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The Sacrificed GenerationYouth, History, and the Colonized Mind in Madagascar$

Lesley Sharp

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780520229501

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520229501.001.0001

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Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions

Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions

(p.223) Chapter 7 Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions
The Sacrificed Generation

Lesley A. Sharp

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses adults' assumptions versus the lived realities of Ambanja's school youth, where television, discotheques, and video cinemas are believed to corrupt the lives of unsupervised migrant school youth. It studies the students' opinions on sexuality, where foreign aid—especially in the form of “population control”—emerges as a neocolonial agenda. This chapter also emphasizes the gendered nature of urban dangers in Ambanja and its social and educational consequences.

Keywords:   lived realities, school youth, Ambanja, sexuality, population control, foreign aid, neocolonial agenda, gendered nature, urban dangers, educational consequences

Town Girls

It is midafternoon in July 1994 and I am visiting with Dalia in the small and comfortable room she inhabits with her younger sister, Flora. At her prompting, we have been discussing problems specific to schoolgirls' lives: sexual encounters, unwanted pregnancies, and their effects on academic success. Suddenly she looks at me and says, “Are you interested in medicinal plants, in the fanafody-gasy?” Although puzzled by what seems to be an abrupt shift in topic, I say yes, certainly. We are then up and out the door, making our way down the road to a small house where her grandmother lives. We see her in the yard, a woman perhaps in her early sixties who is busy washing clothes at an outdoor spigot. Freshly washed sheets already hang from a line, being bleached by a midday sun that beats down so hard that they are certain to dry within half an hour.

This grandmother's garden is a truly wondrous place, exhibiting a copious array of plants. It is unlike any other I have ever seen: rather than being arranged in neat rows along a grid, hers consists of small trees and bushes scattered haphazardly throughout the yard. I immediately recognize imposing guava, mango, papaya, and coconut shade trees. Beneath them springs an assortment of feliky, or edible greens, as well as pineapple and manioc, a single small wild coffee plant, and some banana trees. Just over a little bend behind the house I also catch a glimpse of bright green rice paddies. Although the region's rich flood waters are ideal for wet rice production, I am astonished—after all, seven years ago I lived only a stone's throw from here, but oddly I had never noticed this patch of matsabory. A row of tree stumps provides a clue as to why this area previously remained hidden from my view.

Dalia begins her tour with the air of an expert. I first point to one tree whose bark has been stripped. Dalia says, smiling, “You see, people have been busy removing the bark for medicine [aody, ody].” I then ask about a tall papaya that has (p.224) large gashes cut in its trunk, and ask if it, too, has been used for this purpose. “Ah, no, that's a Malagasy custom of sorts—if you have a tree that won't produce anything, you get a little angry at it and you hit it, over and over, yelling, ‘Give me fruit! give me fruit!’—ha ha!—and, you know, it agrees and does it!” I then remember how my own grandmother used to “beat” her house plants to make them flower. I ask if this is a typical garden—is this what I would see if I went deep into the countryside? To this Dalia replies, “Oh, no. Here we usually plant trees of the same kind all together. Coffee with coffee, bananas with bananas. But this is the way my grandmother likes it. She has done it this way for a long time. Now, let me show you what she has.”

And so we tour the garden. It is a lush array of many plants, each with medicinal properties: I recognize mapaza, mahogo, avocaty, katra—papaya, manioc, avocado, and the heavily-seeded katra. And then many others whose names are new to me, with medicinal effects that range from curing headaches, to stomach woes and malaria, to listlessness and insomnia. I soon realize, though, that Dalia has brought me here because several are known by schoolgirls to be powerful abortifacients.

Independent Rural Girls in Town

At twenty-one, Dalia is a feisty and popular student enrolled in her terminale year at the state-run lycée.1 Her parents, both of whom are retired schoolteachers, currently live in a village just a few kilometers north of town where they sharecrop a quarter of a hectare of land.2 They themselves are from Nosy Be and Ambanja; her father is Antankaraña, while her mother's parents are Sakalava and Tsimihety. Although Dalia was born in Antalaha on the northeast coast, she has lived in the Sambirano since 1979, and so her peers consider her to be tera-tany. Dalia is the oldest of eight living children, the youngest being three years old; a year ago a ninth boy died at age fifteen from heart failure. In 1990, Dalia and her sister Flora relocated to Ambanja in order to further their schooling.

These two schoolgirls currently share one side of a simple, two-room thatched falafa house that belongs to a maternal aunt, who, like their grandmother, lives nearby. Much of the land in this quiet neighborhood is in fact their aunt's. She inherited this property from her own father, who settled here in 1937, on what was then the outskirts of Ambanja, establishing the lush fields of matsabory just beyond. Dalia and Flora pay her no rent, instead regularly giving her gifts as informal payments including such luxury items as yogurt and soap, or fresh produce bought in the local markets. Over the course of any given month, these are worth approximately FMG 15,000–20,000, a high price to pay when viewed as rent for their single room. In so doing, however, they assist an aunt and an aged grandmother economically in exchange for other forms of care these elders provide them while they are in school. In other spheres, these two sisters carefully economize on their daily and schooling expenses. Each month they eat about one daba (a large kerosene can) of rice, which costs approximately FMG 38,000. As typifies the lives (p.225) of many school migrants, Dalia and Flora go home on foot nearly every weekend to work their parents' fields, at which time they acquire additional food to eat.

Although small and dark, their room is airy, especially when the two large windows are open. They find it a peaceful place to live, especially because the tenant next door is frequently gone for long stretches of time. Their room is furnished with two single beds, two comfortable small tables, and a squat, unstable bookshelf, upon which they store some of their study materials. Other notebooks are stacked high on a large tin can with a touch of kerosene inside, an effort designed to prevent insects and rodents from devouring these precious items. Whenever I drop by, I find the house neat and tidy, the beds made up and covered with wrinkled but clean sheets, one embroidered with flowers, the other with the words “Danga maro tia” or “Many like danga” (a kind of rice that is popular in the region). Cooking pots are stacked neatly in the corner, and the front courtyard is carefully swept. They cannot afford electricity, and so at night they rely on feeble oil lamps when they work on their homework assignments. Each time I visit Dalia, I experience an intense nostalgia: I know this house well, for throughout 1987 I spent many hours there attending tromba ceremonies hosted by its former inhabitant, a spirit medium and gifted healer named Marie. The bulk of Marie's clientele consisted of schoolgirls who suffered from bouts of possession sickness or unwanted pregnancies, problems that inevitably brought their schooling to an abrupt end (Sharp 1993, 188–96). Marie has since relocated to a town further south, her dwelling now inhabited by two successful schoolgirls.

Like all homes in Ambanja, the walls are decorated with an array of colorful pictures. Unlike most I have visited, however, there are no international soccer stars, images of foreign seascapes or industrial parks, or even the ubiquitous shots of scantily clad Asian women torn from inexpensive calendars distributed by local merchants. Instead, I am surprised to see the faces of well-known American pop stars. In the room's darkest corner loom the large, imposing images of Michael Jackson and Michael J. Fox, a reclining Patrick Swayze, and Brandon from Beverly Hills 90210, along with Gérard Depardieu posing for the American film Green Card (fig. 11). Whenever I visit this house, I can't help but feel I am being scrutinized by these men, especially the pensive Mr. Swayze. On two other walls are mug shots of African students who, by writing to francophone teen magazines, advertise their interests to prospective pen pals. Their serious faces offer evidence of students' imaginings of a global network of peers whom they will never meet. There is also a faded world map sent by a Canadian who taught for a few months in Ambanja, and a calendar from a local hotel with the dates of July 25, 26, and 27 circled and marked bac.

Dalia is respected among her peers for her strong will, her clearly defined desires, and her wry sense of humor. She also strives regularly to help others. Her home is a popular gathering spot for her friends, especially Foringa (who is her boyfriend), Pauline, Jaona, Hasina, and Félix. In addition, this year she organized an evening study group for the end of the term at the state-run lycée, persuading (p.226)

Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions

Figure 11. Inside a schoolgirl's home.

town officials to keep the building open and lit at night so that students from all local lycées would have a quiet place to prepare for the bac. Dalia is a formidable student who is at the top of her class. Her French is superb, so she has opted to take the bac in that language and not official Malagasy. She nevertheless failed on her first attempt in 1993, as did the majority of her classmates.

When I asked Dalia one day what she liked or did not like about school, she looked at me with a puzzled expression. Tsarahita, in response, sought to help her by rephrasing the question: “What makes you suffer [mijaly] and what gives you pleasure [mahafaly]?” After much thought, Dalia responded as follows:

No, no—I understand the question. But it's that I like practically everything … I love to learn. But you see, before I was in terminale série D [the science core]. I was getting these horrible headaches that would last for days. I finally went to see [Dr. B.], and he said I was working too hard—that science was too hard for me, so he said I should change to terminale A. I hated doing it, because I really love science, but it was making me ill. [Terminale] A is easier and, so, I'm now more satisfied with my studies and I suffer less than I used to.

This doctor's assessment was not an unusual one; as I knew all too well from conversations with Dr. B. and the town's other health professionals, the presumptions (p.227) that informed his advice are rooted in older colonial constructions of a mentalité indigène. Although at first glance it may seem that he judged science too difficult for a girl, he in fact views coastal students as less capable than highland ones. In a sense, this is not far from the truth, not for the reasons he might suppose, but rather because lycée lab facilities in Ambanja are useless, lacking crucial supplies and even running water, and there are no trained science teachers on the staff. Dalia's response, however, was not to drop out of school but, rather, to choose a more realistic path. Driven by her thirst for knowledge, she followed the doctor's advice and shifted to terminale A, and by mid 1994, she was preparing for her second attempt at the bac.

Dalia passionately wanted to attend university, where she now hoped to be trained to teach philosophy, or perhaps history and geography. In so doing, she would establish a tradition in her family, for both of her parents are retired primary schoolteachers who attended the prestigious teacher academy in Joffreville outside Diégo. As I learned later from a letter written by Tsarahita, Dalia did in fact pass her exams, but she could not afford a university education. At her parents' urging, she relocated to Diégo, where she now lives with and assists a paternal uncle who runs a small but flourishing dry goods store. She now intends to apply specifically to the local campus so that she can continue her studies while working.

When I returned to Ambanja in mid 1995, I was surprised to hear from a number of Dalia's teachers that the real reason she had ended her studies was that she was pregnant. These proved to be false rumors, however, as Tsarahita and others close to her assured me. Although Foringa had been her serious boyfriend for several years, Dalia was well versed in abortifacients drawn from the local pharmacopoeia, and she often assisted other students with this knowledge, acquired from her grandmother. I also knew that she made regular use of the local family planning program at the state hospital, where she received monthly injections of Depo-Provera. I soon began to realize that teachers assumed that so gifted a student must have fallen on hard times if she had indeed failed to continue her schooling at university to the south; Foringa, after all, had also passed the back and was now studying at Toamasina. But whereas his parents were able to pool resources from a large extended family, Dalia's faced far greater economic hardships and could ill afford to send her to university, even when her schooling would be subsidized by the state.

As such rumors reveal, a schoolgirl's life is assumed to be plagued with special dangers, where her own sexual coming of age may inevitably undermine her ability to succeed in school. As underscored throughout part 2, many girls are deeply committed to their schooling and, in fact, may be less likely than boys to fail. Yet other pressures threaten their long-term success, and these are linked to their sexuality. Ultimately, many are forced to drop out of school because of unexpected pregnancies. But other capable girls never even enter the upper grades, because their parents are so fearful of their involvement in what is assumed to be a highly sexualized urban world. (p.228)

Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions

Figure 12. Town diversions and the corruption of youth. From Akony ny Sambirano 1994, 27. Reprinted with permission from the editor.

Worldly Diversions

Over the course of nearly a decade of research in Ambanja, I have found that the towns' school administrators, teachers, and parents have consistently reiterated the same themes when I ask them about problems in their children's lives. As described in chapter 3, video cinemas and discotheques are assumed to pose the greatest threats to students' social and psychic well-being. Adults argue that foreign music and films “destroy our children” and “their minds,” “are responsible for school failure rates,” “keep our children out of school,” and “undermine their respect for local ancestral customs [fomban-drazaña]” and “for one's parents.” (For a student's rendering of these themes, see fig. 12) Another dominant assumption is that solitary school migrants are especially vulnerable: lacking adult supervision, they are most likely to succumb to their allure, wasting their precious study time and limited funds on such corrupting diversions. They choose instead to stay out late, carousing and drinking heavily, so that by midmonth they have no money left for food or essential school supplies. Then, as they struggle to make ends meet, boys turn to petty thievery and girls to prostitution. These factors contribute to the social corruption of students, who fall asleep in school, fail their studies, or altogether disappear from the classroom. Girls are assumed to be in greater danger, because (p.229) they inevitably fall pregnant. With these concerns in mind, I turn to the imagined dangers versus the realities of girls' lives.

Cinemas and Disco Dangers

Urban adults identify as especially threatening the provocative messages embedded in media of foreign origin—as encountered through television, the cinema, and discotheques—that promote Western materialism, excessive violence, and licentiousness. These pose the greatest threats to rural innocents, especially to solitary school migrants. Yet, as I argue in chapter 3, town-based students are in fact more likely to be exposed to foreign visual media. School migrants lack the necessary pocket money and leisure, typically seeking out part-time work or establishing their own small businesses to help make ends meet. Many also travel home nearly every weekend to assist kin in their fields. As explained earlier in this study, cinemas and discos are in fact frequented by slightly older adults in their late twenties and thirties. If students do view videos, they usually do so at the Alliance Française, whose director is a school principal. Students flock here to perfect their French, watching popular westerns imported from India, Italian-made “commando” films, and martial arts extravaganzas from Hong Kong.3 Nevertheless, a pervasive sentiment, voiced by Mr. Jaozara and others, is that foreign media threaten to transform students' mentalités, driving them in the end to embrace foreign values. In so arguing, such critics ignore the fact that teachers themselves make advances to students. By locating the origins of such dangers beyond their own community, they thus expose larger fears of foreign invasions now seen as threatening the tranquility of life in postsocialist Madagascar.

In order to understand more clearly the experiences and sentiments of migrant school youth, I asked all students I encountered, “What do you like to do for fun?” Dalia responded, “I love to listen to the radio.” At first, because of the posters on her walls, I assumed this meant that she liked French and American pop music, but she surprised me by explaining, “Ahh, no, I love sentimental Malagasy music … and I like to promenade, that is, mitsangantsangana [SAK: ‘walk about town with friends’].”

“Do you go to discos or the cinema?” I asked.

“No, I hate discos,” she replied. “I go to maybe one a year; [besides,] they're expensive, you know—they're regularly FMG 1,500 or 3,000 … and during holidays as much as FMG 7,500.”

As I learned from other interviews and through observation, it is not poor, rural migrants who venture to discos but, rather, urban youth from prosperous middle-income households. The offspring of upper-level civil servants, successful merchants, and state health professionals, for example, have the greatest access to the town's public diversions; furthermore, it is a mark of social privilege to be able to attend them. In contrast, Dalia and her friends typically only promenade the streets at night, perhaps pausing briefly to view the televised broadcasts from (p.230) the mediocre set mounted above the doorway of the Firaisana, or city hall. Similarly, younger children from the town's most modest homes rely almost exclusively on outdoor, inventive forms of social play. The youngest can be seen playing together energetically with whatever tools they might encounter on the street: sticks turned into swords, abandoned car chassis into percussion instruments, and a bricolage of plant material, wire, and twine that they fold, twist, and bend into elaborately fashioned miniature cars and other brilliantly made toys (cf. Cerney and Seriff 1996). In short, the poorer the child, the greater the demand placed on the imagination for daily distraction and play, and the more limited the exposure to foreign media.

Elite children define yet another extreme category of experience rarely being permitted to venture beyond one another's homes, where, cooped up and bored, they rely heavily on the distractions offered by television and VCRs. Such children may watch repeatedly bootleg music and film videos copied from French television and hand-carried to Madagascar, which slowly make their way about town, passing from one elite household to another. These also offer shows not readily available in the town's cinemas. Some are dubbed reruns of Starsky and Hutch or Dallas; many others feature films far more violent or sexually explicit in their dialogues, lyrics, and visual displays. The offspring of elite households also have the added ability of being able to understand what is being said. Like Vonjy in chapter 2, they are often fluent in French, a language they may speak not only in the classroom, but at home with their parents.4 The lives of two young girls, Rova and Rachida, illustrate this range of experiences.

An Elite Housebound Child

Rova is the precocious oldest daughter of a town-based elite Betsileo household. In mid 1995, she had just turned seven. Her father is a powerful plantation director, her mother a housewife and part-time petty merchant. This family employs two full-time house servants, a private chauffeur, and a night watchman, and they inhabit a luxuriously furnished three-bedroom house that is partially airconditioned and has two bathrooms with European plumbing, including bidets. Their most prestigious possessions include two cars, a large color television set, and a VCR. Little Rova attends the town's exclusive French Elementary School, where she speaks French exclusively (as she does at home with her parents), and where she is known only as “Rosalie.” She never ventures out of doors unescorted by an adult, and she is allowed to travel the town's peaceful streets only when driven by the family chauffeur. Her playmates are handpicked by her mother and are always the offspring of other elite Betsileo families, which also represent important business contacts for her father. Rova spends much of her time at home, her only regular companions being her younger brother and two family maids, to whom Rova feels little emotional attachment. In a word, Rova is bored: although she loves to read, she has no books, and her toys are typically so expensive that they spend much of their time on display in a tall glass case in the family parlor. When Rova has nothing (p.231) else to do, she watches—often repeatedly—her parents' rotating collection of borrowed videos, many of which contain frightening images of brutal murders or lurid sex scenes that run drastically contrary to modest Malagasy conceptions of public displays of affection. On many an afternoon, I have encountered Rova sitting by herself on the sofa, her mouth agape as she stares in awe at the images displayed before her. Her strong, deep-seated identification, not with her ethnic origins, but with her parents' accumulation of expensive commodities of French origin, is shown by the fact that when I first met her and asked what her full name was, she replied “Rova Renault!”

It is, of course, difficult to predict Rova's future as a child of Ambanja's migrant highland elite. The snobbery that characterizes members of this small, exclusive class has, however, already begun to make its mark on her psyche. Rova fears contact with other children, and she reveals a keen sense of difference, especially when confronted with children of lower social status, at which point she will remark quietly on their tattered clothes, for example. As a Catholic, Rova attends only the French services at the town's imposing cathedral, and she assumes that those who go to Malagasy services are less devout than she. In 1993, when she was almost six, Rova refused to leave her family car and descend into the street to join me and other children parading with paper lanterns on the eve of the annual independence celebration. Surprised by the invitation, she responded coolly that she “had a headache,” making a dramatic swooning gesture with her hand on her forehead to emphasize its debilitating effects. She preferred to stay in the car with her chauffeur. Later that evening, as a guest in her home, I watched Rova and her little brother run about on their second-floor veranda, creating their own private parade, until the two-year-old boy brought the celebration to an abrupt halt by dropping his lantern and setting a tablecloth on fire.

Ambanja's Little Lucifer

Rachida, who at eight is only a year older than Rova, stands in strong contrast to the latter. Unlike Rova, Rachida was born and raised in Ambanja. She is the oldest of three children whose father is Arabmétis (his mother is Sakalava), and whose mother grew up 300 kilometers to the south but settled in Ambanja nearly fifteen years ago. By Ambanja's standards, this is a fairly typical low-to-middle-income tera-tany household: Rachida lives in a somewhat dilapidated concrete house facing the central marketplace, built nearly fifty years before by her paternal grandfather, a Yemeni migrant and merchant. Rachida's mother Yvetty, her household's primary breadwinner, is an energetic woman who works hard as an itinerant merchant. Off and on, Rachida's parents own various luxury appliances: perhaps a modest portable stereo system, or a color television set, or a small refrigerator, each being an item that Yvetty has acquired in trade. These vanish, however, as soon as cash is needed to make ends meet. Each month, Yvetty makes the arduous two-to-three-day journey to Antananarivo to buy coveted imported goods, such as clothing, (p.232) which she sells at a high markup in Ambanja and Nosy Be. Rachida's father occasionally makes money, too, primarily by selling contraband acquired from a brother-in-law who is a customs official. Usually, though, he lazes about the house; when Yvetty is gone, he tends only half-heartedly to his children and household.

Until the age of seven, Rachida was a local hellion, a ragtag little girl who often refused to go to school and ran wild with other young children. She could often be seen playing outside, kicking up much dirt and dust as she darted about at high speed, perhaps waving a large stick over her head. She was never within earshot when someone needed her to run an errand. In response to her reputation as a wild child, a favorite uncle referred to her affectionately as his “little Lucifer.” But by the middle of her seventh year, Rachida showed signs of transforming into a wise or clever (hendry) child. She started to devote herself to her studies, helping older kin with daily household tasks, and mastering rudimentary marketing skills. Throughout the week of independence festivities she rode herd on her two younger siblings, the three of them sitting in the shade on the main road selling party hats and other favors to child clients their own age (Sharp 1996; fig. 13). Her mother Yvetty and other female kin are now grooming her to be a merchant: soon Rachida will be trusted to help her favorite Auntie Mariamo in one of her two shops alongside two older female cousins, and perhaps, too, she will accompany her mother on her monthly excursions to Antananarivo. On the evening of Independence Day in 1994, Rova, again in her Renault, drove past barefoot Rachida, who marched proudly through the streets with her cousins of many ages, bearing examples of her finest wares. Rachida carried a paper lantern, balanced carefully to protect the lit candle inside, and, in her own extravagant style, she wore not one, but two colorful hats, one with “Commando” stenciled on it, the other facing backward in order to display the name “Zorro.”

Wayward Daughters

As illustrated above, the more prosperous the urban-based household, the greater the potential exposure to foreign mass media. As illustrated by Rova's life thus far, children in elite households may be confined to their homes and left to amuse themselves with privately owned videos unavailable elsewhere in town. Rova may escape the assumed dangers of the disco or cinema simply because her parents will inevitably send her to a highland boarding school, where she, like Vonjy (chapter 2), will remain under lock and key. Nevertheless, at seven, Rova is more aware of things foreign than Rachida will be perhaps a decade later. Conversely, while Rova lies idle at home, Rachida is busy developing an array of sophisticated business skills, which, if fostered with care, may enable her to master a lucrative market trade like her mother (see chapter 8).

If we shift to the lives of older girls, clearly those from prosperous professional households are most likely to become involved in the town's night life. This is true because they have pocket money to spare as well as leisure time on their hands. The (p.233)

Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions

Figure 13. A children's market stand.

latter is especially true if a part-time servant works in the house, freeing them from a range of domestic chores. Their ability to attend disco parties becomes socially important, marking their elevated economic status in public arenas. Yasmine is an example.

Yasmine is the daughter of Alida, a woman whose life I have followed closely since 1987 (Sharp 1993, 214 ff.),5 and who is well known in Ambanja as a nurse, her name being practically a household word in town. Alida is now widowed, but her husband was a highly respected school principal, who provided well for his family, so that she now owns a large, five-room concrete house with an enormous fenced-in courtyard. Although the house lacks indoor plumbing, it has electricity and, for over fifteen years, it has been furnished stylishly with lovely armchairs, a color television set and VCR, a stereo, a gas stove, and a refrigerator.6 A side room, where she receives clients as a skilled part-time seamstress, houses an Italian sewing machine. Alida must work long hours and at odd times, and so she employs a young girl to help her clean house, wash dishes, and do the laundry. This servant's assistance also gives Alida's children far more free time, ostensibly to devote to their schoolwork.

Yasmine is the second child and oldest daughter in this family of six children. In 1987, when Yasmine was sixteen, Alida was deeply concerned about her children's futures. She longed for her oldest son, Abel, to attend university and succeed in medicine, as had her own father, so she appealed repeatedly to a well-known tromba spirit medium named Marivola for powerful magic (fanafody-gasy) that would boost his chances for success. Meanwhile, Yasmine, who was often seen carousing with men her mother's age and older, had become a source of much frustration and worry. Alida (p.234) openly expressed her fear that Yasmine would become pregnant before completing her studies, only to be thrown aside by a reckless philanderer. (I suspected in fact that Yasmine had already had one abortion, although confirming this proved difficult, since abortions were illegal in Madagascar in 1987. Alida, who had strong contacts in the town's medical community, certainly could have seen to it that Yasmine had a safe and secret one, as well as subsequent access to legal forms of birth control.) In her attempt to rein in her daughter, Alida took Yasmine for a personal consultation with Marivola, whose spirits threatened the girl with illness and other dangers if she did not obey her mother and take her studies seriously. For the next few months, Alida attempted to confine Yasmine to the house, but this proved impossible, because Yasmine not only had to go to school every day but also ran errands for her mother. Once school was out, I frequently encountered her sauntering around the town with classmates, and twice in the back of a bar with her two closest girlfriends.

When I returned to Ambanja in 1993, Yasmine was twenty-two, and her mother's fears had in part materialized. Yasmine had indeed failed in her studies at the private Catholic Academy and thus never completed lycée. Possessing few skills worthy of her station, she remained unemployed and spent much of her time idle at home. She had also become the mistress (deuxième bureau) of an older, wealthy married man, who picked her up each afternoon in his airconditioned Peugeot. Although Alida knew the man would never marry her daughter, she was resigned to Yasmine's behavior. This situation was well known in town, since Alida and Yasmine's lover were both prominent citizens. Nonetheless, the sight of the couple barreling down main street each afternoon inevitably raised a few eyebrows.

Town opinion among adult professionals was divided on this affair, which cut across the categories of age and class. Schoolteachers who already knew Yasmine were especially vocal in their opinions. Mr. Saidy, a lycée instructor with three daughters of his own, argued that Yasmine was now, after all, capable of bearing the responsibilities of adult life and should not be condemned. In any case, it was clear that Alida appreciated the extra money provided by her daughter's lover. Yet many others—including Mme. Chantal, Mr. Prosper, and Mr. Jaozara—argued that Yasmine had sacrificed her virtue to become the deuxième bureau to a powerful married man. As this label implies, she posed a threat to his marriage and household, her actions likened to covert military operations (see Sharp 1993). Other critics were even more forceful in their comments, calling her a makarely,7 or prostitute. Such critical sentiments could only be expressed in the slang of a foreign tongue, where Yasmine was perceived as following a path long ago established by other young northern beauties who had served as lovers to colonial officials. All parties agreed that Yasmine had sealed her fate, for in time her rich lover would inevitably abandon her. She would then drift among men in search of the wealth and prestige that inevitably accompanies such unbalanced relationships, trailed by a string of children fathered by men reluctant to assert paternity.

As Yasmine's example illustrates, town life offers numerous temptations for students with time on their hands. The greatest problems arise when a girl suddenly (p.235) finds herself pregnant, because all of Ambanja's public and private schools impose strict sanctions on such girls, although not on their male partners, even if their identities are known. When a girl's pregnancy becomes obvious, she is immediately expelled from school and, typically, close kin are contacted by school officials so that they can care for her until she bears her child. Although in recent years, the state-run lycée (but not the Catholic Academy) has begun to readmit girls once their babies are born, few girls are able to juggle the demands of young motherhood while attending school unless their mothers or other older female kin are willing to assume virtually full-time responsibility for child care. Because nearly all mothers in Ambanja breastfeed exclusively, they must remain in constant proximity to their babies throughout the first year of life. As a former school director argued at an education conference in the mid 1980s, Madagascar could not hope to make strides in controlling adolescent pregnancy as long as boys went unpunished and were allowed to remain in school (Sharp 1990). His words fell on deaf ears, however, and the burden of pregnancy (expressed in Sakalava by the term mavesatra or, literally, “[to be] heavy”) is thus the sole responsibility of girls themselves.

Ambanja's teachers argue that although the handful of girls who remain in school each year are often their best students, collectively girls show less interest than boys in completing their studies. The reasons that inform such impressions are complex. For one thing, many girls never even make it past primary school, because parents are generally reluctant to let their daughters advance, if this requires that they become school migrants. As a thirty-year-old engineer named Gérard explained in 1987,

I completed my studies here at the Catholic Academy eight years ago, and then I went on to university. My parents live far from here, out in the countryside on the Ampasindava Peninsula. You see, I had a primary school teacher who was impressed with my school work, and so when I completed troisième and passed the qualifying exams for middle school, he went to my parents and persuaded them to let me come to Ambanja to continue my schooling. It took a lot of doing—my father needed me to help him in the fields, and both of my parents were afraid to let me go so far away. They finally consented only when the teacher agreed to accompany them here to help me find a safe place to live. My parents have never talked about it, but I think my teacher may even have helped pay part of my tuition that first year; in exchange, my parents gave him a little bit of land to farm. It was hard for me—I was very lonely those first few years. But now we are all happy I did it. Look at me—I have a good job as an engineer at one of the local plantations. But my sisters, no, my parents would never have let any of them go away alone to school. My father was certain they would have gotten into trouble and fallen pregnant in no time. It was only after I was established here that I myself persuaded my father to let my youngest sister come here to study. The others, they are all married now and have children, and nearly all live in my parents' village. Only one [of them] ever even completed primary school.

In other words, girls do not necessarily drop out of school but, rather, require special protection if parents are to let them leave home for advanced schooling. This (p.236) may necessitate the intervention of older siblings, other relatives, or teachers who recognize their abilities. As I have argued elsewhere, many schoolgirls suffer from an extraordinary angst when they suddenly find themselves pregnant. Pregnancy signals school failure, and their suffering is compounded by their knowledge of their parents' great disappointment. This is a trend that characterizes the lives of schoolgirls throughout Africa; as Caroline Bledsoe and her colleagues stress, “having a child effectively terminates a girl's education” (Bledsoe et al. 1993, 10). In Ambanja, pregnant schoolgirls are frequently struck by disturbing forms of possession sickness, through which they articulate their frustration, guilt, and sorrow (Sharp 1990).8 Some seek spiritual intervention from skilled tromba mediums like Marie; others turn to a classmate like Dalia who is familiar with locally available abortifacients. Against these developments, the average age at marriage has climbed slowly for Malagasy boys over the past two to three generations; their female peers, on the other hand, must withstand pressure exerted on them at a younger age by older men, who may be local merchants, well-off travelers, or, frequently, their own schoolteachers.9

Controlling Pregnancy

It is late morning, and very hot outside. Dalia, her boyfriend Foringa Josef, their classmate Félix, Tsarahita, and I rest within the cool interior of Dalia's small room. Dalia and Foringa have chosen the topic of discussion for today: a comparison of our respective customs (fomba). We discuss burial practices, tombs and cemeteries, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the events that are important markers in our personal lives: births, cutting teeth, circumcisions, and wedding anniversaries. Then Dalia asks suddenly, “What about abortions? Can you get them in the United States?” My response typifies my middle-class American academic feminist leanings: I begin by talking about Roe v. Wade, and the manner in which legal statutes define the beginning of life and personhood in my own society. I then ask, “When do Malagasy think a baby becomes a person [olo]?”

Foringa [right away]:

  • At birth, of course, just like you, or when it's still in the mother's belly. Abortions are illegal here because of this.
  • Dalia [after thinking a moment]:

  • No, now, wait, I think she means what's the Malagasyway of thinking about this. Think about the old people—they don't think this way, do they?
  • Foringa and Tsarahita [together]:

  • No, no, right. It's different. Now we say the baby in amother's belly is a person, but the old way …
  • Tsarahita:

  • It's when a baby cuts its teeth …
  • Foringa:

  • Right, when it's a zaza mena vava [lit: “a child with a red mouth”].
  • Dalia:

  • Exactly. This is when it's a human being.
  • LS:

  • But how do you say “person” as opposed to something that's not yet one.
  • Félix:

  • You say olo instead of tsaiky.
  • (p.237) LS:

  • What happens if a baby that isn't yet a zaza mena vava dies? What do you do with it?
  • Félix:

  • You bury it right away. You don't wait a few days like you would with an adult.You can bury it wherever.
  • Dalia:

  • No, where [my father comes] from, on Nosy Be, you find a tomb that is especially for babies. You put them all there, or you put them directly in the ground.
  • LS:

  • Can you put a baby in a tomb?
  • Tsarahita:

  • No.
  • Dalia:

  • No. At least not in the tomb that adults go in.
  • LS:

  • So what about those other ceremonies? When do you give a baby its name? Whendo you cut its hair?
  • Tsarahita:

  • Well, now you name it when it is born …
  • Dalia:

  • Right, most people do this. But the old way was to wait until it cut its first tooth.
  • Tsarahita:

  • This is still the moment when you cut the baby's hair for the first time. Aswe say, this is when it's a person because this is when it can eat rice: mety mihinam-bary.
  • Félix:

  • Mety mihinam-akoho [“it can eat chicken”], ha ha!
  • Dalia:

  • Akoho [“chicken”] !?
  • Félix:

  • Sure!
  • Tsarahita:

  • That's not the expression!
  • Félix:

  • But it can eat it! You give it the thigh [so it will learn to walk].
  • Dalia:

  • OK, right. … But we were talking about abortions.
  • LS:

  • The plants [you showed me the other day], how do you use them? Do you eatthem raw and as they are?
  • Dalia:

  • No, no. You boil them really well and then you drink the water.
  • Tsarahita [with a touch of frustration]:

  • Yeah, but none of them work—mapaza, avocaty, katra. None of them.
  • Dalia:

  • Let me tell you what we use here for abortions.
  • LS:

  • I understand feliky mapaza, avocaty, katra.
  • Dalia [laughing]:

  • You can't say “feliky” for leaves you don't eat. Feliky means ediblegreens. Instead, you say for example ravin-mapaza [papaya leaves] for leaves you don't eat.
  • LS:

  • What other plants are abortifacients?
  • Dalia:

  • Oh, there are lots.
  • [Dalia, Foringa, and Tsarahita detail a wide assortment of medicinal plants and their uses.]


  • With medical abortions, how does this work? It is surgical?
  • Dalia and Tsarahita together:

  • NO, no, it's an injection in your rear end.
  • Dalia:

  • … plus antibiotics.
  • Tsarahita:

  • … and a tetanus shot.
  • (p.238) Dalia:

  • Oh, right.
  • LS:

  • Does anyone use anything else? I heard sometimes you can put a stick in theuterus.
  • All together:

  • No, no. [A few minutes later, however, Dalia returns to this subject.]
  • Dalia:

  • I think some put feliky mahogo [the leaf or twig of the manioc] in the uterus. It's a little stick. You leave it there for 48 hours.
  • LS:

  • That's very dangerous.
  • Dalia:

  • I know, but if you have no money, what else can you do?
  • LS:

  • How do you say birth control in Madagascar? Or family planning?
  • Together:

  • It's FISA, Fianakaviana Sambatra. It means “happy family” [or “wise” andthus “healthy family”].
  • Perhaps partly because I was older, because of the trust engendered by repeated visits, and especially because of the changed political climate, this discussion was much more candid than those I had had in 1987. Under President Ratsiraka in the 1980s, birth control was very hard to acquire, and although performed by a few doctors in private practice in the north, abortions were illegal. In 1987, I knew a handful of women who received Depo-Provera injections, but no other clinical form of birth control existed in town. By the early 1990s, however, the range of possibilities had changed radically. Injections of “Depo” were sometimes free, and the FISA office at the state hospital now dispensed spermicide in suppository form for FMG 400 each; the pill at FMG 300/month; and kapoty anglais, or condoms, for FMG 100–150 a piece. As far as I know, IUDs and Norplant were not available,10 although in 1995, I assumed that at least the latter would arrive soon: the ease with which it can be dispensed to rural women is highly appealing to foreign population specialists, who regard Third World women as dangerously noncom-pliant. This is a theme that Dalia herself raises below.

    The Immorality of Play

    Current town-based critiques of foreign media underscore their potential to corrupt Ambanja's youth and, more particularly, schoolgirls. Their danger lies in their assumed power to encourage immoral and sexualized forms of play, a reading conventionalized through long-term exposure to values of colonial origin now internalized by educated adults in Madagascar. Judgments levied against the imagined activities of migrant youth on the one hand and Yasmine's own experiences on the other expose a double standard. Social critics are quick to focus on the naïveté of rural girls, who are assumed to be more readily seduced by the allure of sexualized urban realms. This critique, however, skirts the historical relevance of the colonial encounter, thus ignoring the unequal and potentially predatory nature of foreign men who relied on the sexual favors of Malagasy women. As we shall see, school youth like Dalia are in fact deeply aware of this legacy.

    (p.239) Yet, adults' critiques are often laced with a prudishness that assumes that discotheques and video cinemas are dangerous milieux because they introduce exotic and newly eroticized forms of play, where the equalization of public display sanctions promiscuity, machismo, and militarized violence. Within this framework, mass media evidence a new foreign invasion that followed the fall of Ratsiraka's isolationist regime. The long familiar sounds of upbeat horn orchestras from the Antilles, the intoxicating rhythm of African kwassa, and the repetitive, slow-paced reggae born in Jamaica have since been joined by the latest arrivals from the United States: erotic videos starring Madonna and the crotch-grabbing gyrations of Michael Jackson. Music videos that precede the main film also feature opulent displays of material wealth and consumption, where dark men escort light-skinned women in expensive cars, luxurious homes, or flashy boutiques, where the clothes are garish and the food consumed outlandish. Viewers inevitably wonder how they can hope to touch such luxuries when they remain unavailable in shops in town or even in distant Antananarivo. In the feature films themselves, one finds the inspiration for the ostentatious consumption in the musical shorts. Yet here clearly the greatest social and economic power rests with Anglo or Asian males who are strong, single, and virile: Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Eastwood and other cowboys, and Bruce Lee and other kick boxers and kung-fu masters from Hong Kong.

    Objections to these media underscore, too, assumptions regarding the inherent vulnerability of minors, whose imitative and provocative gestures might perhaps signal some form of bravado or even effete resistance but certainly not cultural maturity. In short, children may periodically challenge the status quo, but they lack the social sophistication or deeper cultural knowledge that would enable them to levy sophisticated critiques or generate sustainable cultural forms (cf. Stephens 1995; Amit-Talai and Wulff 1995). Keeping in mind the renovation of the Palais Royal by Tsiaraso Rachidy IV, however, yet another interpretation emerges: school youth are in fact highly innovative in their reformulation of contemporary forms of play.

    Ny Soma

    Sharon Stephens (1995a) argues that the notion of play provides an especially provocative paradigm for challenging the assumed innocence and cultural immaturity of youth. She asserts instead that youth may in fact be creative social actors who, through cultural inversions, may generate imaginative and sustainable cultural forms. When viewed in this light, the discotheque is not a degenerate space but, rather, offers evidence of generative forces at work. When set within the framework of older culture forms, the disco and its associated behaviors no longer appear as radical departures from social norms. Rather, together they offer evidence of a highly embellished indigenous style of social expression as shaped by les forces modernes. The embodied gestures of the discotheque in fact share much in common with other festive ritualized events so familiar to the Sakalava of the Sambirano.

    (p.240) Nowhere is this more evident than during festivities hosted by local royalty. Within any large-scale royal ritual in the northwest—a royal child's first hair cutting, a prince's circumcision, a ruler's instatement ceremony, or the annual cleaning of royal tombs—much of the surrounding festivities are defined locally as valued moments of “play” (misoma).11 These involve, characteristically, dances (especially the graceful ribiky), praise singing as well as bawdy songs, and possession ceremonies, during which time both living subjects and ancient spiritual ancestors arrive to participate in such “games” (ny soma). Nighttime in particular is a liminal period of sexual intrigue, where adults and youth participate in group singing, dancing, and drinking, and also stroll about (mitsangantsangana) in search of erotic encounters. In anticipation, girls and women may spend a significant amount on new clothes. For large-scale royal events, their attire most often consists of matching body and head wraps fashioned from commemorative cotton cloth (lambahoany) that has specifically been designed and printed at the nation's textile mills for these ceremonies. Groups of young friends may travel long distances together unaccompanied by older kin; sticking close together throughout the event, promenading girls dressed in identical outfits merge to form moving masses of brilliant colors (fig. 14).

    What, then, renders such events so significantly different from the discotheque? What are we to make of the organized party (FR: bal or boum) held in the lobby of City Hall, or perhaps in the same indoor market structure that, during the day, houses rice sellers, vegetable hawkers, and butchers, or even at the Palais Royal by the beach at Ankify? During bals or boums, the nighttime again provides a veil behind which one may seek out new sexual partners and participate in eroticized play, where the female body in particular is elaborately decorated with preordered and individually designed, flashy garb, this time consisting of tight and tailored dresses of bright satins or polyester silks. Men, too, pay close attention to their appearance, sporting brilliant white running shoes and T-shirts purchased at inflated prices from Ambanja's boutiques and itinerant street merchants. At these town events, a successful sexual encounter can involve pairing up with an anonymous single or married partner. In other words, the spirit with which one approaches the royal festival and the bal are similar; it is simply the milieu and attire that define where the most radical innovations occur.

    The paradoxes that underlie judgments of such events are perhaps best exemplified by occasional celebrations and fund-raisers hosted by the Catholic Mission. Not only is the mission's congregation dominated by Sakalava parishioners, but most of the staff are also Sakalava, including the monsignor and a throng of lively and outspoken sisters, although a handful of priests are European. The mission hosts a celebrated annual disco night—complete with an electric salegy band—that begins in the late evening and runs until dawn, organized each year by the Catholic Academy's lycée students as a school fund-raiser. The majority who attend are the town's adult professionals, although the mission's students, priests, and nuns also join the dance floor. Disapproval is nevertheless voiced in some quarters, especially by the town's more observant Protestant vahiny. These critics claim to shun such (p.241)

    Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions

    Figure 14. Young girls at the Royal Antankaraña Tsangantsaiñy festival, 1987.

    events as mildly sacrilegious, perhaps stressing their disdain for one particularly animated nun who goes by the name of “Sister Disco.” Yet even they may find it difficult to stay away from this lively event, especially since it attracts the town's most powerful elite. Their disapproval of the use of the animated body inevitably exposes a prudishness of foreign origin, one that collides with the joyfulness associated with indigenous forms of social play. In the end, once this patina is penetrated, it becomes difficult to distinguish the spirit with which one participates in such events, be they staged at a village ceremony or on an urban disco dance floor.

    Ny Sida

    Here the discussion could end, were it not for the current complications that link sexual intimacy and infection. Beginning in the 1990s, sex was now laced with physical danger in Ambanja, as AIDS, or sida (syndrome d'immunodéficience acquise), as it is known in the francophone world, emerged as a public health concern. Madagascar, by virtue of its assumed doubly isolated status—as a socialist nation and a remote island—had until now been imagined by its inhabitants as having escaped this pandemic. In 1987, for example, AIDS was assumed to be only an impending threat in Ambanja, and local health officials would regularly cite as evidence a survey of coastal prostitutes, all of whom had tested negative for the virus.12

    (p.242) By 1994, however, the epidemiological picture had shifted (partly in response to the fact that President Zafy was a physician). AIDS was now openly recognized as a grave threat that had only recently invaded Madagascar's borders, brought from abroad not so much by Malagasy travelers or sailors as by thrill-seeking foreign tourists drawn to this island by dreams of sexual encounters with exotic African women.13 In Ambanja, local clinics now displayed posters on AIDS, radio soap operas included stories of the infected, and relevant public health messages were integrated into the state curricula. At home, children and parents would debate the topic, with students usually being far more informed than their parents on the biological modes of transmission. A predominant assumption was that a new wave of foreign invaders was responsible for this impending threat. Whereas only a handful of foreigners appeared in Ambanja in 1987, by the mid 1990s, the town had emerged as an important site of activity for the World Bank and IMF, the Peace Corps, and new environmental initiatives. Ambanja was also experiencing a radical increase in the flow of itinerate tourists, for whom the town's hotels offered a comfortable overnight stopover. By 1993, the idiom of foreign invasion shaped local commentaries, informed by indigenous understandings of the colonial encounter. Such associations were foremost in the minds of politicized school youth.

    Liza, the Girl With Sida

    One of the most significant sources of AIDS education among Ambanja's lycée students is a comic book that chronicles the life of a Malagasy girl named Liza (fig. 15a and b). Liza was issued during the 1993–94 school term as a volume of La Plume, a quarterly school publication funded by and developed through a French-Malagasy partnership based in Antananarivo. La Plume was among the first curricular materials to reach Ambanja in nearly two decades, and enough copies were sent so that every teacher could have one. The lycée acquired a surplus and distributed the extra copies to students. A review of this story uncovers pervasive themes that link youth and sexual dangers.

    Liza's tale is designed to be highly reminiscent of the lives of lycée students throughout Madagascar, even though the scenes depicted are unquestionably in Antananarivo. Liza thus emerges as a generic morality tale intended for all Malagasy school youth. As an elderly storyteller explains in the beginning, Liza was a village girl who dreamed of being a great singer. Although this is a nearly impossible aspiration for a rural girl, her drive and intelligence allowed her to succeed. Such aspirations, however, inevitably drew her into the fast-paced, highly sexualized world of foreign popular culture.

    Liza's story resonates strongly with Ambanja's students, because she, too, is a school migrant. As the reader soon learns, when she is twelve, Liza's father takes her to Antananarivo to live with her loving Aunt Marthe so that she can continue school beyond the primary level, and Liza quickly excels in her studies. Here Liza is also exposed to the wonders of the city: historical monuments, imposing churches, and … (p.243) well-dressed prostitutes. As a lycée student, she is invited to her first boum in a class-mate's home; respectful of her elders, she first asks her aunt's permission to attend. Liza feels terribly out of place at the party, and so she decides to leave, at which point her hostess introduces her to Mike, who works in the music industry. He invites her to dance, and by the end of the scene, Liza agrees to sing publicly for the first time, inspiring an enthusiastic response from her classmates.

    Mike soon becomes Liza's serious boyfriend, and she eventually decides to invite him home to meet her parents. Upon their arrival, however, she realizes that her parents await her with a prospective husband. At first, she vehemently objects, but in the end she honors their wishes and marries him, leading a serene life as a doting mother and active community member. Her marriage eventually fails when she discovers her husband in bed with another woman, and so she leaves him, obtains a divorce, and gains custody of their children. It is at this point that she pursues a career as a singer. She establishes a group called the Crazy Zebras, and they are an instant success in Antananarivo, Paris, London, and New York. Although she is courted by her dear friend André, she remains single. Mike cautions her to be prudent, but Liza takes many lovers (see fig. 15b): older and younger men, Malagasy and perhaps foreign (their relevance will be discussed below).

    Eventually, Liza begins to show signs of fatigue and illness, and word of this soon hits the press. Mike accompanies her when she consults a doctor, who informs her that she has tested seropositive for AIDS. Liza, in shock, exclaims: “WHAT?! I have AIDS, me? … But I was never a drug addict! … I never had a transfusion!!! … Are you sure? … Redo the tests!!!”14 Among her first fears is for her children, but later they and Mike, too, test negative, underscoring the idea that she contracted AIDS while on the road for her new career. That night Liza has terrible nightmares: she imagines herself as a demon, driven from her village by an angry mob; she is judged “guilty” by a court of law; monsters beckon her to hell; and she, too, becomes monstrous as she lies dying in a hospital bed. She later asks Mike to help her guard her secret. Distrustful of condoms, she decides to be celibate. She continues her career, while also remaining a good friend and mother to those she loves. In the end she is hospitalized; following a visit from her closest friends, all of whom are men from the music world, Liza dies alone and quietly in her sleep. André assumes the guardianship of Liza's children, and, posthumously, she gives a hefty donation to the national program responsible for combating AIDS in Madagascar. The comic book ends with a detailed question and answer section in French and official Malagasy that covers such topics as modes of transmission, medical terminology, and preventative measures. Here, as part of a campaign that advocates safe sex, abstinence, fidelity, and sex between virgins are all equally encouraged as partial solutions.

    This comic book promotes several ideas relevant to this current study. The first is the strong contrast between rural and urban life, where, more than anything, wealth and urban diversions are portrayed as corrupting forces in Liza's life. This is evident in the appearance of the prostitutes on the street, and in the boum held at her classmate's home, the latter being where Liza first truly participates in the fast-paced life (p.244)

    Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions

    Figures 15a-b. Liza comic book cover and selected page. From Madagascar 1994.

    Girls and Sex and Other Urban Diversions
    (p.246) of the capital. It also emerges in the character of her bourgeois husband and, finally, in the international whirlwind of the pop music world. All of the characters in this story (save, perhaps, Liza's husband) are portrayed as decent people who strive to do the right things even when the demands of a situation contradict expectations promoted throughout childhood. Liza, a rural girl at heart, is always kind and thoughtful: she honors the wishes of her elders by studying hard; she never stays out late; she marries a man chosen by her parents; and she funds community projects. Her only fault is that she naïvely falls into a fast-paced, sexualized cosmopolitan world as she pursues her career as a singer. In this elite urban world, her most intimate relationships are not with girlfriends or, as typifies village intimacy, siblings,15 but, rather, with a string of anonymous lovers and male musicians like Mike. This transformation inevitably characterizes the social demands of the world of pop music. Most striking of all, though, is the fact that Liza alone contracts the disease, signifying yet again the special dangers associated with the assumed sexual promiscuity of schoolgirls.

    Youth on Sex and Aids

    After I learned of Liza, I actively sought out students' reactions to this story. A significant factor that shaped their responses was the issue of private as opposed to public schooling. Whereas students at the state-run lycée have read and might even own a copy of this comic book, it is unknown to those at the Catholic Academy. The latter are, nevertheless, exposed to AIDS education through oblique references during general school lectures on health and hygiene, and more elaborately through radio plays and other broadcasts, and during discussions with peers. In June 1995, I organized a focus group with ten seminarists in order to talk about mass media images of foreign origin.16 Unlike students from the state-run lycée, only one seminarist had even seen Liza. This is the discussion that followed:

    Alphonse [Looking over the comic book and saying wistfully]: Liza.


  • What's this?
  • LS:

  • Have you all seen this?
  • [Only one of ten are familiar with it; three remained silent throughout this discussion.]


  • What's it about?
  • Alphonse [paging through it]:

  • She's a singer.
  • LS:

  • It's about a girl who contracts AIDS.
  • David:

  • [Takes it from Alphonse and opens it up.]
  • Edmond [Looking over David's shoulder with Bert, Edmond, and Ignace]:

  • She's from the country.
  • David:

  • When she was very young she was from the country. [David later passes the comic book around to others.]
  • LS:

  • What do you think of AIDS?
  • Edmond:

  • It is a mortal danger.
  • (p.247) Florent:

  • It's brought by foreigners.
  • Alphonse:

  • Comoreans …
  • Florent:

  • … vazaha [European foreigners] …
  • Ignace:

  • … Africans.
  • LS:

  • Africans? Which Africans?
  • Ignace:

  • Comoreans then.
  • LS:

  • Do you learn about it in school?
  • Alphonse:

  • Ahh, no.
  • Christian:

  • It's on TV, the radio.
  • Edmond:

  • And at “Sanitary Central”—at the hospital they talk about it.
  • LS:

  • How do you keep from getting it?
  • Ignace:

  • They talk about the value of marriage. And condoms.
  • LS:

  • Is there anyone here [in Ambanja] with AIDS?
  • Alphonse:

  • Ahh, no, not yet, but its coming.
  • Bert:

  • But there was a vazaha here who had it. Oh, it's just gossip, you know. He wasdead from AIDS is what some people say.
  • LS:

  • Tell me more about him.
  • Bert:

  • He lived in [the neighborhood] behind the mission.
  • Christian:

  • He was about35.
  • LS:

  • He was from Ambanja?
  • Bert:

  • No, he was staying in a hotel.
  • Christian:

  • No, no—I think he rented a home.
  • David:

  • Me too, over by the Hotel W.
  • LS:

  • He died at the Hotel W?
  • Bert:

  • Oh no.
  • David:

  • It's what people say happened. You know, its just talk.
  • Alphonse:

  • A rumor, not official news.17
  • LS:

  • So, how do you get AIDS?
  • Alphonse:

  • Blood transfusions …
  • Ignace:

  • … and sexual contact.
  • Bert:

  • But a lot of people don't believe it.
  • Alphonse:

  • Or they're from villages and know nothing.
  • LS:

  • Any other ideas that are false about transmission?
  • Christian:

  • What are you taught in the United States?
  • LS:

  • [I review three major categories: unprotected sexual intercourse, blood transfusions, and needle sharing for drug use.] But my father has this strange idea that it is transmitted by mosquitoes.
  • (p.248) Alphonse:

  • Yeah, some people here think that, too, because they are full of blood. Butthen I guess that means we all have it! [We all laugh—mosquitoes are ubiquitous in Ambanja, especially at night and throughout the rainy season.]
  • Christian:

  • Others think you can get it when you get a shot with the same needle at the hospital.
  • LS:

  • But that's true! that's really serious!18
  • These seminarists' reactions to Liza were enlightening, particularly because this was the first time they had seen the comic book. A primary theme that caught their attention involved contrasts between a fast-paced urban life and village ignorance. As Alphonse describes the uninformed, “[T]hey're from villages and know nothing.” A second idea I wish to pursue here is the imagining of AIDS as an invading force that has only now begun to threaten Madagascar. Alphonse, Florent, and Ignace state this explicitly, identifying Comoreans, vazaha, and Africans as lethal carriers. This sentiment is also embodied in tales of Ambanja's assumed first victim, a man with no local kin ties who is alone, white, and foreign.

    These themes were also expressed by members of the cohort from the lycée, yet they differed in that they offered more critical and politicized analyses of Liza's life in the age of AIDS. A brief excerpt from a discussion at Dalia's house is exemplary:


  • What do they tell you at school, in the hospital, etc. about AIDS and how to avoidit?
  • Foringa:

  • They say, “Tsy mijangajanga”—“Don't go sleeping around”—like a prostitute [makarely], or “Tsy mañano makotipa” [literally, “Don't do bordellos”].
  • Dalia pulls out her copy of Liza and opens it to the page where she is shown embracing different men (fig. 15b). I ask about their appearance, because, to me, one looks blond and European, whereas the others seem dark but have hairstyles more typical of African-American than Malagasy men.


  • What are they, Gasy? Vazaha? [Malagasy? European/white?]”
  • [They respond together]:

  • Gasy jiaby! [“They're all Malagasy!” I am surprised, and so I ask them to explain.]
  • Dalia:

  • … That's what this is all about. All the characters are Malagasy.
  • LS:

  • Hmm, OK. Now, can you explain a term for me again? Why, for example, wouldyou say mijangajanga? Doesn't mijanga imply that one is healthy?
  • Foringa:

  • You say mijangajanga because it is a person who is in great shape—and so they want to go out and about, they want to strut their stuff. … But in the end they aren't healthy. And so the message here is “Don't be a prostitute.”
  • Dalia:

  • But you know, it's more complicated than this. It's just a new form of exploitation: foreigners have imposed their fomba, their ways on us from the beginning of colonial contact. They like to tell the Malagasy what to do, and what is wrong with our culture. They don't like our marriage practices, they don't like (p.249) our ancestral customs [fombandrazaña]. And now, look what they are doing—they say we have too many children, we have too much sex. And so they impose the threat of AIDS upon us, too.
  • Imperialism and the Fear of Aids

    As all of these students' responses make clear, AIDS in Madagascar is framed by broader understandings of foreign invasion. Most frequently, this is articulated in reference to the island's isolated status and recent trespasses across its ocean borders. Yet Dalia adds another dimension, couching her analysis in the deeper historical meanings of conquest and colonization. AIDS emerges in this context as a public health crisis generated from abroad, signifying the hegemony of foreign values and, thus, the associated dangers they impose on the inhabitants of an already marginalized (and, ultimately, intensely vulnerable) African nation. Dalia's arguments thus place the blame for this pandemic squarely in the context of foreign imperialism.

    Paul Farmer 1992 similarly underscores the complexity of what he refers to as the “geography of blame” associated with AIDS in Haiti. Briefly, he identifies three concentric rings of accusation that radiate from the center, or village, to the nation as a whole, and then beyond its borders as a legacy of empire. Thus, within each ring, understandings of AIDS are first shaped locally by sorcery accusations; second, by larger national themes of social stratification and racism; and, finally, by globalized fears that ultimately relegate Haiti to pariah status. Dalia's astute comments clearly echo some of these themes in Madagascar as well.19 But whereas Haiti is blamed for worldwide infection, Madagascar remains vulnerable to AIDS's impending dangers.

    Current concerns for Madagascar's vulnerability stem from islandwide understandings of the breakdown of their nation's long-term isolation and, thus, new impending threats to national security.20 Under Ratsiraka, Madagascar was shielded from the outside. By virtue of socialist isolation, few foreigners ventured to its shores. Furthermore, as a large island that sits virtually alone in the Indian Ocean, it has preserved a protected status of sorts, its watery boundaries making it difficult for unwelcome visitors—along with their practices and ideas—to venture here. Thus, a collective understanding especially throughout the Second Republic was that Malagasy were safe from infection. Under Zafy's Third Republic (and beyond), however, air travel, radio transmissions, and television via satellite opened the nation to a host of foreign forces. By the mid 1990s, ecotourists and other foreign pleasure seekers had begun to flood the northwest, potentially spreading this dreaded disease through sexual encounters with Malagasy women.

    By 1994, I found that anxieties surrounding the mysterious and lethal quality of AIDS had begun to generate an elaborate body of folklore, with tales reminiscent of fears of child snatching in Latin America (Campion-Vincent 1997; Leventhal 1994). The tales I heard in Ambanja inevitably exposed the underbelly of foreign (p.250) relations, with particular emphasis placed on exploitative and predatory practices. Rachida's mother Yvetty, a trader who travels frequently to Antananarivo, offered an especially chilling example:

    Outside Madagascar, a team of foreign scientists has discovered that the AIDS virus can be found clustered prominently in girls' brains. For this reason there is a clandestine trade, a black market, that involves acquiring their heads! A bus driver told me this story: A middleaged woman gets on a bus, and she's carrying a basket that is very heavy. She's really careful with the basket, and she won't let anyone touch it. It has to stay with her all the time, even though it's big and takes up a lot of room, because she refused to let the driver put it on the roof. When it comes time to pay the bus fare to the driver, however, she doesn't have any change,21 and so she sets off in search of some, leaving her basket behind. It is during her absence that the contents are discovered: the basket gets in someone's way, and so they disturb it, knocking it over and exposing what's inside. It is full of the severed heads of young women! She has killed them and cut off their heads to sell them to her contact overseas, who wants them for research purposes to develop a serum against AIDS!22

    As Yvetty's gruesome tale underscores, independent girls are now potentially both victims and villains. Although, like Liza, they are warned by elders and friends to be “prudent” sexually, they may nevertheless fall prey to the lures of urban life. Furthermore, they themselves now harbor greater dangers. Whereas the deuxième bureau and makarely have always threatened domestic tranquility, today these young, daring, and unattached women shoulder the blame for undermining the collective health of their own nation. Because the prostitute cannot be controlled, she bears the potential of becoming a Malagasy AIDS Mary. This theme inevitably emerges in the public health messages embedded in such stories as Liza, exposing new forms of “scientific imperialism” (Lyons 1997, 136 ff.), as well as the sexist and racist underpinnings of AIDS research in Africa (cf. Harrison-Chirimuuta and Chirimuuta 1997). As Dalia herself asserts, “They say, we have too many children, we have too much sex. And so now they impose the threat of AIDS upon us too.” Yvetty's story uncovers an even darker message: that such girls are now the special target for predatory capitalist desires.

    Who, then, in the end are the true victims? Yvetty's chilling tale offers one answer. In the international trade in human body parts, those from young women and girls are perceived in northern Madagascar as highly valued commodities (cf. Burke 2000a and 2000b, Comaroff and Comaroff 1999, Masquelier 2000, and White 2000). Herein lie references to the political economy of scarce and precious goods of a macabre nature, where the heads and brains of Malagasy women can be harvested to serve the needs of the wealthy abroad (cf. again Farmer 1993, 230–31). Only once foreign demands for items of quality are exhausted will the remnants perhaps return home, serving the needs of the nation's elite before the final dregs fall to the poor in dangerous and virulent form. Such is, to borrow Michael Taussig's phrasing, the reality of the “magic of [the] modern” (1987, 274–83). As he (p.251) illustrates, in contexts where medical care is woefully inadequate, one confronts a troubling paradox. What, in the end, is more lethal: inferior products of foreign origin, or imaginative—albeit often life-threatening—local responses to the void left by, at best, mediocre health care? In this vein, Yvetty's story conveys symbolically the nightmarish anger and fears that sometimes characterize Malagasy readings of neocolonial agendas.

    Under the imposition of colonial power Malagasy women were prime targets of a very particular form of attention, taken as mistresses by men of foreign origin and thrust into the role of prostitutes or mistresses in ports and other towns. As this chapter has shown, the pairing of guilt and distress plague girls and young women in unique ways unknown to their brothers and male partners: over historical time, and over the course of their lives, they suffer, first, from school failure, rooted in the experience of the unwanted pregnancy; they bear the local shame associated with prostitution; and, now they bear the responsibility of a national death associated with AIDS. In the end, it is girls and women who consistently bear the heavy burden of sexual trespass as they once again fall victim to the predatory nature of foreign desires.


    (1.) Some of the data and arguments presented here appear in abbreviated form in Sharp 2002.

    (2.) More specifically, this is referred to locally as toko-telo, where the tenant gives the proprietor one-third of his or her harvest.

    (3.) Many of the so-called “American” films are actually produced outside the United States exclusively for non-Western audiences. Two genres are worth mentioning. The first consists of Indian-produced cowboy films staring American actors who have become well-known popular heroes throughout Madagascar. (For a discussion of the popularity of Indian films in West Africa, see Larkin 1997.) Many of my informants were shocked that I had never heard of them and took this to mean that I did not know much about the movies. The second are Italian-produced “commando” films, again starring American actors, modeled heavily on Sylvester Stallone's Rambo. Typically, these follow a group of American soldiers lost in the jungles of Vietnam who courageously continue to fight the war for many years afterward until every man is killed. On a number of occasions, it was explained to me that these films were products of a (my) nation that still hurt from losing this war. James Bond films also qualify as a subset of “commando” films, although in these the hero always survives.

    (4.) Mme. Vezo (alias Mama Vé), a schoolteacher who loves going to the movies, once said with great humor, “We little people [ny olo madiniky] prefer the westerns, kung-fu and commando films because you don't have to speak a word of French to understand them! All you have to do is watch the action! Ha ha!”

    (p.342) (5.) Elsewhere I have referred to Alida as Fatima; I have opted for a new pseudonym here to avoid confusion with the different Mme. Fatima who appears in chapter 2 and Sharp 1996.

    (6.) The fate of her possessions is the subject of chapter 8.

    (7.) Informants cite several origins for this slang term: most frequently they link it to the French term maquereau (“mackerel”) in reference to the fishy smell that lingers after sexual intercourse (the term also means “pimp” in French). Another possibility is maquerelle, a French term for a madam (Feeley-Harnik, personal communication, 2000). Note here, too, the distinctions made between mistresses and prostitutes. For a detailed study of the intricacies of categories within prostitution in colonial Kenya, see White 1990.

    (8.) For a succinct literature review focusing on pregnancy and abortion in school contexts throughout Africa, see Bledsoe et al. 1993, 110–13.

    (9.) Similarly, Bledsoe et al. 1993 speaks of the paradoxes that plague adolescent fertility in Africa, especially among girls, underscoring the “serene normalcy with which most adolescent childbearing is received in many parts of Africa” (p. 7). Although educational and employment opportunities have increased for young women, adolescent pregnancy inevitably forces them to terminate their studies and training. Such trends clearly characterize the experiences of girls as well.

    (10.) One informant reported that injections of “noristera” were also given; I do not know if this is the same as or related to Norplant.

    (11.) For a discussion of ritual play in the colonial literature, see Camo 1931.

    (12.) In 1987, I knew a woman who had worked for a decade as a prostitute in Diégo and who had come home to Ambanja, essentially, to die in her mother's home. At the time I suspected that she might have had AIDS, but this possibility was vehemently denied by local health professionals, because at the time it was accepted as fact that AIDS did not exist in Madagascar.

    (13.) As Ebron 1997 reminds us, European women are invisible partners in the sexual trade in Africa.

    (14.) “QUOI?! J'ai le sida, Moi? … Mais, je ne me suis jamais droguée! … je n'ai jamais eu de transfusion … !!! … Vous êtes sûr? … Refaites les tests!!!”

    (15.) For a discussion of the intimacy between siblings, see Feeley-Harnik 1991, 186–89, 210 ff., 225–29, and Bloch 1995, 73 ff.

    (16.) These materials consisted of photos of female Asian models taken from calendars that are ubiquitous in Ambanja's homes and shops; another showing two European children with a tricycle; one of the opera singer Kiri te Kanawa; another of soldiers and a flag beside President Clinton in the Philippines; an ad for a Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicle; Arnold Schwarzenegger wielding a gun; Nelson Mandela from the cover of Newsweek; the French African comic book Kourakou; and the comic book about Liza. Clinton, Mandela, and Liza were the most popular topics of discussion, in ascending order.

    (17.) I was unable to confirm whether this story was true or local folklore. Several other informants could give me fairly similar accounts of this man's tale, the most important being that he was a European who had not been in town very long when he died. He had no local family, and so some say he was buried locally; others say his body was transported elsewhere where he had kin. None of the health professionals I know could confirm the story. The significance of potential folklore will be discussed below.

    (p.343) (18.) This is, unfortunately, common practice in state-run clinics and hospitals in the region. Medical staff may be in too big a rush (or too lazy) to resterilize equipment during vaccination campaigns and so it is not unusual for young children especially to suffer the consequences. One baby I knew was treated for several months at the Catholic Mission Hospital for a terrible abscess that followed a vaccination administered with an unclean needle at another town's state hospital (see chapter 8).

    (19.) For the relevance of these themes elsewhere, see Treichler 1989, 43, as cited in Farmer 1992, 235; on the “geography of blame” in Africa and associated racist premises, see Harrison-Chirimuuta and Chirimuuta 1997.

    (20.) The political metaphors associated with AIDS operate in both directions. “By the 1990's, our security was further undermined by the worldwide emergence of new and resurgent epidemic diseases [such as AIDS and other diseases],” Shirley Lindenbaum writes, for example, of Western perceptions of world epidemics (1997, 191); for a detailed discussion of such metaphors, see Martin 1994.

    (21.) This was a chronic problem in 1994, a year plagued by a nationwide shortage of coins and small bills. The local post office, for example, would often resort to giving change in stamps. Merchants altered their prices by rounding up or down, or else they would provide candy as change.

    (22.) Farmer similarly offers other “conspiracy tales” from Haiti (1992, 230–21, 239 ff.).