Ny hevitra tsy azo tsy amin’olombelona

The proverb says that knowledge is not attained without others. This is certainly true, and it is good to be reminded. A paper that I co-authored with two colleagues, Graziella Masindrazana and Zoly Rakotoneira, is now out in print in the South African Journal of Philosophy. You can find it here.


The paper discusses some early philosophical ideas of Siméon Rajaona, perhaps Madagascar’s most famous intellectual. The paper would have been impossible as a singular effort and each of us made it better than it would have been otherwise. So much of my research from my Fulbright depends on others, not just the past thinkers who addressed these questions and my colleagues at the University of Antananarivo who continue to address them, but also all my Malagasy friends who have teaching me about all things Malagasy since I set foot on the island in June of 2007. It would be impossible to list everyone, but so much of my time in Madagascar in Peace Corps and the Fulbright was spent learning. The lessons weren’t always in the classroom. Conversations with street vendors, taxi drivers (especially my old driver and friend, Davidson), and people I met out and about taught me more than those people realize. Without these people, my knowledge of Malagasy culture wouldn’t be the same.

If the paper says anything insightful, it is because of the lucid and bold ideas of Rajaona that we build on. It is said that much of our new knowledge and discovery results from standing on the shoulders of giants. True enough, but in my own case, I think it was not merely giants such as Rajaona that made my research possible. It has been so many others as well. It has been Malagasy people who saw a foreigner trying to understand their culture, their language, and decided to share one of the things they hold most dear. It reminds me of another proverb: Tsy ny varotra no taloha fa ny fihavanana (It was not commerce that was first but friendship). There is nothing more foundational than fihavanana (friendship based on love and mutual affection). To have been taught is a gift. To have been taught by someone whose heart is open and receptive to friendship is an even greater gift.

Your Help is Needed

One thing that I will always remember about my Malagasy students is their passion for education. So many times in the classroom, it was palpable. Experiencing this passion first hand was all the more inspiring to me given the great efforts that students often make to go to school. Sometimes, they must walk great distances to get to school in the countryside. Many children have chores that keep them busy for large portions of the day—fetching water, for example, in rural settings is difficult, grueling, and unending work. Electricity and resources are extremely limited or non-existent, making the students’ work in and outside of class much more challenging than their peers in richer countries could imagine. Despite these material hardships, Malagasy students show up at school ready and eager to learn. Their fire to learn is not diminished.


A university student of mine, Lalatiana Rahariniaina, knows about this passion as well as anyone. She is fundraising for a project to help send students to school in a rural village, Amberomena, near Moramanga. The students there, as in so many places in rural Madagascar, often lack the basic funds they need for school supplies and fees. She is raising money for students in this village so that their passion for education will not be wasted, so that their rights to a basic education will be respected. Please consider donating to this worthy cause. Your money will go a long way. As Lalatiana notes,

““Ny erikerika mahatondra-drano”, a Malagasy proverb which means ‘a little rain everyday will make the river flood’. Indeed, there is no small contribution, each of your effort counts and makes a big difference. With $1, you offer a child a copy book and 3 pens. With $5, you buy a school bag. With $10, you support his/her school fees of a year. With $35, you give the chance to a child to attend school for one year by paying for his/her school fees and supplies.”  

Please check out her fundraising page and consider a donation that will not only keep children in school but also keep hope for a better future alive, for them and for Madagascar: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-send-kids-of-amberomena-to-school#/


Tena isaorana be dia be ianareo rehetra

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. 

Izy roa lahy

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

Professor Arianala Ratiarivelo and myself

Professor Arianala Ratiarivelo and myself

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.

Puzzling Proverbs

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. 

Graziella Masindrazana and me

Graziella Masindrazana and me

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. 

The presenters from the half-day of research event for Anglophone Studies

The presenters from the half-day of research event for Anglophone Studies

It's a Wrap!

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. 

First-year Master's Students

First-year Master's Students

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. 

Master's students outside of Anglophone Studies

Master's students outside of Anglophone Studies