I take pride in the British sense of humour which permeates all aspects of our lives. We enjoy nothing more than taking the Mickey out of each other (mocking) whether on the school playground, the factory floor or the sports field.
I mastered my craft at my school where you either developed a quick tongue and thick skin or you hid in the corner.
So, why has it taken me 2 and a half years to appreciate a similar mocking mentality by the locals of Diego instead of slamming them all for being insensitive critics.
Vazaha watching, a Malagasy passion
As a Vazaha visitor, you become aware that you are constantly being watched. In towns, people are more used to Vazahas so you are being watched only casually out of the corner of people’s eyes (they still notice everything). But, out in rural villages, it’s usually full on staring.
These photos show me visiting a village during a Frontier expedition (I’m the one doing something fascinating nearest the house). This is the breakfast vigil (they arrived just after we opened the door).
The people squashed themselves in the doorway the previous evening to watch us get changed and get into our sleeping bags.
We often joked that the way to get rich in Madagascar was to create a TV series called What Vazahas Do. Each week you could show mundane clips of people brushing their teeth or buying bread. And, you could make special episodes of Vazaha’s falling over which would bring the house down.
‘Tsy Mahay’, a Malagasy obsession
Tsy Mahay means ‘doesn’t know how’. Malagasys just can’t help themselves from pointing out that you don’t know how to do something. As a new immigrant, you hear this a lot.
It’s not easy keeping your morale up when adjusting to a new culture and learning new skills. Anyone who isn’t currently generous hearted to immigrants to their own country has no doubt never tried to adapt to another culture.
The Malagasy (or Diego-ite) tendency to laugh and shout ‘Tsy Mahay’ when you’re trying to accomplish a simple daily task, like building a fire or sorting the rice, which is like little sticks of humiliation being poked into your over-sensitive, paranoid white skin.
This sensitivity (with accompanying loss of your own sense of humour) won’t be there when you step off the plane. It will come on once you’ve forgotten that you ‘Mahay’ (know how) to do anything properly, however competent you thought you were in your own culture.
[I have since regained my confidence but probably learnt some more humility – never a bad thing.]
Why do they mock so?
Are they just cruel?
Well, partly, yes. People from Diego are not overly sensitive types – they have been mocked and criticised since childhood (see post Should we be nice to children?). They spend most of their childhood with other children and children, as we know, can be cruel.
Learning by critique
Malagasys don’t teach by praising achievements and gently suggesting alternatives to help people. They pick out what has been done wrong and criticise that. And when I say ‘wrong’, I mean ‘not done exactly the one way that the teacher has decided it should be done’. I have been told this is also more a French mode of education.
Picture that you have just successfully created flames out of a structure of sticks reminiscent of something you saw Ray Mears build on TV once whilst you were eating your beans on toast (“Why didn’t I pay more attention to Mr. Mears?”, you berate yourself).
You turn round to face your audience (any Vazaha doing anything, normally has an audience) with, what you hope is, an expression of humble pride.
How disheartening when people look at you and then each other and let out the joyful cackle of ‘Tsy Mahay’. Somebody will invariably come to ‘do it properly’ for you whilst the ‘Tsy Mahay’ still reverberates around in chuckles.
Accept that, unless you can perform a task like you’ve been doing it 3 times a day since you were a toddler, you do not ‘Mahay’.
Laughing ‘with’ you (honest)
Laughing at somebody trying to do something is very offensive in Britain (I remember my disapproval as my partner laughed his head off at my cousin’s distressed son who had just had a potty training accident).
I’m being slightly generous here to imply that Malagasys are laughing with you rather than at you, but there’s some truth in it. Or rather that being laughed can be their way of showing that it doesn’t really matter that you don’t know what you’re doing and that you’re still part of the group.
Malagasys laugh to diffuse tensions so there will often be jokes and laughter in the middle of disputes (which can be infuriating when you’re really up on your high horse). So, they are laughing at you, but in a way they’re trying to make everybody, including you, feel more comfortable.
What about me?
Like at school, unless I wanted to spend my time hiding in the corner, I had to toughen up (though I still sometimes get the urge to hide in the corner here). I don’t mock others too much, partly because my language and cultural skills aren’t up to doing it with sophistication. It’s also because many Malagasys already display submissive behaviours around me (because I am a Vazaha) so I feel it’s more my role to be complementary.
But, my ‘new immigrant’ sensitivity is much less and my Malagasy language skills are improving so watch out Malagasys who’ve been chuckling away to yourselves for a couple of years at all my little mishaps – I’m sharpening my tongue and I’m coming for you with all the wit and sarcasm my British heritage has afforded me.
Let the Mickey taking begin.