In the house– my left-hand pressed palm-up on the table while my right hand gripping onto the opposite forearm, stabilizing. Pushing lightly on each other, seven others are squirming to get closer to the gas-lamp lit scene. Joseline stands up from the wood-fed stove and carefully walks towards me with a steaming cloth full of over-cooked rice. As Joseline gets nearer, the kids shove closer. My eyes wince and I turn my head away with anticipation…
Earlier that day– Marta and I are building earthen walls for a rice field- a technique to improve water control in rice fields. The overall project is a demonstration plot with an improved rice farming technique (SRI) positioned next to one technique that is commonly used here in the north.
Quick definition: hard work [hahrd–wur-k] noun: Building dirt walls and leveling land.
Supplies available- Two ladies, two shovels, a cup of coconut-tree booze, and an old rice sack. It should be noted- never underestimate the worth of an old rice sack- and definitely never let the coconut-booze selling lady walk past your field without saying hi.
After hours of digging and moving dirt, Marta chops down a ripe jack fruit and we sit down for a snack, ripping out the small pods of the fruit, covering our fingers and lips with sap. When we head home, Marta checks my sticky hands for blisters. Miraculously I only have one.
“Take the rice left over from the hot rice-water and put it in a cloth and hold it in your hand- then you won’t have a problem digging again tomorrow”
A few months before I had heard this from some blacksmiths, but chose to ignore it due to being sure that I must have misunderstood. I don’t take advice from Marta lightly and we need to be digging again the next day, so I figure I better get my hands on some hot rice.
Casually at dinner– “Hey do you mind if I take some hot rice and put it on my blister?”
As Joseline lowers the cloth of steaming rice onto my palm, silence enters the scene, filling it.
“Did that hurt?”
“No no, do it again”
“Well now I am scared to do it again”
“Do it, do it, do it”
I am not really sure if it helped, but I would be lying if I didn’t note that I haven’t repeated it at least five times since the first.
Saturday– we are at it, digging again. You can see the highway from the rice field, and people frequently holler at us to say hi. After some hollering that I’m not really paying attention to, Marta informs me that a mother still nursing just died in the town over, and that means it is taboo to work in the field.
Interjection: For the rice field that we are working in, it is taboo to work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday morning. Taboos around farming change from field to field. If you break this taboo, a bird flock from the forest called “Fody” will come and eat all of your rice. Fucking birds.
Back to Marta saying it’s taboo to work-
“We aren’t going to come back in the afternoon, or else we will be embarrassed to be seen working since it is taboo”
“Our transplants will be ready Monday, we will have to get all the prep work done and transplant on Monday or else we will have to wait till Friday to transplant”
Not really worry, but a guilty since of relief overcomes me since I am exhausted. With her big knife that never leaves her side, Marta chops down another jack fruit and we fill our bellies and cover ourselves in stickiness before heading home.
Fast forward through an afternoon of reading a book and eating popcorn.
A fellow volunteer in a town 22km* south of me invited me to a crocodile festival, the next day I leave by bike to get to her town. As I bike, I realize both that it is entirely uphill to Anniverano and something is wrong with my bike.
During the ride I come to a spot where I can’t figure out what the hell is going on with the gears or maybe I can but I am being lazy, so I start walking. Walking past a group of men- they look up, see me, and I say:
“My bikes kind of broken”
“Simple or complex?”
5 men rush to my bike, hands are waved around, and then I bike away, thanking them. Is that what it feels like to be a race car driver?
The crocodile festival itinerary- go to a sacred lake, kill a cow, and feed it to the crocodiles. Why?
“If you come into good fortune, or you make progress in your life- like building a stone house- you should sacrifice a cow and feed it to the crocodiles”
4 crocodiles and 1 cow make it on stage; 4 crocodiles leave the stage.
On the way back to Sadjoavato– I shift gears and the chain stopped moving- and so I chose to follow its lead and stop too. A few people nearby:
“Oh, no news, what’s loud with you?”
“Always quiet. Hey, my bike is broken”
Two men rush over, hands wave, and as quickly as I can explain that, yes, I do speak Malagasy, they are done.
“How did you do that??”
“But how did you do that?”
I think that I still haven’t really figured that question out yet.
I am getting close to Sadjoavato and run into a friend who tells me Marta is in this town. I go to say hi, telling many people I saw 4 huge crocodiles eat an entire cow with no left overs.
Marta- “Want to know the story behind that?”
Her and a few other people explain.
“Before, there used to be a town where the sacred lake now sits. Visitors and people from nearby towns would ask for water from the townsfolk, but they were selfish with their water. They wouldn’t give anybody water. One day, the land cracked open and turned into a lake, swallowing the town and drowning the people. The spirits of the people now live in the bodies of crocodiles. Did you see? These crocodiles aren’t like others. Their snouts are shorter, there hands more human like. They will walk around a group of humans, never attacking and not afraid. Those aren’t just any crocodiles, those are crocodiles with human spirits”
“Is it okay to go fishing in the lake?”
“Yes but if you do, you can’t sell the fish. If you sell the fish, when it is cooked the oil will splatter and burn you”
“No ones tries to kill the crocodiles?”
“Taboo. There was one family that killed a crocodile and slowly, one by one, all of them died. We’re about to have lunch, join us!”
Lunch- Rice, shredded unripen mango salad, cabbage in tomato sauce
Stopping by our rice field– The rice isn’t ready yet. Frantically bike home– consult book on this rice technique and call two people. Should we transplant early or wait an entire week?!
Break screech. We’re going to have to wait till Friday.
While waiting for Friday–
“I didn’t realize you had a pet lemur!
“Yes we do! Her name is Sydney.”
By the way, where is your son?”
“He’s taking a bath in the river over there and hes my husband not my son”
That night we have bugs that look like ant eaters and chicken broth with rice for dinner. (*Not a normal dinner for us, or anyone else I know.)
The next day getting in bed:
What’s that on my bed? A frog? Damnit, frog, not here.
Ah! A rat tail just disappearing in my wall. Let me poke it out. Oh, no, that was a scorpion tail.
Friday comes– we work the field in the morning and transplant in the afternoon. I didn’t put a lot of pressure on anyone to come since this was my first time planting SRI in the northern-Madagascar context and Marta’s first time as well.
The two people that come in addition to Marta:
Probably the oldest man in town and a man I call Uncle– “I came because I wanted to give you my hands to work. What can I do?”
Joseline– “I had to come. If Alyssa is doing something, I will do it. You know how she is getting that village savings and loans group started? When she told me about it I said okay. That meant yes. She didn’t know it meant yes so when we talked about it later I said that okay meant yes I will do it. Whatever Alyssa does, I will be there.”
(With all that poking at my heart I actually cried a bit while we were transplanting- my first tears since I arrived to Madagascar, watering the rice transplants. I was also sleep deprived, so… whatever.)
Misfortune strikes Sadjoavato again on Saturday. This time, a lady that was quite a big part of the community, and the mother of the man that got me to Sadjoavato in the first place.
A funeral here lasts a few days and nobody is supposed to sleep because the spirit of the person is still present, they don’t want anyone to steal the body, and they can get all of their grief out together. A cow is killed to feed all of the visitors and pots and pots of rice are cooked to be served with boiled beef.
I had been hesitant about funerals before- never staying more than a few hours. The less time spent the less likely I will say or do something culturally inappropriate. Hell, I don’t even know what to say in English.
This time, however, the grandchild of the deceased, Cinthia (12) comes to deliver the news to me.
“Hello! Welcome. Come, sit.”
After sitting– “Hello”
“I have news. Anicest’s mom is dead”
This doesn’t really make since, not too long ago we were working in the fields together.
“That’s your grandmother, right?”
“Right. The funeral is tomorrow. Come whenever you want, it’s up to you”
The next day, Cinthia will appear at my house 4 times to make sure I am coming to the on-going funeral. I will be waiting on someone else, who will keep finding themselves delayed. The second time, she will hide her tears while we talk by hanging her head between her knees. The fourth time I will just go with her.
I meet her parents, who don’t live with her- she lives alone with two younger siblings-. First I see the corpse, momentarily uncovering the veil on the face for a last look, and then meet with the children of Anicest’s mom-
“Do you know what’s going on here? Do you know what the problem is?”
“Yeah, the problem”
“You mean that this is a funeral?”
“Yes. Did you see her body? Did you see her face?”
“What did it look like?”
How do you describe the face of a dead mother to their child?
I stay till a little past midnight, socializing, playing cards, and listening to people singing and clapping. There is a speech about the plans for the burial, it would happen the next day in the afternoon.
The next day after lunch I go to the funeral spot again.
“Oh hi Alyssa, its time to eat”
“I just came from eating”
“You have to eat at a funeral, it’s not okay to not eat”
To get the body to the cemetery- the coffin is set on bamboo, rested on shoulders, and then jogged, along with the whole funeral party jogging and singing and clapping, all the way to the cemetery. Almost every minute people are switching out who is bearing the coffin- the jogging, singing, and clapping, incessant.