Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
If you’ve ever tried to ride a Swat shuttle anywhere, you probably understand just how idiosyncratic a process it is. You’re stuck waiting in Parrish circle to get back to PPR; you’re cramped in the back seat on your way to Chester; or you wanted to go to a movie in Media but, alas, the shuttle was cancelled. Yet even if there’s only one other person in it, you feel some sort of connection, a shared understanding, at having to take the shuttle, wishing it would hurry up so you could get on with your homework, sometimes wincing at the music that happens to be playing.
Now imagine the shuttle crammed past the point of full, with people practically in each other’s laps or in the aisles (no seat belts, of course), but no one minds at all. Imagine that instead of waiting for ten minutes in Parrish, you have to practically hail it down, and even then there might not be a spot. Watch for the right one, because there are tons of illegible little numbers and place names going every direction. Be prepared to sit in traffic for at least an hour, but quickly shout when you come to your stop, or you’ll go rushing by. Now pick up that shuttle you’re imagining and put it in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
Welcome to Madagascar’s capital city, also known as Tana, where I’m living this semester. I’ll be studying here and seeing what I can see, as well as venturing some into the rest of the country. I will occasionally be trying to communicate my thoughts to you across 9,000 miles and three languages (English, French and Malagasy). Like with any study abroad experience, there are many impressions to attempt to distill (I want to tell you everything!), and my perspective is clearly quite limited in many ways. But I had to start somewhere, so I chose the beloved shuttle to attempt to bridge some of the gap.
The taxi-be (“big taxi”) is not the most defining characteristic of Madagascar’s capital city. In fact, not only does this genre of transportation exist in countless other cities worldwide, but there is obviously far more to Tana than the way people get to work every day. There are the rolling hillsides topped with palaces, rice fields nestled in the intermittent lowlands, endless roadside fruit stands, churches of faded red brick from the red island, to name just a few.
Of course, scratching only slightly deeper reveals more: the offices that turn a gear in the whole country’s operation, the urban pore for media and global exchange, the hotspot of the ongoing political crisis, vestiges of French colonialism that one can drag up to the surface to examine. And though related, this does not even begin to touch on Tana’s inhabitants. There exist more factoids and descriptions about Tana than I could possibly list for you; there are more lenses through which to view the city than there are people who might care to try them out.
One frequent entry point into thinking about Madagascar is its renowned biodiversity. People often cite the high rate of endemism and species diversity; there are also the notorious lemurs that prove such a draw for tourism. I would be lying to you if I said I had not seen any lemurs yet, though I can honestly say there are none in my backyard.
Another commonly-known (albeit much less so) aspect of Malagasy culture is famadihana, often translated as funerary traditions related to ancestral cults. An incredibly simple rundown of this complex ritual: many Malagasy believe in the importance of venerating ones ancestors, which includes burying them in family tombs. After a certain number of years (usually seven), the family opens the tomb and re-wraps the body. The celebration includes varying degrees of Christian influences and/or dancing.
There is also an amazing array of misconceptions and stereotypes about Madagascar. (“There are people there?” is one of the better responses I received when I told folks I would be spending half my junior year here.) I’m not here to correct them; I’d rather talk to you this semester about things I find here that I think are cool, and maybe even experiment with my own way of viewing my locale. Hence why I started by talking about one of the more “banal” aspects of life in Tana, but chose to include some of the popular imagery of Madagascar that plays such a huge role in the discourse.
One of the most interesting (and, for me, new) ways of thinking and seeing is through language. My Malagasy at this point is limited in the extreme, but being perpetually surrounded by three languages has begun to make me keenly aware of the way language affects my own thought processes. It also makes me aware of my own hilarity as a foreigner here, as it must.
(Prime example: one night, I was looking for water, and saw a pot on the stove. I stepped out of the kitchen to ask my host mother if it was hot, asking “Matafa?” Her jaw dropped, and I wondered why I wasn’t supposed to be boiling water – or maybe I had drunk some parasite-ridden cold water by accident? She eventually got around to explaining that I had called her fat, and (somewhat still injured) reminded me the word I wanted was “mafana.”)
I’ve also loved experiencing the culture through the food. Though eating rice three times a day is certainly a lifestyle that takes adjusting to, Malagasy cuisine is generally delicious. Meals are also interesting, as the origins and cost of most meals are fairly evident. Supermarkets here with incredibly expensive packaged goods (often imported from France) have almost flipped my conception of food injustice on its head – more on that later.
While I’m looking at the world upside-down, the view of the southern night sky is magnificent, peppered with stars even from my urban bedroom window. The neighboring hill is also spiced with a few lights, looking like dust that fell off the warmly-lit palace on the hilltop. The full moon lights up the rice fields and pulls the ocean tighter around the island, seemingly holding it all together.
All photos courtesy of Lily Jamison-Cash ’15
Lily! It’s so good to hear about your travels, and thank you so much for sharing with everybody 🙂 I also really appreciate your methods in the overwhelming task of explaining an experience so different from what some students can imagine (e.g. me!). Your explanations are very clear and precise, and I’d be so interested in learning about your experience with any culture shock/adjustment period too. Thanks again for an awesome article!