What do I know?

As a newcomer to Madagascar, I’ve spent most of my time painfully aware that I just don’t ‘get it’.  I’ve left many situations feeling dissatisfied or uncomfortable and often feeling that I’ve made others feel that way too, without knowing why.

However, I’m increasingly enjoying that feeling of being on the inside and having more of an idea of how to interpret situations.  When tourists arrive now, I’m aware of how little they know about how things work. Things I take for granted need explaining to other people and they get themselves worked up over things I accepted long ago.

Whilst feeling more settled, I am still an outsider and thus able to analyse things in Madagascar in a way that people who have never left the country would struggle to do.

Being a natural analyst and communicator, I try to make sense of what I experience by discuss my observations by talking to Malagasys or other residents.

My limitations (excuses)

Whilst I know a lot more about Madagascar than I did when I first got here, I humbly accept my limitations when it comes to commenting on life here.

My interpretations of Madagascar and its people are based on what I have experienced from situations I almost certainly only partially understand.

If you can help by challenging or adding to the site, please do so (read ‘What do you know?’).

Not easy documenting a country

It would be hard enough for me to describe British people and culture, despite being one of them.

[For those interested in reading a book by somebody who has tried to define English culture, I enjoyed, ‘Watching the English’, by Kate Fox]

I don’t know all Madagascar or Malagasys (or Brits for that matter)

Apart from brief visits elsewhere, I only really know the North of the country, especially in and around the town of Antsiranana.

It is common practice to generalise to ‘Coastal Malagasys’ for many things. However, I know that there are significant differences between different coastal ethnic groups and am aware that I don’t even really know which things I can generalise about.

For all other ethnic groups in Madagascar, especially the plateau ones, my assumptions are based far more on hearsay than on direct observation.

This also goes for ‘class’ although this isn’t a word you hear explicitly in Madagascar. I am bound to represent biases based on groups I have spent more time with.

Nevertheless, I have spent time amongst different groups of people with different lifestyles. This includes time in both rural villages and towns – one of the biggest distinctions that Malagasys make about themselves.

I am not a trained anthropologist

My only claim to be an anthropologist is that I applied to do Anthropology and Russian at University. However, I changed my mind and did Psychology.

Two and a half years not long enough

Gosh, I’m just scratching the surface of understanding life here. And, my Malagasy language skills impress some locals but they’re not really good enough to pick up nuances of culture. And by just being (a Vazaha) in a situation can change normal behaviour.

Two and a half years too long

Sometimes, I’ve been here so long that I forget which things are not normal in Britain. I forget that, in Britain, people don’t come round to the house to sell vegetables from bowls on their heads or that they throw stones at dogs. Until I get back to England, that is, and realise that I have to go to the pesky supermarket if I want some bananas and I see people following their dogs around the park on a piece of string.


10 Responses

  1. I absolutely love your blog and writing style 🙂 I just discovered this, and it is a wonderful site!

  2. What can I say Basil? Thanks very much. P.s. I love your name – was thinking of it for my son’s name – might still go with it if I have another boy at some point.

  3. I tell you what, if we manage to get back to England in the next year it’s going to be a shock. Hope you enjoy your next trip “home” 🙂

  4. I am a Girl Scout leader and found your blog while researching Madagascar for our upcoming “International Festival” , which our service unit holds each year to honor World Friendship Day. Each troop selects a different country to represent and we do a display about the country, a sample of food, and present some sort of performance. Your blog has been extremely informative , I’ve printed many of your pages for our display. Your writing is very engaging, keep up the good work!

  5. Hi Julie. Thanks for taking the time to email – really appreciated. I’m glad people are taking an interest in Madagascar. I hope you manage to find all the information you need out there – it’s not always easy.

  6. Does anyone know how to say Hello in the native tongue?

  7. How to say hello in Madagascar? Hmm, there’s a question. Depends which region you are in.

    Here’s a link which will give you a good start to the language for the official tongue (of the Merina tribe).

    However, in Antsiranana where I live it’s “Mbola tsara” (pronounced a bit like ‘boola sara’. Salama (the final a is often nearly silent) is also commonly used, especially in the South. Akory was used more when I went to Ile Sainte Marie – this is also used in my region of the North, but normally as a follow on greeting after you’ve said Mbola Tsara meaning more ‘How are you?’

    I have no doubt there are more variations I’m not aware of.

    Hope that helps Amanda


  8. Dear Ruthfrost: I want to thank you for your blog, it has been an inspiration to me because of what you are doing and the fact that you are living in Madagascar.

    How long did it take you to get use to using the Ariry and was it difficult? Did you or are you renting in Madagascar?

    I to would like to vist but i am worried about the language and not being able to understand or to be understood it is why i am so happy to read your blog and see that you did.

    I know that English is not spoken that much in Madagascar so how did you get by in you daily life?
    and when i do come can you tell me how to prepare myself and what i must bring with me to Madagascar.

    Thank you for your time and i am looking forward to your reply.

    Samuel T Brooks Jr

  9. Here I am in Hawaii but fascinated to read your posts regularly. Keep it up!

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