blood money


Sunday, October 28, 2007

I am going to tell you a story.  It's a story about Madagascar.  But it's not a story about the lemurs or chameleons here, or is it about any of the eighty percent flora and fauna indigenous to the country.  It's about the people, the precious stones and gems found here.  It's about gold.  And it is about death.

They call it vola meina.  Literally it translates to money that is red.  Or more easily off the tongue -- red money.

I have thought long about it's meaning and the name for gold because I wouldn't precisely say gold is red in color.  Because it's not.  Nor is the money the Malagasy person receives from the gold they find red.  More accurately I think gold is given its name of "red money" because of the dirt and mud and earth a person has to bury and sift their way through just to get this money.  Or perhaps it is "red money" because of the blood they shed when things fall apart.

I was invited to visit Ambalabe a little less than six months ago.  I sought out Perline (maman'i Rolaliquika) just shortly after I arrived in Fiadanana because I learned she was raising chickens.  After we talked about the birds, she asked me to go to the town she was from for a visit because her older brother was now the president of the Fokantany there.  I agreed I would go and visit but it wasn't until six months later that I would make good on my promise.  I was still learning the language and culture and it was best to wait.

Finally after I returned from my three month in service training I felt ready to venture out to see new things and experience a new town.  Perline's older brother, Joel, passed through Fiadanana and we made the necessary arrangements.. what I would do there, how many days I would stay, and the purpose of my visit.  Consequently, it was decided I would arrive on a Friday to talk about the concerns of the Village/Fokantany by using a technique called 'PACA' or Participatory Action Community Analysis.  We also decided the following day I would work with the women's group and we would bake an "Amerikan Style" cake and continue on to introduce and build a fuel-efficient cookstove.

And so, with the program decided, Perline and I set off for Ambalabe on the morning of Friday, October 26, 2007.

Traveling under the bamboo of Madagascar can at times, be a bit tricky and challenging -- especially when it has rained or is raining.  However, this particular Friday morning happened to be an absolutely gorgeous day.  The weather was not too terribly hot or sunny and the rain had held off for several days prior to our departure.  We often went barefoot and the dirt paths dried to a soft spongy texture very agreeable to the foot.  We passed through Anjahambe and to the lakana across the Manigory River to the other side.  The rest of the way held the Manigory to our left and we crossed three bamboo monkey bridges.  Upon approaching Ambalabe, we also passed several people -- approximately two to three dozen -- shoveling sand and dirt near the river's edge. 
The sight prompted me to ask, "What are they building?"
The question drew a hearty laugh and reply, "Nothing. 
                                                                                  They are digging for gold."

I have come accustomed to seeing the pock marks and piles of rocks left by the people who have dug for gold near the water's edge.  But before this day, I have never seen so many people engaged in this work.  Perhaps there is not that much gold left in the vacinity of Fiadanana or perhaps there just isn't that much to begin with due to the distance from the river.  But whatever the reason, only on a few occasions have I seen the random person or handful of people engaged in the activity.

However, I have already learned just from seeing and talking to people, the work is very difficult.  Throughout the entire day the person stands in water or mud as they sift through shovelfuls of sand, dirt, and rocks.  I have seen the people return home drenched in dirty sodden clothing.  For one gram of gold they receive 30,000 Ariary or the equivalent of approximately $15.00.  Sometimes it takes a month to find one gram of gold equaling 1,000 Ariary or
$ 0.50 / day.

We came to the residue in the water from the people working long before we reached the place where they were located.  It was a film that hung on the surface of the river down stream and I was well aware of something being amiss, not quite right, or disturbing the natural tendencies of nature herself.  Later that evening as I sat on the front porch of the fokantany house, I saw the people come in from their labor as described: covered from head to toe in sodden, muddy, cold clothing, carrying long shovels and their carved wooden sieving pans balanced on their heads. 

Perhaps they were returning from a lucky, prosperous day with the red money nestled safely in a glass vile - or - more likely, they were returning with just a mere portion of that.  Fifty cents a day ... maybe 500 Ariary's worth that would allow them to buy five tomatoes or a cup and half of rice.

I suppose looking back I should have seen that Saturday was a day of premonition.  It foreshadowed the events of the day to follow.  I awoke during the night to the hard sound of rain on the roof and it rained all throughout the day a we baked a cake in the house near the entrance to the village.  It was a cold, miserable day, even standing by the fire as we baked the cake.  It aptly fit the bill as a good day to stay inside and bake.  With the weather being as it was, I was shocked once again to witness inhabitants of Ambalabe return from the river carrying the tools necessary for finding gold.  Even as I stood by the fire safely dry under a borrowed umbrella, I was not comfortable in my pants and sweater nor warm enough.  I, for all my mind's powers of imagination, can not even begin to grasp the fortitude of the men and women who spent the day at the river digging through mud, sand, and rocks dressed in a t-shirt and shorts.

We finished the cake -- shared it amongst over 50 people (mostly women and children) and I retired after lunch to take my afternoon "siesta".  I awoke to a continued rain, went to the Fokantany house through the mud under the umbrella.  Perline was in the midst of creating another gateaux.  As I sat there a boy, perhaps the age of 10, came by to visit and see what was going on.  He had two lightweight clear glossy stones in his hand.  I asked to see them and as I palmed them in my hand admiring their natural beauty I learned two things:
First, according to Perline, they weren't any good and
Second, that this young boy of about 10 years old found them earlier that day as he was looking for gold.

Before returning to my room for the night I was given two volandalanas.  A large bag of rice and two bunches of the sweetest bananas I had eaten in a long time.  I was also bid farewell by a great man, white in the hair, because the next morning he and his wife would be leaving early to go to a neighboring town to receive the body of a family member who had passed away.  The gesture was kind and thoughtful -- as to have the forethought to say 'veloma' the night before.

I woke in the morning twice before the wailing began.  The first time was long, or perhaps only an hour or two, before the sun came up because my blankets left me cold and in need of more covering.  The second time I woke was of natural circumstances -- activity already began outside the perimeters of my walls.  People were cooking, washing and the chickens were crowing.  As I lay in bed, awake but not yet ready to begin my morning routine I heard the cries of people, women and young children.  At first I was unaware if it was laughter or real suffering.  But then as time continued and someone passed my window, I knew the sound could only be brought on by genuine tears.

I have heard the wails before, but only once.  They signify something is amiss and leave a distinct feeling of fear and uncertainty.  Unnerved and doubtful, the wails were brought on by the death a few days prior in Tamatave. 

I opened my window and front doors to my room.  Still unclear of what was occurring I sat back down on the foam mattress and continued to get ready to make my first morning appearance.  It was then, as I sat on the bed and was in the middle of pulling and tying my hair back, that Perline came to the door calling my name with urgency and panic in her voice.  When she finally made eye contact with me I could see that something was horribly wrong by the look on her face as she told me somebody was dead.  Confused, and seeking a connection, I asked if it was the person from Tamatave spoken about the night before.  "No" she explained, it was somebody else who died just this morning.  A man, still young; he lives in Ambalabe.

We stood at the door together watching people pass as she explained that he was digging for gold and the earth around him caved in and buried him.  Nobody else saw it happen and maybe he was twelve years old.  Then, as if our talking summoned his body men carrying the spoken-of-dead entered Ambalabe and passed the doorway where we stood. 

We both fell silent as he floated limply hoisted by hands that held him under his armpits and backs of knees.  His head, tossed back and neck straining from lack of support, bounced and swayed like a tree in the wind or the ocean in rhythm to the stride of those laden with the task of returning him to Ambalabe for the final time.

. . . . . . .

"Hitanao, Jessika?"

"Do you see, Jessika?" asked Rodalesh.

There's a banana leaf laying on the sand where it happened.
That is where he was buried.
That is where he was buried before he died.
That banana leave, hauntingly the relative size of his body, marks where he came to his end.

As I returned to Fiadanana with Rodalesh, we passed the river, now on my right, and the place where the people toil for gold.  But this time nobody was there.  The day was silent and sadly beautiful.  The rain had stopped and the sky and air was clear with the new front that moved in.

Before leaving Ambalabe, I learned the boy dead wasn't a boy at all but a young man, maybe 20 or 21 years old.  He was trying to dig up enough money to go to the JeryJery music festival that was to begin just four days later in Vavatenina.  He could have been my friend, or the friend of any of the 20-something year old aged volunteers who now reside in Madagascar.  And it was easy to understand his quest.  A 20 year old guy trying to earn his way to the biggest concert of the year.

"Do you see, Jessika?" He asked.

Yes. I see.  Sadly it is all too clear. 

"Yes. I see." I replied.
                      Sadly I see and it is all too clear.

Perline said it is difficult to get money in Ambalabe.

Throughout my stay in Ambalabe, frequently as we would eat together a lull or silence in the conversation would be interrupted by somebody simply saying, "Etats Unis."  As if saying the word alone could make the understanding of the place all the more possible.  As if speaking the name would somehow make it real.

Almost as perplexed or baffled, or perhaps even more so, I would repeat the word as well, in agreement, "Yeah. Etats Unis."  Often accentuated with a little laugh on the end -- a punctuation of sorts.

Then they would say, "that's far."
-- and yes I would agree, it is very far away.









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