A few weekends back I had the good fortune being invited to wedding. As I’m often told by people here in Arivonimamo there is trifecta of events crucial to grasping Malagasy culture that I MUST see. First:. A Wedding (fahanam-badiana). Second:. A Famadihana. And Third: A Circumcision (didim-poitra). I would take issue with this list because I’ve experienced first-hand that Malagasy people spare no expense for a funeral and while ‘celebrate’ might not be the correct word to describe the proceedings, the all-night song and dance fest that commences upon the death of a love one is something to behold. Regardless I’ve now checked a wedding of the list of Malagasy must-sees prepared by my neighbors and I’ve been invited to a Didim-poitra as well during which I’m told the grandfather of the so honored child will be eating the foreskin of the little guy served on a banana leaf. I’ve already had a few Famadihana offers that have conflicted with my work schedule but I’m sure I’ll be participating in one soon enough which will be something to write home about in no uncertain terms.
I have to thank Jean Claude, the president of the fruit drying cooperative that I’ve been working with, for inviting me. He’s become one of my best friends and an indispensable ally here. He’s been patient when I stumble through Malagasy, he’s remarkably hard-working and as far as I can tell has no ulterior motives subverting our friendship, which is nice. As the only Vazah here it’s imperative that I keep on my guard against fickle friends. It’s entirely understandable in a country as poor as Madagascar that there would be those who would seek to improve their station by leeching onto the ‘rich-foreigner’ in hopes of a hand-out. This is by no means the norm here in Madagascar but it is something that I need to be wary of and subsequently it makes me cherish all the more those relationships based on mutual respect and genuine friendship. I’ll write more about his story in the future because I have a lot to say on the matter and we have some very exciting projects on the horizon.
So the day began with Jean Claude arriving at my house at 9 am, Saturday morning. We lazed around waiting for the rented taxi-brousse to pass by my house. I’d been assured emphatically the day before that they would be passing my house by 8:30. By 10 am, Jean Claude, long since fed-up with the fotona-gasy situation, suggested that we seek out the brousse ourselves, and after tracking them down we set out on the road towards Ambohitrambo, the rural town where Jean Claude’s cooperative is based and where the wedding was being held. I was dressed to the nines as best I could scratch together from my arsenal of peace corps attire but was overwhelmingly trumped by Jean Claude’s old business partner (an older gentlemen who used to buy his pineapples), in a sharp grey suit with a brown fedora that sat slightly askew. His appearance gave him the aura of an Italian mobster with a Malagasy complexion and an infectious good humor. The road to Ambohitrambo is still little more than a carved stretch of red dirt ruts made passable by virtue of continued use alone. The government has allegedly begun a project to reconstruct the road but we’ll see how far the reach extends. The road to Ambohitrambo is actually fairly indicative of one of the largest problems this country faces. A crumbling infrastructure. Though Arivonimamo is only 48 km from the capital city, and Ambohitrambo another 14 km outside of Arivonimamo, our taxi-brousse was halted no less than 5 times by impassable road conditions as we traveled from fokon-tany to fokon-tany for the wedding ceremonies.
We bypassed the central fokon-tany of Ambohitrambo and proceeded to a smaller cluster of houses where the pre-wedding party was taking place. As I am told, an average Malagasy wedding is a two day affair, with events held within the fokon-tany of one family, eating, drinking, dancing and speeches (not all that different from the States), with the next family hosting a party the following day. I missed the first day/night of festivities but we showed up just in time for the afternoon meal. A giant tent was constructed in the central courtyard of the fokon-tany which, since it took place in a very rural commune, was only a cluster of red-mud/brick houses as I mentioned before. Long, but thin stalks of tree trunk constituted the frame of the tent over which tarpaulin was pulled taut. Inside pairs of knee-high parallel benches were stretched in rows throughout the interior, and the supports of the tent rimmed with banana leaves. By the time I showed up people were already eating in shifts in order to accommodate the throngs of people in attendance. Out back Jean Claude showed me the industrial cooking operation that had been cobbled together with impressive efficiency for the event. A large pit out back was lined with colossal rice cooking pots with the done rice being carted off in gunny sacks and ladled into rows of waiting dishes inside the tent. The loka (side dish) was pig meat, so I was able to see my first pig gutted, fileted, diced into pieces, boiled formidable pots similar to the rice cookers, dumped into buckets and dished out by a group of kitchen help.
Following the afternoon meal we all gathered in the courtyard around the bride, groom, their immediate family and a full set of household furnishings provided as a wedding gift. A massive array of speakers was hauled out for the event and I can only assume that they must have consumed 90% of the electric current pumping to the commune during the event. For all the trouble they must have been to drag out and set up, they certainly got their fair share of use. A round of speeches was given before we assembled all important parties and set out in a fleet of roughly 6 or 7 taxi-brousses for the final leg of the proceedings.
This was the point at which our caravan was impeded by the desperate condition of the Malagasy road system. We had to dig various members of our assembly out of ruts 5 times, give or take, and by the time we reached our final destination it was eight at night and had been dark for some while. During a traditional Malagasy wedding these days, in order to formalize the marriage, the bride and groom must have a short ceremony within the bureau of the groom’s fokon-tany during which they formally register their marriage. This formality is followed by a ceremony in a church, or at least, that’s the most common venue here in the highlands as the overwhelming majority of residents are Christian. The most amusing thing that I noted from this particular phase of the events was that for some reason, I suppose to save on time and space, the commune had decided to have one priest preside over two weddings at the same time. Killing two birds with one stone I suppose, but the thing that struck me was that the two couples barely seemed to acknowledge each other.
They must have been fairly well acquainted however because as soon as the ceremony ended the entire congregation was shuffled to a corner of this particular fokon-tany (by this time I really had no idea where I was), where a courtyarded had been ringed with a tarp structure similar to before, this time with no roof but with the same horizontal bench arrangement stacked up on the hillside. Jean Claude, our new friend Patrick, and I slunk off to the back of the tent to await our rice and pig fat loka because at this point I was thoroughly over being starred at and ‘vazahed.’ I honestly don’t harbor any animosity towards the term most of the time because I’m well aware of its weight and implications, both the historical roots and the fact that exclaiming ‘vazah’ is often nothing more than a visceral reaction many younger children have to a very rare sight. By this time at night though I just wanted to blend into the crowd, eat my pig slop and get some sleep. Instead, funny enough, I was plucked from the crowd and ushered up towards the head table where the two sets of newly-weds sat. It was a very well intentioned, and polite gesture, which I acknowledged as such but it was none-the-less baffling. I assume that the commune, judging the fact I was white to connote some great degree of importance, didn’t know what to do other than to honor me by plopping me down in front of the bride and groom pairs, always and forever the center of attention. Luckily Jean Claude and Patrick were with me and I seriously cannot overstate how good it felt to have someone I could turn to help make light of the situation. Of all the lessons that could be taken from that experience I think far and away the most important thing to note, as always, is that Malagasy people are unparalleled in their hospitality and put a premium on respecting guests.
And so goes the story of my first Malagasy wedding. It still stands out in my mind as one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had yet and thank you again to Jean Claude and his family for doing me the honor of allowing me to tag along.