Childhood in Madagascar

An excerpt

Christian Dumoux

Artwork by Ellen Blom

Tenth House

It was in Antsaralalana, which meant beautiful road. It was left of the station, with a restaurant, "The Lyonnais," at the end of the street.

The house had the peculiarity of being partially collapsed and having three floors: they lived on the third floor and shared the apartment with a coworker of his mom's, a single woman who had a separate room, but with whom they had a bathroom in common. With a roommate they could make rent. A Malagasy family lived on the second floor and had two boys who were his age. He spent a lot of time there; their servant boy, the unforgettable Lita, told incredible stories inspired by the coal stove's shadows: the glowing coal had a tendency to fall behind a kind of luminous screen which stimulated the servant-cook's imagination to concoct thousands of fantastic tales with dragons, witches, and legendary warriors.

The courtyard was a huge mess, a helter-skelter including the remains of the collapsed part of the house, a workshop with machines, a corner with dumbbells, scrap metal scavenged from the railway at the nearby station, and the monkey bars where all the kids would play, not to mention compete to see who could pee the farthest. It was during one of these competitions that he discovered he hadn't been circumcised, and his little Malagasy friends made fun of him. His mom told him that since he didn't have a grandfather anymore they had decided not to circumcise him: it was customary for the foreskin to be mixed with banana and eaten by the grandfather. They didn't want to impose that on Dadabé, the family elder...He figured he'd gotten off easy, and the "Old Man" too.

It was rumored that the house had partially collapsed because the Greek merchant next door had built a five-storey building. The merchant had a son who was also his age, and when he wasn't with the Malagasy children, he would play with the Greek kid: they would go into the stockroom of the dad's wholesale store and eat cheese from Holland wrapped in red wax, or make toys out of jourjour, a wood from the veins of palm leaves. For the most part, they fashioned airplanes pricked with bent needles, through which they extended a taut string in order to glide them from the balconies on the fifth floor to the open field across the way. They made spinning tops by cutting loquat pits in half and sticking half a match in one side.

The boys on the second floor had what they called kalèches, wooden planks with three ball bearings, one of which served as the steering wheel, and they would speed over the sidewalk, either by pushing each other along, or by propelling themselves with one leg. It was a kind of horizontal scooter made out of whatever they could find: they crafted their own toys.

His mom worked late, and his dad, after closing the shop, would often play dice or Belote at the neighborhood bar/restaurant. He got along well with a French kid from the mainland who lived down the street, but when he went over to the kid's house, he got the feeling the mom didn't trust him. He wasn't allowed over there anymore, probably because they took him for a little Creole hoodlum, with too little supervision and too much time spent with the neighborhood's Malagasies. He did have his "gang," which did not include the Greek friend or the downstairs neighbors, and sometimes there would be scuffles with gangs from other neighborhoods. He would go with a group over to the Chinese grocer, and while the others ran diversion, he would steal chewing gum and licorice. The chewing-gum wrappers had pictures of American movie stars. They would throw them in the air two by two, and anybody whose picture landed faceup got to keep it. Everybody knew about John Wayne and Gary Cooper...

He was proud to be known as the zlamboty, the neighborhood gangster, but that didn't keep him from quaking with fear whenever he was in the field and saw the moths with what looked like skulls on their wings. He firmly believed—a common belief—that these were the errant souls of the dead, and that they were dangerous to the touch.

He really liked the great Tananarive flood: when the whole neighborhood was submerged in water. For several days, the water stagnated at the midpoint of the stairs that went up to the second floor. He still remembers his delight at going home in a dugout.

His sister got baptized, even though she wasn't little anymore. The godfather, a certain L., came from Iosy, in the south of the Island, where he was bailiff. He was a big man whom the boy's dad had known when he was in Fianarantsoa. He had a reputation for being broke and drinking a lot.

The boy later learned that, a few years earlier, this man had married his father's eldest daughter from another marriage, but against his father's wishes. Since the daughter had been sixteen and the parents divorced, the mom had given her consent for the marriage.

He often heard his father talk about this act of disobedience, which he considered a betrayal. Apparently he had told his daughter that if she married against his wishes, he would disown her. That's what he did. And he never saw her again, as long as he lived.

However, the bailiff he did forgive after the couple got divorced. It was only many years later that the boy learned of the bailiff 's impotence, of the wife's "phantom pregnancy," and that the local doctor who had diagnosed her had also "cured" her...They told him that the marriage had been "broken," in both legal and religious terms.

On Saturday evenings, he often took a long walk with his parents down Libération Avenue. It was a big treat when they bought peanuts, which they would shell and eat with bread. The walk often ended up over a drink at the terrace of The Glacier, where the boy was fascinated by one work of art: thousands of bottle caps, tossed out by the restaurant's waiters, encrusted into the melting tar of the road. The bottle caps gave a festive air to the "studded street crossings," so called because, at the time, pedestrian crosswalks were made of giant aluminum nails hammered into the road.

Long after, he would angrily recall a few tortured days he had spent with his sister: it was a day of crisis when his father, probably mad at his mother for a bout of unfounded jealousy, took them from the house with some clothes packed in a suitcase and hid them in a hotel which they were not to leave. How many days did they spend alone with their father, terrorized by his anger, longing for their mother without daring to admit it, imprisoned in the hotel, where the staff and the manager gave them funny looks? Meals were tense with their father, who would eat without saying anything. And then Grandma Félicie played mediator, and they were able to go home: how happy they were when their mother came to get them at the hotel, how angry he was at his parents for never explaining themselves.

It was around this same time that he met Luc Donat, a famous musician from Réunion who played sega, the dance in Réunion. His father often saw him at a bar and when the boy found out, he asked if he could learn the violin. He started by learning music theory over at the musician's apartment, which was near Libération Avenue. He learned to read music very fast, but it was all abruptly cut short: the musician said that in order to continue he'd have to get his own violin; after a thousand promises, his dad admitted he didn't have the means to buy a violin...For a while, the kid would dream in front of the violin shop's window. He later learned that none of his classes had been paid for...What a disappointment! But, whatever, he was used to it by now. He gave up on his dream of playing music, yet another of so many. His heart was beginning to harden, it was better not to want anything, things were easier that way.

The only thing that was truly his and that he really loved was his butterfly collection: they were pinned in a glass box; he had chased after and caught them in the open field facing his house. He had a net made out of mosquito netting and some formalin he would dot on them to preserve them: there weren't very many but they were beautiful.

He often went to see his Grandma Félicie, mounting and descending the interminable staircase's thousand and one steps that went from Colbert Square to the marketplace square to where his grandmother's house was situated on Faravohitra hill. His city was really beautiful, seen from the top of all those stairs. The way to the public school took just as long. He had gone from last in the class to first, after the school's headmistress had called his father and he had gotten a severe spanking.

His father opened a shop on Libération Avenue near a Greek bakery. There, on a major public holiday, he once saw a standing General de Gaulle go by in a big black car. He had just announced the Enabling Law, which was supposed to pave the way to greater autonomy under what was being called the Great French Community. On his father's shoulders, the boy was one in the crowd. What he couldn't understand was why de Gaulle was inaugurating a statue of Joan of Arc. He wondered, though he didn't dare ask, what Joan of Arc was doing at this party.

This was in August of 1958.

To him, what seemed important was the word independence since, outside his little Greek friend and his father, he lived in a "Malagasy" world, and every time there was talk of independence, his classmates' eyes would light up, probably because their parents put their hopes in it.

He often recalls one afternoon when his mother asked him to accompany her to an "uncle's" house. He lived fairly far away, in the Besarety Quarter out in a suburb of Tananarive. He was called, and his name was pronounced with respect and a lowered tone, Edmond Ravelonahina. After a long trip in a shared taxi, during which his mother told him she had a heart disease and that she was going to get treatment through radiesthesia, they arrived at the uncle's house. He welcomed them warmly, speaking only in Malagasy. He put them in a secluded room, and his mother spent more than an hour holding a kind of iron-gray "magnetized" rectangle against her chest. The uncle was a kind of "healer," according to his mother, who felt much better after the session, but the man was also "in politics and had almost been killed." Had she done other sessions of radiesthesia? He isn't sure, but it probably cost less than going to the doctor. He learned many years later—for it was taboo to speak of "the events of 1947"—that Edmond Ravelonahina had been sentenced to death after the 1947 revolt, but had then been pardoned. In the twenties, he had been deported to Mayotte, a little island in the Comoros, for his activities in nationalist circles. How proud he felt the day he learned that a member of his own family had risen up against colonization, even though there were some rumors that he had worked for a time as an informant for the French secret service, rumors that he had "played for both sides."

Bear in mind that, according to the French army's archives, at least in what is accessible, in the two years following the rebellion's outbreak on March 29, 1947, approximately 100,000 Malagasies were killed or died as a result of the military action taken to suppress it. There was the massacre in the sealed cars of the Moramanga train, a grisly memory: on May 5, 1947, in Ambatondrazaka, with the last-minute arrival of reinforcements sent to quash the rebellion, three train cars typically used to transport zebus were loaded with 166 hostages. The train arrived in Moramanga in the early afternoon, and the hostages were left in their cars. At midnight, the soldiers on guard were given an order to open fire on the train cars. The train doors opened to seventy-one survivors, who were taken to Moramanga prison, where they were interrogated and tortured for two days before being put back on the train. They were taken out of the train on May 8 and executed according to the orders of a certain General Casseville, the head of the French military's high command in Madagascar. The hostages were slaughtered over a mass grave, where the bodies were piled. One hostage, who was only wounded, was able to escape at nightfall and give his testimony.

translated from the French by Alexis Pernsteiner and Antoine Bargel

From African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies, edited by Geoff Wisner. Copyright © 2013 by Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Originally published in Une enfance malgache, Christian Dumoux, Coll. Graveurs de Mémoire, © Éditions l'Harmattan, 2005.

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