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Madagascar and Me

The Eighth Continent isn’t the easiest place for a researcher to navigate. Still, I can’t wait to go back.

Ken Coffelt

By Alison Kamhi

When I first came up with the idea to go to Madagascar, I was in the car with my mother and my sister on Christmas Eve, driving from Memphis, Tenn., to my grandmother’s house in Clinton, Miss. For the first year and a half of my Stanford career, I had come home with what I thought were fantastic ideas for research grants. There was the Thanksgiving holiday when I talked about spending a month in Israel examining religious politics, the Presidents’ Weekend when I dreamed of a summer in Berlin searching for original manuscripts of Grimms’ fairy tales, and the spring break when I contemplated a term assisting herbal doctors in Beijing. But Madagascar was the one that stuck.

My plan, as I excitedly rambled to my mother and my sleeping sister, was to study precolonial culture in Madagascar. By my calculations, this would be the perfect amalgamation of everything I had wanted to study earlier: religious tension, original manuscripts and alternative cultural practices. It fit with my proposed history major and linguistics minor. The people seemed friendly and spoke my second language, French. Madagascar seemed perfect! However, Madagascar also seemed faraway and hard to contact.

When I returned to Stanford after New Year’s, I described the embryonic plan to my adviser, who directed me to Richard Roberts, an Africanist in the history department. With his guidance, I began an independent-study course on the so-called Eighth Continent.

After months of reading Malagasy histories and texts, I proposed a research project on the 19th-century queen Ranavalona I. The more I learned about this ruler who threw boring lovers off cliffs and Christians into torture pits, the more I wanted to visit the country that had shaped her and been shaped by her. The few existing accounts of Ranavalona’s rule included French descriptions of her cruelty toward Christians, British condemnations of her reinstatement of the inland slave trade and Malagasy semideification of her successful resistance to European power. Depending on the nationality, ethnicity and time period of the historian, Ranavalona’s persona shifts from barbaric enemy of European “civilization” to heroic protector of Malagasy tradition. I assigned myself the task of finding out who she really was.

Because I wanted to immerse myself in the local culture and to interview Malagasy citizens about their perceptions of the former queen, I attempted to find a family with whom to stay. I tried e-mailing church groups, international student programs, world hostel organizations, even the Malagasy university dorm service. None of these proved successful. I searched travel guides, which provided only “useful” tips about Madagascar, such as the estimation that each person eats two pounds of rice per day. Finally, I ended up finding my host family through a horse trainer in Kentucky. He had been to Madagascar on a mission trip and was eager to share with me both his memories and the names of some Malagasy friends.

A friend of his named Domoina Rafikoto responded to my e-mail query immediately, and shortly I found myself, after several days of travel from New York to the capital city of Antananarivo, stepping out of an Air Madagascar plane and into her car. Domoina, a 25-year-old gospel singer, introduced me to her family in a broken mixture of English, French and Malagasy—a linguistic conglomeration I would grow accustomed to in the following three weeks and even learn to understand.

Domoina and her family ushered me into my room using friendly hand gestures, and I was touched to find the shelves decorated with American Coke bottles and welcome signs written in Malagasy. My French skills proved embarrassingly inadequate as I attempted to thank them. I learned my first Malagasy words about an hour after I arrived, during my first meal: “vookie za” (“I’m full”). In other words, “No, I would not like any more rice.”

I had imagined myself traveling to Madagascar as an intellectual scout, armed with a mosquito net and a notepad, ready to investigate and disseminate new findings about the queen. Only half a day into my stay, however, my fascination had grown to include not only Ranavalona, but also all Malagasy. I could not wait to interview people not just about their history but also about themselves. If an aged 19th-century queen was capable of defeating a combined fleet of British and French naval ships, what could 21st-century Malagasy citizens accomplish?

I found out the next weekend when I attended a traditional Malagasy wedding, at which Domoina performed. The celebration began at 9 a.m. Saturday and lasted until the same time on Sunday. Food appeared in huge quantities every hour until well after sunrise. Music was played in long cyclic stretches: first, traditional Malagasy songs; next, French pop; last, American love songs; and then the three genres all over again. We danced for 10 hours, longer than I had ever danced before in my life.

During a midnight interlude, a comedian performed, and I realized with a mixture of honor and humiliation that his entire routine focused on me. I could understand nothing of what he was saying, only that it was all at my expense. He was kind enough to translate his last sentence, which was, roughly, “Now let’s clap for the white person.”

My one-on-one interviews were even more intimidating. I conducted most of them with the help of the English Club, which advertised them as a way for students to practice their English. On my first visit to the club, I nervously accompanied a student into an adjoining room. Here was the test of my months of preparation, the reason I had traveled to Madagascar, the culmination of my project. But as I glanced at the expectant young face before me, I realized I was not sure what my project was.

The several students with whom I spoke that day didn’t understand what I was researching: “You came all the way from California to find out what? About the queen? She’s been dead for forever!” When I was asked for the third time in a row to define “opinion,” I began to understand the naïveté of my entire project. How could I examine the perspectives on Queen Ranavalona in a previously Communist country where citizens were still uncomfortable speaking in the individualistic first person—and a more recently totalitarian country where people were terrified to give their personal views on political figures?

I blundered through a dozen interviews, then spent the next few days trying to contact the professors and officials recommended to me. Unfortunately, the professors at the University of Madagascar were on strike (perhaps explaining their lack of response to my earlier requests for housing), but I managed to contact two who gave me several hourlong meetings. And although library and archival collections were limited, staff members provided me extended access to original 19th-century documents.

I revised my interview questionnaires and began again, mindful of sensitivities to the latest political issues but keeping the inquiries direct. In return for placing the uncomfortable spotlight on my subjects, I encouraged them to ask me questions. The role exchange diminished the formality. Subjects grilled me on American celebrities, foods and sexual behaviors, and I, in turn, was able to gather even more information than I had expected on Ranavalona’s role in 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century Malagasy life.

I learned that although many Malagasy laud Ranavalona as heroic for resisting European domination, their perceptions of her depend largely on their religion, age, ethnicity and background in Malagasy history. Interviewees living in the predominantly Christian capital city, for example, were more likely to critique Ranavalona’s persecution of missionaries than were people from coastal towns, where residents adhere to tribal religious practices and still see Christianity as a threat to their way of life. Similarly, older citizens educated during either French or Communist rule viewed Ranavalona less favorably than did younger people in Antananarivo who are learning history through the recently revised “Malagasy-centric” curriculum.

By the time my three weeks in Madagascar were over, I had met with more than 40 Malagasy citizens, including priests, government officials and descendants of the queen, and had become so enthralled with the culture that I became irritable when not given my weight in rice daily. At the airport, I choked back tears as I finally put together the correct combination of words I had struggled so hard to utter my first day: Thank you. I am now full—full of knowledge and full of your generosity and full of plans for my next research project in Madagascar.

Alison Kamhi is a senior from Memphis, Tenn. Her research results were published in the May issue of the Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal and the June issue of Herodotus.

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