While trying to integrate into a new village on the opposite side of the world, it is important to become aware of the customs of its people. Even more important is to adapt quickly and understand what is appropriate behavior and what is not. The Antandroy culture (fomba) largely concerns respecting one's elders. Along the same lines, many of their taboos (fady) involve disrespecting someone. In order to keep these rules straight and avoid an embarrassing and/or offensive slip up (you don’t want to have to sacrifice a cow, do you?), here’s a go-to guide on the fomba and fady in the Androy region.Read More
“Deda,” Mbola said as he waved the giant sand-covered snail in the air for me to see.
“Deda," I repeated. After a rainstorm the night before, the snails left their hiding spots in the dewy grass for the damp, sandy road leading to the small village of Tsimankiaraky. After a 70-year-old woman died, we were headed five kilometers outside of Ambondro to attend her havoriane, or funeral.
We arrived to a cluster of homes made of sturdy sticks and straw. As I walked through, I was invited inside each one of them.
“Mandroso!” the friendly strangers greeted me, offering a serving of their cassava or rice.
“Mazotoa!” I politely declined and instead took them up on their offer to sit on their straw mat for a few minutes of conversation. They stared at me, examining every inch of my body with concentrated curiosity. I smiled and took pictures. They were happy to pose and eager to see what they looked like on the camera screen.
I borrowed traditional lambas or cloths to wear, one around my body like a dress and the other to tie around my waist. Once I looked the part, we continued on our way to the family of the deceased.
Raising their spears high into the sky, the men skipped through the sand. They sent triumphant screams into the air. I walked behind them with the group of children. Girls, as young as 5-years-old, carried babies on their backs, shifting their weight every few steps. The others walked next to me, diligently alerting me of every fateke or cactus thorn they saw, making sure I wouldn’t get hurt. I felt the sun getting stronger, but I was eager to witness my first Atandroy funeral.
For the Atandroy people – those living in the Androy region of Madagascar – funerals are typically not somber occasions. When an elderly person dies, their long-lived years are celebrated. As we got closer to the celebration, I could hear the beating of a drum, clapping and rhythmic chanting. I was immediately engulfed by the women, each with braided hair and clothed in colorful lambas. They signaled me to clap and move my body to the beat. It was a warm welcome.
Under one of the few trees in sight, the men squatted low to the ground with their spears held upright. The son of the woman who had died sat in the center. It is tradition to give “basimena” or an amount of money to the family who had lost a member. The men held sticks with ariary or Malagasy money attached and presented the offering to the woman’s son. I watched until it was my turn and handed the man my basimena. My gift was met by a roaring cheer and a handful of men began to jump on one foot as if gravity seemingly did not exist.
We walked to a dirt field, bordered with towering cacti, and squatted next to each other, in big clusters. The Malagasy are exceptional squatters and can stay in the position for hours. They placed a tihy or straw mat in the dirt for me to sit on, knowing that I had not mastered the skill quite yet. The extended family of the deceased woman brought out bowl after bowl, each overflowing with rice and beans, for each guest to eat. They passed out spoons and we all dug in.
I found my way back to the tree’s shade, accompanying Mbola and the rest of the men and their spears. The woman sat under the other tree in close distance, singing and beating an empty water container, used as a drum. In turns, men would leave their squatting position from the one tree to dance under the other tree with the women. Men would shoot a Davy-Crockett era shot gun into the air (filled with blanks) to signal the end of each performance.
Guests continued to make their way to the funeral. While some gave money, others gave cows. As they herded the animals to the center of the celebration, men shot their guns into the air repeatedly, making the cows run frantically. As I curiously watched the events unfold, an elderly woman suddenly handed me a gun. Confused and nervous (I had never held a gun before), I took her lead and made my way over to the other women. They told me to dance while holding the gun high in the air. I mirrored their movements to the best of my ability – the gun was heavy! –all while a smile plastered was on my face. They told me it was an honor to have me.
Despite my friend’s efforts to keep me in the shade, I could feel my skin slowly roasting under the strong rays of the southern sun. But before making our way home, the same elderly woman who gave me the gun, came over to my side with a small goat. I looked at her confused, for a second time. Mbola told me to say thank you, explaining to me that she was giving me the goat, in return for my basimena.
“Misaotse betsaka,” I said thankfully, though thoughts had already begun scrambling though my head. I didn’t have a clue what to do with a goat. In an effort to reassure me, Mbola said that someone would escort the goat to my house later in the day. He suggested that we head home before the others, as my skin progressively turned a darker shade of pink.
As I stood up to leave, I giggled to myself, still thinking about my new goat. As I waved goodbye, hundreds of eyes watched the no-longer-white-but-red-skinned girl start the sandy path home. And while my sun-burnt skin couldn’t be a bigger giveaway of how different I was to these people, they did nothing but to remind me how much I belonged.
Especially, in thinking that I knew what to do with a goat.
My feet have never been so dirty.
After a simple stroll in my flimsy flip flops through the sandy roads of Ambondro, I return home with feet the color of dust. Multiple scrubbings a day become fruitless: there’s no escaping the sand. With sand, comes fleas—it’s a two-for-one deal. As I sit on the straw mat eating cassava with my friends, Lahialey suddenly notices a flea burrowed in my big toe.
“Got a safety pin?” he asks the woman next to us, nonchalantly. She hands it over. Lahialey begins to dig out the small bug from my foot. When he’s finished, he holds the flea and some of my skin between his forefinger and thumb.
“Want to hold it?” I squirm and he tosses it to the ground. Without hesitation, Monja, sitting to my right, coats my toe with ash to prevent another unwelcome visitor.
I have never sweat so much in my life.
I wake up at 4:30 a.m. to run, hoping to avoid the strong rays of the southern sun. I come back with my clothes drenched. My glasses fog up as drips of sweat roll down my forehead. After a bucket bath, I’m off to school. I feel the sweat form on the nape of my neck and linger on my upper lip, as I teach 80 Malagasy students squeezed into one small classroom.
I have never cared so little about my physical appearance.
Each morning, I brush my teeth, apply sunscreen, brush my hair and I’m good to go. (Long gone are the days of mascara, eyeliner and tinted moisturizer). I’ve adopted the “four-eyes” look indefinitely to prevent the potential eye infections by wearing contacts.
And despite all the filth – never in my life have I been called beautiful so many times.
There’s no hiding when you are the only white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl in a small rural village in the deep South of Madagascar. During my first month adapting to my new home, I was met with a lot of curious stares, everyone wanting to know who exactly this white girl was and what I was doing here. Luckily, I was graciously welcomed into their village.
Mamasabo grabs my hand and invites me to try her habobo – a popular drink in southern Madagascar, which in essence is curdled milk. I hesitate, not wanting to offend this gracious woman, yet at the same time, trying not to throw up. A crowd gathers around us. Sensing my uncertainty, Oline, my fourteen-year-old neighbor, swallows a spoonful of habobo, as if to give me an example. All eyes turn to me—now it’s my turn. Just as the spoon of chunky white milk curds meet my lips, the wind blows my hair across my face. I pull my blonde hair out of my mouth, now coated in habobo, feeling like an absolute mess. Oline gently pushes my hair behind my ear. I feel embarrassed, but the feelings are my own.
“Ampela soa,” my new friends say. Beautiful girl.
Students from the middle school form a line to the left and right of me, building a barrier across the sandy road as we walk to school together. We practice English, but talk in Malagasy, too. When I don’t understand, I apologize and smile. They smile, too and reassure me.
“Ampela soa.” Beautiful girl.
Cheers of approval come from the sweet potato vendors in the center of town, sheltered under the shade, as they catch a glimpse of my braided hair. They are so surprised to see a white girl with a Malagasy hairstyle.
“Ampela soa!” Beautiful girl.
Curious kids peek their heads through my window. First I only see their eyes, then they slowly raise their heads. They ask question after question and I smile, appreciating the interaction. When I don’t understand, they give me examples, eager to teach me their language. Before they leave, I hear, “Ampela soa!” Beautiful girl.
Strangers squatting next to their pots of rice invite me to eat lunch with them as I walk through town. I approach them and do my best to start conversation, though it often does not amount to much significance. I feel disappointed I cannot communicate with them. But their warm eyes dissipate my frustration.
The strangers say, “Ampela soa.” Beautiful girl.
In just a short time, my new home—located in the poorest region of the world’s tenth poorest country —has taught me a lesson about beauty. While their work seems endless and the days are hot, they greet me each day with a smile. I wasn’t looking for it, but the Malagasy people have led me to beauty in its rarest form.
Their generosity, patience, happiness and resilience has taught me to find beauty in myself. I’ve found beauty in saying ‘yes’ in unfamiliar situations. I’ve found beauty in stepping outside my comfort zone and trusting in myself. I’ve found beauty in swallowing my pride (and curdled milk) and trying my best. I’ve found beauty in enjoying conversation in a language I am slowly learning. I’ve found beauty in sharing knowledge with others.
Dirty feet, fleabites, sweat and all, I feel beautiful.
As I prepare to leave my old New Jersey home for my soon-to-be island home, I got to thinking about postcards.
When is the last time you sent a postcard? We still share our adventures incessantly, of course, through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all of that. But it's not the same. We no longer 'wish you were here.'
When I was younger, I used to be a huge postcard fan. It was fun to write them to my cousins and friends from home as my family traveled cross-country in our motor home. My love for postcards (and snail mail in general) still exists and so I wonder why the act of sending them has died.
Last year, the U.S. Postal Service processed 770 million stamped postcards in 2014. That's down from 1.2 billion in 2010. I think it's a shame because a postcard offers a whole lot more than a 'like' on Facebook or a favorite on Instagram. It provides a less narcissistic connection from one place in the world to another and a conversation between two people. And of course a snapshot of the location, whether beautiful, cheesy, informative or generic.
So here's my idea: During your travels this summer (and in the next two years) write a postcard and send it my way. I don't care where you are (whether you never leave your hometown or find yourself in Antarctica), I want to hear from you! I will feature them on this blog and start a collection to show the world through postcards.
Here's my address during the first three months of my service. (I'll update it once I get assigned my site in Madagascar).
Olivia Prentzel, PCV
Bureau du Corps de la Paix
Poste Zoom Ankorondrano
Oh, and make sure to include your address so I can return the favor. :)