My dad is a fisherman. A shrimper, mainly, to be exact. He owns 3 boats name “Jery Mitovi” A, B, and C. In Malagasy, jery means “a look”, and mitovi means “the same” so in English, his “fleet” can be called “Same Look”. My host father, Alfred is his name, but I just call him Papa, uses Jery Mitovi A and B for shrimpin and C for fish. For the fish, they go north a ways along the coast. Apparently that can be a bit of a haul since the winds aren’t always cooperative and can sometimes take days to make the voyage. The shrimp, he goes on about a 6 hour trek west to a village called Antsohery. He makes these trips with his “fleet” about once a month. So I asked him, can I go with you? Sure enough he said yes, I wouldn’t be a burden or anything. The experience that I had was unlike anything else I have done. I am going to do my best to explain this trip, but I’m not sure I can truly convey the emotions that I felt in this amazing community that I was blessed to visit, and hopefully, someday return.
Hearing about Antsohery, I picked up a couple of useful pieces of information.
1. There is no electricity.
2. There is a lot of mud
3. The water is brown and salty
4. There are crocodiles
5. There are mosquitoes
That’s pretty much all I knew before going. So obviously had my father help me pack, which mainly just included 4 change of clothes, flashlights, pocketknives, toiletries (don’t forget toilet paper, there is no toilet in Antsohery), and water. That was pretty much it on my part, but I still had no idea what I was getting into.
I got up at about 5am on Friday, luckily I had already packed, and we loaded up the taxi and off we went to the “docks”. I say the docks, because really they just kinda pull the boat up to the boardwalk sorta place, then you just wade out to it. We hauled everything out to the boat, including a mattress that I would use, said out goodbyes, and started the motor. Yes, our boat is fortunate enough to have a small, maybe 10 hp, motor that we used to get out of the harbor and into the good wind before we set the sail. We set out with 3 crew members, me, my Papa, another man, and a couple, with a small child, all headed to Antsohery. It was about a 6 hour journey. The sun was bright, but the wind was nice so it wasn’t too incredibly hot. Even after applying sunscreen I still got burnt. On the way, we passed an island Nosi Macambi, “Shrimp Island”. This island is very close to where the shrimpermen do their shrimping. The water turns from blue to a sandy yellow here. I assume because of the silt flowing from the inlet, however, it can be noted that during a specific time of year at low tide, people can walk out to the island. How far is that? I’m a terrible judge of distance, but I would put money on at least half a mile of water to the mainland. Along the way there are poles made of thin tree branches sticking up out of the water. Groups of them, probably 5 or 6, put together what seems like sporadically. I later learned that they use these poles to hold the nets in places. When the tide goes in and out, so do the shrimp, so they use the poles and the current to catch the shrimp. On the way up the inlet, we made a quick stop to drop off ice that we had brought with us that they use to pack with the fish and shrimp they catch.
We pull the dock up to the bank, making sure not to hit any of the children swimming of course. There are a few men that come out to greet us. Then it must have hit them that a white person was with the boat because I could feel the silence and stares from almost every person within site, not to mention the occasional “Vasa” that I heard. These moments are a little awkward for me, and I get them a lot considering I’m white. I just do my best to act normal, but I think we can all agree that once you have to consciously think about acting normal, absolutely nothing you do is normal. I’m banking on the fact that they may just think my awkwardness is a cultural thing.
We unpack the boat, and my Dad leads me to the house where we’ll be staying. It’s just like every other house in the village. Thatched. Made with brush that has been found in the nearby woods. The roof is the leaves of that brush. We open the door, dirt floor. Flop the mattress down, boom. My bed. This is what I will be living in for the next 10 days, which in all honesty, I’m pretty ok with. Minus that time I woke up with a big ole rat right next to me. After that, I got a little paranoid about my backpack, which was on the floor next to me, that a rat would be tearing through it in my sleep. So I’d check it every time I happened to wake up during the night.
Outside our house is a nice roof, thing, that provides shade in the small area between our house, my Dad’s partner, and my sister’s father, “Baibi” (spelling may be off, but it is pronounced “Baby”) house, and a separate hut/house, whatever you want to call it, for the kitchen. This little shaded area becomes my hangout. Here is where all the fisherman come for Dominos. Yes, dominos is a big thing here, at least in Antsohery. The bet is 500 Ar and you play to 60. I’m still not completely set on the strategy (yes I know you’re supposed to win), but I think it’s gonna be something that I try to bring back to the states once I get the hang of it, cause it’s pretty catchy.
It takes a little while for the kids to warm up to me. It’s not surprising, considering I am pretty sure I am the first person many of them have ever seen. The first day or so I saw them in passing. We might make eye contact, but really it wasn’t all that much beyond that. Then the second day or so, some I caught some of the kids peaking around a corner at me. I caught their eye and they’d run away. This happened a couple more times, when I thought it would be fun to appear really close to them the next time they look. So when they look and I’m only 5 feet away that turned and ran away in a playful way, which I interpreted as “oh come chase us” which led me chasing a little girl all the way back to her house where I found her crying her eyes out. Luckily her mother just laughed as I said my apologies to the little girl.
After that I developed a bit of relationship with some of the children. It was difficult learning all their names, I’m terrible with English names, much less with 30 Malagasy names. Whether it was just in passing, having them come up to me during a game of dominoes, sitting with them during the nightly movie, or playing with them in the water, it was awesome. It was like being an older brother to 30 cute little kids. Something I’ve never had before, but something I felt like I fit right into.
We even had a few English lessons which were my favorite. It would start of with 4 or 5 children, next thing I know 20 minutes later, the group had evolved into 30 children and about 10 adults also. This would inevitably then morph into a cultural lesson with the adults. I would talk about home. Everything from the differences in food, to snow, to explaining obesity, I even tried explaining rodeos at one point (which I know next to nothing about let’s be clear). Those exerperiences were the best. Just hanging out with all the people talking about home and doing my best with the Malagasy that I was picking up, luckily my father and Baby were there to help me along the way. Even with my terrible Malagasy, and when I happened a moment to take a quick mental step back and look at what I was doing, I really felt like I was walking with them, cross culturally discussing the differences between my home and what has become my home, was an event I am not likely to experience again anytime soon, and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
I think the most incredible thing about the village itself was how it seemed like everyone had a place, or a job. There was the village mechanic, the pastor, the pastor’s wife, the fishermen, the bosses, the “elder”, the “mayor”, even down to the village drunk Bendrazza. Even among the fishermen who I hung out with a lot I could tell the different personalities even beyond the language barrier. There was Hassan, the goof, Elize, the somewhat timid, but outgoing one, the kid who thought he could hang out with the adults whom everyone called “the kid”, Sammy, a heavier set dude that could probably keep his own in a fight with an NFL lineman, but with a laugh that was contagious, Jean Claude, always up for a laugh, but serious about his dominoes.
The greatest part about all these characters and friends was that everyone hung out everyday. If you wanted to go see someone, you meet them at the domino hangout, if they’re not there, you go to their house. The only thing I could, reachingly(?), compare it to would be college. Where all your friends are just a walk across campus, it was the exact same in Antsohery, but different at the same time (cause the walk was a dirt road), and I loved it. This is the kind of place that I could easily lose myself in if I didn’t have to come back with my dad. There is no internet, phone service is iffy, and the generator for electricity only run for a few hours to run the mayor’s house for the nightly movie, other than that, it’s village community that comes from a dream world.
The 10 days that I spent in Antsohery were unlike anything that I have experienced in my entire life. It was difficult too because my father had explained to my mother back home in Mahajanga how much I liked it, and she was afraid that I wouldn’t want to come back, which really had me thinking. If I had it my way, I would stay in Antsohery for the next 10 years if I could, but at the same time, I love my family back home in Mahajanga. It is difficult balancing the two, but the community atmosphere that I got in Antsohery is close to non existent in Mahajange. I love my family and the people I work with, but I haven’t made friends like I did in Antsohery. If I could, I would just move my family to Antsohery and be done with it. So it was difficult hearing that from my mother. It, kind of, snapped me back into reality and made the perception that Antsohery is a paradise even more real because it is a place that I would not be able stay in.
Needless to say, I definitely have plans to go back. I need to send them a soccer ball for one. Only probably is that during January and February there is no Antsohery. Antsohery becomes the home of crocodiles during that time. The water rises above the bank of the inlet and floods the area. So during this time they leave their houses, and make refuge for the two months in a nearby town. That is how rural Antsohery is. So perhaps after February, I will be able to make my return visit to see my friends. And perhaps this visit may be a bit longer…