A Day in the Life: Market Day in Kianjavato, Madagascar
A post-grad search for conservation work took me to a corner of the world with sites seldom seen: the island of Madagascar. This island nation rests off the coast of southeastern Africa and is not much like its mainland neighbors. In fact, the people of Madagascar are ethnically distinct, termed Malagasy, and speak a language of the same name. French colonialist activities up until 1960 left remnants of the French culture and language, but vazaha (vah-zah) (foreigner) are now few and far between. As of 2013, Madagascar is listed as the 9th poorest country in the world, with inhabitants living off of less than $2USD a day. Despite widespread poverty, the country hosts a vivacious population with a variety of tribal cultures and traditions that few westerners get to see. Placed in the central eastern jungle, I spent 4 months volunteering on a reforestation project that brought me into close contact with surrounding rural villages and provided for a special opportunity to explore and document what makes Madagascar unique in contrast to the rest of the world and attempt to elucidate a culture so rarely understood.
Off to Market
My favorite day of the week, and for nearly every Malagasy in Kianjavato, is Sunday a.k.a. market day. This is the day to go to church, shop, people watch, drink from sun-up to sundown, and watch the football game starring local teams from each of the fokontany (villages). Starting at dawn, people from all over the commune (collection of fokontany in the area) walk or bike into town on the winding “two”-lane paved road with dense jungle, rice fields, agricultural fields, and small wooden homes on either side. Every person you pass will greet you with “akory aby” (ah-koo-ree ah-bee) meaning “how are you?” to which you respond “tsara be” (sah-rah bay) meaning “very good”. Never another response, the answer is always very good! This is a very localized greeting because travelling even a short distance away, different greetings are used – a vazaha such as myself using “akory aby” will get you a sideways head tilt or laugh and “salama” (sah-lam-ah) meaning simply “hi”. Or even better: “mahay enzo!!!!”, a “woah you understand?!” and a big smile because the vazaha is more rare and those that can understand more than hi or “misaotra” (mee-sow-ctchraaaa) are even more few and far between. Everywhere I traveled in Madagascar, kids, never failing, would spot you walking down the road and scream “sali vazaha!!!” with huge smiles on their faces and tend to wave, jump around, or hide behind mothers or bigger kids. In the rare case of my colleague, he was graced with a little girl twerking while chanting “vazaha vazaha vazaha!!”
Depending on that particular market day, sometimes it called for day drinking at the hotely. I spent more afternoons there than I’d care to admit, but hey, the two tables out in front accommodated the formation of some great friendships, with my Malagasy friends and coworkers (as well as Mr. THB – Three Horses Beer), and let two (sometimes more) languages tell the stories of people from different walks of life.
Anywho, making sure to dodge the occasional taxi-brousse ripping down the road (more on that in another segment…) and herds of zebu, we would walk about 45 minutes from the field station to town. When we arrived on the outskirts of Kianjavato, there would be a massive mob of people pouring down the street stopping at the different stands, chatting, and enjoying the day. Usually by the time we got there, the hot sun had taken its toll and we’d had enough of saying hello to every and I mean EVERY person passing by – occasionally delirious and hot enough to start saying akory to the zebu – we’d choose between a trip to the local E.P.P. (école primaire publique) for fresh cold juice (refrigeration is rare because a generator is needed -- $$ needed) or to sit down at the hotely (used throughout Madagascar to mean – we serve alcohol!) and grab some drinks. Walking through the courtyard of the E.P.P. we passed rooms painted with murals of the forest to the back of one of the rooms where you can buy freshly squeezed juice by the glass or the liter. In the eastern rainforest I’ve seen all types of juices from coco-fraise (coconut strawberry), tamarind, grenadelle (passion fruit), papaya-avocado, and pineapple. 1.5L of jungle-juice (the real stuff, come on now) costs less than $1 USD, so how can you ever refuse? They have home-made yaourt (yogurt) and if you’re lucky, sometimes it’s infused with vanilla bean from the area.
Given the choice between a light pilsner, white rum, and tokagasy (tow-kah-gash; Malagasy moonshine made from sugarcane; very potent!), we’d splurge on some cold beer or rum with Coca Cola and Fanta mixers. The hotely was in the center of town and, in my opinion, the best way to experience market day to its full glory. Under the shade of a roof and with a glass of cold beer in hand, you could see people milling about between all of the stands selling clothes, snacks, electronics and who-knows-what-that’s-fors and take in the sight. Participation in the market crossed generational lines, you can buy mofo (deep-fried sweet dough balls) from 5 year olds and a plastic bucket from a woman as shriveled as some of the forest trees. It seems everyone knows everyone here and there’s a method to the madness that us vazaha can’t quite see: change is scrounged up for every purchase from different stands, children play on the field without family around, and food is made as rapidly as it runs out. Taxi-brousses stop for five minutes to drop off people, pick them up, and exchange all sorts of goods from rice sacks and drive swiftly on their way. After cooling off from the walk over, I usually got up to explore the market and coasted past stands selling all sorts of fried foods like bananas, breads, and sambosas (i.e. samosas), as well as local fruits and vegetables. I really loved the fresh peanut brittle and bonbon coco (sugar and shredded coconut bites) for desert. Most of the single food items cost 100-500 Ariary (around $0.04-0.22USD), so shopping around and getting one, or five, of everything is a given.
In the midst of all of the food stands are boom boxes running off generators blasting Malagasy music (more about in another segment) every hundred feet or so. Anywhere the music isn’t pumping, someone is guaranteed to be playing music off of a cheap cell phone – don’t get me started on sound quality... Electronic stands held the most fantastic battery-chewing boom boxes on the Malagasy market that would last about 25 minutes on 5 AA batteries, huge plastic flashlights that made it maybe a month, batteries (again, short shelf life), and these eight-armed USB chargers that had a plug for every handheld electronic device in the country. Note: I bought one off the street in Fianarantsoa and it never worked! If travelling to Madagascar, bring the electronic devices you want and enough batteries to sustain them!
Clothes are sold in rural areas in tightly organized mini-shops, stands, and in heaps on the side of the road. Universal to all of these, the clothes are virtually all secondhand, seemingly from the U.S. as I'd seen everything from Kaiser Permanente to every college in the country represented on shirts and hats. I never dreamed to see an old Pepper shirt make it to Madagascar, so when I pointed to the guy’s shirt and said “tsara be!” he looked mighty confused. Hardly anyone knows what exactly the Western references are for that matter. Best example: the Wu-Tang Clan bucket hat. Yep, you heard me. The Wu logo made it all the way out to Madagascar, and it’s sold in almost every city, but nobody has heard of them? Who thought that one up? Other brands are represented in knockoff version: Calvin Klein (Kleen here) underwear and Wilson volleyballs (Wilshy, of course). Cheap sandals, political shirts, colorful clothes with Malagasy music stars, and piles of any sorts of clothes line these stands. One of the best secondhand sources for the more eccentric fashions: I saw a kid walk away with suspendered ski pants and a friend wear a suit jacket to work for a week.
One of the great cultural crafts of Madagascar involves the lamba, a lightweight piece of fabric that is worn and used for a variety of purposes in rural life. Maybe 95% of the women and the occasional man in the rural eastern rainforest where I was wore lambas over shorts and pants to protect their clothing, showcase colorful patterns, and respect cultural tradition. They are used as pillows, blankets, a papoose-like contraption to carry babies on backs, blankets, towels, and worn by women to be modest while bathing in rivers and the ocean. Lambas showcase every color combination of the rainbow, host tropical and Malagasy prints, and sometimes have sayings woven into the fabric. When asking Malagasy friends what these sayings meant, we’d get some funny translations like “respect your mother” and sometimes motivational good words. While I’d have loved to see working women in Tana (nickname for the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo) walk into work head held high in traditional hairstyles and a lamba, it seems this is not the reality as city-folk have almost universally adopted Western style of dress.
Most market days either involved continued day-drinking at the hotely or a stop at the bread-shop-turned-soup-restaurant for an Asian-style miso soup with a chunk of chicken or zebu for about 1500 Ariary ($0.65USD). Most weekends there was a football game at the huge field just outside of town where teams from different fokontany in the commune would play. Villagers from each team would line up on opposite sides of the field and yell at players and the other team like proper fans anywhere in the world. When one team would score, the sideline would erupt like a volcano with children screaming and running into the field. Occasionally, some ducks or a zebu could put a halter on the game by running or strolling casually into the field of play. The fokontany immediately next to our field station was dominated by players that worked for our organization, so it was fun to join in cheering on our friends and colleagues, never mind the spectacle it was for the commune for a group of vazaha to be cheering on the team.
When the games wrapped up, the sun was expiring and most people began the long walk back to their villages, stuffed on street food, exhausted from shouting for their team at the game, and occasionally obliterated drunk. All in all, a day set aside to let loose and enjoy the day with family and friends once a week is a beautiful thing for people in Madagascar, and maybe a tradition lost in modern America that should be reinstated! I know that it sure as hell helped the stress of the week dissipate and my coworkers would all be bubbling with fresh gossip and mighty hangovers Monday morning.