March 04, 2010

Still Alive

I recently celebrated my successful survival of the first month at post, alone in the wilds of Madagascar. The party- a real rager, if I can say so myself- included yours truly, a giant Reeses Cup, and a rocking solo dance party. ("Check the flavor of the rhythm I wrote and while I get a chance here...let me clear my throat!!")

This first month has been largely preoccupied with settling into a routine of day-to-day village life. The roosters wake at four and most residents follow shortly thereafter. I, continuing my lifelong struggle against induction into the early morning club, resolutely stay in bed until seven, thinking of ways to fill the empty hours of the approaching day. I usually assign myself small manageable tasks (i.e. brave the post office, have a conversation with someone over the age of seven) that force me out of the house and into the community. Besides meeting these daily challenges, I spend a great deal of time on my porch: greeting passers-by, studying Malagasy, reading, writing long, elaborate, often rambling letters or just listening to my neighbor strum his miniature guitar and watching the storm clouds track across the sky, the fruit ripen on the trees, the grass grow in the road. (Yes, in many ways, my days have the character of a gigantic run-on sentence).

My favorite time of day is evening, when the kids are running home from school to beat the rain, pushing de-rubbered bicycle wheels with sticks (Ah-I think to myself- just like the Colonial America of Old); when the setting sun is framed by corrugated roofs and leaning palms; when the light is diffused and golden. I close up my house against the nightly mosquito onslaught and listen to my one (just one!) NPR podcast while I prepare my nightly feast of pasta or rice and beans. And then a day, which seemed to stretch interminably long and unfilled in the morning light, is suddenly gone.

There are, of course, variations on the routine: easing myself into "work" obligations, biking up and down the road that runs through town, wandering around like the explorer I wanted to be when I was eight years old, surprising rice farmers and cow-herders who are, understandably, completely mystified as to what the crazy foreigner is doing in their field.

But always, always, there is plenty of time for thinking. And I have found that I enjoy letting my mind wanderm contemplating the deeper mysteries of life, such as: What is the superior technique for eating a mango? If I eat this popcorn with a spoon, will it then constitute a balanced meal? How long will it take that anthill to organize the troops and carry off a raisin? If I sit very still in the center of my floor, will I be able to feel the earth wobble on its axis?? Groundbreaking material, truly.

But adjusting to a sudden dirge of free time after three months of a whirlwind life has been more of a relief than a challenge. What has not been so easy is the adjustment to life in an atmosphere of constant, unabashed scrutiny. Kids stand at my fence, utterly silent, and just stare for ten, twenty, thirty minutes. Entering the market, bustling and noisy, its as though the record stops (screeeeech), all eyes turn to me, and I am suddenly negotiating the purchase of a bunch of bananas in cavernous silence. I feel more pressure fetching a bucket of water from the pump and carrying it back on my hear- whilst navigating treacherous terrain- than I did playing any soccer game. The entire time I am thinking in mild panic: do not trip, feet don't fail me now, DO NOT TRIP.

In Peace Corps lingo, this is referred to as the "fishbowl effect" and all volunteers suffer through it to varying degrees; it comes with the territory. The residents of small-town Madagascar have extremely limited exposure to foriegn cultures: education is basic and, in most cases, short-lived, there is no television, and the news as recieved by radio is (as with many cultures) relatively ethnocentric. This isolation is further pronounced by the simple, but not to be overlooked, fact that Madagascar, as an island nation, shares no foreign borders. The inhabitants' of my village perception of foreigners is usually limited to those who roar through town at high speed in their land rovers, intent on their travel from one tourist destination to the next, or one hub of foriegn aid to another. Rarely, if ever, do they stop.

Thus, as the vazahe ("white furreigner") in their midst, I am both a novelty and a source of endless fascination. While I understand the factors at work here, sometimes I have to fight the temptation to yell: "You are watching me, watch you, watching me. Where, exactly, is the novelty in that?"

In Search of Malibu Barbie Tromba

In Madagascar, religions collide. In the northern regions of the island, Christianity of colonial origin mingles with Islam of mainland-African import and both seek to undermine the indigenous beliefs of a culture that predates them both. Church bells and prayer calls quietly struggle against the enduring influence of, among other things, the karazana (the ancestors) and the mpomasavy (the witches). Families that unearth their revered dead and parade the remains through the streets in annual exhumation ceremonies known as “The Turning of the Bones,” attend church every Sunday. In small towns, Muslims who adhere strictly to the five prayers a day refuse to leave their houses after dark, for fear of attack at the hands of those possessed by the spirits of the mpomasavy.

As a former religious studies major, I am a kid in a candy shop residing in such a land. But nothing- NOTHING- I learned in a classroom in Charleston, South Carolina prepared me for the singularly bizarre experience of a tromba in Anketrakabe, Madagascar. And that is by no means a dig on the College of Knowledge.

A tromba, we learned in our comprehensive cross-cultural training, is an exorcism. Though the ceremonies vary greatly in nature, they are far more likely to involve large quantities of cheap liquor than revolving, disembodied heads and projectile vomit (shameless conjecture and hearsay regarding the film; my heart would stop if I watched something like that). Leaving the training session, I envisioned a sort of tromba-frat party, in which heavily intoxicated participants attempt to exorcise their inner demons through outlandish behavior they would rather not be reminded of the next day. Needless to say, this mindset only further failed to prepare me for the real deal.

We could hear the drums from the road, accompanied by the whine of the accordion and the rattle of traditional Malagasy shakers (read: dried beans in a can). The small wooden house was packed to the rafters; mostly women, sitting on the floor and lining the walls; children were passed from hand to hand and lap to lap; teenagers peered in through the narrow windows. For your information (and future reference, you never know when you will stumble upon a tromba), there is no inconspicuous way to enter this arena as a foreigner: you hesitate in the doorway, attempting to find a square inch of space that could conceivably accommodate you. You feign comfort (“I do this all the time. Totally in with the tromba.”) while half the occupants of the room are rearranged to provide a place for the American guest. You slide in- smiling, greeting, look at the baby, look at the baby- and do your best to blend in with the wall.

The atmosphere of that room was unlike any other I have ever experienced: the press, the heat, the humidity of confined human bodies; the endless variations of a persistent beat; the clapping and wailing rising in accompaniment. A figure, anonymous from the crowd, would rise, don layer upon layer of white clothing, douse themselves in cheap perfume, apply white paint to their arms, brows, and jawbones, then circulate, shaking hands and exchanging the French-Gasy triple kiss. Having completed this ritual of preparation, the participants would rest against the wall, smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking moonshine, their bodies hidden under folds of fabric, their eyes obscured by aviator sunglasses.

For some, the fits began immediately. They would hardly have finished the social rounds before they were seized and- moaning and wailing- would thrash about the floor, quite frankly endangering anyone within striking distance. Others sat for hours, observing placidly, before joining in the activities. Strangely, one woman, in the act of making fun of another’s convulsion, was suddenly swept into one of her own; her entire body consumed, she rocked back and forth with such violence that her braids practically whistled through the air. At times, those in the midst of such spasms would be covered completely by a sheet, so that all one could see was their limbs struggling against the tension of the fabric.

As a witness to such spectacle, I can only describe it was surreal. Fits were exploding throughout the room, even amongst audience members, yet the atmosphere was more lighthearted than anything else. I remind you, small children were present. The woman seated on my right, asked me- as she was helping to contain her neighbors convulsion- what exactly the Peace Corps does in Madagascar. Exchanging small talk in such a setting was certainly out of the range of my capabilities (and also, SO not in the job description). It was like a Pentecostal revival, secret society, and family reunion all stuffed into a sardine can and microwaved.

After sitting for six hours, knees pulled to my chest, I began to fear for my lower extremities; they hadn’t checked in with my brain to confirm their existence in quite a while. Desperately, I was beginning to contemplate feigning a fit just to carve out some space for myself. Though the tromba showed no signs of slowing or stopping, we- pathetic, coddled Americans- stumbled out the door. At each tortured step of our ungracious exit, we were tsk-tsked and told we are simply not hardcore enough. If hardcore meant six more hours of that, I will take weak and pathetic any day.

That night, after we had recovered somewhat, we debriefed (now that I “work” for a governmental agency, I enjoy using terms such as “debrief”). Essentially, this took the form of an interrogation, in which we tried to understand what exactly had gone on in that little wooden house and confirm that the entire event was not, in fact, an elaborate mefloquin dream.
Taking into consideration my limited Malagasy, I emerged with this understanding. Though tromba is generally translated and compared to exorcism, the nature of the possession is much different than our (heavily-Christian influenced) perception; often it is non-hostile. Trombas are spirits of the deceased, which have not moved on, but instead have chosen to reside in the body of a living individual. When a tromba takes up residence, it is permanent. Thus, the ceremony that we had just attended was not an attempt to exorcise the spirit, but rather of celebration of its presence and an opportunity for it to express itself. (Apparently, trombas are a rather lively bunch, judging by all that thrashing. Then again, they don’t get out much.)

Trombas have personality in their spirit form just as they did in life. Most are well-meaning, some are not, each is different. In retrospect, I realized that the clothing the participants wore, while generally uniform, accommodated variations in personality accordingly. One woman wore a safari hat (duh! it was safari tromba!). Another wore a veil and long lace gloves; as was explained to us in painstaking detail, that was marriage tromba.

Ok, so I still don’t totally get it. And I must admit I was a tad disappointed at the conspicuous absence of Malibu Barbie tromba. But, walking away from it all, regaining feeling in my legs, the drums fading in the distance, I was well aware that I had just had an experience unlike any other. And I guess that was in the job description.