A Cowardly, Shameful Return from the Road
In Madagascar, when one returns from a trip one is expected to bring voandalana, “gifts of the road,” for friends and family. I know what are you thinking: yea, souvenirs, we do that too. No, not like this you don’t.
When I arrive in my town, exhausted and barely able to stand, I am immediately and unmercifully accosted by small children, neighbors, surly teenagers, acquaintances only of greeting, and ‘friends’ that magically appear out of the woodwork on only these occasions. Bread, they yell, where is our bread? Walking the backstreets home, voices call out from deep within houses: oranges, Katie, did you forget the oranges?
It is a gauntlet that only a fool would run empty-handed. As terrified as I am, I have been forced to face the fact that the deliverance of such expected goods is not only a financial but physical impossibility. Calls to Jesus’ Loaves and Fishes department have gone sadly unanswered.
So now in a shameful act of cowardice, I have resorted to return under the cover of darkness. It is with the greatest stealth that I creep through the streets. Inevitably, though, I trip; a head is raised and a sleepy voice calls out: the apples, Katie, we’ve been waiting for the apples!
Dead Man Walking
Second-hand clothes are a first-hand affair here. Next time you donate a shirt to Clothes for Africa, or even Goodwill, picture the shouting and shoving, the concentrated haggling that erupts over a newly revealed pile of faded jeans and worn jerseys. This is frippery, or deadman’s markets- the malls of Madagascar- and that shirt you thought you were giving away is actually up for sale.(Don’t be outraged; from a development point of view this is actually a good thing.)
Here one finds the cast-offs and misprints of the wealthy world. Who wouldn’t want to sport World Famous Guss brand jeans or the jersey of Brazilian soccer star Ronald? (Exposed as an English import!). Would you not fight for a Jennifer Loper t-shirt? Sometimes one wonders if the screen-printers have all gone insane, as their products range from the awesomely incomprehensible (Big Mac Attack Attack Attack) to inspirational missteps (Success Covers Many Blunders) to screaming paranoia (Does Everything Taste Fake or is it Just Me?).
And the Victor is Carried Off by the Crotch!
Morengy- Malagasy boxing- gives a whole new meaning to the term promenade. It is one part sport to four parts spectacle.
Long after the crowd has gathered, the competitors continue to stroll and flex, remove and replace shirts, and strive in their quest for the perfect stance to display their rock-hard calf muscles. Though there is much shouting and manly gesticulating at potential opponents, it is hours until contact is made. Even then most of the strutting roosters will merely settle down to watch.
And watch closely one must, for when the action finally occurs one dare not blink for fear of missing the flurry of badly-thrown fists and misaimed kicks that constitute a fight. Before you know it, one of the men, ostensibly the victor, is being carried off by his crotch. Yes, it is difficult to explain: the crotch.
I Found Eternity in a Malagasy Meeting
Small-town meetings in this country start late and end much, much later. They are marathons of tedium, mockeries of efficiency; they drain the spirit of my soul. For hours, one is cramped in a desk designed in 1964 for a eight year old. Complete lack of blood circulation is mirrored by a total absence of circulation. My very existence stagnates.
Participants unfailingly begin with a noble and enraged demeanor, but as formalities drag on they drop one by one like flies in the heat. At last a higher percentage have slipped into a semi-comatose state than remain cognizant. Every minute I fear that I will perish from the sheer monotony, but the minutes drag on and somehow I continue to live.
The only hope for escape is the occasional and unpredictable meeting that goes in the exact opposite direction. This is a boiling, simmering mess of small town politics, meetings where these ancient desks are transformed into rickety soap boxes, platforms from which one can advantageously yell down on his foes. In this arena, I have been witness to highly contested votes of the women’s group third secretary, to slammed fists and flying spittle, to staged walkouts.
Grateful for the entertainment, I have been known to climb a desk just to shout LOUD NOISES and get the blood re-circulating.
What Horrors Await Us?
Malagasy music videos are best described with varying combinations of the words ‘wonderful’ and ‘horrible.’ (Go ahead, try it. It’s fun.) This is particularly true when one considers that super stardom on this island by no means requires a voice that can bear listening to.
Nonetheless, there is no understating the manner in which these ‘clippies,’ masterful in their comprehensive cheesiness, captivate their audience. Boasting appallingly bad special effects and totally unremarkable backdrops (think: gas station parking lots, a field of dead grass), they are often driven by strange and incomprehensible story lines (wait, she did or did not overcook the rice?). While none of the above are a necessity, matching outfits, coordinated dancing, and a mindboggling array of ass-shaking techniques are a must-have. I imagine that if you are not capable of disengaging your hips from your body proper, you are simply not welcome on set.
As unbearable as these videos can become in a repetitive sense- one PCV used to ask with only a half-feigned dread, “What horrors await us?”- they take great pride in Malagasy culture. In many ways, they exemplify the admirable and irrepressible joy of life one finds all over Madagascar. And of course, after a beer or two appreciation of the art of the clippy is bound to elevate. (She did burn the rice. That bitch!).