Tasneem with Malagasy friend - and chickens!

Following up on Tasneem Bhindarwala’s article relating her study semester in Madagascar thedawoodibohras.com got curious and asked her for some more detail of her time there.

Madagascar’s native language is Malagasy. Could you give us an idea of how much Malagasy you learned?

Before I get into how much Malagasy I learned, it would be good to understand how we were taught Malagasy. Our instructors taught us Malagasy through French, meaning that our handle on the French vocabulary and grammar had to be superb – even though at times it was not :).

Most of the Malagasy we learned was either conversational Malagasy to assist us in our excursions through the marketplace or it was about our adventures through the national park – learning the words for tree, forest, etc. I would say by the end of my time in Madagascar if I was listening to my host family speak, I was able to pick up on certain words and phrases that we had learned – but definitely nowhere near fluent! Another issue with Malagasy is that every region in Madagascar speaks a different dialect of Malagasy. So even though there is the main, official dialect spoken in the capital, that language is not necessarily taught and spoken elsewhere – however most are able to understand each other. Therefore, when I learned Malagasy in the Anosy region, it didn’t necessarily help me in the Boeny region 🙂

Why was the ISP (Independent Study Project) so trying and what were the conclusions of that research especially in terms of the women you spoke to?

The ISP was so trying because it was a research experience I had never participated in before. I had never done social science research with semi-structured interviews and structured surveys by myself before – and in French and Malagasy, no less!

I had a translator who I communicated with only in French, and then she would ask my survey questions in Malagasy. This was trying as well because this was the first time for both of us doing this type of work. Also, being of Indian decent and talking about land was not easy in Madagascar. There are many Indian and Chinese companies (and people) that are buying Malagasy land – which creates an inert wariness towards an Indian asking about land tenure.

My conclusions from the research were interesting. Madagascar has shifted over to a more formal land registration system in the past few years, however getting everyone on board with that has been difficult. Most of the women in affluent areas that I spoke to had land certificates and other legal documentation with land in their name. In not-so-affluent areas, I found that the women did not have land titles and certificates under their name and instead relied on the paperwork being under their husband’s names.

Land registration is an ongoing process. As is true almost anywhere, the Malagasy highly prize their land, it is one of their perceptions of wealth. However, Madagascar faces extreme political unrest and poverty, and has suffered with the departure of the French. Land – specifically – has taken a while (and there is still much work to be done) to re-organize in the post-colonial Madagascar that exists today.

Did you meet with any Bohras there – anything of interest in that regard?

Yes! I met many Bohras in Madagascar! Almost every major city I visite, I met Bohras! As we are a “vepaari qoum” (business community) you would see Bohras who had businesses in the center of towns and cities. Their houses and shops were always easily identifiable to the Bohra eye, with a red “Ya Hussain” written, and with Syedna’sTUSpicture in their stores.

Mumineen in Madagascar were most welcoming and loving. In Fort Dauphin, we went for outings, to the beach, and even shared a taxi ride to masjid. I was wonderfully surprised by how caring the Mumineen I met were, and how willing they were to help me in whatever I needed. A friend, Mohammed bhai from Majunga, used to always tell me how crazy it was that I was here in Madagascar! How did an American Bohra end up here? Mumineen always just assumed I had family here, or my origins were African – so they were amused and a little shocked when I would say my origins were 100% Indian!

I had some interesting conversations with some Mumineen. Someone I met in Majunga had told me the story of his great-great grandfather who had come to Madagascar at the age of 16 by boat as he fled from the violent riots in Gujarat during the late 1800s. In Majunga as well, the masjid (which is currently under renovation) is more than 100 years old and there are graves in their cemetery that are from the 1800s!

Throughout Madagascar, I was usually thought of a local by the native Malagasy because Mumineen there are so known by their importance and prominence in the economy.