Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fifty Years Later

Slainte, Santé, Salut, Kampai, Chinchin, Banzai, Mazotoa, Cheers!

Happy Fourth!

The past few weeks have provided plenty of reason for celebration. My brother, Pat, and now-sister-in-law, Robynne, were married in Hawai‘i; good friends Mariah and Sean tied the knot in Milwaukee; America turned 234; and Madagascar marked fifty years of independence. Congratulations again to all.

Those fifty years have been tumultuous ones for the nascent Malagasy Republic. French rule over the island officially ended on June 26, 1960, but Paris continued to dominate trade, financial institutions, and military affairs during the immediate post-colonial period. After a series of coups in the early 1970s, strongman Didier Ratsiraka took control and implemented social and economic reforms based on his own Mao-inspired communist vision. The Malagasy finally voted him out of office in 1993 general elections, though they subsequently voted him back into the presidency in 1997 (?).* Next came the rise and fall of businessman Marc Ravalomanana, who ousted Ratsiraka after contested elections in 2001 and then was ousted himself in last year’s coup by former-DJ-turned-mayor-of-Tana Andry Rajoelina (pronounced ra-zoo-EL). Rajoelina is now president of the High Transitional Authority, but the crisis precipitated by his seizure of power remains unresolved. The latest I heard, the planned constitutional referendum had been indefinitely postponed, which means national elections are, as well. As a PCV, I’m officially barred from commenting on politics, so for updates, opinions, and analysis, check out BBC or French news sources.

Regardless of past and ongoing difficulties, though, the Malagasy were in rare form to mark the fifty-year milestone on June 26 (which everyone somewhat ironically refers to using the French, “vingt-six”). Parties started days before and went on for a week afterwards, and the beer and toaka were freely flowing throughout.

I spent the fety with friends in Vondrozo. My observation of the holiday started with the formal Gendarme Ball on the night of the 24th, where I watched the dignitaries of town kick things off with traditional Malagasy circle dancing before joining in and dancing till well after 1am. The next day I went with to market and—with the help of Eliane, my friend and neighbor—picked out a fat rooster for the following day’s feast. Eliane tied him to the fence outside my door before heading home. A minute later, I looked at the string around his leg and decided that I should use some more substantial rope to secure him in place. I went back into my house, came out with said rope, and walked over to the fence. The rooster started flapping wildly as I approached, and—you guessed it—the string holding him snapped.

Down along the fence he ran, with me in hot pursuit. He found a hole and dove into my neighbor’s yard, and I sprinted around to meet him on the other side. He ducked back through when he saw me and took off into the brush covering the hill below my house. I followed down the hill, accidentally slipping and putting my whole leg into the other neighbors’ duck pond en route. I had to hop down off a ledge to catch back up with him, but he immediately scurried back up the ledge once I’d gotten close. By the time I managed to climb back up the ledge and into the brush, it was too late. He was gone.

I wandered dejectedly along the hillside for a while looking for him, then went home to talk with my neighbors and ask for help. Unfortunately, one of the VOI presidents I’d met a few weeks earlier showed up at my doorstep just as I got back. He wanted to talk with someone from WWF and was drunk beyond being able to construct a coherent sentence (not that I necessarily could’ve understood his Malagasy even if he was speaking in complete sentences). No one from WWF was around, so I was stuck trying to figure out what he needed, which cut into my valuable chicken-chasing time. Eventually I realized he was just stopping in to say hello, so I told him I had to find my dinner, grabbed two of my neighbors, and went back out looking. We didn’t find him, though.

I hadn’t eaten lunch yet and it was getting close to 2pm, so I gave up the hunt and went in to make some ramen with egg. Once the noodles were ready, I cracked an egg and dumped it into the pot, and out fell a chicken embryo. Not a good day with chickens for me. Instead of putting myself at risk by buying another chicken, I got a kilo of pork and made a big pot of ginger pork stew to be my food contribution. So it goes.

On the 26th itself, I headed into town with some friends to watch the defilés, or parade, and then went over to another friend’s place to eat, drink, and be merry. After lunch we walked over to the tanymena (“red dirt,” or soccer field) to watch the final of a soccer tournament that’d been going on for the past few weeks. We’d gone for a game, but instead we saw a riot. One of the teams that lost in the semifinals the day before was angry about the officiating, so they showed up and occupied the field with their supporters. Confrontation and fist fighting ensued between the teams, fans, and drunk folks happy to have something to swing at. I didn’t feel in danger at all, but realizing that the belligerence of a drunk dude or two might turn against the vazaha (white guy) on the sidelines, we inconspicuously slipped away.

The rest of my first Malagasy Independence Day involved hanging out, eating leftovers, and watching the US fall to Ghana in overtime at my neighbor’s house. It was a tough exit, but the 91st-minute win over Algeria a few days earlier made me a happy and proud American soccer fan. Thanks for that, Donovan.

*Some of this info came from The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar by Peter Tyson, a book that talks about the natural history of the island. I haven’t read it all yet, but I had it handy while writing this, so I used it to make sure I had my history straight.

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