It’s been a while. I had been going through a rut where I felt like everything was pretty routine and not worth writing about. I kind of got into a groove—teaching English classes, singing at English clubs, doing radio jig, sweating a lot, and eating tons of rice.
However, Easter break was pretty exciting. First, some background: the weeks leading up to Easter break were rather tedious and boring because I was doing a lot of review for the end-of-trimester exam. I was full of frustration with myself for not being able to reach half the class no matter how many times I explained things, but also feeling like I was letting the other half of the class down because they understood my lessons the first time I gave them.
Eventually exam week arrived. I was very impressed with the administrative effort that went into this week. Half the time when we don’t have school I don’t find out until I get there. However, for exam week there was a printed schedule of all the different subjects, utilizing every classroom, and mixing up the students by grade level so that it would be more difficult to cheat. I was in charge of proctoring exams in one room on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday (Wednesday being the day my own students took their English exam).
I was probably about as anxious as my students for exam week to end because a big concert was scheduled to take place in Ambanja on Friday, 15 April. The main act was Tence Mena, a female-led, energetic, beat-driven, northern-Madagascar-style band. At Mama’s house, I had seen a few Tence Mena “clippies” (low-budget but always entertaining Malagasy music videos). Hortencia, the frontwoman, has attitude and style, pioneering a hairstyle imitated by many of my students. Fellow PCVs compare her to Rihanna, although I’m not really familiar with Rihanna aside from “Rude Boy” and her Eminem collaboration, “Watch Me Burn” (the latter being extremely popular here in Ambanja).
So, I was pretty excited for this concert. Adding to the excitement was the fact that every one of my students said they were going and everyone around town was talking about it. The main event, a big outdoor concert, was to be held at Ambanja’s Stade Municipal (Municipal Stadium) on Friday night, followed by a more low-key “baly” (ball) at the fancy vazaha restaurant/hotel Palma Nova on Saturday night. The fee for the concert was 2000 Ariary ($1.00) and the fee for the baly was 5000 Ariary ($2.50). That 150% price increase meant that several thousand concertgoers would forego the baly (many people here in Madagascar make 2000Ar/day). A bunch of PCVs from the area were scheduled to come through Ambanja on Saturday, so of course we all planned to attend the baly.
But Friday night was concert night. I was ready to go to the spectacle with my buddy Momyne. I heard Tence Mena wouldn’t show up until 9, but I got to the Stade Municipal at 5 to check things out. An opening act was doing a sound check and lots of street vendors had left the streets and were setting up tables on the massive grass field to sell deep-fried goodies and barbecued meat on sticks. Other than that, the vast field was pretty empty. I stayed and chilled and talked to the snack vendors for hours while waiting for stuff to get going.
Well, about 8 o’clock thousands of people showed up. People didn’t gradually filter in from 5-8. No, around 8, all of Ambanja and the neighboring villages descended on the Stade Municpal’s two-story high stage. Momyne had said he would show up around this time, and somehow I found him amidst the mayhem. We met up with Zakir, a technician from the radio station, and had a few beers while waiting for things to start.
At about 9, an opening band started playing. They were chill, mixing Malagasy dance beats with groovy reggae rhythms. Then came this Ambanja-based rap group, which was rather unimpressive: half a dozen or so dudes taking turns rapping, and then singing off-key refrains in unison.
At about 10:30, it was finally time for Tence Mena—or so I thought. A group of dancers got on stage and performed some choreographed dances to 30 minutes of pre-recorded Tence Mena hits. The crowd was getting restless. At around 11 the band finally took the stage. By this time the giant field was filled with people wall-to-wall. There had been an area roped off in front of the giant stage, but the crowd soon burst through and were constantly pushed back by baton-wielding police officers, hired as security for the night.
I had made it pretty close to the front where every square inch of space was filled with sweaty, writhing bodies. I’ve been to quite a few metal concerts in my day, so I’m used to this sort of scene, but in this instance people were actually dancing rather than just headbanging. I was having a lot of fun in the middle of it all until I noticed my wallet was stolen. Thinking ahead, I had removed my cash and ATM card from my wallet, but I had brought my Peace Corps and Madagascar government-issued IDs (occasionally the Gendarme can get a little shady and make you pay them if you don’t have proper ID on you).
To jump ahead to the end of this story, I filed a police report the next day hoping someone would eventually turn my IDs in. A student here in Ambanja somehow ended up with the wallet, and a couple days ago she called Peace Corps, and I just got my wallet and IDs back from her without any problem. At the time, however, it was a major buzz kill. I sat in some bleacher seats until the concert ended at 2:00 a.m. and walked back home with Momyne.
The next day I was exhausted, but woke up early to file the aforementioned police report and then went to the baly at Palma Nova restaurant/hotel with a bunch of PCVs. It was fun, but definitely nowhere near as intense as the concert. There were only a few hundred people at most, and people were kind of shuffling on the dance floor, watching the group of vazaha with intense fascination. At the concert, everyone had been so busy convulsively dancing that they didn’t pay much attention to me.
The rest of spring break I mostly spent grading tests and reading at home, but that was broken up by a few other fun events. First, PCVs Shayla, Katie, Ali, and Bobette swung through Ambanja on their way up to Diego. Then, I went out to Jason’s site for two days, where we rode bikes to his market, built a mud-brick cook stove for his neighbors, made a delicious fish stew, explored a hidden waterfall, spent a few hours digging his kabone (latrine), ate delicious crab, and filmed a video of his house for the Peace Corps “CRIBS” project.
On Easter Sunday I went to church with Mama, which was interesting. Services normally start at 7:00 a.m., but on Easter things got started at 6:15. She and I arrived as the bells were ringing, and it was packed. A crowd was standing in the door, but Mama pushed through that and somehow procured a little bench for the two of us. I sat for two hours (out of a total 4), not understanding much because it was all in Malagasy. I do know that at one point two people got up and asked to be married, so the priest married them on the spot.
The next day was Lundi de Pâques (Easter Monday), where everyone in Ambanja goes to Ankify beach. Normally this beach is completely empty (you can see pictures on my Facebook). On Lundi de Pâques, though, it was filled with hundreds of Malagasy people picnicking, drinking, dancing, and swimming. I went with Jason and Shayla, Katie, Ali, and Bobette, who had made their way back down to Ambanja from Diego on their way to Djangoa and Nosy Be. We brought a giant pot of rice and beans and relaxed on the beach. While walking around I ran into dozens of my students and neighbors.
At the end of Easter break PCV Molly came ashore off her island (Nosy Be) with her dad, stepmom, and boyfriend Mario. Jason and I accompanied them on a hike up the mountain south of town, and then had dinner at Mario’s aunt’s house. It was an entertaining and delicious meal, made even more fun by the fact that one of Mario’s cousins is a student of mine.
The next day I headed up to Diego for the last weekend before school started. I hung out with PCV Audrey and a cool British guy named Toby who works for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). While in Diego, with the help of my parents and reliable internet, I booked my flights to and from Benin. I leave July 25 and get back August 19. I can’t wait!
Since then, things have pretty much gotten back to normal. I’m trying to make this last trimester a good one, and I just got back into the radio routine after a three-week break. Until next time, I’ll be here, sweating a lot and eating piles of rice.