and running in the rain
I went with Resaka to Fenomila’s small village on the outskirts of Tsihombe to collect honey as a volan_dalana (“gift from the road”) for a friend in Fort Dauphin. When you go to another part of the island or even the next town, more often than not you’ll find the landscape, customs, and foods changed, and the idea of the volan_dalana is to bring your friends and family a taste of your experiences from a different land. When you find yourself with an unexpected bunch of bananas in your desert dwelling or in the large coastal city with an unanticipated bushel of cactus fruit, your taste buds make a gastronomical journey to a far away place without ever having to bruise your knees on a taxi-brousse.
Before going to out to the honey hives, we were invited into Fenomila’s home. It was leaning noticeably and looked more like a child’s wooden play house. Pads on the floor comprised a bed that seemed suited for one person, though Resaka informed me that it probably held three to four people each night. Pots and pans were stored on a shelf near the low ceiling. A sheep’s skinned head sat in a bowl on the table. Its berry black eye glinted from its skull. Soon the sheep’s cooked meat was brought to us. When I couldn’t get the sheep hair out of my teeth, I resorted to picking it out with my fingers.
The first leg of our walk into the spiny forest entailed a lesson on how to pick cactus fruit with my bare hand. Fenomila showed me how to stand upwind when collecting the fruit to avoid getting the hair-like thorns in my eyes. My forefinger and thumb were guided over the fruit in such a way as to avoid unnecessary discomfort picking out those fiberglass-like hairs.
We were then guided to the beehives, some of which were wooden boxes and others halved logs in thickets of thorns, cactus, and brambles. Fenomila and his friend prepared the smoke burner and pulled on their netted masks. I prepared myself for the confusion of bees and felt a twitch behind my knees that told me it might be time to run. But a third man draped in a baby blanket shrugged off our proximity to the soon-to-be-disturbed hive. “Manintse. Tsy masiake ty tantely. Tsy magnahe. (It’s cold. The bees aren’t mean. No problem.)” So Resaka and I stayed close to watch Fenomila delicately lift the vertical shelves of honeycomb from their winter slumber. The bees lazily lifted from their sweet sleep but were more cold and confused to sting the two men cutting away their hexagonal beds.
Resaka, the three men, and I squatted on our hams and ate honeycomb the span of a Frisbee, and there was still a bucket full of honeycomb to lug home. Then the rain came, a trickle at first, but then the torrent that followed threatened to spoil out prize. Fenomila covered the mouth of the bucket with his coat and raced through the forest in the falling rain with the rest of us trailing behind, slogging through mud puddles already pooling atop the red clay. Eventually we removed our shoes before seeking shelter in a goat pen. The little kids shivered in a pile near the door. To uphold and honor the purity of the pen, Fenomila dabbed the syrup of an aloe-related plant on the bottoms of our feet and shoes.
Back at Fenomila’s house, I was aided in filling the honey jar after being scolded for not washing my hands beforehand. When I tried to offer my host money for his time and honey, he stared at me blankly. “Mpinamana tika. Mpilongo. Tsy mety manome vola. (We’re friends. Family. It’s not ok to give money.),” he said, his face accustomed to breaking into a languid smile. Resaka and I started home in the drizzle, a steaming piece of boiled pumpkin in our hands and the path home predisposed for pleasant conversation.