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Madagascar: Real & Imagined

Madagascar illustration                  Dr. Lesley sharp, professor of anthropology, noticed a trend: Students who opted for study abroad in Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island off the coast of southeastern Africa, contextualized their experience in terms of the country’s flora and fauna rather than its people. “I was finding there was no mention of people in the discussion of the students’ conservation work,” says Sharp. Learning about the people was the very reason anthropology major Severin-Aimé Mahirwe (CC ’10) enrolled, “I literally had no conception of Madagascar, especially in relation to the African continent. Other than the animated movie and vague references to rainforests, I had no associations with the island.”

                  By training a medical anthropologist, Sharp first visited Madagascar in 1981 and went on to conduct research there between 1986 and 1995. In more recent years, she identified a need to expand knowledge about the island and designed a seminar that would help students historicize. Her aim was to “bring people back into the picture and think about global ideas and global needs at the local level.”

                  Key questions guided the development of the seminar: How was Madagascar settled and by whom? How do we talk about Madagascar whose real and imagined image has been framed by misconception? Why is it that we rarely talk about the slave trade in terms of the Indian Ocean? How has the past shaped current environmental policy? This reading- and writing- intensive seminar addresses these questions through five main instructional units—The Making of an Island, Slavery In and Beyond Madagascar, Of Kin & Kind: Social and Other Landscapes, Colonial Encounters and Their Aftermath, and Territorial (Dis)Locations. The course seeks to expand awareness by critiquing the exoticism that pervades accounts of Madagascar and exploring the country’s extraordinarily complex social and political history.

                  In addition, by developing an understanding of its unique location in the Indian Ocean, which is often seen as its source of isolation, students fulfill course goals as described in the syllabus: “to appreciate Madagascar’s relevance within contexts that extend beyond its ocean borders” and “to grapple with questions of why the Indian Ocean arena is so frequently neglected or overlooked.”

                  The seminar is structured around a series of texts, such as Maurice Bloch’s seminal work Placing the Dead: Tombs, Ancestral Villages, and Kinship Organization in Madagascar and the timely Endangered Species: Health, Illness and Death among Madagascar’s People of the Forest by Janice Harper. One of Sharp’s own books is required reading. In The Sacrificed Generation: Youth, History, and the Colonized Mind in Madagascar, she examines the historical consciousness of Malagasy youth and how they reflect on the past. Young people drew on the past as a means to understand their current predicament in an impoverished and isolated country, where themes of enslavement, forced labor, and wartime conscription in the colonial era provided ways to understand the origins of contemporary problems. Another of Sharp’s books, The Possessed and The Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity, and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town, which is focused on her early research on spirit possession, is optional reading.

                  Slavery was a major force in shaping Madagascar’s history, and students spend the first half of the course thinking and rethinking the terms “slave trade” and “diaspora.” The Malagasy people are traditionally mobile, and many have been displaced. Student Christine Maloney ’11 comments, “Urbanization has instigated a Malagasy diaspora, and I think it is easy to forget how big the island actually is and how penetrating the inevitable social effects of moving away from one’s homeland can be.” Taking a critical approach to terminology challenges the misconceptions surrounding Madagascar, from the romanticized myth of the peasant to overpopulation, to environmentalism as a new phenomenon. Sharp notes that colonial records echo Madagascar’s contemporary concerns to protect its forests, “We’re repeating history without even realizing it.” Understanding the country also means understanding the Malagasy way of thinking. Although the people are certainly focused on daily survival, “Malagasy people are also focused on death,” says Sharp, “and the money they accumulate is often invested in tombs. You invest in the place where you’re going to buried so you might one day become an ancestor.” Alexandra Ingber ’12, a seminar member, says she finds the concepts of ancestral ties and kinship fascinating to discuss in terms of Madagascar and how they differ from other African cultures and religions.

                  The Madagascar seminar is open to any undergraduates, although most students are Africana studies or anthropology majors. Maloney speaks about the importance of the course: “With so many foundational ideas and theories to grasp in undergraduate work, it is a treat to take a truly specialized class. I think Barnard offers unparalleled access to some of the best professors and researchers in the anthropology field, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to take a class in Professor Sharp’s area of expertise.” Sharp allows her students to formulate their own conceptions of Madagascar, “I do go in with a lesson plan, but generally don’t go into class with preconceptions of what we’re supposed to be doing with the material. Everyone does not have to reach the same conclusions by the end of the class. This is what makes a seminar such a wonderful experience—each year you teach a class, very different things can happen.”

-by Stephanie Shestakow '98, illustration by Michael Sloan