There was a party in my neighborhood last Saturday. I didn’t know what it was for, but I knew something was happening. My friend Kodotsia had already made me a salovana (a long dress that is tied at the chest and often worn on festive occasions) from a beautiful red and white pattern. Florosia had braided my hair with extensions. They’d been talking about this all week. But still, I had no idea what was actually happening. My language skills are so limited that most of the time I just watch someone talking words to me until I hear “Alo, atsika,” which means “Let’s go” and then I follow people. Ah, adjustment.
7 am: Kodostia calls to me from outside my wooden gate. She’s already wearing her salovana. I was still sleeping (I’m used to sleeping in, but that’s not really a thing here…).
“Oh, you’re not ready yet?” She looks at me confused. I’m still half asleep.
“Okay, I have some clothes left to wash, so I’ll come get you a little later.”
I’m never sure what “later” means.
9:00 am (ish): I’ve been sitting on my bed, dressed in my salovana for an hour, because I didn’t want Kodostia to come back and me still not be ready (I hate being late). After a while, four girls appear at my door. They are wearing salovanas with matching headscarves and beautiful jewelry. They are carrying buckets and large wooden spoons and pots. A boy is with them, carrying a huge sack of what turns out to be rice, on the seat of a bicycle. They beckon me to come with them.
We walk a little ways into a forested area and sit under the shade of a large mango tree. There are a few older women there as well. Almost immediately, the women pull out “sahafas,” circular trays that are used to clean rice, and we start to pick rocks from the rice and throw them out. I’m used to this, so I invite myself to join in the rock-picking. It’s surprisingly meditative.
As we pick rocks and sift rice, the girls start asking me questions about America. I try to answer as best I can, but it’s hard because I’m still so self conscious about wearing a dress that I’m not used to and constantly adjusting my bum because I’m sitting on a tree root and my legs keep going numb. Still, I smile, because they’re obviously having a good time, so why shouldn’t I?
12:00 pm (ish): The rice, I soon learned, was being cooked to feed several hundred people. The women who seemed to be in charge cooked it in enormous pots, big enough for a child to take a bath in, and I smiled because it reminded me of the book Stone Soup. Once ready, the women served the rice on large platters and placed a plastic bowl of beans in the middle. My new friends handed me a spoon and then we squatted on the ground and ate together, from the same platter, taking small spoonfuls of beans and mixing them with the rice.
After lunch, there was music and dancing. The crowd had grown to at least a thousand, with families and friends camped under mango trees, eating and talking and napping. It reminded me of Sunday afternoon at Overton Park in Memphis. A crowd was gathered around a clearing, so I went to see the entertainment. Two men about middle aged were standing and beating large oval drums. A third man blew a conch shell. Then two men and two women appeared dressed in red and white clothing, two with headdresses that bore the Muslim crescent moon, and two with staffs. They danced. The dancing was aggressive yet calculated, their feet moving rapidly in time with the drum beats, like walking on hot coals. A group of women and girls sat nearby under a tree and sang.
It’s hard to describe my exact feeling, but something about this moment, watching the dancing, being part of a crowd of spectators, felt familiar to me. I had no idea what the dancing meant and I wanted to know, but in a broader sense, I knew it was telling a story of something important. It made me think of the revolutionary war re-enactments we used to go see in Plymouth, Massachusetts (don’t ask me why, but it did): men and women dressed up in costume, performing something meant to remind the spectators of some important part of a shared history. That’s culture…ritual, reminder, togetherness. It’s so familiar. And yet it’s so unfamiliar. Two different stories coexisting rather than contradicting: is this what my boss meant by “the paradox of two truths?”
“Do they do this in your country?” Someone asked me. My first instinct was to say, “no,” but then I thought of Native American ceremonies that I’ve only witnessed a small handful of times and there was something about the honor and majesty of those ceremonies that seemed apropos in the context of this celebration, so I said yes, only to realize that I had no idea how to explain Native Americans with my ten words of Malagasy, so I think I said something like “people from a long, long time ago before white people went to America” and then smiled and pretended not to understand anyone else’s questions because I was still in my very strange dress with braids in my hair, standing under a mango tree in the North in Madagascar, eating rice on the ground with a spoon.
It was a very good day.