Every time I watch the fampitaha, my heart aches, and I can see Sahasoa again, where I spent the first years of my life with the people under the sky. I can see Fara again, who was crowned queen of the competition. Back then, we still rolled the gatestones across the entrances to our fortified villages, every night, before dusk fell. The rice fields were bounded only by the swampland, teeming with life, and by the limits of human labor. That was the age of childhood fancies and the first schools, of bullfighting, nighttime stories, and chameleon battles. What of that now remains? That world is slowly fading from my memory, its edges frayed by the passing years, washed away by the tide of time like the old, sun-bleached bamboo stalks from our fishing rafts. It erodes under the here and now, like our red walls under the monsoon rains.
No, nothing stirs my soul as much as a procession of girls coming around a clay wall, richly dressed for the fampitaha dance competition. Their eyes sparkle with a child’s desire to please; that has survived the test of time. Their ribbons and flowers are a feast for the eyes and the spirit. When they dance in our dust-ridden streets, curving their wrists and bending gracefully at the waist, the finest fruits of the great, wide past burst forth, reborn. The old tree is granted new life in its tiny seeds.
Despite the years marching past, I remember my arrival in Sahasoa in great detail. I still remember that sun-drenched morning during the Alakarabo moon when Rado brought me to the village. As we walked through it, children started flocking to us, raising a cloud of dust. Even the dogs came up to sniff me. I felt very fragile. Lost, filled with fear.
“Haody, Nenibe! Hello! Is anyone here?” Rado said, walking into the hut.
Fara and Bao were at the market. Bebe was alone, burning incense in the northeast corner. I’d followed Rado but stopped at the door, dazed.
Everything was new to me. I was assaulted by smells, sounds, and lights from every corner of the house, a very different world from where I was born. The placement of objects was unpredictable, threatening. The bed looked fit for a funeral. The water vessel was a weird color. The winnowing basket for sifting rice looked like the wrong size.
“Mandrosoa tompoko! Tonga soa! Inona ny voan-dalana? What have you brought us?”
Even the central midlands drawl—which I’ve now adopted—made me instinctively afraid. It reminded me of the slave market, of the soldiers. The welcoming words cut open my wounds again.
In my far-off childhood, my father had often spoken of this tribe, the long-eared Merinas, whom he called amboalambos—pig-dogs. The elders described them as cruel, underhanded beings, devoid of all mercy. The forest people, my people, had always valiantly resisted their attempts to invade, hiding at the slightest warning in the impenetrable, age-old forest. But one day, my village was taken by surprise and destroyed with absolutely no remorse. Soldiers descended on my community in the early dawn, like a cloud of evil red crickets, sowing death and desolation. Amboalambos [AC1] were the enemy.
That first day, seeing Bebe with her drooping ears in the shadowed hut, I recoiled, horrified.
Yet the elder woman’s home became mine over the years. Mine, like the foreign shore where the waves spit you out after a shipwreck. Like those makeshift shelters to run to before a whirlwind, underground, where you unexpectedly find new faces. And a new destiny.
How to Become a Devoted Slave
I’ve kept a habit from my early years among the amboalambos, of massaging my wrists and ankles for hours on end. I do it whether sitting, squatting, or lying down, whenever I could, to circulate my blood. I never could shed the obsession. Sometimes in the morning when I wake, I look at the Creator’s rising sun and contemplate my own hands and feet in amazement. I still wonder if I’m truly free.
Rado bought me at a slave market. When he brought me to Sahasoa, Fara was seven. I was two years older than her, but I looked a year younger, and I still spoke with a lilting forest accent. My home village had been razed to the ground when Radama’s troops attacked. All the men were killed, and the soldiers had ransacked all their possessions. Having captured the women and children, the king’s troops kept a handful as trophies and sold the rest at the slave market. They killed my father and my grandfather, my two older brothers, my two paternal uncles, and my maternal uncle. My childhood memories are haunted by bodies littering the ground.
At the time, children were going for thirty to sixty piasters on the slave market. Young girls were popular for their domestic use. Older girls were more expensive, and beautiful captives could bring in eighty piasters. Little boys were sold for an average of thirty piasters, but any with a particular skill were worth more.
I was sold for forty piasters. It was a good price.
Sometimes I laugh, because I’ve realized that even the memory of the dealer—a foul man with formal speech, so typical of that time—has become a weirdly precious treasure. My owner was a smooth-talking hawker. A career man, he was good at his job, not like those soldiers who captured and sold willy-nilly around the countryside. His is a permanent mark in my memory; time will not alter it.
This occurred during the last crescent of the Alakarabo moon, in the fifteenth year of the Sovereign King’s reign.
This is essentially how the dealer sounded: “What would you say to a little slave to distract you, my good sir? This one right here will enchant your evenings with the melodious sound of his valiha; the ancestors will bestow their favor upon you! His music is fresh as the dawning dew-covered day, more poignant than the setting sun on the hillside! This slave is small as a louse and black as the inside of a cooking pot, but his fingers have been blessed with inspiration by the most benevolent of our forest spirits!”
I never knew the dealer’s name. I must have had occasion to hear it, but I never retained it. Perhaps because I didn’t want to.
Rado didn’t intend on buying a slave. But he came over anyway. I was squatting by a grain basket among stacks of baskets and sacks of goods. My ankles were chained together, and I looked aggressively, silently, at this strange man walking toward me. What did he want? Nothing good. Probably to hit me, hurt me, like so many others had done since my capture. Seeing Rado’s interest, the dealer whose name I’ve forgotten held a stringed valiha zither out and ordered me to play. The customer was waiting. I acquiesced with a grimacing smile—showing too much malevolence would have caused horrible punishments later.
Rado seemed interested.
“How much?” he asked.
“You won’t regret this choice, good sir! You have a rare opportunity, the ancestors have surely brought you here, it was just this very morning that a noble lord from A…[AC2] offered me a pair of sheep for him. I refused, I wanted to keep him for myself, you understand. My wives just love the valiha. The second in particular, the youngest, she goes into raptures whenever she hears its wistful chords.”
As he spoke, the merchant gestured invitingly with a knowing smile, which Rado returned coldly.
“So why are you selling him now? Is he sick?”
“Oh no, not at all! He’s in perfect health! He also never begs to be allowed to play, which is a welcome quality. You know the proverb, ‘A slave skilled at the valiha: when you ask him to play, he refuses, but as soon as you speak of work, he goes mad for music!’ You won’t worry about that with this one—”
“You still haven’t told me why you want to sell him.”
Without answering, the dealer turned to me and barked, “Get over here, you!” I shuffled forward, the chains fettering my feet.
The dealer clamped his hand onto the top of my head and turned me around, showing off my limbs and thin torso.
“He’s called Tsito. He’s a little skinny, but he comes from good stock. He’ll work hard and won’t bother you. I broke him in very well.”
Rado examined me carefully for marks of abuse. I lowered my eyes. It wasn’t allowed, looking at a master. I’ve also kept that habit, lowering my eyes when I talk to people. It’s very hard for me to hold someone else’s gaze.
Slave traffickers procure their merchandise in several ways. The simplest is to buy them from soldiers when they return from the countryside, as happened with me. They can also do the village circuit, touring around to the many families who are enslaved because of debts or poverty. Sometimes, dealers will send their henchmen to capture ordinary people who get lost on the roads or venture out alone a little too far from home. The most common technique to break them in is the trial of water, which consists of binding the captive’s hands and feet and plunging their head into a tub of water until they start to suffocate. The procedure is repeated over several hours and only stops once the victim declares, convincingly, “I confess that I am your slave and that my ancestors are your ancestors’ slaves.”
I’d been broken in well, as the dealer said. Very well.
Slaves who don’t show marks of violence aren’t necessarily better treated. But Rado couldn’t know that. The only visible marks on me were dark furrows that the ropes had left on my wrists and ankles. In some ways, these marks recorded the least violent aspect of enslavement: being bound. In a twist of irony, the body does not preserve any outward sign of the most brutal part: suffocation, temples threatening to burst, slipping unutterably toward death.
Well, actually, mine did. I was two years older than Fara, but I looked one younger—my body refused to grow, which was the only way my bones and muscles revolted, lasting well beyond my captivity. As an adolescent, I sometimes wondered if my ancestors were doing that to punish me for enslaving them to the ancestors of the amboalambos. And of the nameless dealer.
On the day when Rado came, the slave trafficker shoved me toward him and heaved a deep sigh.
“I’ve decided to part with him, good sir, because I have a large family to provide for. You must understand, I am a poor man. I don’t have the means to feed one more mouth—”
“You still haven’t told me the price.” Rado interrupted his little speech. “And where is this child’s mother?”
“She died, my good sir! Along with the rest of his family. That is, alas, the harsh law of war. You’ll be taking in a little orphan here. You know what our ancestors said: ‘A crying orphan, only pitied by the back of his own hand.’ Through your purchase, you will save him!”
My owner pulled a mournful face, ever the true professional.
In that moment, I was wracked with despair, and tears sprang to my eyes. The dealer was lying again. All of my other family members had been sold. Those who trade in men find it wiser to get rid of the adults first, for if parents see their offspring leave before them, they become uncontrollable. Some even attempt suicide. In any case, the merchandise is spoiled and is harder to sell.
This seller was definitely a career man. Night made me a confidante, tied to the foot of his bed: he sighed and reminisced sadly about the time when the business of lost men still flourished. Ever since the Sovereign King prohibited the export of slaves, ceding to British pressure, the trade was no longer what it had been.
I never saw any of my family members again, after that time.
But I found Fara.
Beyond the Rice Fields
Translated from the French by Allison M. Charette
2017, Restless Books