Fotoan-gasy

 The campus of the University of Antananarivo

The campus of the University of Antananarivo

Øyvind Dahl has an excellent book on communication in Madagascar—Meanings in Madagascar (1999). He lived here for a long time and mastered the language. The book is about communication in Madagascar and is very helpful for Westerners who want to understand the Malagasy worldview. A chapter of the book is dedicated to Malagasy time concepts. There are two primary claims that he makes about Malagasy conceptualization of time. First, that Malagasy people actually think of the future coming from behind or from the past to meet up with them. Second, there are three distinct ways of thinking about time that, to various degrees, structure people’s worldview: linear, cyclical, and event-related conceptions of time. As for the second of the two claims, I think that he is correct. One does see these distinct ways of thinking of time at work in the general Malagasy worldview, and this is related to a very common expression ‘fotoan-gasy’, which literally means Malagasy time. People will often use this expression, especially around foreigners, to express different norms of time in Western and Malagasy cultures. Time is flexible in many social settings here. Things do not typically happen at preset times in Madagascar. There is more improvisation when it comes to meetings. I learned about this concept first hand when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ambatofinandrahana. A new semester was approaching, so my counterpart and I were discussing the date of the regular teacher meeting. I was perplexed as he explained that the meeting would happen when it was time. “Well, what day is that?” I remember asking, and he could not provide a date. He endeavored to explain that the meeting would happen when it was time—when the time was ripe. This is just one example of fotoan-gasy. Dahl explains that it embodies more event-related conception of time as opposed to linear conception of time. The linear conception predominates in the West. Meetings happen at preset times and they can be fixed well into the future. The future is seen as a stretch of time before an observer and it can be thought about abstractly in terms of various units. Linear conceptions are integral to detailed planning about the future. Event-related conceptions involve thinking of time as being driven by events. Dahl explains as follows: “Every action and one’s relations with others are organized from the experience of an event. When something happens, for instance, when the roof starts leaking—one takes action, but not before, even if one is aware of the damage to the roof. The event—the leak—triggers the action—the repair” (Dahl 1999: 48). This way of planning for the future is very central to the Malagasy worldview. Dahl also notes that there are elements of cyclical conceptions of time that predominant in the countryside where subsistence farmer is done by nearly everyone. These farmers think of time as reoccurring as their internal clocks get set to the rhythms of the days and the seasons. Dahl notes, rightly I think, that in any individual you have a melding of these three conceptions. And he is surely right that both successful communication and living in Madagascar require that one realize that an event-related conception of time is a central part of the Malagasy worldview and culture. As for the first idea, though, I think he is wrong. I don’t think that people see the future as coming from behind. His case for this relies on translating various terms and phrases used to talk about the future. Here is one example. The term ‘aoriana’ is used to talk about the future, for example “Aorian’ ity herinandro ity hovitako ny asa,” which means After this week, the job will be finished by me. ‘Aoriana’ also means behind, though. So, this is part of his case for the idea that Malagasy see the future as coming from behind. He contrasts this with talk about the past, which he says proceeds as if the past is closely linked to the present. He notes that the phrase ‘teo alohan’ny maso’ is used to talk about the past but it has the sense that the past is right before one’s eyes. Of course, students of Malagasy know that ‘t’ is used as a tense marker to indicate that the past is being talked about, so the most accurate translation is not there before one’s eyes but there before one’s eyes (in the past). So, it’s not as if the way of talking about the past in Malagasy provides evidence for thinking that the past is somehow contemporaneous with the present. Furthermore, the evidence that comes from the use of ‘aoriana’ doesn’t support the idea that the future comes from behind. Consider a possible etymology. ‘Aoriana’ came to be used to talk about the future because the future being behind something is an apt metaphor to talk about the future; it is natural to think of future time as being metaphorically hidden from observers as if it were behind something, a mountain for example. This seems a more likely explanation of how ‘aoriana’ came to be used to talk about the future than the strange idea that it means that the future comes from behind. There is other evidence presented by Dahl, but I don’t think in the end any of it supports the idea that Malagasy people think of the future as literally coming up from behind them. That would be a radical break from the Western worldview, and one that may be hard to even comprehend fully.