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Antananarivo, Madagascar
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Friday, January 29, 2010

Kung-Fu vs. The Despot

As ma femme did an excellent job catching you all up on the week’s news, I thought I might share a great story that got churned up in our week of getting to know our new city.

A few nights ago, Kirst and I were out to dinner with the local British Boy’s Club (BBC) – an unofficial group of erudite ex-pat brits (with one white Zimbabwean to spice up the mix). Present were Rich Lough, our neighbor the Retuers stringer, who, after covering last year’s political crisis, is currently moving his family to Nairobi; Ryan Walker, a tortoise biologist headed south to Tulear to map the populations of two species of endangered tortoise, both of which turned up living happily in our landlord’s garden; Garth Cripps – our Zimbabwean – who’s just completed the traditional 1000 mile seasonal migration with the Vezo fisher-folk of the west coast; and finally Mr. Billy Head, a colorful raconteur working on the great Malagasy novel.

Billy, in bursts of notebook scribbling, was trying to capture our first impressions of the city as outsiders. Kirst spoke of the chaos of the main drag and markets, contrasted by the relative refuge of Andohalo, our neighborhood on the hill. I mentioned watching a lady-like ex-pat’s flash of horror as she noticed a man lying unconscious on a downtown sidewalk, displaying his genitals to the world. What really impressed me, though, was the speed with which her horror was immediately banished by the clang of her iron-clad wall of composure snapping back into place.

We talked about the TaxiBes (Big Taxis) – the hundreds of jitney vans that serve as the city’s public transportation. They all have specific numbered routes, some of which are twice as long as others, but all fares on all TaxiBes are the same: 300 Ariary, or about 15 cents. Gas costs are really high in Madagascar (higher than the UK), so the longer and hillier routes have got to be vicious to one’s profit margins. As the TaxiBes appear to be an entirely self-organizing system with little governmental control, we wondered about the ‘negotiations’ among the teams of drivers and their fare collectors (they always seem to be two-man teams). We can only imagine that the lobster gangs in Maine got nothin’ on the TaxiBe teams of Tana.

It might have been this speculative imagining of TaxiBe on TaxiBe violence that spurred someone’s recollection of a hero’s story from Madagascar’s political past. I’m still trying to collect details, but there might be a hell of a movie in this one. (Chris or Erik are you listening?). Actually, we’d have to work pretty hard to find a happy ending, but I’m sure the addition of a fictional American youth and focusing on the eventual fall of the despot might work… The version I’ll lay out is a mix of well-supported fact from Mervyn Brown’s History of Madagascar, strongly asserted hearsay from a collection of half-drunk ex-pats, and my own romantic rendering.

The year was 1984, and the USSR-supported ‘president’ Admiral Didier Ratsiraka (Rat-seer-ak) was entering his most paranoid period of his long reign. His secret police, the Direction Generale d’Investigation et de Documentation (DGID), was given clear instructions to root out and punish anti-government “plots”. To fulfill his charge, DGID’s headman (the president’s brother-in-law), hired gangs of unemployed youths with a history of violence but some loyalty to the repressive socialist government. This collection of thugs actually had a ‘union’ at the time: the Unemployed Youths of Central Madagascar – locally called TTS. In the name of ‘securite’, the DGID and the youthful storm troopers of TTS began a violent campaign of extortion, assault, and political repression.

Enter the story’s ill-fated hero. My research has yet to uncover a name, but my sources assure me that this humble Malagasy spent 20 years studying Kung-Fu under the direct tutelage of the Shaolin masters in a monastery in deepest China. After returning to his country, he left behind the village of his birth, and headed for the capital – Antananarivo (Tana). There he founded the Tana Centre de Kung-Fu and began teaching the youth of his country the great tradition of Chinese self-defense.

To counter the rise of the secret police and their well-paid thugs, the Tana Kung-Fu center organized vigilante groups to patrol the streets and defend the downtrodden. These bands were at first primarily comprised of incensed and romantically inclined sons of bourgeois families. But as news of these defenders spread around Tana, the movement gained attention and more and more folks began showing up for both Kung-Fu instruction and patrol duty.

Like any good repressive, paranoid government, in September of 1984 Ratsiraka’s administration banned the practice of Kung-Fu entirely. With the ruling, the battles between the thugs and “Kung-Fu” reached a fevered pitch, resulting in the December 4th Kung-Fu riots. What were minor skirmishes between small knots of thugs and Kung-Fu patrols became a single broiling war as the crowds of youths engaged in hand-to-hand combat took over the Avenue de Independence and the Gare, the crumbling colonial train station. By the end of the day, 50 young men were dead. As my history book is not specific, I leave it to artistic license to decide which movement suffered more.

Whatever the relative body count, Kung-Fu’s battling produced results that peaceful demonstrations had not. In February 1985 the head of TTS was removed, and soon followed by the head of the DGID. Apparently, even the president’s brother-in-law was not immune.

That success was short-lived, however, as Ratsiraka’s paranoia was further inflamed by these very public concessions to an opposition group. Seen as a “serious threat to the regime’s authority”, Kung-Fu needed to be destroyed. On August 1 1985, Ratsiraka directed police and army units, all heavily armed and supported by tanks and artillery (!!!), to attack the Tana Centre de Kung-Fu. In the fighting that followed, the building was razed to rubble, over 20 youths were killed and over 200 arrested.

The historical account does not include the personal story of our Kung-Fu instructor, but my ex-pat sources insist that our hero fought bravely in the face of rolling tanks and artillery shells, and managed to evade capture by his enemies. He returned to the small village where he was born, to hide out and regroup. Tragically, Ratsiraka’s assassins tracked him home, and soon after the brutal attack in Tana, they shot the Kung-Fu master down.

The attack on Kung-Fu brought to an end to Ratsiraka’s public support in Tana, and he was forced to move out of the city, retreating to a heavily fortified villa, built by North Koreans (!), referred to as “The Bunker”. I’d love to write that the uproar following the attack brought his regime to a swift end, but he held on for seven more years, and wasn’t ousted until 1992. The events did end any fantasy that he was a well-loved leader and fed his self-reinforcing paranoia. After the events of 1985, Mervyn Brown writes, “his political strategy could be summed up in one word – survival.”

That’s the story – if you’re sitting down with the execs any time soon, you could pitch it as “Enter the Dragon” meets “Last King of Scotland.” Or maybe “Karate Kid” meets “Red Dawn” if they’re not Bruce Lee fans.

I'm dying to hear more details of this story -- if anyone knows more, please email at tom.andrew.oliver [at] gmail.com.



  1. Great read Tom,

    I was a bit young when this TTS vs Kung Fu tale was hot but your recollection fits what I knew of it at the time. The lore of the Kung-Fu center was quite impressive given that there was no way to share story telling like on the web nowadays. looking forward to hearing more from you guys, Cheers