Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato’s tragic story of a father’s love for his son lays bare the class politics of Madagascar’s school system.
He lives in the land of impunity. Although he didn’t choose to live here, he loves it and he would not live in another place. His land is beautiful: milk and honey flow there and everything is blessed. It’s a shame that men have made a dump of it—a dump for injustice.
Lehilahy is a craftsman and proud of it. His wife is pretty and she is expecting a child. The waiting is serene. He will be born in their small bedroom. They have never been to hospitals or maternity wards. Those who have risked a stay there have not returned. Lehilahy refuses to listen to the horror stories told by the families of those who disappeared, but he has made his decision: a traditional midwife will assist the young mother. It’s better that way.
The child is born and he is a boy. Joy is complete and the smiles are full of love. Euphoria masks the mother’s cries: suddenly she screams, làsa ny rako—“my blood is flowing away.” And it’s true, her blood is pouring away and, impotent, the local midwife watches her agony.
Now Lehilahy lives alone with his son, Ny Rako, “my blood.” He’s a strapping little fellow who bears out the promise of his name. Lively, energetic, and warm-hearted, he grows like a young plant full of sap. At eight years old, his intelligence delights his father, but the boy’s demanding ways worry him: Ny Rako bends willingly to his homework; yet he also calls for his rights. When they are not granted him, he screams and stamps. Ridiculous behavior in a society where rights mean nothing at all.
The boy is extremely diligent with his schoolwork. Studious and methodical, he reasons like an adult explaining his goal: to take care of his father when he’s older. In spite of this, Ny Rako lags behind. Why? Watching him fail at school, inexplicably, over and over, his father is deeply troubled. How can he explain to the child that, as a craftsman’s son, he has no rights? How can a father rein in the pride of his young shoot, unlucky as he is to be sown in stony ground? Should he tell Ny Rako that he hasn’t enough money even to pay for his primary school exam—or there again admit that the boy is retaking the year for the same reason? Could he, even so early, impress on him the power of money, the sole resource that commands respect in their cursed society? No! Ny Rako would find nothing but ill will surrounding him. He would learn to hate or to flatter his peers; or worse, to join them in servitude to money.
Lehilahy tells his son that he must work harder in order to succeed, that knowledge is not easily attained. Ny Rako grows ever more studious. He stays up late with his father, working by candlelight.
After so much effort, the boy expects his reward. He emerges beaming from the examination room. This time he must have got it, his certificate of primary education. Next year he will go to secondary school!
Lehilahy is filled with dread by his son’s hopes. He will have to gag his conscience and submit to the reality of the situation: he, too, will become one of the corrupters. To do this, he must work like a slave to pay those in charge. He pays them. They look askance at this pauper in his patched clothes and chuckle as they count the small sum he is offering. They take it, nevertheless, and turn away.
Ny Rako should have waited for his father before going to see the exam results. But he is so impatient—and he wants to surprise his father. He reads, then re-reads, the names on the board. His own is not there. His eyes blur, his head begins to throb. He holds back tears, panic. Of course he can’t have read it properly. He goes back to the beginning, and back again and again until he can’t see anything at all. He lurches away from the board. “I’m good for nothing—I’m useless!” he says over and over. “I’m nothing!”
There is no pavement, but the boy is careful. He is walking along the hard shoulder, facing the oncoming cars. He walks hunched over, like a little old man. He was too sure of himself: he will have to work even harder in order to deserve the knowledge. He will ask his father’s forgiveness for being so ignorant. He will stay up every night with his candles and then he will succeed. He will be a driver—or perhaps a doctor? His father will depend on him in his old age. Ny Rako is angry with himself for crying, he’s ashamed. Now he’s close to home, only a few feet from the muddy path that leads to it. He stops to wipe his streaming face. What can you do to quench these damn drips?
Just then, ahead of him, a car honks furiously as it overtakes another, while a truck careers straight in to meet it. The car pulls violently over to its right to avoid the collision. It overbalances, slips and skids, and ploughs straight into the boy, before righting itself and continuing on its crazy trajectory. Blinded by his tears, Ny Rako hadn’t seen a thing. Now he’s lying on the ground, his blood flowing around him.
“Scum! Murderer!” passersby call out as the reckless driver speeds away.
“I’ve got his license plate,” says the driver of the truck, who has stopped there. “Quick, get me a pen and paper, before I forget. I’ll testify and he shall pay for this!”
“He’s dead! My God . . . he’s dead,” mutter those who are leaning over Ny Rako.
“Who is he?”
“Lehilahy’s son . . . and here he is!”
Lehilahy reads the horror on their faces. The silence around him is dumb as death. An old man steps between him and the body. “He won’t be able to stand the sight, it’s too terrible!” Lehilahy gently pushes him aside. He kneels down beside his son, takes him in his arms and rocks him.
“Omeo zanako—give me back my child,” he sings in a hoarse voice. “Omeo zanako . . . omeo zanako . . .”
He lifts the boy and carries him by shaky steps into their small bedroom, where he lays him on the bed, still softly singing. The crowd follows, surrounds him, prays. But Lehilahy doesn’t see them, he cannot see them.
People are whispering: “He’s gone mad.”
“No!” says Lehilahy. “I am not mad. This is my child and I shall keep him here; leave us alone.”
“We must call the police!”
The police assess the situation. They want to bring in a doctor to examine the body and record the death. The doctor comes up against Lehilahy, streaked red with the blood of his son.
“Do not touch my child!” he growls. Omeo zanako.
Two days go by. The neighbors grow anxious. Ny Rako must be buried, but how will they persuade his father?
“I’ll sedate him,” the doctor decides. “Make him a coffee. I’ll put Seconal in it.”
So it is done. And Lehilahy awakes alone, without his son. He hurls himself around the room, hurls himself around the house, hurls himself around all the neighbors’ houses. Overcome, he collapses on the ground.
“Omeo zanako,” he moans. “Omeo zanako!”
In turn the neighbors reach out to him, try to soothe him and explain, but he pushes them away. Lehilahy slashes a cut in his arm and writes on the wall in his own blood: omeo zanako . . . omeo zanako!
“No!” his neighbors cry. “You’ll kill yourself. Don’t do that!”
But Lehilahy goes on writing. The red sentences glisten in the sun, tormenting eyes and consciences. The neighbors band together and buy some red paint. They give it to him saying that it is his blood.
So it comes about that these words are painted on the walls, inside and out, and even the telegraph poles in the village and all around it. If you visit our village, you can read them there still.
As for the reckless driver, he has never been investigated by the authorities. A rich and powerful man, he gathered a number of witnesses who swore that he was at home at the time of the accident and that his car was in his garage. The truck driver was charged with defamation and bearing false witness. He is in prison.
Lehilahy still lives in this land of impunity and injustice. But it matters little to him now. He is still looking for his child, his blood, and finds nothing but walls and still higher walls before him. As, in truth, stand before us all.
“Omeo Zanako” © Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato. First published in Chroniques de Madagascar (Saint-Maur-des-Fosses: Sepia, 2005). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Sophie Lewis. All rights reserved.