Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Love or something like it:

Webster dictionary defines love as: “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties (2) : attraction based on sexual desire : affection and tenderness felt by lovers (3) : affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests.”  Just as in English, Malagasy has one single word for love: fitiavana.  The way to say I like you and I love you is the same, Tiako anao zaho.  

 This has given me some difficulties since its been hard to express whether I simply like a man or like him or the degree to how much I like an inanimate object.
Just like in most places on earth the relations between men and women is difficult.  I will try to write this blog in the context of my host culture as best I can.  Monogamy is not a cultural pillar here.  On the coasts marriages are not-common.  I have witnessed one marriage since my arrival.  Many times people who cohabitate together are considered “pi-vady”,  or a married couple.  If one is in a serious relationship the significant other is to be called their spouse even if there is no paper proof or wedding ceremony.  A sipa, or girlfriend or boyfriend, is considered someone who isn’t taken as seriously, perhaps our cultural equivalent would be an open-relationship or more crudely put a F*&^ buddy.  Although marriages are uncommon and cheating occurs frequently it is still frowned upon, and intense still jealousies arise.  The wife of my counterpart can be found policing around town on her scooter trying to keep her husband in check. 

Pregnancies occur frequently because even with all of the efforts made towards educating on family planning, most people do not choose to use contraceptives.  I’ve talked to mid-wives at the local hospital. Their main complaint is the amount of young girls lost between the ages of 13-15 because they are unable to perform cesarean section, and because of their frail and not-yet quite developed frames of their body they pass away during childbirth.  I often wonder to myself whether or not most of these female teens consented during conception.  Many times the fathers are nowhere to be found or have other families who crave his attention.  These girls immediately drop their schooling; the young men who impregnated them , I’ve noticed, are allowed to continue.  Teen pregnancy is commonplace and not much is said about it or against it.  

I witness a young group of girls passing to and fro from an epicerie where I spend a lot of time.  These girls look no more than 18 years old, they are scantily clad and receive patrons daily, some have even become regulars.  If you talk to some of them they aren’t allowed to return home empty handed otherwise they will be thrown out.  One session on average allows the girls in my town to earn 2,000 Ariary, equivalent to one dollar.  Posters can be found throughout the country, particularly in hotels, with cartoons to dissuade prostitution and the selling of young girls by parents to foreign men.  I’ve seen a fifteen year old girl escort an elder foreign man.  When I asked him why she was spending so much time with him and his friends, he answered by telling me her father was overjoyed to get rid of her, acting as if he were her savior.  There are full time prostitutes but for the majority of women who sell their bodies they do not consider themselves as prostitutes, but rather when the opportunity or need arises will perform these duties to earn what is needed.  I’ve seen once innocent and decent foreign men corrupted by lust and perhaps by power.  The men who are considered mediocre by their own country become king here.

Aside from prostitution there are Malagasy and vazaha relationships, some work out some don’t, just as with any other sort of relationship.  The difference here is that there is usually an uneven power dynamic.  The vazaha has access to a government that will support them, a passport to leave, and funds.  Many times this is what makes us attractive.  Perhaps the widespread desire to have light skinned metisy children is a form of internalized repression left behind by the French.  There are some pcv men will tell you that they’ve been propositioned to simply impregnate a woman with no request or obligation.  Their belief is that the child will have less struggles in life if he or she is lighter and has foreign features.

Even when a pcv dates a HCN (host country national) who is highly educated, comes from wealth, and shares many of the same morals towards relationships, there are cultural barriers that are difficult to transcend.  But in truth it seems like these relationships are more desirable for the pcv woman than dating foreign men in general.  My reasoning is straight-forward,  For the HCN this is his home he is not running away from his troubles and is tied to family and friends.  He is not taking a two-year break from his usual morals. These are all signs of stability. The novel  Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus comes to mind when looking into the microcosm of pcv relationships.  The opportunities are endless here for foreign men.  They most likely have never been so popular with women.  Their status as a foreigner and what this entails is impressive to many Malagasy and the vulnerable state that many pcv females fall into and their need for companionship in order to combat loneliness here causes these tadpoles to turn into barracudas.  I always found it heart-warming when I heard of couples who met during their tour in Peace Corps.  But the reality of the matter is is that promiscuity is high and since the selection pool is small the situation becomes somewhat incestuous.  I never thought I’d write a blog about relationships but I think its become important to break the stereotypes of the men and women who go abroad to do development work as being saints. 

I have met a young French married couple who works with the Mission.  This is the first time they've lived together since they joined right after tying the knot. It was interesting to hear their perspective.  According to Antoine marriage had liberated him.  Never again, did he feel he would be alone.  Having someone to confide in makes living in such a challenging environment tolerable they've told me.  I can only imagine serving together in Madagascar would be a good test for the strength of one’s marriage.  My friend Madame Florine is currently with her husband in Tana for an operation.  This has been an especially challenging past year for her because of her husband’s health.  “For the good times and the bad,” she tells me emphatically. 

Romantic love is a luxury that not many in impoverished situations have.  I feel that when we look condescendingly at prostitutes, not-quite prostitutes, and gold-diggers we understand how their life situation prevents them from prioritizing finding a “soul mate” and rather securing food and shelter for themselves.  I joined Peace Corps at the tail-end of being 21 years old, I will have had three birthdays in-country.  I never took the prospect of having a lifetime partner seriously, but now the idea doesn’t  seem so daunting.  To be honest I couldn’t imagine doing Peace Corps at a later age.  I guess I’m growing up. 


  1. You're absolutely right on "The men who are considered mediocre by their own country become king here(in Madagascar)". It's the main reason of Madagascar's sex tourism boom besides poverty (survival) or hipster lifestyle. AlJazeera English made a documentary about this in 2008 http://youtu.be/TF3g4kyf_6w
    Don't forget that some Malagasy girls/women voluntarily engage into prostitution due to the fact that the monthly wage of a factory job (say 20 or 25 Euros) could be earned by spending just one night with a foreign tourist.
    It's complex!

  2. That's a good point that you make about prostitution. I've spent some time talking to some of the girls up in Diego-suarez, and even around my region. It seems to be a choice in some circumstances. I wrote a little about this in my earlier blog: Ladies of the night.

  3. This just comes up in my mind "How to rescue those teenage girls that are forced by their parents to prostitute?". I don't know if there are nonprofit organizations like Tiny Hands International, Wellspring International operating in Madagascar.

  4. I'm really not sure of any NGO that works with prostitutes, but its a really important topic that needs to be talked about more and not kept fady. I think it starts with people to have a more open mind about it enough to have conversations.