Over the past two months, I’ve been kept busy participating in the egregiously protracted Malagasy New Year celebration in Ankazambo. Fortunately, I’ve found an outlet in work and between parties I’ve been juggling half a dozen different projects ranging from writing radio advertisements for the blacksmiths to helping my landlord’s son start and run a photography business. The last ‘New Years Eve’ party was this past Saturday, January 26. In total, it is the seventh that I have attended.
I know that I haven’t been posting as frequently as I was at the beginning of my service but I can assure you that this is due neither to laziness nor lack of free time. Given the most recent Chicago cold snap, this may be hard to imagine, but here in the north of Madagascar I’ve been unable to work regularly on my computer for fear of destroying the keyboard with the buckets of sweat constantly pouring off of my hands and my brow. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating. Temperatures have soared into the hundreds and the strong winter winds that I had grown accustomed to have completely stopped only to be replaced by regular humidity. Still, it is better than winters in Chicago.
Much like the lack of real winter/snow in Chicago, my region is experiencing anomalous weather conditions. Typically, the rains come in sheets at the beginning of January, like clockwork, as if cued by the New Year, causing the temperature to drop to a comfortable eighty degrees Fahrenheit. For the last three weeks; however, we’ve had little more than the occasional sprinkle. As a result, the usually reliable farming schedule is thrown badly out of whack and stores of last season’s rice are being depleted before the crop is ready for harvest. My friends still can’t plow their bone-dry rice fields and both rice and corn will be late this season exacerbating an already difficult ‘hungry season’ from January to March. In such situations, it’s not uncommon for the price of rice to double because sustenance level farmers must begin to buy rice imported from other regions or as far away as Pakistan.
It’s been extremely painful waiting around every day for the rains that never come and being greeted by worried faces whenever I walk through my community knowing that there’s nothing that any of us can do. Last week, some of the area’s residents butchered a cow on the sacred mountain behind my house as a sacrificial offering while others have turned to the church, causing Saturday service attendance to nearly double. Yet the drought continues on a scale that defies recent memory.
As bad as the drought has been I’m not the least bit worried for the community of Ankazambo because, as a result of being raised in such a rugged and isolated place, it’s home to some of the toughest and most resilient people I have ever met. We’ll be fine even if we have to do the unthinkable and substitute the ever-familiar rice with boiled corn for a month or two.
I digress. In its entirety, the purpose of my correspondence here has never been to evoke pity or sympathy, rather to share a few stories of a more light-hearted nature. Over the past two months I have accumulated quite a few of those stories mostly because yesterday marked my 55th consecutive day in Ankazambo. Since arriving at site in May, this is the longest stretch without a short vacation—not that anyone is counting of course.
This has inevitably helped my work progress more quickly but the best part about being entrenched for so long is that I haven’t missed a thing and have been witness to some pretty awkward and, in retrospect, funny situations. This particular post is about some of those days.
Malagasy New Year’s Eve…Fortnight
One of the most important holidays in Madagascar is the celebration of the New Year during which time the Malagasy drink and feast for weeks. It’s been explained to me that this is especially true in the villages and Ankazambo is no exception. By the time the New Year rolled around I was feeling comfortable enough at site to simply be myself and stopped worrying about trying to impress everyone.
I’d like to say that this encouraged me to willfully indulge in the alcohol-fueled party to ring in 2013; however, it’s more accurate to say that I finally caved to the peer pressure of my friends and coworkers, and struggled to keep up with their frenzied drinking pace while not embarrassing myself too much. Before reading any further, let it be known that my college days are behind me and I acted like a responsible adult and presented a positive image of Americans despite the strong temptation to do the opposite.
It was decided that my drinking buddy for the first week was to be the mayor. He claimed that his intention was to watch over me, making sure that no one forced me to drink too much. By the end of each night, our roles were reversed and it was my responsibility to reign in his drinking. The mayor of Ankazambo is Rabemaro. He’s a good-natured, middle-aged man with an easy laugh and a charming but mischievous smile. Upon meeting him, you’re immediately impressed by his charisma but quickly begin to feel as though he’s playing the angles and you’re his potential mark.
At 3pm every day for a week, the moonshine began flowing, the impossibly loud music was turned up to eleven and the dancing commenced. The celebrations then continued relentlessly each day until 3am the next morning. Needless to say, this was not my most productive week for business development initiatives or trainings. My plan was to indulge my neighbors with my presence for a few hours each day, have a drink, let them see the foreigner try to dance, and leave before dark when the relatively tame party devolves into what resembles a saloon fight scene from a classic Western. Rabemaro’s insistence; however, made it more difficult to leave than I initially imagined.
By the end of the first day of partying I came down with a cold and developed a terribly painful sore throat. This was probably because the custom is to drink homemade alcohol out of one communal bucket, reusing two unwashed glasses for the entire community of 900. Planning to take the second day off, I laid low but when the mayor came calling in the afternoon, I had no choice but to partake in the celebration yet again.
I explained to him that I was sick and that while I would join him at the parties, I couldn’t drink any alcohol. He listened sympathetically and agreed: it was decided that we wouldn’t drink any alcohol; we would drink beer. All this time, I had been under the impression that beer was alcoholic. He patiently explained to me that beer is good for your health because it has water in it and isn’t ‘hot on your throat’ like the infamous Malagasy moonshine (toaka gasy).
So, for six hours we sat in home after home and chugged warm bottles of the cheapest beer in Madagascar, ‘Castel’ which I enjoy for its soda-like carbonation and subtle hints of aluminum. The taste didn’t bother me so much this time because we weren’t exactly nursing them. Every time I looked away, the mayor’s cup was empty so I chugged with the determination of a fraternity pledge in order to keep up since I was buying nearly every round. Every gulp made my throat ache. I was comforted; however, by Rabemaro’s conviction that the warm beer was good for my health. So we kept drinking.
That evening we stumbled out of the only bar in town—which is actually my neighbor’s living room—and wobbled through the dusty alleys, greeting every stranger that passed through Ankazambo. Liquid courage had me convinced that I had achieved fluency in Malagasy and launched into elaborate and completely fabricated stories about my childhood while the mayor ignored me and pointed out the angry drunks that I should avoid.
He then invited me to one final party at his home. By this time I had forgotten all about my sore throat and agreed to join him for one final beer. We shared this one while we sat on long wooden benches and watched the barefoot, dancing women kick up enormous clouds of fine orange dust silhouetted by the glow of the setting red sun. I didn’t feel out of place, awkward, nervous or even frustrated that the partying had seriously delayed my self-imposed work schedule. A tremendous peace of mind overtook me as I stared blearily at the festivities.
This calmness lasted all of three minutes before the mayor’s wife, who was tipsy but not inappropriately drunk, insisted that I dance with her. Hesitant, as always, not to cause an international incident I glanced warily at the mayor whose face immediately lit up with drunken joy. As it turned out, he was just as determined to get the foreigner to dance at his party, as his wife was to dance with the 23-year-old.
So we danced, stomping and swaying rhythmically to the fast-paced accordion music. A crowd gathered. After the end of the first song I thanked them for their hospitality and went to retrieve my seat but Rabemaro grabbed me and kept me on the dance floor for three more songs, dancing wildly without pause for a half-hour.
My knees were starting to buckle from exhaustion, my head was pounding and my throat was raw so I finally pulled myself away from the party and returned home, accompanied, of course by the mayor, Rabemaro. He understood that I was a lightweight and gave up on trying to keep me out and dancing so he bid me a good night and went back to the party which continued for several more hours.
Before doing so, however, Rabemaro used my bathroom, which is nothing more than a packed mud hut with a thatched roof and two doors. One door leads to my toilet (kabone), which is simply a hole in the ground, while the other is my shower (ladosy), which has a small drain and room enough for a bucket bath. Mine is the only home in town with a toilet or shower. (Most people prefer to bathe in the river and relieve themselves in the woods). The mayor, therefore, not being accustomed to my bathroom situation, used the wrong door and urinated in my shower. I didn’t have the heart to tell him so. I’m told that he returned several hours later and did it again. We have not had a drink together since.
My Naked Best Friend
Much earlier in my service while I was still figuring things out, I had an early encounter with full-frontal nudity. Since that day I’ve had many more so I’ve pushed the experiences into the recesses of my mind only to see the light of day today. I was riding my bike with the president of the blacksmith association, my friend Fizel. Fizel is tall and athletically built and although in his late-thirties, he possesses the genuine and endearing innocence of a much younger man. He has experienced more heartbreak that I care to mention but has remained the most upbeat and optimistic person I have ever met.
On this particular day, the president and myself were riding our bikes into Befandriana to meet with my counterpart NGO. The meeting was scheduled for 9am but, as is typical in Madagascar, we were running very late. We left for town at about 9:30 but were delayed first by bike problems and then because Fizel forgot his bag and finally, because he had to make a phone call.
On our fourth attempt to leave Ankazambo, I was starting to get the impression that we were on our way when he stopped abruptly and said, rather sheepishly, that he had the pressing need to shower. By this time we were about two hours late for our meeting and he clearly sensed my anxiety. I could only laugh and I turned my bike around to head back to Ankazambo so that he could shower. When I turned back around; however, he was completely naked, sprinting away from me down the hot blacktop only to leap over a roadside hedge into a standing pool of mossy brown water.
Dumbfounded, I waited by the side of the road for him to finish his shower. Meanwhile, he carried on about our plan for the upcoming meeting while waving to passing taxi brousses still standing stark naked in the shallow pool. Ten minutes later, he emerged from his shower dripping wet and, as he struggled to put on his shorts, he explained to me that the Tsimihety custom is to take advantage of the natural resources, showering whenever there’s a convenient source of water, even if this means showering in less than pristine waters—such as those offered along the side of the highway.
The hotter it is, he explained, the more they shower. We’ve reached the peak of Malagasy summer and I’ve seen more naked men, leaping over hedges into dirty pools of water than I care to remember. More often than not, they stop and wave while I pass on my bike.
Etiquette and Public Exposure at the Hotel Musulman
The ‘Hotel Musulman’ is the one good ‘hotely’ (quick and cheap Gasy food) in all of Befandriana. Whenever I am in town, I get together with a fellow volunteer to grab a quick meal at Musulman. The restaurant is run by its patron ‘Mama Be’ and her second in command, ‘Mama Kely’. The preceding words mean big mama and little mama respectively but this refers to their status rather than their physical stature—both are large, matronly women. Mama Be, a woman of Middle Eastern descent in her early sixties is severe and blunt with the air of an interrogating mother in law while Mama Kely, a heavy-set, dark-skinned woman in her forties is outgoing, inquisitive and completely unabashed.
On this day my friend and I stopped into the Musulman for our usual ‘akoho sauce’ (a small piece of boiled chicken in a thick tomato broth served over rice). The Musulman also serves the best chai tea in town.
Mama Kely served us and, as always, vied desperately for our distracted attention. She’s middle-aged but craves attention like an eight-year old. She cooks the best food in town so we humor her when we can stand it in the hope of an extra piece of chicken. She was worse than usual on this day and visited our table for unknown reasons, forced her way into our conversations, and sat with us while criticizing how little we ate. We were polite but clearly uninterested until after the meal was over and I was enjoying my tea. She sat down across the table and began breast-feeding her infant son. Of course, I’ve lived in Madagascar long enough to become desensitized to women breast-feeding their children in front of me and typically I’m unfazed; however, Mama Kely was actively encouraging me to watch in the hope of eliciting shock. I didn’t even know that she had a child and it’s entirely possible that she doesn’t.
She shouted, proudly pointing to her exposed breast, ‘Daniel! Izy misotro ronono!’ (Daniel! He’s drinking milk!). Not knowing the culturally appropriate response to such a display, I took a sip of my milk-fortified tea and responded calmly, ‘Zahay roa, Mama Kely’ (We both are, Mama Kely).
We still regularly patronize the Hotel Musulman for it’s cheap and delicious food while recognizing that the service could use some improvement.
Needless, to say, there’s no lesson in these stories. They neither offer profound insight into Malagasy culture nor do they encourage a new way of seeing the world. I just thought that they were funny. Perhaps they even shed some light on the relative strangeness of my job, which, of course, remains the best and most interesting job I’ve ever held.