V is for “Vazaha”: thoughts on Madagascar’s Independence Day

“Vazaha” means “stranger” in Malagasy; it often refers to tourists and/or white people who are visiting our island. When we’d take vacations in Madagascar, as a kid I felt like I was that vazaha among my cousins. I might look like my fellow Malagasy…but bittersweet emotions come up when I open my mouth and fellow countrymen would comment (condescendingly) that I’m not fluent in Malagasy. At a young age, I chose not to continue in my mother tongue- I chose, and would choose again, to be fluent in English instead, because English and French are international languages that will increase my chances of acquiring a job that allows me to save money for retirement. I replaced my native language at the expense of distancing myself from my culture, one where my own people look down on me for not fully sharing our language. I will do what I need to do to survive in this chaotic and sometimes beautiful world. I don’t shed any tears at night over what I lost from “not being Malagasy enough.” Still, I am sad at the thought that if I have children, it might be a challenge to truly exemplify Malagasy culture- since I have a complicated relationship with my Malagasy identity.

Malagasy people are proud. You know this because you know me- I can’t follow the tiny house fad because my ego would not fit in said living quarters. We Malagasy are proud of our island, of our people, of our heritage. I, as a Malagasy woman, am particularly proud of our (badass) biodiversity, our people’s creativity in the arts, and our cultural tenet of hospitality. It irks me when Americans refer to developing nations with the following statement: “They are so inspiring because they have so little and yet they’re happy.” *dramatic pause to finish my eye roll* Yeah, buddy, just because capitalism leaves most of you overfed and overdrugged doesn’t mean we want it…Yes, maybe compared to your country, we have a lower GDP, and yes we have our fair share of poverty and political corruption (hey Americans, do you know what that is lol), but our traditions are rooted in the beauty of our beaches and forests, and the spirit of our people hearken back to the days when our ancestors first landed here. Happiness is not a quantifiable measure of the heart of a people, nor is income or lack thereof an indication of our ability to live meaningful lives.

All in all, when I celebrate that Madagascar gained its independence from France, I’m met with a weird mix of solidarity and isolation, some of it is my own doing, some of it is how Malagasy people perceive me. Madagascar has so much going for it, especially if we stay smart about how to preserve our natural resources and unique flora and fauna. We struggle with political instability, but honestly in this era, that’s a commonplace reality. I rejoice that I get to come from an incredible island…and I also don’t apologize that to celebrate tonight, I’m going to watch Moana with my boyfriend lol

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