to improve my powers of observation through the practice of “mindfulness”, or conscious meditation.
I would have loved to continue talking to him, but we had to leave…
Time is always barking at our heels…
That said, I am grateful that he shared this early experience with us, which I had never heard before. Even if he did often tell this story, or so an aunt of mine says. But I was not in Madagascar at that time….
My grandfather and Madagascar: my inspiration
His story has inspired me a lot and made me want to create my own.
His courage, and that of my parents, has always given me the strength to keep going. And even more so now that I want to launch a project to improve environmental health, for the well-being of the planet and all its inhabitants.
Madagascar is a country plagued by poverty, ignorance, and corruption. As a result, the island loses its extraordinary, and often endemic, nature.
But like my grandfather, this country is part of my history and my heritage. And if I can help avoid continuing this massacre of nature, then I will continue with the means I have at my disposal, in this case, my stories. It is this wealth, that Mother Earth gives us, that allows people to live, let us never forget!
I hope you liked the authenticity of this story. If so, please do not hesitate to share it and, as usual, leave us your comments below!
I invite you to read my other articles on Madagascar if you want to know more about the extraordinary country of my grandparents!
And you, do you live far from your family? Why did you decide to expatriate? Have you been influenced by your roots? We welcome your comments below!