An American in Madagascar

The first assumption about any given tourist in Madagascar is that he or she comes from France and therefore speaks French.  Any exception has to be explained.

From 1895 to 1960 Madagascar was a French colony.  Even now, more than forty years after independence, France remains the primary diplomatic link to the international community.  And most tourists do, in fact, come from France.

I, however, do not.  And that often caused a little confusion.

Bonjour monsieur,” I was often greeted on the streets of Antananarivo, the capitol.  In Madagascar, for many people French is a matter of pride.  They display it like a badge of honor, a skill that makes them just a little bit better than their uneducated compatriots.  Ça va?”

“I don’t speak French,” I would say in Malagasy because, for small talk exchanges, I do speak much better Malagasy.  Or at least I did at that time.

At this point, many of them would continue, in disbelief, to speak French to me.  Often they would persist with their French even as I would continue to respond in Malagasy.  And so it would go as we bounced the languages back and forth.

In the end, if they ever decided to believe me, then they would ask the inevitable next question.

“If not France, then where are you from?”

Etazonia,” I would say, still in Malagasy.

Etazonia…,” they would echo, slow and ponderous, and always as if a cartoon light bulb just lit above their heads.  They would nod, only once, as they said it, a very long and exaggerated nod.  The head lifts, slow and thoughtful, with a long and deep inhale.  Then it drops chin to chest as the speaker sighs “Etazonia” with the emphasis of someone who just comprehended something after a long mental struggle, someone saying, essentially, “Now I get it.”

Most people in the United States know nothing about Madagascar and most people there know nothing about Etazonia, the phonetic Malagasy rendition of the French Etats Unis.  We have no contact with them and they have no contact with us.  We hear nothing about them from our media and most of them have no access to media in order to learn about us.  We have forgotten each other, if we ever knew each other at all.

They know so little about the United States that I think they sometimes doubt its very existence.  Often, after that long sigh and nod of recognition, the conversation would pause as my new Malagasy friend looked away, looked inward, and seemed to wonder, “But I thought it was all just talk.” 

And that’s the light bulb, Etazonia as something more than Shangri La.

All over the world there are people who think of “America” as a legend, the vague and distant epitome of the good life.  In fact, the United States is so remote, so far removed from their lives that they rarely consider it until asked.  Then, however, the answers are frequently favorable.

“What do you think of the United States?  Good or bad?”

“Good,” people say.

“Why?” I then ask.

“Powerful.”

“The best.”

“Very developed.”

“Rich.”

“Number one,” that one always said in English with a grin.

In very few places throughout the world is there such a unanimous and unequivocal fondness and admiration for the United States.  Our enemies hate us as meddlers, an unwanted worldwide authority figure.  Even our allies, our brothers, patronize us as the rich, arrogant, and ignorant spoiled child in the family.  Those that know us at all tend to dislike us.  Only in forgotten places like Madagascar, places that consider us neither an enemy nor an ally, do people revere the United States as the land of freedom and plenty.

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