Aviraza, Cacao Farmer and Teacher in Madagascar's Sambirano Valley
When you find a gem, one must seize the opportunity. Such was the case one afternoon in Ambanja, a town in the Sambirano Valley in northwestern Madagascar where some of the finest cacao beans in the world are produced. We were visiting a cacao cooperative in the village of Antranokarany, 13 kilometers south of Ambanja. Every Thursday the farmers harvest the mature cacao pods from their one or two hectares of land. With machetes, they cut open the colorful pods and empty the beans which are covered with a sweet-tart and mucilaginous, white pulp. By bicycle or by oxcart pulled by a zébu, the wet ("frais") beans are brought to the fermentation area in the village to be weighed. It was here that we encountered Aviraza, the secretary of the cooperative KOCAFA. KOCAFA stands for Kooperativa Cacao Fanillo. While its literal translation is light, “fanillo” refers to illuminating or opening the path for others as a model.
A thin man with salt-and-pepper hair, Aviraza records each farmer's haul that day in kilos while the president Jean-Barthalémy checks and enters the figures in the cooperative's ledger in his beautiful script. The farmers watch the process to make sure there are no mistakes.
Each farmer has his or her own booklet which documents their weekly and yearly production. At the end of the month the cooperative's fermented, dried, and sorted beans are collected by Madécasse, an American company that purchases beans directly from Malagasy farmers and then processes them into fine-flavor chocolate bars in their factory in Antananarivo, or "Tana," the capital.
With an animated but gentle face, expressive hands, and an impeccable French, which I had not heard in any of the other cacao villages, Aviraza is not an ordinary farmer. He proudly told us that although he is retired, he rides his bike into town every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon to teach French to children of different socioeconomic backgrounds and linguistic abilities at the local Alliance Française. I asked if I could record his life history, and the following Wednesday afternoon we sat down together before his class.
Born in 1947 and the second of eight children, Aviraza followed an instructional program based in the French language as Madagascar was still a colony of France and didn't become independent until 1960. "I always wanted to be a teacher because everything is passed on through the teacher. One is a teacher and at the same time an educator,” he said. With his professional formation completed in 1968, he taught in many places throughout Antisiranana, the province of his birth -- Antsalaka in the very north, Cap Masoala in the east, Diego Ville, and Djamandjary on the island of Nosy Be where he also served as a sports broadcaster. "Je suis comme un oiseau qui vole” ('I am like a bird that flies'), and he adapted well to all the places where he lived. He mentioned that in Cap Masoala, the Betsimisaraka people speak a different dialect of Malagasy from his language and ethnic group, the Sakalava, but he managed to communicate easily after a month. While in the provinces his father died, so he asked if he could be transferred back to his native village to help his mother. Upon his return to Antranokarany on January 3, 1986, he taught at the village school, and it is no surprise that he soon became its director. In 2008 he retired from his teaching activities. A year later, with eight other villagers, he founded the cacao cooperative KOCAFA. He wanted to help the farmers, referring to them as “mes frères, mes proches,” his kith and kin, for selling cacao to the collectors was not bringing returns to the villagers. He then took on the role of secretary and has served in this capacity ever since. “Là, où la main passe, c’est bien. Là, où la main ne passe pas, il faut réflechir,” he mused. 'There where the hand goes, it's good. There, where the hand does not pass, one must think.'
(The visit to the village of Antranokarany and meetings with COKAFA’s leaders were facilitated by my guide and interpreter from Ambanja, Michelin Belahy, a middle-school teacher of English and a trilingual guide in eco-tourism in the Sambirano Valley. To him, I owe special thanks. Misàotra!)