If you know what raffia is, then you know almost as much of the Malagasy language as I do.
Raffia is the only Malagasy word I’ve come across that has made its way into English. I nail that one every time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come up very often.
I’m learning Malagasy, but right now I can’t even remember how to say, “I’m learning Malagasy.”
I’ll look it up…
Mianatra teny Malagasy aho!
But one word I noticed right away—with a bit of PTSD dread—was tsara. The “t” is silent, and it rhymes with the last two syllables of “Guadalajara.”
More than 3000 miles away, in the language Kamtok, a word for “white man” was ssarra—which also rhymes with “Guadalajara.” (Cameroonian Pidgin English is known as Kamtok by those of us who wish to elevate its linguistic legitimacy.)
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, I learned to hate the word ssarra.
Ssarra was sometimes used innocuously, as in, “I’d like to buy that ssarra a beer.” Other times, it was hissed from the mouths of punks—not quite as an epithet, but with inflected meanness and disrespect; as if to say, You are The Other!
And 20-plus years ago, ssarra was a symbol for why I did not extend for a third year in the Peace Corps. My love-hate relationship with life in Cameroon swung constantly along that spectrum. But back then I never quite learned to manage the emotional spike I would feel when I would hear, Sssssaaaarrrrrrrra!
My brother Matt, who teaches a course in cross-cultural psychology, loves to retell to his students about the time I was on my motorcycle in Cameroon, gliding slowly and carefully down a muddy, deeply-rutted road. As I passed a Cameroonian kid, perhaps 18 years old, he called me ssarra. I reached out with my left hand and smacked him on side of the head. It was a gentle smack, as smacks go, with a gloved open palm.
I looked back to see the kid I had smacked smiling at me, as if to say, Touché!
Not much different, as I recall, from the smile on the face of this guy.
But I was shocked at my own action. I’d finally succumbed to the temptations of the mefloquine demons in my blood. I looked down at my gloved hand and asked myself, What have I become? I did some serious introspection after that, which helped to moderate my emotional responses to the s-word, and cultural adjustment in general.
So, this year, when I contemplated living in Africa once more, 20 years later, I had to ask myself, Am I ready to deal with that bullshit again?
I decided that, yes, I was.
I had matured and mellowed; that I could deal with whatever equivalent Malagasy word I would be forced to endure.
That word in Malagasy, by the way, is vazaha, and it rhymes with “buzz saw.”
And so far I have never heard vazaha spit at me with the same cutting inflection as ssarra.
Vazaha just means “foreigner.”
On the other hand, tsara (the Malagasy homonym for ssarra) means “good” or “good luck.”
All over Antananarivo you will see the word tsara in marketing—on billboards, on taxis, on packaging.
Look again at the first photo of the ridiculously photogenic guy selling baked goods from a bicycle. It’s emblazoned with Tsara.
Because tsara means “good,” logically, there can be no negative connotation of tsara. The old emotional trigger, if it had any potency left, has no power here.
Aho is not Ajo
Aho is pronounced “ow” like, “Ow, I stubbed my toe,” and not “ah-ho”—as in the God-forsaken Arizona town, Ajo, whose name also means “garlic” in Spanish. (In Arizona, the pronunciation of Ajo serves as a shibboleth to distinguish long-timer Arizonans from vazaha Arizonans and other tourists.)
But in Malagasy, aho means you are speaking in the first person: Mangetaheta aho (I am thirsty), Tsy mahay teny malagasy aho (I do not speak Malagasy), or Poritra aho, Ny olombelona tsy akoho (I need to pee).
Along my life path, I have collected random words from many languages without ever learning to speak any of these languages even slightly. Yet, when I am stumped for the word I actually want to say in French or Malagasy, suddenly some other word will emerge from the language trunk in the cluttered attic of my brain.
It’s a weird and involuntary phenomenon.
I want to say Thank you, but out comes Shokron (Arabic). I don’t freakin’ know Arabic.
I want to say No thank you, but out comes Hapana (Swahili). I don’t freakin’ know Swahili.
I want to say Be careful, but out comes Peligroso (Spanish). I don’t freakin’ know Spanish.
I want to say mango, but out comes nachos (Tex-Mex).
That one I can explain. I’ve joined the Nachos for Breakfast Club, which is actually not nachos but mangos for breakfast. I originally mistook a plate of mangos on a co-worker’s desk for a plate of nachos.
I’ve adopted the practice of picking up a kilogram of mangos on the way to work. There’s a nice woman at work who will cut them up into bite-sized chunks for me. I call her La Nacharista. I’m not sure, but that may actually be Spanish, meaning “the woman who makes nachos.” Like I said, I don’t know Spanish, but I know it better than anyone else in the office.
Ever since then, my mangoes-for-breakfast-eating coworker and I refer to mangos as nachos—just the two of us.
But I like to believe that I have contributed to the evolution of Malagasy. Generations from now, Malagasy may know chopped up mangos as nachos.
And so language evolves, just as you knew the word raffia.