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from the December 2015 issue

from “The Lamenting Land”

The region of Antsihanaka had long been known for producing rice. It regularly produced much more rice than its people could consume. During the war, however, Antsihanaka didn’t have enough rice for its people. It was not that it produced less rice, it was that most of the production was appropriated.

Before the war, even in the smallest villages in Antsihanaka, you could see women crouching next to the road, selling bright white rice by the tin can out of deep baskets. When the war came, they vanished.


At first, orders came down that all the unmilled rice was to be sold directly to the authorities. The normal buyers were no longer going from village to village; only those with a government mandate could collect the rice. And so, people sold their rice to the collectors, but not all of it: they kept a portion for their own meals. Then, there was a new announcement: grinding rice by hand was prohibited, and the only rice permitted for personal consumption was the milled rice distributed by the government. So all the mortars and pestles were hidden away. Still, the people managed to surreptitiously grind their rice themselves, in the fields or smaller villages or more remote homes. But the authorities realized that not all the rice produced in the region was passing through their hands. The government responded by dispatching observers to inspect the green rice plants and estimate yields, which would be demanded from the owner when autumn came.

During this time, we heard that the French needed lots of rice for their civilians, and even more desperately for their soldiers. And so, most Malagasy rice was exported. This was why the authorities seized all the unmilled rice in the country. A small portion was kept to feed the locals, so an office was founded—the Bureau of Rice—to manage its distribution. We heard that the Bureau of Rice was actually in operation in larger cities, even when they had an insufficient supply of rice to distribute. In small villages though, no one even knew of the Bureau’s existence. Such was the case in Marovato.

With just the orders that forced people to sell their unmilled rice and prohibited them from grinding rice themselves, the villagers could still find ways to circumvent the rules and keep rice for their own consumption. But once they had yield estimates to meet, they were helpless. And they suffered.

So they ate other inferior starches to replace the missing rice. Just like during other times of famine. But this situation wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t that there was no rice—there was some—but the people could only watch as it passed them by. Also, the rice shortage came on top of other scarcities already weighing down on them. Finally, they had no desire to suffer in solidarity with the French, and there was no incentive to passively endure the austerity. They felt deprived and angry. The combination made them feel completely miserable.

As always, that misery was felt unequally, even in the countryside. The county chief was in charge of estimating the yields. He didn’t know anything about rice farming, so he looked for help and guidance, asking village elders—the wealthier individuals—to be his advisors.

Obviously, they looked out for themselves and their friends above all. They estimated their own rice fields would produce two-thirds or a half of their usual annual yield, but took no such pity on others. Without special considerations, especially of the monetary kind . . . They found ways of breaking in the difficult or stubborn ones: if three tons were realistic, the advisors wrote down four. This way, not only would the problematic families not have enough rice to eat—their punishment—but they would have to obtain more rice for the authorities. That showed them! The advisors then sold the recalcitrant ones enough rice to make up for their deficit.

Later on, some said that the postwar insurrection could trace some of its roots back to that artificial rice shortage and its consequences. There is some truth to that, considering what happened in rural areas.

There was not only a shortage of rice, but of meat, as well. Maybe all the meat produced in Antsihanaka was exported. But the kind of meat I know actually disappeared was beef, because the few times we used to buy meat, it was beef. It was forbidden to kill cattle without obtaining a special authorization. Due to this, Marovato did not eat any beef. Ingahy Ravelo’s butcher shop closed down, and I lost my job there. Rarely eating beef is different from never eating beef at all. Especially when you add this to all the other hardships and the continuing requirement of physical labor. The population of Marovato became thinner, emaciated, exhausted.

We endured the shortages like everyone else, but the ban on killing cattle and the meat shortage hit us particularly hard. We suffered more.

Dada had two zebus to pull his cart, and one year, after a good harvest, we’d bought a third. We boarded it with a herd outside of Marovato. One Saturday, in summertime, that zebu slipped on the muddy ground. The animal broke its leg and couldn’t get back up. We agonized over this fresh misfortune, but the immediate concern was deciding what to do with the injured zebu. Ordinarily, we would sell the zebu to the butcher, or we would cut up the meat and peddle it from house to house. Now, however, no one would buy the meat, because we weren’t allowed to kill it without asking. And if we did want to request authorization to slaughter the animal, we weren’t going to see the canton chief until the following Monday, anyway. And we didn’t even know if he would grant it. To add to all this, though, the zebu must have had some internal injuries in addition to its broken leg, because it kept weakening. Although it couldn’t stand up, it was still able raise its head at first. By that afternoon, though, it laid its head on the ground and was quite still.

Dada and the zebu boarder were hemming and hawing, but Feno arrived and immediately decided that the zebu had to be cut into pieces, no matter what the consequences. So they slaughtered the animal and distributed its meat: two-thirds for us, the rest for the boarder’s herdsman. It took the three of us all of Saturday evening to carry our portion home. We tried to do this secretly, using baskets and burlap sacks. We couldn’t sell it. Who knows what people would have thought, if they’d known we had meat at home!

We ate fresh meat for a few days and made jerky of the rest of our secret haul. For three whole days and three whole nights, we made jerky. We made more than a thousand strips. They were hanging in every room. We made them without salt, and they smelled strongly during the hot days. Still, they all dried after a week. We pulled them down and stored them in trunks, chests, and baskets. We ate jerky for not just months, but many years. When we finally got to the last of it, the strips had blackened and were as tough as leather. We couldn’t rip them with our teeth anymore, cooked or uncooked. We were only able to eat them ground to the consistency of dried shrimp dust and boiled in water.

The story I’m telling you is just one example of what was happening in our lives. It is an imperfect illustration, however, of how poor people, in their struggle to survive, cannot be picky in their methods and are sometimes forced to do things that are difficult for others to imagine.

I know jealousy is a trait observed in some people. It’s a bad trait. But I also know it’s mostly seen in the have-nots, directed toward the haves. In normal times, it’s a difficult sentiment for the have-nots to justify feeling. In those hard times, however, life doesn’t go well for the majority of people, and yet some still flaunt their many possessions: such a blatant show is an insult to the hardships of others. We witnessed this as kids in Marovato. We scrubbed the dirt off our feet with dried corn cobs, because even black soap was unavailable, while other kids passed by smelling like perfume. We wore burlap and grasscloth, while others wore sharp iron-creased pants. We ate corn and cassava day in and day out, while we watched others feeding rice to their dogs!

 Boys always got into fights in Marovato. During the war, though, it took a different tone: the wealthier children fought the poor kids. Class warfare had arrived in Marovato uninvited.

Something similar happened in the village. An important family was making preparations for a party; we heard there would be many guests. The day before the party, they bought a basketful of baguettes and other elegant food. Many of us saw this. That night, someone broke into the house and stole the bread, ignoring everything else. A little while later, we discovered the culprit: Boafa, one of the most impoverished men in Marovato. He lived in a house with his wife, Fonga; they had no children. Boafa could not resist the bread, but he and Fonga could not even afford to eat cassava or sweet potatoes. Worried that other people would find out about the theft, he was afraid to share the bread and planned on eating it for many days. There were more than twenty baguettes. For almost two weeks, Boafa and Fonga ate nothing but bread. Eventually, the baguettes shrank and toughened like stone. They still ate them, although they had to dunk each one in warm water before their teeth could sink in it. According to them, the bread also tasted like chalk. That might have been the only time that Boafa and Fonga had ever eaten baguettes.

There was less and less food to eat in Antsihanaka. We did have other food besides rice, but that was also getting scarce, and there wasn’t enough of it to eat every day. We regularly saw trucks and trains heading up to the port city carrying rice, cassava, tapioca, and cattle. We watched them longingly as they passed by. Normally, who would salivate at the sight of a zebu or a bag of rice? But they weren’t so ordinary back then, so, watching all this food pass by, we did.

It is difficult to put into words how precious food was during that time. People who did not live through it would not believe it. Let me tell you a few more stories that will help you understand.

There was a man working in the fields, and his wife brought him lunch. The man was famished, his work backbreaking, his helping of cassava small. When he sat down to eat, someone walked by. It is customary when eating in Antsihanaka to invite anyone who happens to pass by to share your meal, but the similarly customary response is to decline.

“Come join me!” the farmer said, his voice tired yet somehow also growling, as if to discourage the passerby.

That man was hungry, too, so despite the reluctant invitation, he approached. Upon seeing this, the farmer stood up.

“Hey, you can’t be serious, man!” he said, and took off with his plate.

Starvation modifies behaviors. It caused us to break taboos.

There was also once a murder that was committed after a cassava theft. The owner of the field caught a man digging up two of his cassava plants. He felt justified in murdering the man—not content to simply injure him, he killed him outright. He brought a spade down on the head of his victim, who died instantly.

But the worst thing was the behavior of the canton chief: they demonstrate the consequences of hunger best of all, because they had an impact on the entire population. Perhaps the chief was simply following orders, or maybe he wanted to suck up to his superiors. One day he came to Marovato to deliver a speech. It was like trying to draw water from a dried-up well.

“We know the whole world is at war,” he said. “France is at war, so Madagascar is also at war. Each country has a different burden to bear. We Malagasies are not being attacked, killed, or robbed.” (So you say!) “We Malagasies are still at home, going where we want to go, doing what we want to do, eating what we want to eat.” (Where did he see anyone like this?!) “They, the French people, their houses are being destroyed, they are being thrown in prison, they can’t find any food, the children have no milk to drink, the adults have nothing to eat.” (Not just them!) “Because of this, we are going to do everything we can to help them. We are going to collect money and hold a produce sale. Everyone will be asked to contribute.”

After an official speech, an audience usually has one of two reactions. The first is whispering, talking, and exchanging opinions: this means the speech has interested or moved them. The second is for no one to move, no one to utter a word: this means they did not like the speech. After the canton chief was done speaking, the audience was as silent as a decapitated snail. Finally, a village official, who was just as taken aback as everyone else, forced himself to mutter unconvincing reassurances and feeble encouragement.

The week after, they actually went door to door to collect money. I don’t know what other families contributed, but they only got one small ilaivoamena coin from us. When the donated produce was pooled that Saturday, no one had ever seen such paltry contributions: two cassava roots, one egg, three overripe bananas, four sugarcane stalks. The auction took place in the schoolyard. The products for sale looked suspiciously like leftovers.

The auction did not last long. Very few people bid, and those who did submitted varifitoventy bids, only a few cents. No one tried to outbid them. The auctioneer tried to motivate people, but to no avail. Finally, the remaining unsold products were split into three piles, and an appeal was made for three people to bid. Each pile sold for a full ariary.

The canton chief’s collection efforts didn’t pay off. The people in need were French, and the wounds caused by the French would never generate support unless it was mandatory. The reality was that people were suffering extreme hardship, everything was a struggle, especially with regards to food.

One Sunday morning, we heard someone had gotten the necessary authorization to kill a zebu in a village close to Marovato. Sunday had no particular significance for the inhabitants of that village. As soon as we heard the news in Marovato, we all rushed to that village: men and women, upper and lower classes, churchgoers and non-churchgoers. Service was not held that Sunday. The pastor and his wife did not go to the village, but gave a message to three different parishioners.

“Please, if you get any meat, bring us some!”

We made God wait his turn, because we wanted to eat meat.

Throughout all of this, my constantly curious mind—thirsty for knowledge about the power of God, about truth and beauty, whose existence and importance I learned about later on—stopped functioning, so hard had life become. In such precarious times, the instinct for survival was the only one obeyed.

From Mitaraina ny tany (Antananarivo: Librarie Mixte, 1975). © Andry Andraina. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Mialy Andriamananjara and Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.

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