I thought a moment. Maybe I didn’t want to know.
“We usually bring the family food, not money.” I replied as we, the entire staff of the local middle school, ambled along the town’s dusty back roads, having canceled the last few hours of school to give our condolences, an envelope with 5,000 Ariary, to the family of one of our co-worker’s cousin’s fathers.
At the house, the scene consisted of a group of stoic-faced people on rows of slapped-together benches. A bright, plastic, tarp awning – the ubiquitous, but far from morbid, symbol of mourning – covered the courtyard. The only noise came from a family of chickens pecking at the dirt and a few small children in yellow t-shirts babbling at each other. One child crept over to his mother and unabashedly gawked at me. Not in the mood to stare back, I instead glanced towards the gate where the other child had taken off her shirt and while standing in between the enormous, iron doors was holding it over her head giggling. None of the adults paid any attention; they were like robots put in the “off” position.
From there, the teachers and I were ushered into a musty room. I had held my breath not wanting to smell death, but not really knowing what death smelt like anyways. From my spot I saw no coffin or body and inhaled a breath of relief. It still didn’t smell fresh, but so much of the time places in Madagascar smell raw and human anyways. “We are sorry,” the principal said to begin his apologetic and murmured speech while facing the audience of mourners. The head of the family mumbled a speech in reply, and back and forth they went with their hushed formalities.
As they spoke, I counted the observations I had gathered throughout my time here on Malagasy views on the matter: friends smiling and casually mentioning a death; students showing up for class the day after a parent dies, hardly letting it disrupt their normal course of life. “Malagasy, especially in the highlands, hold so much in,” a Peace Corps friend once observed. Her words reminded me that in the end, it’s not necessarily that the feelings don’t exist, but as outsiders we can’t always see them. Coming from a typically gregarious American culture, I often find it difficult to decipher the subtle and often passive displays of Malagasy emotion, to read between the laughs that seem to be a reaction to every situation.
Snapping back into the reality of the musty room tucked away in the maze of our town, our two groups ended their speeches. With both hands we gave our condolences. With both hands, the family received the envelope. With both hands, each teacher shook each family member’s hand. A soft din of murmurs filled the room as people slowly cleared out to reveal a corner I couldn’t see before. There, lying stiff and half covered with the white sheet his family would eventually wrap and bury him in, and for decades to come would change for him whenever he came to them in their dreams, shivering from the cold and asking not to be forgotten, was the deceased man.