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.
I recently did a week-long homestay near a peri-urban town in the highlands of Madagascar. My family owned quite a bit of land, overlooked by their hamlet on top of a hill. The neon-green rice fields spilled out into the valley, terraced into an acoustic amphitheater which always echoes with whistling workers and people playing flutes. Every time I asked where we had gotten a particular food item, my host mom would put down her fork and point.
A few weeks earlier, I walked into a supermarket in Antananarivo (the capital and largest city of Madagascar) for the first time. It was an eye-opening experience, and not just because of all the blinding fluorescent lighting and colorful signs proclaiming back-to-school sales. Amidst all the goods imported from France and vegetables from South Africa, I found myself marveling at “the injustice of it all” – how much fuel did it take to fly all these goods here? Who could possibly afford all these fancy packaged foods?
Of course, I ask myself the same questions in the United States. The difference is that in the U.S. I get upset by the quality of and processes behind inexpensive food, while only a certain class can afford the healthy organic stuff. Here in Madagascar, people with lower incomes do eat the “healthy organic stuff,” while only the rich can afford processed foods (usually imported). Most people do not shop at supermarkets; rather, they get their food from their farm or corner produce stand.
In a certain sense, it seems unfair that the fancy products are not available to everyone in Madagascar, similar to how healthy foods are often unavailable in the U.S. That, however, is completely subjective. Food justice is incredibly difficult to explain cross-culturally and linguistically. For example, in Madagascar as in many other countries, you don’t eat unless you cook it. Packaged foods of course exist, but it’s not the same thing as grabbing a granola bar and a yogurt cup. It is incredibly difficult to communicate what it means to your host family, midway through a balanced meal of proteins and vegetables, that a lot of people in the U.S. strive to eat what they eat every day. Difficult, but not quite as difficult as conceptualizing the idea that almost a fifth of Madagascar’s population is estimated to be under-nourished. The point here is not to over-compare, but that the processes of globalization and industrialization reach everywhere.
Another choice difference to explain is being a vegetarian. One morning at this same homestay, I woke up and wandered out of my house to find a group of family members standing in a circle outside. As I approached, I saw that they were watching two roosters fighting each other. It wasn’t brutal or, I think, done on purpose; but whenever they would stray too far out of the circle, someone would gently pick them up and put them back in to a convenient line of sight.
After it was over, my host mom and her sister began examining a chicken. I asked if it was sick (“marary ny akoho?”), to which they responded “tsia – laoka”; “no – it’s lunch.” I watched in naïve awe, hand over my nose, as my host aunt proceeded to gracefully and swiftly prepare the chicken. I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that she clearly put my Bio 2 dissection skills to shame.
To end on a more delicious note, I have truly come to appreciate the facets of Malagasy cuisine I have encountered thus far – even eating rice three times a day. Though I do not have the same capacity for consuming this sticky staple as my host families, it has certainly grown on me. One of my favorite meals consists of crushed cassava leaves in coconut milk – not exactly replicable in the U.S., and all the more reason to consume as much of it here as possible. There are also things about the cuisine that baffle me. For example, “tea” often consists of hot water, a flavoring like a cinnamon stick, and copious amounts of sugar.
Entailed in this is also the fabulously welcoming culture involving food. Whenever someone enters a room where people are eating, they are told “enter! Take part in our meal!” (“mandroso! Misakafo!”), even if there may not be much. I attempted to share a little bit of my food culture with my host family as well. As they wanted some authentic American cuisine, we pieced together some hamburgers (and in the case of my bean-corn-veggie burgers, I literally mean “pieced”). I’m not entirely sure if it counted as a meal, since there was no rice; but it did feel like the sloppy burgers brought us together across dietary choices, food systems, cultures, and continents.
All photos courtesy of Lily Jamison-Cash ’15