The minibus came to a cranium shuddering halt. A chicken had somehow squirmed its way out of the wicker basket that was holding it captive on top of the vehicle and leapt onto the road. From there, it swerved between the oncoming traffic and made off into a rice paddy. Panicked, the owner watched on as his prized poultry escaped. Eager to give chase to the hasty hen, he slowly began clambering over the throng of people between himself and the sliding door of the vehicle’s exit.
I was on one of Madagascar’s infamous taxi-brousses, winding along the fertile mountains between Sambava and Andapa. These ramshackle and ubiquitous vehicles can range from minibuses and 4x4’s to old school buses and huge passenger laden lorries. They act as the public transport network of the country and ply the arterial roads and dirt tracks that connect the towns and villages. The landscape was one of tree speckled mountains and bright green shoots of sprouting rice. It had just rained and the paddy fields, overflowing with water, reflected a surreal, watercolour like image of the verdant mountains.
To see a chicken strapped inside a box to the top of a taxi-brousse was in itself not unusual. In fact, of all the chicken carrying methods used inside the country, this was the most normal. I saw live chickens stuffed under moped seats, chickens held inside a ferry toilet during a turbulent sea crossing and chickens hanging upside down from bicycle handlebars. Throughout one torturous, overnight journey, a chicken was even given free reign inside the back of the minibus. It spent 12 solid hours clucking interminably and defecating over the passenger’s belongings. By the time I had shut the clucking out and gotten to sleep, I was awoken within half an hour by a feathery wing brushing my bare ankles as the chicken ran under the seats as if it was the ball from Pong.
In Madagascar, if a minibus is designed for fifteen people, then at least thirty will be squeezed in. On this particular journey, I was unlucky enough to be sitting next to an unusually large Malagasy man. His elephantine like thighs crushed my own. What started as pins and needles in my legs, soon turned into bayonets and daggers. Behind me, a barefooted ninety year old man sat on a younger man’s lap, his knees wedged into my back. A man operating the sliding door of the minibus crouched in front of me. As the door was broken, it took the employment of an entire human operator working a pulley like rope system to open it.
This congested situation, repeated on every row of the minibus, is what that the man whose chicken had escaped had to overcome before he could give chase. He crawled over the other passenger’s laps, and then stepped over the ninety year old man as if walking out of quick sand. All of a sudden my head was thrust forwards as the catch on my seat had been pressed to fold the seat inwards. I stayed tucked in as the man acrobatically hurdled over the final passenger in the row behind and to his freedom. After two minutes of shuffling, writhing, grunting and twisting, he slipped out of the minibus in a spectacle not dissimilar to a birth scene from an Attenborough documentary.
I looked on as the man ran across the road and gave chase. Slightly dishevelled and with wet, sodden trouser legs from the rice fields, he returned triumphantly with chicken in hand. He crawled back over into his seat on the minibus, holding the chicken tightly on his lap as if it were a Fabergѐ egg. The passengers looked on nonchalantly and the taxi-brousse rolled into motion over the potholed tarmac. In Madagascar, a roadside chicken chase is not unusual enough to bat an eyelid over.