Saturday, July 11, 2009

Our first look back...

Whew, it's been an amazingly busy week. I am only now getting around to what I intended all along: to dig through what I wrote before and maybe dredge up some memories that I don't want to have buried under increasing tangled neurons. Maybe I'll even have a random insight or two while I'm at it!

I'm particularly lucky to be able to celebrate a real small-town, old-fashioned, 4th of July on a regular basis - but many other countries celebrate their independence days or major festivals with as much, if not more, enthusiasm than we even work up around here.

For starters I'll posting a portion of a letter I wrote home to my family from Madagascar, after my very first celebration of Malagasy Independence Day on the 26th of June:


June 27, 2003

Happy Malagasy Independence Day! Better known (like ours) as Vignt-six Juin.

That was definitely the major shaper of the whole week. People have been preparing to celebrate for several weeks now and last week Thursday the market literally exploded in a riot of vendors selling food, baskets, parasols, shoes, and most especially, clothes. All the regular sellers got in extra big shipments of new things from Tana over the weekend, so Thursday’s “big market day” extended itself into the following week. Everybody wanted to be well decked out for the big day and the local merchants did nothing to discourage it. People from all over started coming to town and for several days there was endless food and ox-cart and bicycle traffic of people bringing whatever they had been farming/making to sell and then return home with cases and crates of soda and THB beer, and maybe some biscuits or candy if they’d had good luck selling.

Not all people who came headed home right away. A lot of people stayed in town for the festivities and the place began to remind me of home on the 4th of July without the cars. But I haven’t gotten so many “Bonjours” and curtsies or nasty yells of “vazaha!” and the Malagasy Ts-Tsing (when they want to get somebody’s attention here, they “ts-tsss” and young guys especially like to use it on me) for months. I’ve really begun to appreciate how many people here know my name, or at least that I’m not French or at least not so much of an anomaly.

In the afternoon the day before there was a “ballet” competition put on by the women’s organization (and my friends were judging) where groups of women from literally all over came to sing and dance the completely Malagasy way. I really like these events. The costumes are great and I’m getting to the point I can understand a lot of the singing (helps that there tends to be lots of repetition) and since my friends were judging I got to sit up on stage and watch and not clamber to see through the crowd. (Bleachers haven’t exactly made it here yet, perhaps due to the lack of trees). The Betsileo were the best, although the judging may have been affected by the fact that there were so many of my friend’s friends in the group, but the whole event was a lot of fun.

By that time it was getting dark, and the kids’ contests began. There was a quiz contest (okay, so I’m not so up on my Malagasy/ French history) and I learned that electricity only came here in 1997. I wonder how much the town has changed since then. I bet a lot. Then as it got dark the kids started lighting Chinese lanterns (yes, real candles, real fire, and real kids, folks. I can see all you US bred parents shivering right now) and it made a spectacular scene of light and color around the square. I really regretted not buying one myself, but it was definitely a kid event. Fortunately Vero let me adopt her family (or they adopted me?), so I got some quality kid time. The look was actually much more Halloween than 4th of July from the jack-o-lantern effect and the downright cold wind, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Then people started shooting fireworks (once again, real fireworks, real kids, no laws) and they even had those obnoxious boomers that make you think (especially so close to Africa) that you’re at war.

The next morning, the actual Independence Day, I was up and ready at 7, but feeling like I had a hangover despite not touching any alcohol. There were more festivities that morning. So I headed back to centre ville. The place was full of children in school uniform in military line-up, women from the Women's Group and many other spectators. I found another friend there and soon was being ushered to sit up on stage with the VIPs. I was just a little cowed by this, but I took a rickety seat in back and I really did want to see/hear. And soon I was glad I did because I got to sit down in the shade. Once again, we were on Malagasy time. Any elected politician in America (short of maybe the President) who makes his constituents wait in the hot sun for 2 hours or more would likely quickly lose his constituency. Not so here. We sat and I tried not to sleep waiting for His Highness, the Sous-prefet to get himself out of bed after a late night at the disco. There’s no way over 1000 small school children would stand for it either in the US.

Finally they appeared and the festivities commenced. I assumed with the groups there (the schools, the women who had danced still in full costume, scouts, church groups, the Gendarme and the military police) that there would be more singing and dancing. But short of the National Anthem, there wasn’t. So I kinda tuned out the speeches (although I perked up when I heard interesting things—I’m really happy that with my language skills I can do that now, even if I don’t understand everything) but I learned later my assumptions were pretty much true - political promises of things that had been promised a year ago and still haven’t happened. Then all the groups paraded themselves military style in front of the stage to a really awful recording of a really awful band playing some really awful marches. Sigh. 6th grade band Jingle Bells anyone?

Then we were let go. I was invited up to lunch followed by more drinking and dancing at the Sous-prefet’s house but I politely declined, explaining I had another invitation to fulfill. So I escaped to the relative calm of Vero’s house where she was playing hostess to her siblings, child and friends for an Independence Day feast. Simple, yet elegant. And, unfortunately since here mom was at the VIP reception and her dad is still in Tana with a sick child from his church, I was delegated “lehibe” and put at the head of the table. I think I remembered my Malagasy manners enough—or at least they didn’t say anything.

After cake the kids were sent off to play and Vero, her friend who’s studying law in Tanarive, and I went off “mitsangatsanga-ing” around the town under the pretense of going to watch the soccer game, but we just kinda kept on going. I really like Vero because she’s such a contrast to my other friends and in that way a lot like me. Plus she and Fanja could appreciate the humor of really drunk Malagasy people desperately trying to form French words to speak with me. The best was when she told one guy I spoke Spanish. The next time I told her to tell them to try Japanese.

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