One ear open


I’m snuggled in my tent in the mayor’s backyard, in a dusty village lost in the Malagasy brousse. The mayor has malaria, but it seems routine here and nobody is worried. As faces from the day’s hike march across my memory, Morris’s voice wakes me from my half sleep: “Inside. Now. There’s been some… disturbance”. The pause between the last two words of my guide is all I need to snap into alertness.

As I scuttle inside with the tent, Morris barricades all the doors and windows. “Hear that? The whistling? That’s the warning call that there are bandits attacking the village”. The church bells clang repeatedly to make sure everyone is awake to affront the danger together. After listening carefully to the next round of whistling, Morris tells me that he must go out and join the men. “Women and children stay inside”. He shows me how to lock the door behind him and disappears off into the darkness.

I lie still, listening to the nervous clamoring of women’s voices, whistle-blowing, the clucking of hens, church bells, pigs squealing, pattering feet running in all directions: nothing sounds familiar. If the situation escalates, there is nobody here to explain to me what to do. The only French-speaking person in the village is outside in the darkness, defending the rest of us alongside the other men. I am helpless.

As I sit in murky silence – “don’t turn on your torch and don’t make a noise, OK?” – I do the day’s trek backwards in my mind, trying to calm myself with some of Morris’ stories. I watch us walk together through the rice paddies and I listen to him explaining that a perfect couple in Madagascar is “like rice and water”. “They are together from the very beginning when the seeds grow in the fields, to the very end in the saucepan,” he tells me. Next, I see us crunching on stringy sugar cane and I hear him telling me that girls here will often complain to their friends about having been “treated like sugarcane” by an ex-boyfriend. He’s enjoyed the good part and then dropped and forgotten her, in the same way that after sucking out the nectar, I throw away the fibrous remains of the cane. I watch the inevitable crowd of children nearby follow the path of my throw, leaving no doubt that they’ll be rummaging in the foliage for my sugary cast-offs as soon as I’m out of sight. Drawn into these scenes of the impoverished yet peaceful world of the Malagasy countryside by day, I forget that I am currently caught in a tribal conflict in that very same Malagasy countryside by night.

A soft knock on the door makes me start and Morris returns triumphantly, bringing the news that the ringleader of the attack has been captured, but that the others have escaped. There shouldn't be any more trouble tonight, but still… “Sleep with one ear open”, he says, and winks.

R.Collings

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