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The Sacrificed Generation Youth, History, and the Colonized Mind in Madagascar

Read Chapter 7

Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions


It is midafternoon in July 1994 and I am visiting with Dalia in the small and comfortable room she inhabits with her younger sister, Flora. At her prompting, we have been discussing problems specific to schoolgirls' lives: sexual encounters, unwanted pregnancies, and their effects on academic success. Suddenly she looks at me and says, "Are you interested in medicinal plants, in the fanafody-gasy?" Although puzzled by what seems to be an abrupt shift in topic, I say yes, certainly. We are then up and out the door, making our way down the road to a small house where her grandmother lives. We see her in the yard, a woman perhaps in her early sixties who is busy washing clothes at an outdoor spigot. Freshly washed sheets already hang from a line, being bleached by a midday sun that beats down so hard that they are certain to dry within half an hour.

This grandmother's garden is a truly wondrous place, exhibiting a copious array of plants. It is unlike any other I have ever seen: rather than being arranged in neat rows along a grid, hers consists of small trees and bushes scattered haphazardly throughout the yard. I immediately recognize imposing guava, mango, papaya, and coconut shade trees. Beneath them springs an assortment of feliky, or edible greens, as well as pineapple and manioc, a single small wild coffee plant, and some banana trees. Just over a little bend behind the house I also catch a glimpse of bright green rice paddies. Although the region's rich flood waters are ideal for wet rice production, I am astonished—after all, seven years ago I lived only a stone's throw from here, but oddly I had never noticed this patch of matsabory. A row of tree stumps provides a clue as to why this area previously remained hidden from my view.

Dalia begins her tour with the air of an expert. I first point to one tree whose bark has been stripped. Dalia says, smiling, "You see, people have been busy removing the bark for medicine [aody, ody]." I then ask about a tall papaya that has large gashes cut in its trunk, and ask if it, too, has been used for this purpose. "Ah, no, that's a Malagasy custom of sorts—if you have a tree that won't produce anything, you get a little angry at it and you hit it, over and over, yelling, 'Give me fruit! give me fruit!'—ha ha!—and, you know, it agrees and does it!" I then remember how my own grandmother used to "beat" her house plants to make them flower. I ask if this is a typical garden—is this what I would see if I went deep into the countryside? To this Dalia replies, "Oh, no. Here we usually plant trees of the same kind all together. Coffee with coffee, bananas with bananas. But this is the way my grandmother likes it. She has done it this way for a long time. Now, let me show you what she has."

And so we tour the garden. It is a lush array of many plants, each with medicinal properties: I recognize mapaza, mahogo, avocaty, katra—papaya, manioc, avocado, and the heavily-seeded katra. And then many others whose names are new to me, with medicinal effects that range from curing headaches, to stomach woes and malaria, to listlessness and insomnia. I soon realize, though, that Dalia has brought me here because several are known by schoolgirls to be powerful abortifacients.

  Independent Rural Girls in Town

At twenty-one, Dalia is a feisty and popular student enrolled in her terminale year at the state-run lycée.1 Her parents, both of whom are retired schoolteachers, currently live in a village just a few kilometers north of town where they sharecrop a quarter of a hectare of land.2 They themselves are from Nosy Be and Ambanja; her father is Antankaraña, while her mother's parents are Sakalava and Tsimihety. Although Dalia was born in Antalaha on the northeast coast, she has lived in the Sambirano since 1979, and so her peers consider her to be tera-tany. Dalia is the oldest of eight living children, the youngest being three years old; a year ago a ninth boy died at age fifteen from heart failure. In 1990, Dalia and her sister Flora relocated to Ambanja in order to further their schooling.

These two schoolgirls currently share one side of a simple, two-room thatched falafa house that belongs to a maternal aunt, who, like their grandmother, lives nearby. Much of the land in this quiet neighborhood is in fact their aunt's. She inherited this property from her own father, who settled here in 1937, on what was then the outskirts of Ambanja, establishing the lush fields of matsabory just beyond. Dalia and Flora pay her no rent, instead regularly giving her gifts as informal payments including such luxury items as yogurt and soap, or fresh produce bought in the local markets. Over the course of any given month, these are worth approximately FMG 15,000-20,000, a high price to pay when viewed as rent for their single room. In so doing, however, they assist an aunt and an aged grandmother economically in exchange for other forms of care these elders provide them while they are in school. In other spheres, these two sisters carefully economize on their daily and schooling expenses. Each month they eat about one daba (a large kerosene can) of rice, which costs approximately FMG 38,000. As typifies the lives of many school migrants, Dalia and Flora go home on foot nearly every weekend to work their parents' fields, at which time they acquire additional food to eat.

Although small and dark, their room is airy, especially when the two large windows are open. They find it a peaceful place to live, especially because the tenant next door is frequently gone for long stretches of time. Their room is furnished with two single beds, two comfortable small tables, and a squat, unstable bookshelf, upon which they store some of their study materials. Other notebooks are stacked high on a large tin can with a touch of kerosene inside, an effort designed to prevent insects and rodents from devouring these precious items. Whenever I drop by, I find the house neat and tidy, the beds made up and covered with wrinkled but clean sheets, one embroidered with flowers, the other with the words "Danga maro tia" or "Many like danga" (a kind of rice that is popular in the region). Cooking pots are stacked neatly in the corner, and the front courtyard is carefully swept. They cannot afford electricity, and so at night they rely on feeble oil lamps when they work on their homework assignments. Each time I visit Dalia, I experience an intense nostalgia: I know this house well, for throughout 1987 I spent many hours there attending tromba ceremonies hosted by its former inhabitant, a spirit medium and gifted healer named Marie. The bulk of Marie's clientele consisted of schoolgirls who suffered from bouts of possession sickness or unwanted pregnancies, problems that inevitably brought their schooling to an abrupt end (Sharp 1993, 188-96). Marie has since relocated to a town further south, her dwelling now inhabited by two successful schoolgirls.

Like all homes in Ambanja, the walls are decorated with an array of colorful pictures. Unlike most I have visited, however, there are no international soccer stars, images of foreign seascapes or industrial parks, or even the ubiquitous shots of scantily clad Asian women torn from inexpensive calendars distributed by local merchants. Instead, I am surprised to see the faces of well-known American pop stars. In the room's darkest corner loom the large, imposing images of Michael Jackson and Michael J. Fox, a reclining Patrick Swazey, and Brandon from Beverly Hills 90210, along with Gérard Depardieu posing for the American film Green Card (fig. 11). Whenever I visit this house, I can't help but feel I am being scrutinized by these men, especially the pensive Mr. Swazey. On two other walls are mug shots of African students who, by writing to francophone teen magazines, advertise their interests to prospective pen pals. Their serious faces offer evidence of students' imaginings of a global network of peers whom they will never meet. There is also a faded world map sent by a Canadian who taught for a few months in Ambanja, and a calendar from a local hotel with the dates of July 25, 26, and 27 circled and marked bac.

Dalia is respected among her peers for her strong will, her clearly defined desires, and her wry sense of humor. She also strives regularly to help others. Her home is a popular gathering spot for her friends, especially Foringa (who is her boyfriend), Pauline, Jaona, Hasina, and Félix. In addition, this year she organized an evening study group for the end of the term at the state-run lycée, persuading town officials to keep the building open and lit at night so that students from all local lycées would have a quiet place to prepare for the bac. Dalia is a formidable student who is at the top of her class. Her French is superb, so she has opted to take the bac in that language and not official Malagasy. She nevertheless failed on her first attempt in 1993, as did the majority of her classmates.

When I asked Dalia one day what she liked or did not like about school, she looked at me with a puzzled expression. Tsarahita, in response, sought to help her by rephrasing the question: "What makes you suffer [mijaly] and what gives you pleasure [mahafaly]?" After much thought, Dalia responded as follows:

No, no—I understand the question. But it's that I like practically everything . . . I love to learn. But you see, before I was in terminale séries D [the science core]. I was getting these horrible headaches that would last for days. I finally went to see [Dr. B.], and he said I was working too hard—that science was too hard for me, so he said I should change to terminale A. I hated doing it, because I really love science, but it was making me ill. [Terminale] A is easier and, so, I'm now more satisfied with my studies and I suffer less than I used to.
This doctor's assessment was not an unusual one; as I knew all too well from conversations with Dr. B. and the town's other health professionals, the presumptions that informed his advice are rooted in older colonial constructions of a mentalité indigène. Although at first glance it may seem that he judged science too difficult for a girl, he in fact views coastal students as less capable than highland ones. In a sense, this is not far from the truth, not for the reasons he might suppose, but rather because lycée lab facilities in Ambanja are useless, lacking crucial supplies and even running water, and there are no trained science teachers on the staff. Dalia's response, however, was not to drop out of school but, rather, to choose a more realistic path. Driven by her thirst for knowledge, she followed the doctor's advice and shifted to terminale A, and by mid 1994, she was preparing for her second attempt at the bac.

Dalia passionately wanted to attend university, where she now hoped to be trained to teach philosophy, or perhaps history and geography. In so doing, she would establish a tradition in her family, for both of her parents are retired primary schoolteachers who attended the prestigious teacher academy in Joffreville outside Diégo. As I learned later from a letter written by Tsarahita, Dalia did in fact pass her exams, but she could not afford a university education. At her parents' urging, she relocated to Diégo, where she now lives with and assists a paternal uncle who runs a small but flourishing dry goods store. She now intends to apply specifically to the local campus so that she can continue her studies while working.

When I returned to Ambanja in mid 1995, I was surprised to hear from a number of Dalia's teachers that the real reason she had ended her studies was that she was pregnant. These proved to be false rumors, however, as Tsarahita and others close to her assured me. Although Foringa had been her serious boyfriend for several years, Dalia was well versed in abortifacients drawn from the local pharmacopoeia, and she often assisted other students with this knowledge, acquired from her grandmother. I also knew that she made reg