Most Malagasy people buy the bulk of their food from open-air markets. There are Western-style grocery stores in Antananarivo and other large cities, but in the countryside and in the villages there are no such things. Even in the capital and larger cities, many people still get much of their food from the Malagasy market (tsena ‘gasy). Now we buy some of our food there and some of it in the larger supermarkets such as Shoprite. Going to the Malagasy market takes longer most days. It is, as we say in the states, “a process.” Here is the procedure. You go to a seller (mpivarotra). You ask how much the stuff you want costs. Then they reply with the price. There is usually some room to bargain. In many cases, speaking Malagasy will get you a good price to start with but bargaining is very common (miady varotra, which literally means to go to war about selling). The produce is very fresh and organic. As a vegetarian, I have no idea about the meat. I see what you see below. Going to the market is certainly an experience. I go to the two that are most convenient for me as I travel to and from work (Analamahitsy and Antanimora).
Going everyday to a full stocked market is something of a luxury in some places in Madagascar. Outside of the capital and other large cities, there is typically one day of the week that is the market day. On this day, farmers bring their produce to the larger villages. (You can get some things on other days, but the selection usually pales in comparison to market day.) When Emily and I lived in Ambatofinandrahana in the Peace Corps, market day was Saturday. On Saturday, by the end of our market run we would fill up two large market bags with mainly fresh produce and rice. The only processed foods we purchased at the time were pasta noodles, Laughing Cow cheese, oil, flour, butter, and tomato paste. To be honest, there just wasn’t much else one could get. Now, things are different for us. We have a refrigerator, a Western-style stove and oven, and a very spacious kitchen stocked with both processed and fresh food. In the Peace Corps we cooked on either a cook stove (fantapera) or our two-burner hotplate. We were one of the few families in town who used a hotplate like this. You had to have a propane bottle for it. The bottles were so cost-prohibitive for most people in the town, that they were not even sold there. They could be purchased in the nearest larger town, Ambositra, which was two and a half hours outside of town by bush taxi. So, exchanging them was not an easy feat, though after a while we paid a reliable bush taxi driver to do it for us. All of that is to say that things are much more convenient for us now. Even so, I still enjoy going to the Malagasy market (miantsena). It’s a time to chat with people, to ask how to prepare fruits and vegetables you don’t see in the states, and to get produce at around half of what you pay in the supermarket.
And yet it doesn’t quite match up to market day in Ambatofinandrahana. First of all, there was the physical labor of the trip. We would walk about 30 minutes to the market. And then 30 minutes back with heavy market bags in tow. Then there was the time it took to buy everything. Once we made it to the market, we would spend at least an hour buying things, as you had to buy from different sellers that you had relationships with, often wait for change, and also make small talk with all the sellers. Then there was the time you spent talking to people that you saw on the road or at the market. Since it was a small village, we knew many people, so we did our fair share of chatting. All in all it was pretty much nothing like buying food in the states. Though it was more difficult and time-consuming, it was also an amazing thing to not only witness but also to be a part of. To be part of that—not merely going to the market but to be a part of people’s lives and included in their world—showed us that we were true members of that community.
After we got back home to our schoolroom, we would make some lunch and then head back downtown (where the market was). It was there that we did two one-hour English clubs, one for beginners and one for advanced students. After that we met with the English teachers in town for about an hour to share ideas about pedagogy and often review some of the finer points of English with them. At dusk, we would regularly walk home with some of the teachers (Lucien, Aurélie, and Ursula). I remember feeling such a sense of satisfaction and happiness as we chatted to them and the passers-by that we knew. Saturday was a full day of work but it was work that repaid in full. It brought that special sense of tired happiness that comes after you put everything you have into something important. I have often thought since then that the close contact between people that exist in a village setting is good for the soul. People really seemed to enjoy small talk (resadresaka) and getting news from their fellow villagers. Of course, people walked EVERYWHERE. There were maybe two or three cars in the village (and no functioning gas station). This meant that you saw your fellow villagers everyday, talked to them, and got to know them and their struggles and joys. And of course they got to know about you, too. That shared knowledge became like a rope that tied the people of the village together. It pulled fates together and maintained the sense of community. I have often wished that there were more of it in the states. It is important to be in a dynamic community, because other people give us breath when we are short of it. They give us hope when we are starved for it, and make us laugh when we become too hard and serious. And they shine lights on paths that before we saw as just ordinary darkness.
It was as if we each held the same rope and made something with many hands. A thing made for catching those who would otherwise have fallen. A thing made for helping each other do more and do better. A thing we knew needed to be fed some slack here and pulled taut there. A thing we worked at everyday. People do that. In places where some might look and see nothing, people do that. Everyday they do it, and they make something. They alone do it in spite of great and persistent hardship. And they alone bring light to places where there would otherwise be darkness.