I first saw the village of Ambodyhasina about a year ago today. I was accompanying my local medical clinic’s midwives for the day as they administered vaccines in some of the most rural villages in my commune. About an hour and a half into the hike, as well as from the nearest road, we passed a village that sat atop a mountain, maybe half an hour from the nearest other village. It was probably the most remote village I’d ever seen at that point, and wondered what life was like there. Who lived there? How many families? How connected were they with the neighboring villages?
In September of 2018, I decided to return, in an attempt to meet the people and see if I could live there for a yet to be determined period of time. I remember the hike vividly, it was one I’d done before, though this time I paid attention to my surroundings with the intention of writing about it – I also took notes. I passed the usual sites of rural Madagascar. Men and boys carrying tools, wood, machetes, whatever else is needed for work on their shoulders. Women and girls do the same, though often whilst balancing things on their head.
As I passed through the closest village to Ambodyhasina, just as I entered, a woman ran through the village carrying a stick at arms length with a chameleon on the end of it – a bunch of little kids chased after her yelling in excitement.
When I got there, nobody was home in the village. I waited for maybe 20 minutes before a woman in her 40s named Lynette came and greeted me warmly. I told her that I had come with a chicken and asked if I could join them for dinner.
She told me everyone else that lived here was currently out, but then let out a loud holler into the mountains and within a few minutes her family members, as well as some other farmers started trickling in. I would come to find out that the village was home to just one family(a grandma, grandpa, daughter, son in law, and granddaughter)
First came two 18 year old boys, we spoke for a while, and I showed them my dictionary. They had never seen a foreigner in that area, didn’t know who I was and were clearly feeling me out. They were asking me if I knew what certain words were, and at one point asked me if I knew what an ‘akondro’ or banana was. I said in an obvious dumb guy voice ‘yahh’ jokingly. They laughed and started speaking more casually with me. While speaking with them I wasn’t keeping an eye on that chicken I had brought and asked if it was still in the ‘tanty’ or bamboo hand-woven bag(the equivalent of a shopping bag in my part of Madagascar) they said no, so we walked over to the cooking hut in the village to find the chicken already headless and featherless. One of the women of Ambodyhasina, the daughter of the woman I first met, Souvenira, had already butchered and prepared the chicken in just 10 minutes. The two boys actually mentioned that they knew a different Peace Corps volunteer in a village about 2-3 hours drive away from me called Ambatokintana (roughly translated to ‘under the stars’) that they used to live in.
The chicken was cooked by making a wood fire in the cooking hut, putting a pot on the fire, adding cooking oil, and salt, and then added all of the chicken parts at once. After the chicken was just about cooked they added about a half a cup of water.
We then moved into a bigger house, made of bamboo with a sheet metal roof, to eat. As the guest, I was served first. Hospitality towards guests is a huge part of Malagasy culture and the guest is always served first. In fact, I remember one time I was eating with people I had just met that day, they refused payment when I offered, and the patriarch of the family literally lifted his plate as to get ready to pour his food onto my plate when he was I had finished first and they were out of food. But anyway, here in Ambodyhasina, I was given two spoons and a fork(one spoon to eat with, and the other to pour broth with), a large plate of rice, and 4 pieces of chicken. There were now five or six other people in the room eating together, and shared 3 bowls of rice and 3 bowls of chicken and broth.
In Madagascar, to sit with your legs crossed, is to sit like a ‘baby’ and you will quickly and in a lighthearted way be made fun of for it. Which is exactly what happened; at first I sat the socially accepted way, which is to say any way other than with your legs crossed, but eventually, without realizing it, I had crossed my legs and sure enough they laughed and called me a baby.
Later in the evening I returned to the cooking hut with the village grandma, Lynette, and her granddaughter, Stella, and watched as they made tea by putting what looked like old dead brown leaves called ‘ravintsara’ in boiling water. The tea was very good and tasted piney.
Speaking with Lynette, she told me she was the villages ‘tengala mena’ or respected village elder. She also said it was just her family that lived there. Lynette and her husband have 5 kids, though 4 of them no longer live in the village and have left to go work in the timber industry in the region Manakara. She has lived there since she was 15 years old.
Lynette was born in the village of Antanankoric, which is in the commune of Ambhatoranana, the same commune that Ambodyhasina is located in. When I asked her about her life she told me that she was 18 when she got married and had her first child. Her parents and grandparents were farmers, same as her. All 4 of her siblings are as well. She told me that as a girl she wanted to be a doctor and that she likes, and has experience healing people. She was born after the French had already left Madagascar, but when I asked she told me that people generally did not like the French when they were here(though different Malagasy people I have spoken to have told me mixed things about the French) She told me that when the French were here, Malagasy people would literally carry the French, as there were no roads. She said her motivating factor in life is for her kids not to go without. Growing up, she wanted to live in a city, but now that she’s older she prefers this life in the countryside. In fact, at one point in her life, she had lived for over a year in the beach city of fenerive est. When I asked which she preferred, she said she felt at home at both. She also later told me that she thinks I’m the first foreigner ever to see their village.
After tea, we went outside to make ‘Betsa’ a homemade wine that is a cultural staple of the east coast of Madagascar. I’d only seen it made once before and it was with cows pushing a plank around a ring to crush sugar cane, though here, they did the pushing. I took pictures, but eventually got on and joined them in pushing.
I took out my tent and started to set it up when they insisted that I sleep in their home. They took one of the two foam mattresses off their bed and put it on top of a bamboo sheet they had laid out. They also hung a mosquito net for me. Whilst writing in my journal that night they came into bring me food to eat – rice, anana(greens) and beans. As I wrote in my journal I heard the sounds of village life as it closes for night. Birds, bugs, crickets, and people talking to each other in their houses, which serves as background noise for everyone to hear as bamboo walls don’t trap noise.
The next day I woke up to the sound of ‘mitotoing’, or rice stock being crushed to make chicken feed. A hollowed out stump filled with food( or whatever you want to crush) being pounded by a long and wide rounded stick. I walked out and saw Stella and her mom, Souvenira crushing rice stock together in harmony as to do it at the same time. When I turned around I saw the valleys surrounding the village filled with fog.
We ate leftover anana and coffee for breakfast. The coffee was made with coffee beans that they grew, and in place of sugar, they crushed their sugar cane and added the extract. I think there was a bit too much sugarcane juice in my coffee, it tasted too much like betsa – kind of like what I’d imagine boiled wine would taste like – though later, I had more with less sugarcane juice and it tasted much better.
After that I accompanied the village grandpa, Everest, as he tied the cows up on nearby hillside so they could graze. We walked through the rice fields which mark the valley floor as he answered my questions. He told me about his life there and his life as a farmer. About how he built all the houses in his village with his own hands, and that the rice fields around his village belong to him and his family.
There is a bamboo spicket directing water from the rice fields into a small cove where the family collects water from and bathes.
Everest was born in a village north of where he now lives called ‘Tanancor’, he is in his 60s now. His parents and grandparents were farmers, mainly rice and coffee. He’s been in Ambodyhasina for about 15 years. At one point when I asked him about when the French were here he said that the French had already left when he was born and he never went to school so he doesn’t really know the full story. He told me to ask Lynette, that she knows more about it than he does. In fact, he said that growing up people only really talked about the rebels, and that he doesn’t even really know if there was a war. When I asked how he and his family ended up in this tiny village he told me that his aunt inherited it from her parents, but she had no children so when she passed it was given to him. I asked if he likes living in such a small isolated village with his family, and he said he likes it a lot. Everest has 13 siblings, all farmers.
They all still live where he grew up. We ended up talking a little about religion and he said he’s technically Christian, but he really has no religion, though his wife goes to church. I asked what that means exactly, if that means he doesn’t believe in god, and he said he does, but just doesn’t go to any church – then he let out a big laugh and said ‘maybe now I’ll go to church.’ There is a local ceremony called a saboraha on the east coast in which people sacrifice a cow for their ancestors and have a big party – though it is typically not attended by Christians, and he told me he doesn’t really go to those. I asked about his family and how he met his wife and he said that they grew up in the same village and his parents asked for his wife’s hand in marriage. I asked if that means it was an arranged marriage and he let out another belly laugh and said ‘we loved each other so it’s not an arranged marriage!’ He told me his whole life he always wanted to be a farmer. He told me about his kids, and how he hopes one day they will return to this village and live with the family. He told me about how he would like a vacation house in the city of Feneriv-est one day. I asked about his goals and what brings him joy in life and he said he goals were to plant more, and he most enjoys planting vanilla. We talked a lot about random aspects of his life and he mentioned that his favorite food was ‘rice and meat’, that he would never want to move out of Madagascar, but he would love to someday travel. Though an interesting thing we discussed in our conversations was that he told me that he would like to live in a city, and vacation in the countryside. This is peculiar because he had lived in a city with his wife for a year in the past, and he says he likes it here way better – I think it may have something to do with living in a city being a status symbol.
I then walked with Souvenira’s husband, Eric, and their daughter Stella as they set some more cows to graze. As we walked, Eric picked up a few dead trees, threw them over his shoulder and kept walking, Stella did the same and picked up a smaller log. Though, while she and her father both carried a machete and logs, Stella also carried a pink comb with her. Stella is 7 years old and was at home during the days because school was currently not in session – though when school is in session she walks 5 kilometers a day to get there, and 5 kilometers back. She told me her favorite subject is French and that she has no subjects she dislikes, and does not study English in school. She wants to be a rice farmer when she grows up.
We walked for maybe 45 minutes to the other side of a near mountain, before cutting through the side of the mountain to a site where locals were making ‘essance’ – a homemade Malagasy oil. There were maybe a half a dozen people there, including a sleeping baby, as well as several other people coming and going. We ate rice and beans together for lunch, before eventually heading back to Ambodyhasina.
When I returned, Everest and Lynette were relaxing in the cooking hut, eating. They started to make me a plate but I thanked them and told them I’d just finished eating. They asked if I wanted to take a mid day nap(very common in Madagascar), so I did. After I woke up I helped make betsa again for an hour or so and then went to the rice fields to wash up. It started raining so we all just waited it out inside. For dinner, we drank rice tea(as is had with every meal) and ate rice and ‘angivy’ which is a terribly bitter vegetable that looks like a small green tomato. It was so bitter that I couldn’t eat it(only the second time that’s happened to me in Madagascar) and apologized profusely saying I just wasn’t used to the taste. I was worried they would be offended, but on the contrary they all broke out laughing and saying that they know it’s very bitter.
The next morning, again, I woke to the sounds of ‘mitotoing’, and the sight of valleys filled with fog. We had homemade coffee with sugarcane juice and ‘vary sosoa’ which is a malagasy breakfast rice where the water isn’t fully cooked off and it’s kind of like soupy rice with added greens.
Lynette wanted to buy a coconut and a chicken to cook with so I accompanied her as she walked for maybe 30 minutes to a neighboring village where she caught up with some of her friends. After an hour or so we started walking again for another 20 minutes or so to a different village that had the coconut and chicken.
This village I had actually been to before – maybe 8 months earlier to do a malaria lesson. When I got there they still knew me by name, greeted me and offered to host me if I ever needed a place to stay.
Walking back, it started to rain, we waited under a tree but still got pretty wet. When we finally made it back, Lynette scraped the inside of the coconut out and added it to beans to make a kind of beans with coconut sauce dish, we ate it in the cooking hut, along with rice, of course. Lynette kept cooking, making a dish from cassava root. She prepared it by slicing the bark off of the root with her machete and then boiling it. After this I went for a little hike by myself and came back to see the three generations of girls sitting single file braiding each others hair. Stella then killed the chicken and we ate it fried.
The next day I decided I wanted to pay them some money for hosting me – nobody in Ambodyhasina ever once asked me for money, but I felt I should give some as I was staying for a while and having all my meals prepared for me. Everest set off to Mahatasara(the village I live in) to buy some goods with the money, sugar, dried fish, and 2 tomatoes. Lynette packed her husband a ‘bagged lunch’ of sorts. A cup or two of cooked rice, wrapped tightly in a banana leaf. He left with a friend of his, a local farmer woman, maybe in her 40s.
While he was away, the usual goings on of the village, continued to go on. Stella and Lynette set cows to graze, and the daily work of living in a village went on. Lynette then showed me pictures of her kids. Smiling the whole time she showed them to me, telling me about them, and how they now work in Mananara, but will come to visit soon.
Lynette then went off to into the forest and returned with a plant called ‘ravintenana’ and Stella went off into the forest to collect a plant called ‘ramrena’, I asked if this was a type of ‘anana’, or food, and they corrected me saying that it was medicine. Lynettte boiled them, and then ladled out some of the liquid and strained it.The drink was very green. I asked why she needed it and she responded with a word I didn’t know, I looked it up in my dictionary and found that she had pain urinating. The medicine could also just be drunk as a tea, I regret not trying some, but Stella had a cup with her grandma. I later asked how many plant medicines they knew, and where they learned them – it was explained to me that these recipes are passed down from generation to generation and they know 5 different medicinal recipes.
For lunch, Lynette cut up papaya into cubes and cooked it with the dried fish. She also graded some cassava root and added sugar to it, to make a sort of bread. While cooking Everest and Stella would sing back and forth to each other.
Though Ambodyhasina is isolated, throughout the day people do pass through. Not constantly, but maybe on average 2 or 3 people, or groups of people would pass through every day. The 2 boys from Ambatokintana came through again and I let them and play around and shoot with my camera.
A couple of men stopped by, hung out and drank some betsa with Souvenira and Lynette while Stella played with her chickens and cat. That night we ate the papaya and fish by candlelight in the cooking hut.
Souvenira was around 14 years old when she moved to Ambodyhasina, she had some schooling but only up until the 5th grade. Like her mom, at one point she wanted to be a doctor.
That was my last night in Ambodyhasina, I left the next morning. As I left they told me to feel free to ‘mandalondalo mititiky’ or ‘visit often.’ I wrote in my journal the night before I left these words “This is my last night here, the people here were friendly, generous, and courteous. I came with the intention of staying for a few nights, and when I would ask to stay for an extra night, then a few more after that, they said yes immediately. They never once asked for money, and when I brought it up they just said we’ll do that later’ I just paid as much as I chose to and they never asked for more. They gave me a bed(literally from theirs) even after I insisted I sleep in my tent. They were patient when I didn’t understand certain words, and got more and more open with me as the days passed. They gave me food, served me first, and the most. These people in their own small world, this, a remote village in Madagascar, seem happy and open and to enjoy a deep sense of freedom, with no material wealth to speak of.”
It’s been several months since my week in Ambodyhasina and I go back to visit every couple of weeks or so. When I do, they’re still as friendly as they were when I lived there briefly.
Pictures from Sam’s time in Madagascar can be found on instagram @samuelfried