Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

The Common Threads

In Madagascar...

There’s a woman in the next village over whose toddler son is very sick. He had a botched circumcision. And he’s not getting treated because the woman doesn’t have money to take him to see the doctor.

The other day, we went into town for the Internet cafe, and when we got back to the car after a couple hours, it wouldn’t start. Someone had stolen the battery. My host said, at least they didn’t take the tires, too.

These could easily be examples of “how things work in a Third-World country.” Poverty. Poor medical care. Riffraff on the streets. Etcetera.

But...the same things happen in developed countries. In the States especially, there are so many people right now who can’t afford health care. There are reports about people in rural communities lining up the day before a free dental clinic opens to get their rotted teeth pulled, because they can’t afford to have proper dental work done. Late last year, in a town near where I live in Rochester, there were a slew of car burglaries, people breaking into cars at daycares when parents were inside dropping off their kids, to take purses left inside.

There are actually pretty enormous similarities.

The only real difference I see is that we in the States (supposedly) have systems set up to help or prevent these situations, whereas few, if any, systems exist in Madagascar. Instead of not being able to afford insurance to see a doctor, people in Madagascar just straight can’t afford to see the doctor. In the States, car batteries aren’t worth as much as smartphones, and smartphones are equally widespread, so that’s what gets stolen instead. Rich people in the States don’t pay much in taxes because of lower tax rates; rich people here don’t pay much in taxes because they’re able to pay a smaller bribe to government officials for them to look the other way.

Things that go wrong in the States are often the result of established systems not working or being broken. Things that go wrong in Madagascar are often the result of no systems existing to try to fix the problem. But the same things go wrong. It’s not a matter of this “Third-World” country being a haven for crime and corruption and poverty, but everything’s great and safe and gleaming bright in the kingdom of democracy. And it’s not just people all around the world being pretty similar, all wanting the same thing, all having the same hopes and dreams--the basic foundations of many societies around the world are pretty similar, too, no matter what level of “development” they’re at.

Besides, in the span of a week, I had a rich white lady in France and a poor black man in Madagascar each cut me a sprig of lemongrass from their respective gardens to infuse for my tea. If that doesn’t say that countries are basically all the same, I don’t know what does. ;-)

Willful Blindness

It's an interesting thing, being in a country that's so different from what you know. Especially as a white Westerner in a poor black African country. There are a lot of misconceptions that come along with that, and I think that many/most of them come from a lot of reductive travelogues that have been written over the years. Over the centuries, really. This started way back with European explorers keeping journals that detailed the "primitive" "native cultures" they "found." The whole assumption that European culture is more "civilized" has led to a whole host of other ignorant assumptions about anybody who doesn't fit that norm.

But it's an extremely pervasive narrative, especially having been educated in the States. And, just like systemic racism, it seeps into your brain and starts messing with your own thoughts, convincing you that your experiences in, for example, Madagascar, aren't valid unless you just see the extreme differences between that culture and your home, all the poverty and want and lack and oh-how-quaint-life-is-here.

I fell victim to that the first time around four years ago, definitely. (Sadly. I'm sorry.) But now that I'm back, I've started actively looking for things to disprove my earlier assumptions/misconceptions. Here's what I've got so far:

  • Yes, there are in fact addresses. Kind of all over the place, on all sorts of different buildings, in both the city and the countryside. It's standardized, too, even if there isn't daily/regular mail service like at home.
  • Ditto for street signs. Either official or not, there are a bunch in the city for specific streets. And then there are signs on main roads that point the way toward different neighborhoods (in the city) or towns (in the country).
  • Yes, there are women who drive scooters and motorcycles. It's not just men. Remember, helmets and protective gear tend to be (and should be!) pretty gender neutral . . .
  • There are women breastfeeding EVERYWHERE -- although to be fair, I was pretty blind to this in every culture until I had my own child.
  • Yes, there are actual grocery stores, the way I normally think of them, instead of “just” markets. There’s even a Malagasy chain. (It’s called “Supermaki.” The maki is the classic ring-tailed lemur. :-D)
  • Yes, there are plenty of other vazahas, even in non-vazaha areas. (Although, this trip, I truly do still have yet to see another white woman.)
  • There are even funeral processions, cars with their hazards on following a hearse and everything.

So yes, even if I feel out of my depth here, completement dépaysée, that doesn't mean there aren't any similarities between here and home. Just because I didn't ever set foot in a supermarket last time, doesn't mean I can't go buy more shampoo here if I run out. And I don't have to go to a special Euro-import store, either. It's just normal.

I will no longer be willfully blind to the parts of Malagasy society that overlap with American society, and I can actively work against the misconceptions stuck in my own brain. Life here is just life.

I don't even need to sleep under a mosquito net. (Yet.)