Ari is an interesting lad who deserves a chapter all to himself. He has a name, which Bertrand, a Frenchman from Vangaindrano, described to me as regal, but which the locals simply pronounce “Ari” without any French nasalisation. He often appeared on the mission courtyard together with other children – he was the contemporary of Zafla, Fla and Dolfa and was therefore about twelve years old. But he did not go to school. The children gave him the flattering title of “director of the marketplace” because that was where he spent most of his time. His self-confident behaviour and the fact that he knew everybody gave the impression that he really was in charge. For us, Ari was a happy-go-lucky character who often made us laugh with his appearance, behaviour and joyful attitude to life. He was quite big for his age and had a pleasant face. One would not think at first that there might be anything wrong with him. He always went barefoot and walked with his feet turned outwards, a bit like a duck. His broad, widely spaced-out toes were further proof that he never wore anything on his feet. The other children found it hard to accept that Ari was different and often pointed at him and his feet, and accused him of having many “parashees” (chigoe fleas or jiggers – parasites which burrow under the skin on your feet and are considered a sign of neglect because they are most often caught by people who rarely wash their feet). Ari was mischievous by nature and liked pinching and teasing the girls, and also fell out with the boys on a regular basis. But when he got his comeuppance, he would cry pitifully like a small child.
Ari’s mental disorder is not very serious and many people have wondered if it is not all a facade he puts on so as not to have to go to school and to have better chances of earning something by begging in the marketplace. However, simply talking to him was usually enough to clear up any such doubts. Sometimes it would be possible to exchange a few perfectly reasonable sentences with him, but soon he would sail off into his own world and stopped answering questions but simply smirked, giggled and said things that were completely out of context.
The sisters (Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent the Paul) in Vangaindrano nevertheless tried to give him an education by inviting him to attend their school. How elegant Ari looked in his light blue shirt – the school uniform. He remained mischievous and full of beans, and kept teasing his fellow pupils – who were roughly half his age because he was put in the first year.
I once went to see him in school and it was clear that Ari’s pranks were detrimental to the education of all the other eager pupils.
At this early stage they were not learning anything more difficult than how to form letters, which they wrote on plastic boards with chalk. A perfectly formed letter A on the teacher’s board became a small banana on Ari’s small board. When I asked him to draw me a banana, he produced a series of triangles with great pleasure and a smile on his face!
But on one occasion Ari showed us very clearly that he could nevertheless outsmart us all. If he came to Sunday mass, he came and went whenever he pleased. This time he sneaked into church shortly before the offertory and approached me with his usual smile. He asked me in a whisper if I could give him some money to place in the offertory basket, which is placed in front of the altar. Following the intercessions, people line up in front of the basket (like at communion) and leave their offering. I gave him some change and Ari disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. After mass, Jaka and I discovered that we had both given Ari some money, which had however almost certainly not ended up in the offertory basket but had most likely been exchanged by Ari into some small treat at the marketplace!
The following Sunday, Jaka and I were sitting together at mass and Ari again appeared bearing his mischievous smile. I had some pain in my knee so I willingly gave my offertory gift to Ari for him to take to the basket. Meanwhile, we made sure that he stayed with us in the pew and did not scamper off to the marketplace. When the offertory queue formed, Jaka held Ari by the shoulder and made him stand before him in the line. And that is when Ari pulled off his trick: just before reaching the basket he pocketed the 1,000 ariary note I had given him and exchanged it for a 50 ariary coin, which then landed in the basket. He did not join us again in the pew and we found him after mass sitting contentedly on some planks near the parish house, eating yoghurt and greeting us with a grand “bonjour”!
At last the wish I have had ever since my first visit to Madagascar has been fulfilled – I had always wanted to go to sea with the local fishermen in their small wooden dug-out canoes.
The alarm woke me at 3.45 am. I dressed quickly and cycled off to the part of Farafangana known as Chicken Island. It was still dark and only a half moon lit my way. Everything was quiet in the fishermen’s village. Soon the fisherman, with whom I had arranged to meet, appeared. He took my bicycle and hid it away in his small house with incredible patience. The other family members were still sleeping under mosquito nets while the cock began to crow. With a paddle each in hand we set off to the riverbank where the “lakanas” or dugout canoes were waiting for us on the sand. Together with another young fisherman we paddled off across the incredibly warm water of the river towards the great sandbar, which separates the river from the ocean. We were joined there by two more young men so that we made a team of five in a longer and broader dugout. I thought we would have more trouble crossing the wild waves, which break violently onto the beach but the fishermen know precisely how to time it and we quickly passed them.
Away from the beach, the peaks of the waves are more rounded and much further spread out and there is not so much danger of the dugout capsizing. Near the beach some solitary fishermen in small dugouts were fishing with nets. Every so often we saw a fish swim up near the water surface. To my surprise, the fisherman didn’t exclaim “fish”, but instead used a Malagasy word, which means “food that is eaten with rice” (laoka). About half a kilometre from the coast we came across our first buoy indicating a net belonging to our fishermen. We pulled the buoy up onto our vessel and two of the fishermen together pulled the net in. At the very end there was a heavy rock, which holds the net down onto the seabed.
The fishermen said they go out to sea to check their nets once every two days – weather-permitting of course. We checked about five or six of them and one contained a large ray. They cut off its wings and tied them onto the net as bait before returning the net to the sea. One of the nets contained three small sharks that were brownish white in colour and I think they were without teeth.
I felt no sickness to begin with, despite the waves. Even the fishermen were surprised that I was not vomiting. But later I was sick! The smell of fish was undoubtedly at least partly to blame. Meanwhile, the fishermen assured me that they had not vomited even when they went out to sea for the very first time. They probably have the sea in their blood because their fathers are also fishermen. However, I found it funny that they had no idea in which direction Europe, America, China or Japan were. They seemed genuinely interested when I pointed out the approximate direction of these continents and countries.
We met a whole convoy of dugouts with up to six fishermen in each one, who were all paddling energetically northwards. My fishermen told me these others came from a place approximately 12 km south of Farafangana and that they fish using hooks and lines instead of nets. During our return to land, the sky clearly showed that a storm was coming in from the east, the wind was blowing quite strongly and cooling us down to such an extent that I actually felt cold on several occasions (the sun had hidden itself behind the clouds).
Our return to land was similar to our departure – perfectly executed despite the violent waves. We leaped joyfully up out of the narrow vessel in which we had been crouching or sitting awkwardly for almost four hours. Other fishermen on the beach were surprised to see that a white fisherman had also been to sea!
While crossing the river with the other dugout, the storm reached us at last. But it was a surprisingly pleasant feeling not to care one bit about being wet because the rain was warm and I felt one with nature and the locals!
From the book (in preparation) Stories from Madagascar. (Ed.)
Translated from Slovenian by author