(The Act of Speaking)An Accidental Adventure in Lingua-Tourism

Robin Lentz

© Copyright 2006 by Robin Lentz 

Photo by Duminda Perera on Unsplash

Photo by Duminda Perera on Unsplash

French is the language of choice for travellers to Madagascar, but my husband and I were unable to learn enough to get by. We did, however, find ourselves able to pick up the native language--Malagasy. This essay is the story of how our experience changed once we ditched the attempts at French and began to communicate with the Malagasy people in a way that they didn't expect.

We chose to go to Madagascar for two very different reasons. A friend who studied lemurs there reported that Madagascar heightened her senses in ways she hadn’t experienced before or since; smells and colors were magnified gloriously. That’s why I wanted to go. Joe liked the idea because when he was a boy playing RISK, he always raced to get to Madagascar first. In his mind, this huge island off of the east coast of Africa was the best strategic location on the board and once he was there, he could conquer the rest of the world. Lovely thought. Happy to have such a meeting of minds, we decided to spend our Honeymoon there.

I speak enough Spanish to be able to help tourists on the streets of New York, and when I visit Spanish-speaking countries it comes back in good-enough pieces that allow me to let the bus driver know that my boyfriend would like to use the street as a bathroom, or to ask if the spare tire in Costa Rica is much smaller than the other tires like it is in the States that are United. Sadly, my Spanish would be of no use to me in Madagascar--which only stopped being a French colony in 1958, and where French is the official official language. Worse still, the Spanish I did know corrupted my abilities to memorize any French whatsoever. When my brain had to cough up another way to say ‘yes’, it would jump to ‘si’, edging out any chance of a memory of ‘oui.’ As our trip drew closer, I began to get nervous. Was there only enough room in my brain for one other language? Could we survive without French? I would soon find out.

Bonjour vazaha!” was the phrase that greeted us everywhere. A mixture of French and the native language Malagasy, it means Hello white traveller! Grinning children shouted it as they packed around our legs, keeping up with us during our wanderings around the crowded and dusty capital city of Antananarivo. We responded with our own timid ‘bonjours’ but it made us feel pretty weak. ‘Bonjour’ sounds wrong if it isn’t said right, plus it just opened the door for a flood of French dialogue from kids used to vazahas fluent in French. If we already felt vulnerable with gobs of grinning and grabby children swarming our bodies at the level of our pockets and fanny packs and cameras (the guidebooks having warned us about all the gypsy children thieves), it made us feel even more vulnerable to be so obviously unable to communicate with them.

While both of our guidebooks insisted that French was the language to use when travelling in Madagascar, each included little ‘useful’ bits of Malagasy in the back (words for “I’m hungry,” “too expensive,” “go away”). When we realized that French wasn’t going to come to us at all, we decided to arm ourselves with bits of this native tongue----a lovely sounding, tense-less language with strange combinations of consonants and too many vowels. The Malagasy people are primarily of Polynesian descent (believed to have arrived on the island in the last 2000 years), so it’s probably no wonder that some of the language resembles Hawaiian. But so many of the vowels are ignored that the words end up sounding much simpler than they appear.

'Manao Ahoana' (doesn’t that look Hawaiian?) means Hello but is pronounced 'Mano Own'. Long words are distilled into manageable sounds--'mahafinaritra be'--which means ‘very beautiful’ sounds like 'mofnata be.' The fact that entire syllables are swallowed, and that the vowels have varying degrees of usefulness did not cause us any difficulty since, except for our constant search in restaurants for the word 'akoho' (chicken--pronounced 'aku'), we were learning the words by the way they sounded and not by the way they looked. Fueled by the few phrases in our books, and further fed by our taxi drivers and by charades-like interactions with people, Joe and I began to feel comfortable communicating in Malagasy.

Our entire experience changed for the better. We went from being powerful tourists to humble entertainers. When I asked to take a picture of a woman in the tiny town of Mandraka and then was able to count 'iray, roa, telo...' before snapping the shot, more grinning townspeople clustered in for the pose. When I was able to tell a woman who was begging for a pen that she had a beautiful baby--'zazakely mofnata-be!'--the entire transaction changed; she dropped the French as well as her demands, we admired her child together, and we parted on much different terms than we’d begun. When we’d say 'aza fady' (excuse me) as we weaved through a crowded market, people would beam back at us and step back for us. 'Adaladal' was particularly helpful, especially since I was quicker to pick up the language than Joe. I could tell children my husband was 'adaladal' (crazy) and make little circles by my head with my finger for a quick laugh while Joe assumed the easy role of the ‘straight man’ (because he really was clueless).

Joe had his own moment of glory though when we bumped into a bunch of teenagers--enthusiastic members of an organization called YES (Young English Speakers)--by a crater lake near Antsirabe. These kids were thrilled to be able to practice their English with us. They were impressed with our interest in speaking Malagasy. They were excited to see our Madagascar tour book--exotic English words describing their own tiny town. But they were star-struck by Joe. Apparently, the ‘Dick and Jane’ couple of their English primer consists of a fellow named Joe and his friend Joan. In Malagasy, most of the o’s are pronounced ‘oo’, so the long ‘o’ sound (as in Joe, toe) is an important one to practice. There we stood, in the dusty heat of a hot-springs town in the center of the country, as the grinning group chanted slowly and with very exaggerated ‘o’s a phrase they had to memorize in their studies: “Oh no Joe! There is no snow!” By the crater lake in Antsirabe, Joe was royalty.

French cropped up here and there, and provided a bit of comic (as well as intestinal) relief. I was able to secure dramamine at a pharmacy by pointing to my stomach and frowning and then saying 'lalana ratsy' which means ‘road bad’ while I made my hands indicate a car travelling over bumps. But I had to rely on the word ‘derriere’ to explain to the pharmacist that I needed diarrhea medicine. 'Derriere ratsy' was the phrase I improvised without charades but with apparent success, given the results of the tiny pills I was given.

And in the small town of Ranohira we played dominoes and cards by candlelight with nine year old Ferdinand and his friends on an airy balcony overlooking an outhouse. We tried to teach them a game we were calling 'fula adaladal' (crazy eights?) and they were confused until they began to understand the rules. They laughed and told us they already knew the game. They knew it as: 'Huit Americain.' Hmmm.

At the very beginning of my travel journal I wrote “attempting Malagasy really livens up our encounters.” At the end I wrote “being forced to speak Malagasy has been such a blessing-- we leave a trail of giggling Malagasy everywhere we go.” It is astonishing to consider what we would have missed, in our three weeks of travel, if we had been able to muster up enough French to get by. I am always grateful for the non-invasive items we bring when we travel--dominoes, playing cards, watercolors--the activities that allow for wonderful exchanges and leave fabulous memories, not tourist trash, behind. But this experience in Madagascar made me especially grateful for the the particular gift of language, for the desire to communicate outside of a comfort zone, and for not being ashamed to seem a little 'adaladal'--as the man at the reptile farm clearly thought when I kept wanting to know if each chameleon, alligator, and snake was 'layla' or 'vayvarve' (which turns out to mean literally ‘man’ or ‘woman’ not ‘male’ or ‘female’ as I’d thought).

The Malagasy are known for their beautiful smiles. What a treasure it is to look back on our interactions with the people in Madagascar, and to remember how many of those beautiful smiles were genuinely gleeful responses to the unexpected phenomenon of two vazahas speaking to them in their own words.

This piece is now, unfortunately, very dated.  Apparently people can't really travel to Madagascar like they used to.  Gems were discovered by the big companies (see the New Yorker article, The Path of Stones, October 2, 2006.  Now it's become a bit of a Wild West.  So sad.)

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