Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Memories

Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day. Drop one word, and you get a very different connotation. The first is three full days away from the office, or, around here, the first busy day of summer as an endless stream of vehicles hauls boats, kayaks, camping and fishing gear, and people to the sun and lakes of the Northwoods. The second is a solemn day of remembrance, a day for color guards, cemetery decorations, patriotic music, and speeches.

This split is not limited to celebrations in the United States. I was re-reading my journal entries from Martyr’s Days spent in Madagascar. Apparently I was fortunate enough to be there for two March 29ths that were semi-attached to a weekend, so we celebrated the day as a full holiday weekend those times. The first March 29, in 2003, I had been in country for about two months and was still in training. I really had no idea what was going on. Our language and cultural trainers did their best to explain the history of the day, but it mostly translated badly as “Independence Day.” Yet, what I expected out of Independence Day wasn’t what I saw. It was a very solemn event with few organized community-wide activities like a parade or festival. My host brother left town to go to the capital to spend the day with his siblings and my host father went to the next town over to give a speech. So, three other trainees and I left town for a weekend-long bike excursion into the country.

When the next Martyr’s Day in 2004 rolled around, I had been at site in Bealanana for nearly a year. It still took my faithful sitemate, Elizabeth, to make the connection of “Martyr’s Day” to “Memorial Day.” We had just returned form our momentous 60 km hike down the mountain and back a few days before, so we didn’t do anything extraordinary for this Martyr’s Day weekend, but as volunteers only got official Malagasy holidays as days off, I know many other volunteers who did take advantage of the three full days. So, instead, we observed the solemnity of the day:

March 29, 2004 Malagasy Memorial Day. I was re-reading my journal from a year ago (2003), and somehow I’d had the impression that this was their Independence Day. Then Elizabeth said “Memorial Day,” and I realized how well that fit. We went to the ceremony at the monument in town and it was very much like the familiar U.S. celebrations: colorguard, armed contingent, officials, speakers, even a veteran. Oh, and scouts in uniform. Very patriotic. Yet very Malagasy.

The Sous-Prefet (equivalent of a County Board chairman) delayed all the proceedings as usual - so much so that even his wife walked into town ahead of his car. Then, the usual raising of the flag, national anthem, laying of wreaths, speeches. The mayor’s speech was short and to the point. Then the Sous-Prefet. Arrive late, talk long must be his motto. I was sweating from places I didn’t know I could sweat by the time he finished. But at least Elizabeth and I weren’t seated with the VIPs this time, so we didn’t have to fully pay attention…

I’m amused to read how the following part of the entry reflects on our recent down-the-mountain adventure, as one of our “guard des corps” (body guards) was the commander of the small legion of Malagasy troops (gendarme) standing in observance of Martyr’s Day.

Elizabeth and I amused ourselves by noticing the old gendarme from the walk down the mountain was the man barking orders at the troops today - and then noticing him notice us and informing the guy next to him who told the next guy and so on until the whole guard was now looking at us. We could just hear him saying, “Don’t look now, but there are the two white girls I saved from a bug.”

Always a good thing to have an in with the local military unit. (Oh, and if you don’t know the story of the bug, remind me to tell it sometime.)

Sadly, I never attended another Malagasy Memorial Day observance. The next year I had moved to Fianarantsoa, and was well warned that if we came within sight of the gathering at the monument, we would be dragged into the proceedings and seated in the V.I.P. section. We sent Dan as our sacrificial representative and the rest of us celebrated with a picnic brunch inside the compound, then, I think, took a long walk around the city in the afternoon while everybody else was busy getting drunk.

So, as I walk to the cemetery this coming Monday morning, I will remember standing in the hot sun, dust and sweat of March in Madagascar to honor Malagasy killed at Ambatomanga - and the good company I kept on those days.

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