A nice write-up about my Fulbright in one of CCU's publications.
Shortly after we returned to Myrtle Beach from Madagascar, I jumped right back into my teaching at Coastal Carolina University. Since returning, I have been thinking about my Fulbright experience a great deal. One thing that stands out is that there are so many people who made it possible and to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. I owe my wife, Emily, special thanks for the countless sacrifices she made to make it all possible. There is nothing I have done or nothing that I could do in my life to be worthy of such support. I have been incredibly blessed to have it and been incredible blessed to have her in my life for nearly 20 years. My children left the life they were familiar with in Myrtle Beach to live in Madagascar for 9 months. That takes courage. My co-workers at the University of Antananarivo, especially Zoly Rakotoniera, helped me in so many ways. Their kindness, patience, and wisdom was a true gift. Many US Embassy staff helped me, both Americans and Malagasy, and I am grateful to them, especially Denise Jobin Welch. My colleagues at Coastal Carolina helped me get everything set up so that I could be on academic leave for 9 months. All of my friends in Madagascar, including great friends who work for the Peace Corps, helped in so many ways. Many of the Malagasy friends who I met in Nashville after the Peace Corps have since moved back to Madagascar after finishing their studies at Lipscomb University. It was great to see my old friends, and they each helped me in my journey. My Malagasy friends continue to amaze me with their intelligence and kindness and with their devotion to Madagascar and its future. My students kept me energized and taught me a great deal. I am thankful for meeting them and for our relationship.
Before doing the Fulbright it all seemed like an impossible dream. Now looking back it seems the same. I couldn't have done it without my family, my friends, my students, and my Malagasy and American colleagues. Tena isaorana be dia be ianareo rehetra. I express some of my thanks in Malagasy in a video below. There is also another video where I talk about my experience in English.
I was lucky to meet Arianala Ratiarivelo, a researcher on Malagasy philosophy, during my Fulbright. He is retired but still very active in his research. He taught philosophy at the University of Antananarivo, among other places. He has written books, in English and Malagasy, on Malagasy philosophy. It was thanks to the head of the Philosophy Department at the university, Josette Rapiera, that we came into contact. We have been talking about a project of comparing Malagasy Ethics to Western Ethics. He came to about four meetings of the Philosophy Club that I was running to talk to students about just this topic. We met outside of this as well. He is a wealth of information and all of our discussions have been very productive. We usually communicate in a mixture of English and Malagasy. People sometimes call this vary amin’ ananana which is the national breakfast. It’s basically a soupy rice dish with greens that is often served with smoked meat. Two languages get mixed just as the rice and greens do in vary amin' ananana.
Our first project will provide a philosophical analysis of the famous concept FIHAVANANA and explain the role that it plays in the Malagasy ethical tradition. (Professor Ratiarivelo has already done a good deal of work on this, but we want to say more about it and also contrast it more with the Western tradition.) 'Fihavanana' is a word that many people say defies translation. The root is 'havana' which means relatives or kin. Since 'fihavanana' is a substantive it often is translated as kinship, but this fails to really flesh out the full meaning. It’s a sense of belongingness or love that people feel for each other that is perhaps modeled on the immediate family but extends to others in society as well. It's a sense of belonging that motivates people to help others and treat others well. It’s a force for good in the world, and it is the most central ethical concept in the system of Malagasy Ethics. Our first project focuses on just on fihavanana and not the other aspects of the sytem. We also explain how Malagasy Ethics differs from some main themes and approaches in Western Ethics. We also discuss what makes Malagasy ethics distinctive. We talk about the status of fihavanana today (efa manomboka mivaha). And we offer some lessons to be learned from comparing the two approaches to ethics.
We plan to look to proverbs to explicate the concept. Here are just a handful. For reasons owing to the difficulty of translating the term 'fihavanana' we leave it in Malagasy in our literal translations and interpretations.
Aleo very tsikalakalan-karena , toy izay very tsikalakalam-pihavanana.
Literal meaning: It’s better to lose the basis of wealth than the basis of fihavanana.
Interpretation: Fihavanana is harder to restore than wealth.
Tsy ny varotra no taloha, fa ny fihavanana.
Literal meaning: Selling was not first, it was fihavanana.
Interpretation: Fihavanana is more important than selling or commerce.
Ny fihavanana ohatra ny famoriana tain'omby: ka izay mahavezivazy no mahafeno harona aloha.
Literal meaning: Fihavanana is like collecting cow feces: those who move around the most fill their baskets first.
Interpretation: Fihavanana can grow with work and effort.
Ny vola tsy lany hamamiana fa ny fihavanana mahavonjy amin'ny sarotra.
Literal meaning: Money is sweet but it is fihavana that saves you from trouble.
Interpretation: Fihavana is stronger than money when it comes to getting oneself out of trouble.
In just these few proverbs, one can see the stress placed on fihavanana by Malagasy. Looking at the proverbs will paint a more complete picture of the traditional conception--though we talk about its existence today as well. As I said, one focus of the project is to explain the contrast between Malagasy Ethics and some Western ethical systems. In the end, we want to say that the principles of Malagasy ethics are rooted in everyday life and the impetus for action is rooted firmly in the heart, whereas in some system in the West the principles are incredibly abstract (take Kant’s system for example) and also motivated not by the heart but by reason and the mind. There’s a lot of the details to work out but we’ll keep working on it, as we have been over the past few months. I am excited about explaining Malagasy Ethics to a Western audience and showing the lessons that might be learned from it.
Graziella Masindrazana and I did a presentation this past Wednesday on our project about puzzling Malagasy proverbs. Proverbs are called ohabolana. I have known of them for a long time, but didn't start seriously studying them until this Fulbright. Professor Masindrazana first got me interested in the topic of puzzling proverbs in November when I met her after we first arrived. Here is a clear example of a puzzling proverb.
Ny tody tsy misy fa ny atao no miverina.
'Tody' is a word that means to return in kind or recompense. It also has the meaning of to arrive. So, the idea is that what you have done will come back to you, will arrive, that is, in your life at some later point in the future. 'Tsy misy' means there isn't any. So, the first part means, there is no recompense for what you do. The second part says, what is done returns. So, the proverb expresses a straightforward contradiction. Many Malagasy will hear it and understand the deep meaning, which is that one should be careful about what one does because there is always a chance that it will come back to one, but to an outsider such proverbs are very puzzling. They are also likely puzzling to a native speaker who slows down and tries to analyze them at a deeper level. There are other proverbs like this one. We set out in our research to try to understand these proverbs and explain their origin and philosophical significance. For help we draw on some work of a former Fulbright Scholar, Lee Haring. He has an excellent chapter on ohabolana in his book Verbal Arts in Madagascar. He demonstrates in this book that Malagasy proverbs are essentially dialogic, that is, they involve a kind of call and response. They are like mini-dialogues. In the proverb mentioned earlier, it's as if one person says, "You know that there is no such thing as recompense for what you do," and then other person responds, "But what you do can come back to you." In the various forms that Malagasy proverbs take, you see this call-and-response form. This dialogic structure is a big piece of the explanation for their origin. The recipe for any paradox is two ideas that do not cohere with each other. So, if Malagasy proverbs tend to generate two ideas then we are more likely to see paradoxical proverbs when compared with proverbs in other traditions. It's also a basic fact of human psychology that people are more likely to remember things that are unique or different. So, it is because of these two things, we conjecture, that you see more paradoxical proverbs in Malagasy. Last we try to discuss there philosophical significance. This is related to the question: Why do ohabolana have a dialogical structure? In our view, it is likely due to some of the material realities the shaped the lives of the original Malagasy. They were rice farmers, at least in many places of the island, and this created a communal culture as farmers had to depend on others for proper irrigation. The food production was more collective and thus collectivism took hold in the worldview and also by extension in the patterns of speech. So, this is one of the philosophical lessons that we glean: proverbs are a window into a basic fact about the Malagasy worldview. Westerners are more direct and individualistic in stating their opinions whereas Malagasy are more comfortable forming their opinions with the help of others, that is, forming them collectively, reaching consensus (mamaritra iraisana). Here there is greater sensitivity to the perceptions of the group and more focus on the connection between others. These various aspects of the worldview are revealed, though not exclusively, through puzzing proverbs.
There is still more work to be done on this particular project, but we have made some great progress and it wouldn't have been possible without the insight and wisdom of Professor Masindrazana. I was lucky to have met her and learn from her, and I tried to make the most of it. As it is said, "Valala tsy indroa mandry am-bavahady." The locust doesn't sleep twice at the gate, or, in other words, if opprotunity knocks, you should answer. A big thanks to Professor Masindrazana for all the help and sharing all her seemingly limitless wisdom about the Malagasy language and, especially, Malagasy proverbs and worldview.
I just sent my grades in for my courses. This is always a good feeling. It's a bit sad to part ways with students, but it also feels good to wrap up a course and move on. I taught four courses in a shortened semester (April to July). There was a two-course sequence in American Studies, a course on Academic English for students not majoring in English, and a Philosophy of Language course. I also had two clubs that met every Wednesday, an English Club and Philosophy Club. I got a lot of great contact time with students and some faculty as well who attended the English Club. Not all of it was a walk in the park, but we got it done. One problem was a lack of classroom space. After some investigation, I found an available room in the "pre-fab" area (pictured below) which I could use pretty much all day to meet with students, so this helped greatly.
One of the great things about teaching is that the relationships with the students can always continue. I know that I still often think about teachers and lessons imparted. As we approach our departure date, that's one thing that is starting to dawn on me: I can continue working with these students and my colleagues here as well. For a while I have felt a lot of pressure to finish up all the projects I conceived of before I left. Now I am realizing that not everything can be finished in 9 months, and that much of the work can be done remotely. The relationships will certainly continue, I hope. This gives me much solice as I want to remain a part of the Anglophone Studies Department here. I am not ready to remove myself from it entirely. I have more work to do here with research and thesis supervision, and I want to keep doing it. This particular part is undeniably coming to a close, but it's not the end.
We made a trip down the famous RN 7 (Route Nationale) to Ambositra about six hours south of Antananarivo. We stayed two nights in Antsirabe (a great town four hours south of Antananarivo), one going down and one coming back and two nights in Ambositra. Ambositra was our banking town during Peace Corps. In other words, it was the town where we got money from the bank and also the town where we would buy many of the provisions we could not get in our village (such as the gas for our stove). The main reason we went to Ambositra was to see our friends from our Peace Corps site Ambatofinandrahana. Our dream was to return to Ambatofinandrahana, but it was not possible because of the lack of security there. (There hasn’t been a Peace Corps volunteer since 2012.) The kids did well on the trip for the most part, and we did manage to see a handful of Ambatofinandrahana people in Ambositra. It has been over 8 years since we lived there, so many of our friends have moved. Some unfortunately have passed away. It was nice to see people but it was bittersweet as well. Much has changed in Ambatofinandrahana. As I said, the main difference is the complete lack of security now compared to what was a relatively peaceful village when we were there. In our time there, people in general did not go out at night, but it was a relatively safe place. It is now perhaps the country’s greatest hotbed for dahalo (bandits). The story of the rise of the dahalo is a long one, but the shortened version is this. There is a long tradition in the south among cattle rustlers of stealing the cattle of another to prove one’s manhood. From this practice, the more numerous, the more organized and better armed dahalo of today have arisen. Part of the reason for the rise in numbers is the lack of economic opportunities for young men who end up joining because they have no other options. Even when we were in Ambatofinandrahana from 2007-2009, there was talk of it being a zone rouge because of dahalo activity, but at the most there was cattle stealing. Gangs of bandits would steal cattle. That was about the extend of dahalo activity. There was a kind of logic to the criminality. If you had no cattle, then you knew you were safe. Even after our return to Madagascar in November, people talked of dahalo but claimed that their criminal activity was still limited to stealing cattle. Now things have descended to a much lower level, and they are now killing people. There was recently a move by the government that installed more security forces in town, so things have quieted down a bit, but the village is still severely lacking in security.
So, things have changed a great deal. Our time there cannot be repeated, and the old adage that says you cannot go home again is certainly true in this case as it nearly always is. We didn't expect it to be the same, of course. It was nice to talk to our old friends and reminisce of past times. To know that they are willing to travel for six hours on terrible roads to see us for a few hours means a lot to us. For those whom we didn’t see, we sent gifts and well wishes. For me it was a bit bittersweet. It was wonderful to reconnect with people, but it was also sad in that we all realized that we could not go back to the time that we had, the time when we all lived together. Before our trip, I was talking to the principal of the high school and he said in Malagasy that he would come to see us in Ambositra because we were neighbors, mpiara-monina, people who lived together. It was because of that past relationship that he made the trip. And that’s what we did, we lived together. We held something together. Our lives are a collections of such holdings, those discrete phases filled with faces, experiences, and feelings. And then things change and something else comes along. I think that we reconnected not so much out of duty but more out of a mutual respect for what we had, for the community that we were a part of in that space and time. It may seem strange, but it is one of the great blessings of my life to have been accepted by that community in the way that I was, to be allowed to enter into their way of life and given a chance to experience life as they did--on the same terms and conditions granted to everyone. To reconnect now and see their persistence in the face of such seemingly unrelenting hardship is an inspiration. All the belts have been tightened past their final notch. Yet they continue to grind on. They continue to live. For a reasonable person, that has to be enough, to just live in the face of hardship. But they do so much more. They continue to dream, to hope, to love, to laugh, to raise children, to teach, to celebrate, to grieve, to gossip, to pray, and to care for each other. In short, they refuse to extinguish the flame. I am honored to have been a small part of that life. It was a moment in time, but it was our shared moment in time. It can never be recreated. It is something we remember, something that breathes life into us when we go back to it in our minds, and so it lives.
One of my favorite things to do as a Fulbrighter is to be a guest speaker. This Tuesday I had the pleasure of speaking to three different classes. With the first class I discussed culture shock, perceptions of Malagasy by outsiders, and the value of cross-cultural exchange. As I entered the room, I was plesantly surprised to see all the faces of the students who were in the philosophy of language class that just wrapped. I had to laugh, because the topic of the day was much more accessible than the material we covered in philosophy of language. I talked to them about my own experiences with culture shock when I first came to Madagascar 10 years ago in June of 2007. As the Peace Corps vans left the airport and wound themselves through the reticulated streets of Tana, I saw a world that seemed new in nearly each of its aspects. From all of the people selling things on the street, the old French sedans serving as taxis, the sheer volume of people walking on foot to the rich and lucious countryside as we left Tana and made our way to Mandrakandriana, our training site, it was a completely new world. I told them that my second day in country, I walked through the market to our meeting space (trano fivoriana) and saw a pig split clean in half. It was not just the poor pig; nearly everything was like nothing I had ever seen. "How did you cope with the culture shock?" one student asked. I relayed the advice I had gotten from a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer before I left: stop expecting things. So, I stop expecting things. I had no specific expectations, no defined picture in my head of how my life would be, nothing that could fail to be satisfied, nothing that could be disappointed. Then we talked about perceptions of Malagasy people and how some percpetions of outsiders rest on superficial understandings of culture. For example, we discussed how outsiders sometimes perceive Malagasy as lazy, but in reality the difference is not primarily related to work ethic but to distinct ways of thinking about time. We talked about how studying another culture helps you really understand your own for the first time. They say that you don't know your first language until you studying another one. The sort of reflection that such linguistic study causes is the same when it comes to culture. Learning about another culture frees your mind from seeing things the only way that you previously thought was possible. I had already had them as students but since the topic was more personal, they ended up asking me why I came back. It's a good question. Something about Madagascar touched me deeply from the very beginning of my experiences here and has continued to do so. There are so many unique and otherworldly things about Madagascar: the animals, the enivornment, the history, the language. But, in the end, I think that the thing that keeps me coming back is the people. Malagasy are known for being a somewhat insular people, but they are also incredibly open, curious and friendly. It was the friends who opened their arms to me and accepted me--as strange as I might have seemed to them. And it was the help they gave me through the steady stream of challenges that seemed to flow my way. In the end, that was the thing that I couldn't shake. That was the thing that brought me back: the people.
The next talk was about global warming. After the basics, we discussed the impact of global warming on poor countries. It is being felt severely in Madagascar, especially in the south, where the drought is so severe that people can no longer grow much. Some make soup from rocks just to fill their stomachs. And things are getting worse as the rainfall in the highlands--the predominant rice-growing region--is at a 36-year low. The largest carbon emitters are not in Madagascar, but in rich world countries. This lack of rain is due to the rising temperatures of the earth. I introduced the idea that a failture to reduce carbon emissions in the search for unncessary conveniences or luxuries is wrong if it costs the lives of other people. Although the causation is not immediate, it is there. The students seemed to agree, but what can they do? We talked about ways to raise awareness and how to talk to their fellow Malagasy about it. Some people here see it as a dispute among the gods (kabarinizanahary). It is not. It is something we can change, and we must. We talked about how the US must rejoin the Paris Agreement.
The last talk was about some of the arguments for and against gay marriage. It was also an exercise in how to defend an idea. I talked about a rather straightforward argument in favor of gay marriage.
People have the right to marry whom they choose, and while there are situations in which the right ought to be restricted (incest, child marriage), gay marriage is not one of those cases. So, gay marriage is people's right should they choose it. Just as straight marriage is people's right should they choose it.
I then discussed the argument that it is unnatural, and therefore wrong, because all unnatural things are wrong. There is also the Biblical argument, which we discussed. The problem there is not just that the Bible prohibits other things we find permissible, such as wearning clothing of mixed fabric, though that is one difficulty. The real problem with the argument is that the Bible prohibiting gay marriage is not the real reason that it is wrong if it is wrong. Surely God has a reason for forbidding it. That reason, and not his say-so, is what would make it wrong. What's that reason? People usually say that it is wrong because it is unnatural, and then we are back to the aforementioned argument. The real difficulty with that argument is to define 'natural' in a way that makes both premises true. I have yet to hear such a rendering of 'natural'. I pretty much left things there, suggesting that the first argument, which says gay marriage is people's right just as straight marriage is, was the best. But I have long ago abandoned trying to hit people over the head with an idea. The main reason is that it is pointless. The harder you push on things, the more people resist. I give the arguments, tell them how to defend them, how to object to them, how to really think about them. We discuss their strengths and weakness. In the end, if I am doing my job, I work them over until there's nothing left to say. After that, it's up to them to decide what to believe. Their beliefs are not mine. I only ask that they take their beliefs seriously and think them through.
Three good conversations. Some laughs and ideas where exchanged. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday.