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.