and "Turning of the bones"
12.10.2007 -17 °C
The following was from a letter written on August 26, 2007. The Peace Corps prefer that the site location of volunteers be kept confidential for safety purposes.
Training has ended after two and a half months of intense language classes, of often silent meals with my host family, and of every kind of survival training from pounding our own peanut butter and killing chickens to how to avoid malaria. I've already seen my site in the southernmost tip of Madagascar, and in a few days I'll return to ******, where I'll live for two years. The journey begins with a plane ride form Antananarivo to ***** and continues by taxi-brousse for about eight hours, depending on the road. For the site visit, , however, I was lucky enough to travel in the truck of the Chef Cisco from ***** with my friend Travis, who will teach there, Mike, my site partner in the environmental sector, Joe, an environmental volunteer working an hour outside of my site, and in the covered bed of the truck with the luggage, coconuts, and sugar cane sat Donne, the surveillant of the Lycee (school) at my site. We noticed that the high, green mountain peaks quickly tapered into rolling dry hills, and soon there was no great elevation at all, just a wide expanse of alien trees. The silhouette of the octopus tree at sunset with it's tentacle-like branches seeming to reach for some unseen prey in the sky, along with an occasional baobab tree and other spiny fingered plants, made the landscape resemble an old coral reef abandoned by the sea. We continued to Travis's town, where we ate chicken on a bed of rice at the hotel and became better acquainted with one another. The next day we left Travis at his house and drove the last stretch of the journey to my town. As we neared my town, a light but steady rain began to fall, and Chef Cisco looked at me through the rear-view mirror to say that I had brought the shower despite the dry season. "You bring good luck when it rains during your arrival," Mike whispered beside me. "It rained when I first arrived, too."
I only spent a few nights in my town, and though there is much to tell, my adventures continued in Manjakandriana. And I assume I'll have enough opportunity in two years to formally introduce you to my new home.
The day I returned from the deep south, all of the Peace Corps trainees and staff were invited to a famadiana, the "turning of the bones" ceremony. The preparations for the event begin when a family member is visited by a dead loved one while he/she sleeps. The dead ancestor says it's bones are cold and implores it's living relatives to wrap the bones in fresh lambas (cloth). Before the body/bodies are exhumed, a feast with no caloric comparison takes place, in which droves of people come with an envelope of money in exchange for a meal of "vary be menaka" (rice with a lot of oil) at the house of the ancestor's living relative. Vats of rice circulate long communal tables situated under a tent and are followed by heaping bowls of beef and pork. Animal fat and oil are ladled all the away up to the rim of the bowl.
With each bite of food, the oil coats your tongue and sticks to the roof of your mouth as would peanut butter. Though it glides easily down the throat, the vary be menaka sits heavily and uneasily in the stomach and leaves your mouth and hands a waxy finish that no soap can tackle.
With the eating done, the parade continues to the tomb with a lively band of drums, flutes, and 'Gasy guitars. The "mamo" or drunken men dance atop the massive above-ground tomb, while other men drive their shovels into the stone and dirt-filled mouth of the tomb.
When all is cleared away, the wrapped bodies are carried out overhead; the people underneath the burden dance all the while. In the case of famadiana I saw, nearly 50 bodies were exhumed and re-wrapped, and though the ceremony continued for hours upon hours in the drizzling rain, the electric current of human vitality throbbed on in a trance-like state and never waned.
I watched 30 of the 50 corpses being re-wrapped, my awe at the beauty of this tradition, this exuberant bridge between the living and the dead, was overwhelmed by my soaked clothes and fatigue from the journey down south. The few volunteers who stayed behind, however, had the honor of wrapping and dancing with the ancestors. I find enumerating regrets to be pointless and wasteful, but I do wish I'd stood in the rain a little longer that day.
I undertook my final grand adventure in the north with my neny (Malagasy Mom). I took my dada's (Malagasy Dad) place in a wedding invitation. Expecting a humble, traditional Malagasy wedding replete with a meal of vary (rice) and some dancing, I was surprised by the lavish wedding and reception that was held in Antananarivo, but I was more baffled by the fact that neither the bride nor groom, though Malagasy, didn't speak their native language, as they had lived in France for most of their lives. It felt strange to be whisked away from my daily routine of washing dishes in my host family's dark kitchen to dancing in a sparkling ballroom and eating a five course meal. I almost felt guilty for taking part in such extravagance, but my conflicted feelings were only compounded when riding in a shuttle van to the home of my dada's brother. Lining the road slept vegetable vendors under plastic tarps in numbers resembling post-battle scenes from a Civil War film. The lingering taste of wedding cake in my mouth soured with horror at the blatant juxtaposition between rich and poor and the expansive gap in between. I'm supposed to drift in this middle zone and build a bridge between these extremes with an English class. I now know how intimidated David must have felt when he faced Goliath. My mind settled when we arrived at my Uncle's home. With little space to sleep, my neny and I crawled into a child's bed together and giggled at our closeness as we fell asleep. I reminded myself as I shifted uncomfortably that David killed Goliath after all.