March 21, 2012

Malagasy Culture: a Puzzling Paradox

       I was once told that while most cultures ethnocentrically consider themselves the center of the universe, the difference with Malagasy culture is that it believes itself the universe entire. This is no trivial distinction to draw, for that which unfolds in this insular world is taken as the one and only way, and those who stand to oppose this undiluted cultural force are not combated as much as dismissed utterly.
To those who have visited or even lived in the Malagasy world this statement of cultural unity, power, and exclusion may appear melodramatic, for are the Malagasy people not universally known to be “laid-back” and “carefree?” Are there not eighteen tribes on this island, each a subculture unto itself? 
What lies at the core of this culture, though, is just such paradox: paradox which allows a fragmented people to meld and mix and maintain a powerful cultural core, which enables a culture of color and noise and bright exchange to harbor a heart of passivity and fear, which tethers those who are seemingly carefree to a profound fatalism. Understood through a lens of overpowering community force, this core paradox does much to explain Madagascar, the place and its people, as well as its progress or lack thereof in the world.
It is crucial to recognize the manner in which Malagasy people strive to create formality, reinforce distinction, and maintain hierarchy. From the inherent structure of kabary (speeches) to the dictates of daily exchange, a sense of place and order undergirds this culture of surface nonchalance. Such hierarchal nature is most clearly manifest at meetings: those presiding usually sit facing the participants, commanding the gulf of floor space that yawns between; those of the audience crowd together, shoulder tucked behind shoulder, as if seeking shelter from a fire hose; they huddle in fear of being forced to stand apart.
This also serves to reflect the strong, nearly overwhelming sense of community that weaves Malagasy culture into one. Within societal structure place and status are clearly defined. There is minimal social mobility and while one hears an expected amount of griping, both the high and the low find comfort in the clarity of their standing. Equally condemned are those who believe themselves above the community (miavona- the “arrogant”) and those who fall below (menatra- the “ashamed”).
Yet out of this sense of community, and the social pressures that provide for its cohesion, arises the puzzling paradox of Malagasy culture. For hours no one will reach out to adjust the blaring of a malfunctioning radio. A drunk can run rampage down the street, unchecked. A husband comes home to beat his wife and children with the broad handle of a machete as the neighborhood looks on, and not a finger is lifted to intervene. I have seen this and have always had tremendous difficulty reconciling it with the bold and buoyant, deeply-united cultural half that is the easier to know.
But if one wants to understand the nature of Madagascar, a chronically underdeveloped nation with a people who suffer greatly for it, then one has to be willing to take a hard and unapologetic look at a cultural core of passivity, conservatism, and most profoundly, fatalism. Born of a powerful sense of community is a repression of genuine individuality, and of actual aspiration. The vast majority of Malagasy people hope for very little of their lives. Of course they want to make money and acquire things, but trapped in systematic poverty and a culture that condemns risk-taking, few are equipped or courageous enough to take even the first step towards a better life. Most are resigned to days of farming and fishing, marrying and birthing.
Though it is worth asking which came first, the poverty or its passive acceptance, it is more relevant to recognize what the cycle reveals: a fatalism that pervades Malagasy culture. One’s place and what comes to pass are simply accepted here. And though this may be an effective way to endure hardship, it does not provide the strongest platform for transcending it. 
This is not to blame Malagasy people for their poverty or their place in the world. It is instead to argue that in order to understand a culture, one has to concede paradox and allow for a certain level of complexity. Simple and sweeping terms (e.g. “fun-loving island folk”) refuse to access a culture or the shared worldview it provides its people.
And in certain realms, notably that of aid and development, such lack of cultural insight can have a crippling effect. 

Tany Andalampandrosoana: Development in Madagascar

Malagasy people call Madagascar a tany andalampandrosoana, “a land on the edge of coming in...”
It is difficult to look at Madagascar and not perceive it as an arena of utter development failure. White 4x4s criss-cross the island, NGOs step on each other’s toes, projects begin and are abandoned, money is spent in droves. Too few Malagasy people try to do too much. Too many foreigners come and go; too few stay for any duration. Decades pass and very little changes. 
Madagascar’s sweeping failure to meet the benchmarks of the modern world is not a simple equation of cause and effect either. There are evident factors: a legacy of colonialism, long periods of disastrous governance punctuated by ill-timed and ineffective coups, economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, a fragile agricultural system.
But these tangible forces, while undeniably powerful, do not offer a complete explanation for the country’s laggard status, nor do the very evident shortcomings of international aid. It would appear, rather, that the business of development has ignored some critical points, that is to say: the people it endeavors to aid. In Madagascar, one again and again sees a Western paradigm forced on a people who not only refuse to accept its values and demands, but fail to understand them altogether.
In this country, the implementation of aid begets a clash of cultures. People will come to any meeting, they will nod and listen politely, will sign their names along the dotted line. Hands will be shaken with great sincerity and both sides will walk away with a feeling of accomplishment, the people for their participation in this great and ambitious project, the aid workers for such a promising beginning. But when the day of reckoning arrives, there is little to show: Where are the boats we paid for? Why are you using your mosquito nets to fish? How have all the bee hives simply disappeared? Then there is evasion and lying, less as an act of deception than a belated effort to avoid the social element of shame.
And when this happens, and it often does at all levels of the development effort in Madagascar, return trips to the drawing board dally in logistics and repeatedly fail to consider a most evident thing: this vast, seemingly unbreachable cultural wall. For so much of what happens, or does not happen, between that moment of promise and that of reckoning, can be understood with an adaptation of cultural lens.
For development is the world of deadlines and expectations compelled on a people who live free of the very concepts. It is the paradigm of progress pasted on a culture that does not see itself as moving in any direction, particularly forward. When the West dictates and the poor do not follow, why does no one think to ask: what if the past implementation of aid has been diametrically opposed to the core forces of this culture?
Because a culture that harbors a heart of fatalism and passive acceptance does not see the future as something to be seized, as a place of great promise and opportunity. It does not perceive itself as marching down a path of progress. Unwilling to promote individuality, unable to cultivate an ethic of innovation or creativity, it faces the problems of its world and wishes only to survive. This is how it can sign along the dotted line and shake hands with Western development, and then walk away and do nothing.
It is easy to look at the business of development, at the sum of its efforts, and declare it a failure. But- though I am no apologist for the many shortcomings of aid- sweeping condemnation cannot be the solution. Strip aid of its high-flying rhetoric, its naïveté, its protective coat of goodwill, and one finds a fundamental struggle, to provide that which is necessary to those who do not have it. A struggle very much worth the effort.
Where development fails Madagascar is in not understanding the very people it aims to help. Cultural insight is an endeavor in itself, and a time-consuming one at that. But it is utterly essential, for without an understanding of a people, their vision of their place in the world and their notion of progress towards it, what they hope and believe they can gain from life, development will continue to fail in Madagascar, and in impoverished countries the world over.