I’m torn about the concept of a voandalana or gift from the road, our version of a souvenir. This is the expectation that you bring small gifts to your family and friends every time you travel, even if it’s a place a few kilometers away. Immediately upon hearing of my departure or noticing my arrival most people will ask me for a voandalana, even people who I’ve never spoken to once. Understandably this is a custom meant to preserve networks and ties to one another. A voandalana can be as simple as a baguette or produce, but it’s really the thought that counts. What irks me a bit is that that this thought that supposedly counts is many times taken for granted, which is the reason why I’ve reserved giving voandalana only to a select few and only for when I leave on an extensive trip.
Perhaps this is just my ethnocentric stance but to me a voandalana kind of implies a culture where more is expected than given. I’ve been offered a voandalana only once, whereas I’ve given numerous, and its not because I’m more mobile. I’ve had hesitations writing this blog since I don’t want to dissuade people from visiting Madagascar because I feel that in general this isn’t a very hospitable culture. Also, my concept of hospitality is very different than the average Malagasy’s.
Many foreigners will challenge my opinion because they’ve had different experiences than me, which makes me wonder if they’ve encountered many other cultures where most of the population lives in abject poverty. Both sides of my family came from developing nations, but if you come to my home they will not allow you to leave with an empty stomach or at least until having some tea. And I know that this was always true, even when their economic position wasn’t what it now. Every time I walked into the homes of Nepali who newly immigrated to the U.S. with little material possession and disposable income I was treated to on minimum a cup of chai, and prevented from leaving until I had consumed some sort of curry meal with rice. Upon greeting members from this community we would close our hands together and greet one another with “namaste”, which translates roughly to “I see the God within you, that is also within myself”. Hospitality is an art in many cultures. Before leaving to China my grandfather sat me down seriously with my grandmother and great uncle one afternoon and showed me the proper way to serve tea to guests. Not only is hospitality an aesthetic but a concept so intrinsically interwoven in ones religion, customs, and impacts how we interact with one another.
I spoke to my close friend Madame Florine honestly about how I viewed Malagasy hospitality to hear her reaction. I trust her to not become offended for she’s acted as somewhat of a cultural broker for me. She’s worked with former Peace Corps volunteers and other foreigners so she is able to explain and relate ideas sensibly. According to her, Malagasy culture has altered so much since her childhood. She feels that entitlement to another’s belongings and wealth has become much more pervasive than its ever been. And to Ernest the German who lives in my town, who’s worked over forty years here as an agricultural development special will tell me that the overall economic situation of Madagascar has degraded impacting the common people. Traditionally the Tsimihety people (my tribe) would have to first drink from a cup that they would give their guests to prove that it wasn’t poisoned.
Maybe hospitality is more greatly linked to wealth than I think. Most entrepreneurs leave the village setting to try their luck in larger cities because they feel that if their heads peak only slightly above those around them it will be pounded down to par with everyone else’s. Any form of wealth that one receives is expected to be divided evenly among family and friends, but I’ve noticed that many times reciprocity is not involved. Two years ago I would have sat there in awe, romanticizing what I viewed as a primitive communist utopia where everything is shared and where one is not allowed to have more than the other. I realize now how condescending and naïve this was.
I am writing this not out of frustration or bitterness with my host culture but to be honest about my feelings. Temporary visitors usually have a different stance and find this place very welcoming. I am writing this despite having built close relationships with individual Malagasy people. I spent my service striving to integrate and respect my host country nationals with cultural sensitivity. I hope to clarify that I am writing in generalizations which can be contested. I can give numerous examples to how Malagasy have been so warm and welcoming to me and will leave thinking well of my service and the Malagasy people who’ve touched my heart. I often try to think how I would act if I were also in their shoes. Peace Corps attempts to do this by throwing us to live in the sticks isolated from other volunteers, to live in local conditions, with receiving a salary on par to the locals. Peace Corps is as close as it gets to “living” local. Despite this I still can’t fathom what it would be like to actually be Malagasy. If I had so little and can barely feed myself and saw a vazaha I would probably want to take advantage too. I can’t say I would be above this.
The legacy of colonization continues till this day and is lodged into the subconscious of the population. I feel there is a general resentment and deference towards foreigners here. I feel its more difficult for Caucasian people because immediately they are labeled as being French. Every time I went shopping with a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer or my French roommates they are given a higher price than me at the market. So, I realize a lot of what I've written in this blog seems unrelated and scatterbrained but really what I feel hospitality is for me is how one treats and shows respect to guests, guests to one’s country, family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.