Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Look Back at My First Niverenan'ny Fahaleovantenan'i Madagasikara, One Decade Later

Ten years ago I celebrated my first Malagasy Independence Day. I had been in Madagascar for just over three months, and alone at my remote Peace Corps site for 54 days. I was recovering from a nasty bought of something that was never confirmed to be malaria, and was still completely overwhelmed with culture shock, language barriers, and the inability to cook anything fit for human consumption.

On Monday I "rediscovered" my handwritten journal that I painstakingly kept in painful detail for just over my first year at my site. I opened it at random to June 23, 2003, and realized what I was reading was almost exactly 10 years old. I had to laugh at my 10-year-younger self, mostly with relief that I will never have to go through an experience like that again - at least wherever I go now, I know I will be able to cook an edible meal out of raw ingredients, and I will never be quite as freaked out about going to the market to buy food.

So, in honor of both the 26th of June, and my 10 year anniversary of experiencing my first one, here is the unabridged, unedited account I wrote of that first celebration in Bealanana, Madagascar, beginning the day before and going through the day of [with just a few editorial clarifications and comments]:

June 25, 2003

Well, once again I am starting this mid-day since I 'm guessing it's going to be a long night tonight. So far the day has been pretty good. I didn't sleep too badly, despite a constant stream of arrivals [at the emergency room at the hospital I lived in] next door. Then I was up at 6 (my radio has stopped working in stand-by mode, and this bothers me so much I wake up when it's supposed to turn on) and started heating milk. I had a hard time choosing clothes, but finally settled in and opened up just in time for Madame Lala to come looking for me. She said I had to come see the games again today.

Then I drank hot chocolate, ate break, left a pitcher for milk, and headed off early to the hospital [the lower hospital, more of a "clinic," not the upper hospital I lived in]. I made some progress [on my record-keeping project] before the rasazy [nurse] showed up. A whole bunch of women came for Depo[-Provera shots], but only three or four for CPN [prenatal check-up]. I helped fill out cards.

Then I went to the bazaar. I stopped to look at jeans and finally found a (new) pair I liked, and chatted with the shopkeeper. He's from Montasoa [village where Peace Corps has it's training center, two days by airplane, a week by car away]. I bargained for the jeans - 60,000 FMG for a new pair. Yea, the cut is several years old, but still a new pair for 9.50 USD. Not bad, even if I did get ripped off by Malagasy standards.

Then I wandered the bazaar for a long time and finally picked up some hair-fixin' supplies. The back home. I picked up my mlk and hung out with the nurses who were waiting for the Sous-Préfet who never showed. Then I made lunch and was still feeling energetic. So I cleaned up, hauled water and tried on the jeans and clothing combos for tonight.

But I am still feeling nervous about tonight. I know Mosilee (the bush taxi driver) and many other drunk men will be there, and I can't help but it scares me. A lot. I'm really looking forward to this time tomorrow.

Well, I'm glad I already started writing, because I'm just back from the first part of the celebration and already have a lot to report. The evening started with more "games," like yesterday. Madame Lala had told me to come early and she got me a seat up top of the stage with her and the other judges, so I had a good view, even if I did feel a little awkward. The dancing was fun [to watch], even if sitting with Lala always manages to raise my blood pressure a few notches. But it also gave me the idea that maybe I should do a "game" instead of village theater for my pregnancy education project. [Never did happen.]

Anyway, the last was a Betsileo [southern Madagascar ethnic] tribute that got all of the displaced Betsileos very excited, and then I escaped to join Vero and Fonja. We stayed to watch the kid's question contest - and learned that Belanana has only had electricity since 1997 or so - I really wonder just how the town has changed in that time.

Then the kids started lighting their Chinese lanterns and the effect was really awe-inspiring. The whole square was soon filled with bobbing balls of colored light - reminding me a little of Halloween at home without the costumes. The weather reminded me of that season, too - not hot like our Independence Day, but remarkably cool. [Remember, June is winter in Madagascar.] I was actually a little worried about the kids who were definitely not dressed warm enough and soon were shivering. But I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and the walk home with cold, hungry kids.

But I also had a reminder of what's to come with a drunk guy in the square who insisted on trying to speak French to me. I kept replying in English and he kept trying to rub my hand in that Malagasy way [that indicated he wanted to have sex]. Overall, I was just amused by the incident, but a whole night of it might get a little taxing again. But I'm going to drug myself up on Ibuprofen and try to get through it.

So Lala stopped by to reconfirm the program and we chatted and now I'm going to eat and get warm and go with a smile on my face.

Actually, the evening turned out pretty well. There were surprisingly few people there - I had assumed this was the event of the holiday. But we headed there at 10 to give things a chance to get going on Malagasy time - but even so, the place was all but empty when we got there. Lala had arranged a great table in the corner where I could be protected from drunks by the other ladies. I am really touched how they go to so many lengths to defend me. But tonight I was really surprised to find only Lala and Mama'i Miso as my company. I assumed more would join us later on, but as the clock crept closer to midnight I realized we were it. Mama'i Miso sat and shivered and I sipped a Coke, waiting until finally, at 11:30, they started dancing.

But even then there weren't enough men for me to have a partner for the first several dances. I finally figured that I had turned down at least half of the guys in town, and they had probably told another quarter, so none of them came. I did get accosted by one drunk lycée [high school] student and several terrible dancers, but for the most part I enjoyed myself.

I also swore I was going to stay until Lala was ready to go - like it or not. I drank a lot of Coke and then somebody produced rum, so I had a couple really good rum and Cokes and then the Sous-Préfet bought me an orange soda, so I had to chug a large part of that, too. My teeth hurt after that. And as the evening wore into morning, Mama'i Miso and Lala's husband got drunk enough to make a scene in a room full of obscenely drunk people.

So Lala and I started coercing them into going home. That took a lot of cajoling and time. It was after 3:30 AM when we finally left, and it took a bit to get home. As we were walking Mama'i Miso to her house she spent about 10 minutes puking up everything she'd looked at for the last 24 hours. Amazingly she really sobered up after that.

And I got home and cleaned up and was in bed at 10 minutes after 4 AM.

June 26, 2003

Happy Malagasy Independence Day!

So at 7 AM I literally dragged myself out of bed when all I wanted was to stay there. But I got myself slowly moving and dressed and ready to have a cultural experience. I also made hot chocolate to take to Vero's [my new Malagasy best friend] for lunch.

A little before 9 AM I followed the crowds of school children to the town's center square. The bazaar was already busy and there were crowds in the center. I found Mama Kafé [Vero's mother, so called because she and her daughter ran a little coffee shop, and there is no letter "c" in the Malagasy alphabet] and went to chat with her and soon found I was being ushered onto a seat on the raised platform with all the other VIPs. I was a little cowed at first, but I took a rickety chair way in back and I really did want to see what was going to happen and figured this was the only way I might get to see. And I was grateful for the shade and the seat because it did turn out to be a long wait.

They say time waits for no man, but if you're a Malagasy Sous-Préfet, you don't let that bother you, apparently. Just as a 9 PM ball doesn't get started until 11:30 PM, a ceremonial occasion scheduled for 9 AM can't start until HE arrives, even if that means 10:30 or 11 AM. Or, probably, 3 PM. All I know is, short of the president of the U.S., very few officials could expect that kind of patience and respect back home.

So we sat. And I tried desperately hard not to fall asleep. It really wasn't easy. I was worn out. But finally the real VIPs showed and we could get underway.

Now, since the square was surrounded in regiments of school children from all the area schools, organizations, and the women's groups that had danced the two days before were back in costume, I assumed there would be some "playing" going on. So when the VIPs arrived, I sort of half-slept through the speeches. I did wake up when I heard something interesting - they're supposed to start building a new bazaar in July, a new doctor (maybe two) are coming, something about a new English teacher arriving from America in 2004 - I don't know if he meant the new PCV, and something about new money to replace the awful, "mora simba" [easily broken/ripped/mutilated] Aryary Zato and Roan-zato [denominations of Malagasy money]. We'll see.

[For the record: there was a new bazaar built, but typical to many things, it wasn't until probably a year later that ground was finally broken; we did get a new doctor, the English teacher he was referring to must've been the new Peace Corps volunteer who came well before 2004, the only thing to happen early or on time; and there was new money in the making that made its appearance to much fanfare a few months later.]

I was fairly impressed with how my language skills have improved - I really did understand a fair amount. Though it would've been nice to have somebody ask, "Did you really hear/understand that?"

Then, suddenly, everybody marched out of the square. There was a little parade, military style, with all the groups marching for "inspection" in front of the platform. Now, I'm not sure what, but something still rubs me the wrong way about overly military-style celebrations. Maybe it's my fear of the Chinese communism we read about in Wild Swans, or the like, and it's probably no big deal since I'm sure when America was a young republic (in fact, I know) the celebrations were very similar, but I really would like to see more non-political, non-military independent fun.

[Ironic that four years later I would land myself in Communist Vietnam?]

But, that's what the bazaar was for. It was absolutely brimming with people by the time the pomp and circumstance ended. I meandered around for a bit, taking it all in, and getting "bonjour-ed" more in those 15 minutes than I have for months.

Finally I gave it up and headed up the hill. I ran into Zo [Vero's younger sister], and we chatted and walked and I began to feel jut how tired I really was and how my ears had been damaged by the disco [the night before]. And how tired I really was. [I guess I was tired, for all I keep repeating myself.] I briefly stopped at home, thanked myself for having the forethought to already make the hot chocolate. I quick changed, and we were off to Vero's. Unfortunately I managed to forget my camera, so I had to run back home - but was back before they were ready to start.

Very announced lunch and we all filed in. The table was beautiful - and since Mama Kafé was off at the VIP lunch, I was named "lehibe" and put at the head of the table. I think I remembered most of my Malagasy manners. The food was great: composé, duck, ruce, cake for dessert. And think the company was much more enjoyable than up at the Supra-Feit's where they'd all be off drinking again.

After lunch Very shooed the kids and when Fonza arrived we went mitsangasanga-ing. We went to Bealanana I, down airport road, back to Bealanana II, got "bonjour-ed" by more durnk people - had to tell several of them I spoke Spanish and no, they couldn't take a picture with me, and by the time we got home around 6, I was really tired.

I was also chilled and dressed in warm clothes - and decided I was too tired to do anything short of go straight to sleep. I was afraid Madame Lala or the others would come looking for me to go to the ball at La Crete, but if they did I didn't hear them because I was asleep by 7 PM and didn't roll over until 2 AM and still didn't want to get up in the morning.

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