July 02, 2010

Katie Goes to a Ball (And Other Promising Holiday Ventures)

The 26th of June, Independence Day, dawned like any other; the rising of the sun dispelled any misconceptions of “cold season” and the cloudless sky indicated that this would be just another in a long procession of rainless days. The comforting sounds of rice-pounding and chicken-chasing filled the as yet early hours. The only indication that this day might dare to break from the ordinary was the overnight profusion of flags: the green, red, and white of Madagascar hung from every porch in the morning calm. I yawned and wondered if my neighbors would notice if I went back to bed.

But, just I turned to sneak back within, I heard a noise down the hill (no, sadly, it was not the Whos down in Who-ville). It was the sound a bit like distant thunder, growing closer and louder, echoing over the corrugated metal of the town rooftops and quickly evolving into that of an oncoming stampede. Stamping and clapping, singing and chanting, drums, guitars, and tambourines, kicking up quite a cloud of dust, on came the human herd. I decided sleep could wait.

Coming out to the road, I was caught up in the tail end of the procession and carried in its general tumult to the CEG (middle school), where the schoolchildren in uniform and women’s groups in matching fabrics assembled to endure an overly elaborate flag raising ceremony under the sweltering sun. Following a mad dash for the sparse shade offered, everyone chatted through the boring speeches and cheered raucously and with surprising competitive spirit for the traditional dancing. Undoubtedly the highlight of the morning was watching as each school’s students precise marching degenerated unfailingly into a blurred tangle of swinging limbs and occasional shoving matches as the youngest brought up the rear.

After a brief rice break and recuperation, it was time to express our patriotism through athletic endeavors. Somebody handed me a whistle (and as these things tend to just sort of happen to me), I found myself refereeing a basketball game. It became immediately apparent that this was not going to be too taxing of an effort, for there was little need to call traveling, jump balls, or fouls and the lack of court boundaries relieved me of that duty. In fact, it appeared my only job was to blow the whistle each time the ball went through the hoop, which did not happen often.

Then, much to my surprise, it was my turn to play in the men versus women showdown. I could not make this stuff up if I tried people: within fifteen seconds I have tangled my feet and fallen flat on my face in the dust; after a quarter, three of my toes are bleeding; the ground is scorching and by halftime the soles of my feet are boasting three blisters; when my bandana is knocked off in the ruckus we are generously calling basketball, the crowd gasps: “what is that animal that died on her head??”

This reaction is in keeping with the primary role of the audience to mock and expound upon the general ineptitude of those playing. Because the game is co-ed, particular delight is taken in any situation that can be construed as even vaguely sexual; the wrestling matches over would-be jump balls provide excellent fodder for this brand of humor.

By the second half, a sizeable portion of my right foot is given over to blister and I am beginning to suspect my toe is broken. My team- despite the atmosphere of tolerance and goodwill fostered by the audience- is curiously devoid of substitutes. But I was trained to ‘show no fatigue!’ and am fortunately able to assume the designated position of “waiter-under-your-own-basket” and thus finish out the game hobbling through the defensive portion of a 3-on-1 fast break drill. To think, I believed my glory days left behind in Y ball!

As much as I felt I was long overdue for that return to bed- this time to nurse my physical and emotional wounds- I managed only a quick, minor self-surgery (I’ll refrain from telling you about in case you are eating), before the culminating event of the day. Now, before you go conjuring up images of a ‘ball’ that include gowns and glass slippers or debutante affairs, I will tell you exactly what cinched my attendance. Direct quote: “They play American music…like Westlife!!”

No, the scene needs to be repainted in favor of the most raucous party you attended in college (if it was the rave at the library, that’s cool too…). Because, in many ways, it was not all that different: the market was packed beyond capacity, alcohol consumption was the highest form of patriotism, and the dancing put the jump-ball wrestling of afternoon past to shame. There were, of course, some minor differences: the vocal role of the accordion, the condensation dripping from the ceiling, the popularity of what appeared to be an adult form of the Hokey Pokey. And, when the sun came up on another cloudless collegiate day you probably did not find yourself still partying with the mayor, the tomato lady, the postman, your neighbors, the police, and every teacher you have ever had…

Sannu Sannu Bata Hana Zuwa

One could be forgiven, considering the misleading number of ‘a’s and ‘na’s in the above phrase, for thinking it must be Malagasy. But it is actually Hausa and it is one of the first proverbs we picked up Niger. It can be translated as “Going slowly does not prevent you from getting there” and- whether your bush-taxi’s door was closed by a u-bolt and you were in a losing race with a camel herd or you were struggling through your sixth hour of language class and you still could not count to fifty- it popped up everywhere: a reminder of the need for patience.

I find myself thinking of it often now, when I am battling the afternoon doldrums, when I gaze morosely at the blank days (sigh, weeks, months…) on the calendar, when my mother asks ever-so-innocently, “so, honey, what have you been up to lately?” Which is not to imply that Malagasy is inadequate in extolling the virtues of patience. No there is the simple mangana faharetana (have patience), as well as the ever-inspirational aza manao herim-boantay (if you are only a dung beetle do not try to move mountains).

But, as is fitting in many ways, linguistically, the Malagasy approach to patience is much more subtle. Case in point: malaky-laky. One of my favorite things about the Malagasy language is that when you double a word, you are essentially attaching “sort-of” to its meaning. (Really, almost any word; thus, I have become quite fond of asking what the plan-plan is because we are all perfectly aware there is no REAL plan). A fellow volunteer insightfully remarked that there are a fair number of words you hear only in paired form. Among these is malaky which means “quickly” or “hurry.”

Which brings me around to my point that the Malagasy language has acknowledged- frankly and unapologetically- that it is just not within the realm of possibility for anyone to actually hurry, only to “sort-of hurry.” Thus, I find myself facing the “sort-of-quick” world of Malagasy transportation, the “kind-of-punctual” appointment schedule, and the “oh-seriously?-that-was-not-even-remotely-malaky” way of getting things done. Needless to say, no one is running around shouting “show us the meaning of haste!”

But I return, (with all due respect to the dung beetle) most often to “going slowly does not prevent you from getting there” because it most aptly characterizes my recent struggles against the forces of boredom and provides the best defense from the personal frustrations that stem from it. The problem, you see, is that at times lately, I have felt that I am not just moving slowly, but glacially, like I am stuck in molasses, as though ascribing me forward motion at all would be generous.

In light of this, I admit that I have yet to fully exorcise my puritan work demon (maybe the next tromba?). It is strange for me to sit around and do nothing for days on end; it is difficult; it is downright disconcerting. But to my neighbors, to my fellow townsfolk, it is perfectly normal, even admirable. It is an art, a skill requiring years of training, a national past time.

Now, before you go throwing paper airplanes at Obama, ranting over the waste of tax-payer dollars (thank you for my four today, by the way), I will say that while tangible work has been limited recently, the intangible benefits of nothing have been boundless indeed. I have repeatedly rescued the neighborhood kitten from my tree (so often, in fact, that I began to wonder how exactly it kept getting all the way up there); my evening strolls have become ever more ambitious in scope; my language skills might even be progressing past the point of Malagasy-gasy.

While I remain most definitely relegated to the realm of ‘foreigner’ in its singular sense, I am beginning to realize that here in Madagascar going slowly is just about the only means of getting there, of getting anywhere. Coming to peace with that, shedding my American mindset of rabid productivity and efficiency, embracing a culture that has yet to embrace the clock, is all part of the process, frustrating as it might be. But I don’t care if I am just a four-dollar-a-day dung beetle, I might move mountains. That is less a question of patience than it is persistence.