Staying with a Malagasy Family

Posted on 06 February 2008
My Malagasy Family
© WWF / Martina Lippuner
The rooster cries as if stabbed in his tiny little heart, and shortly after I could swear it was slaughter day in the pigs hut. After having unsuccessfully tried to integrate the horrendous squealing and crying into my dreams, I decided to have a quick glance at my watch – 5 o’clock! Before getting angry – because it is still a good two hours before I usually get up – I count backwards. Ah, I have slept about 9 hours, so that is okay then, let us get up!

Half asleep I stumble to the “douche” which is a one square meter open air enclosure with a concrete floor and plastic fabric walls. You take showers in there using a cup to splash rainwater all over the body. The water is cold. Still being a weak European tourist, it takes me ages to finish my shower. Thoroughly refreshed I walk outside, just to realize that I was about the last one to get up…

Right next to the shower is the kitchen hut, where thick smoke is seeping through the small gaps between the walls and the roof almost all day long. My host mother Mme Devoir is sitting on a very tiny bench next to the fireplace, cooking rice – of course. Although I did not always get up at exactly the same time, there was always a plate of rice for me as soon as I entered the kitchen. That is one of the many unsolved mysteries Madagascar has to offer – there are no watches, but things work out perfectly – somehow.

Mme Devoir is a very skinny, graceful lady whose appearance and movements remind me of a yoga teacher. She is always dressed in colourful lambaoanas, the traditional Malagasy piece of fabric, which can be used for several purposes: Carrying babies on the back, as a skirt, as a bed sheet, or to protect food from flies. With gentle gestures she tells me to sit down and we exchange a few Malagasy courtesies while her very long eyelashes flap like the wings of a butterfly.

Slowly the rest of the Devoir family appears and takes a seat. There is Monsieur Devoir, who does not say much, Razafindrasoma Constancine who is 17 and has a 1-year old baby, Riza. There is Soafara Bienvenue Berthaline, a 13 year old teenager, very clever. She was the only one with some French knowledge and I spent a lot of time with her.

Then there is Soaclanie Enida, the five year old daughter, the youngest of the family. Last but not least, there is always a little boy, maybe two or three years old, sitting right next to the fireplace on the ashes, his eyes always full of tears as his face is right where all the smoke is produced. He always has a plate of rice on the floor in front of him and shovels a huge spoon full onto his arm from where he then puts it into his mouth. No one ever seems to take notice of the lonely creature.

Breakfast starts with a prayer, usually spoken by Mme Devoir or Berthaline. Sometimes they ask me to pray in German. Thank Goodness they do not understand what I am babbling. With rice usually comes a watery soup with some kind of green leaves in it. Sometimes beans or manioc leaves as a special treat, the most luxurious meal ever was a soup with river shrimps, which Monsieur Devoir had caught in the river nearby.
The meals usually go by quite quickly, the family having a lively Malagasy conversation from which I tried to grasp some words. Me and my two fellow volunteers in Ambodihasina seemed to be the topic of almost every conversation, as the only thing I was very sure to have understood was our names and the word “vazaha” which means foreigner.

Besides our activities for WWF in Ambodihasina, which included environmental lessons in all of the schools, environmental walks with students and the monitoring of a one year old association named “Amis des Lémuriens”, there is plenty of time to hang around with the host family. Sometimes I go down to the river with my sister Berthaline where we wash ourselves, our clothes and the dishes (which I was never allowed to do). Sitting there on a big stone, accompanied by a few women, rubbing my ever filthy toes and then let the sun dry me is one of the most relaxing experiences I had in Madagascar.

Everyday I sit on my bed with Berthaline and sometimes Constancine with her little “zazakely” Riza and teach them some French and English words, while they try and teach me some Malagasy ones. Especially in the beginning of my stay, there were always between 10 and 40 kids in the room, watching my every move. Even me doing siesta seems to be very entertaining, as often a couple of kids are peeking through the window frame.

Sometimes I help Mme Devoir fish the black rice corns out of the rice she is turning over in a woven plate. This is almost a meditative process, as I cannot really speak with Mme Devoir. It makes a silent and truly relaxing activity.

Dinner is exactly the same as breakfast – rice and a few leaves in water. The only difference is the light, which now comes from a small petrol lamp. At half past six, everyone goes to bed. There is simply nothing to do, as there is no electricity, and nothing really can be done in the weak light of an oil lamp. I usually check Berthaline’s homework. Then she goes to bed, while I read for another hour or so or write in my diary. For two hours, the radio is now playing, giving everyone a little privacy as usually one can hear everything in the house of the Devoir family.

And so I fall asleep to the tune of “Jean aimé de Bemarive”, my host father’s favorite singer, and dream of being woken up by a rooster, crying as if stabbed in his tiny little heart….
My Malagasy Family
© WWF / Martina Lippuner Enlarge
Constancine and Mme Devoir
© WWF / Martina Lippuner Enlarge