There Is No Them, Only Us

Submitted by Alexa on November 1, 2012 - 3:17pm
My experiences in a Malagasy community


Community is a very abstract concept and I’m glad I got the opportunity to sit down and discuss this word with a guy who’s had a lot of conversations about this very subject. I have been lucky enough to travel and live in many different countries in the world and experience different levels of community. I am extremely grateful to each community I have visited and lived in who opened their arms to me, a stranger, and welcomed me to their homes, to their dinner tables, and important cultural events.

My most memorable experience of community happened while working with an NGO in the south of Madagascar. The first village I found myself in was called Volobe – a place you will never find on a map. It is a 4 hour walk - through rushing rivers and over mountains - from the nearest road. The camion stopped at the river where what seemed like the entire community was waiting for us. We had brought supplies of building materials, food, and our own personal belongings that needed to be carried through these rushing rivers and over these mountains. While walking, I remember a man running past me carrying a 25kg bag of cement mix over his shoulder. Another ran past with a crate of Coka-Cola. Then came the 25kg bag of rice. Anything not locally produced in Volobe had to be walked in. This includes all building materials for things like a school, a hospital, and a well.  As each community member ran past me, climbing the mountain while carrying 25kg on their shoulder, I was introduced to the idea of community.

I had the amazing opportunity to interview community members on the work of the NGO, future projects they would be interested in working toward, and my own research into human vulnerability to climate change. Over time, I learned of each person’s role in the community, from the teacher, to the chief, the rice grower to the young child, and their trials and successes. Some needed relief from toothache, other needed glasses. Some wanted to read and write, others wanted to grow crops on their land.

 Late one night I awoke to the sound of many footsteps rushing past the nearby path. A few hours later I woke once more to the same rushing steps moving in the other direction, but this time with crying and singing. Early the next morning we were told that one of the community members had lost their fight against malaria. Though they had tried to take her to the hospital, she had died en route. The entire village showed up the next day to pay their respects. There was not much talking as everyone sat around the family hut.

Once it was our turn to visit the family, we entered their hut and sat around the husband and children, listening to their stories and offering traditional gifts. It is customary to share in the consumption of alcohol with the deceased’s family. This is the type of alcohol you could probably run your car off of. As the cup was being passed around, and I eventually took my turn, burning my lips and everything else it touched on the way down, I had another realization. This, right now, is my community. Regardless of my own perceptions of my time in Madagascar, no matter how temporary I may think my time there is, at this point we would live together and die together. I am just as susceptible to diseases, starvation, and disasters . If that rice crop fails, we go hungry. If a hurricane blows through we have no shelter. If the water is contaminated, we go thirsty. We all depend on each other for our survival. Each person is a valued member of the community because each person has a role to play in our survival.

A few weeks later our work was done and we had to pack our stuff and move on to the next project. The night before we left we threw a big party on the football field beside the school house. There was enough food and drink for everyone and we danced and sang all night long under the stars. All night long we were laughing and smiling, dancing and socializing with my newfound community. The music didn’t end until the sun began to rise and the last person, overcome by exhaustion found his way back home to sleep.

What I learned from this experience was that community comes from a place of shared experiences and mutual understanding. You build a sense of community when you open yourself to those around you and in turn, when you allow others to open themselves to you. Community is the strength of our shared human relationships and unconditional support for each other. As the Malagasy say, Tsimisy manana ny ampy raha tsimifanampy. Share what you have with your friends and to everyone around you and you will be happy.  


The power of cultural exchanges

Hi Alex, Rachel is right you have a real knack for writing.  I look forward to seeing what you write next.  THe story remindsme of my own experience with the San in the Khalahari Desert.  It was amazing to see how interconnected everyone was, how they shared so much of their lives together as one giant family.  The other thing that really struck me was how much time was spent hanging out and having conversations with each other.  I think there is a lot we can learn from them.

What learning can we take away?

Hello Alexa,

This is a beautiful reflection- you really painted a picture with your words. I felt like I was there- hearing the footsteps of the villagers at night, taking a sip of the drink... How powerful.

As we travel (which I see you have done a lot of!) we see how people do comunity differently, and we also see patterns of things we all have in common in terms of community building.

What are some practices/approaches/aspects of the way this village did community that can be applied to us here, in North America?