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Based on a combination of stories, lived experiences, and lies from my research on not-knowing in Belo, this fictive ethnographic narrative recounts a night spent in fear of an attack by dahalo (local bandits). Over the course of the night, the narrator moves between waking and sleep as they try to make sense of the bandits’ attack based on bits of unreliable information. Like many stories people told me in Belo, it does not end with a clear conclusion or moral but instead with a tapering of gossip and a return to silence, pregnant with the possibility of ambiguity. Blurring together mundane life, ostentatious lies, and unbelievable truths, the narrative evokes what one of the women I work with in Belo described as talking like a dream. Where vazaha (the term for foreigners, usually European and American) seek to pick apart talk in order to know the deeper meaning and intentions of speakers, this woman explained, Gasy speakers experience talk like a dream, some of it true, some of it not.

I felt for their breath. I could not hear it over the silence of the dark room and my ears’ refusal to focus on anything but the cracks and claps that conjure fears of bullets let go in the night or men just beyond the door. I sensed from its absence that my sister held theirs in too. Maybe, like mine, their body had let go of the frivolity of air to focus on deciphering how far away that shot must have come from, or how to tell the difference between a machine gun and a barking dog from this distance, or if we had both heard that engine rev, or how to turn our heads toward each other without making a sound and see through the dark into each other’s eyes to confirm, or to make a plan, or only to see each other one last time and hold that moment for as long as it took for whoever shot the gun to get in whatever SUV’s engine had revved and make their way to our house to beat us or take us or do terrible things that I could not know, but my sister knew. I caught the muscles in my hand before they reached across the bed and quelled the impulse to an almost inaudible flinch. It would have startled them more than appeased—or worse, disclosed our presence to the dahalo who we had heard make their way into the courtyard. I tried to return my own breath to a slow dissipation of swells on a calm sea. At least I imagined it moved like that when I slept, and I wanted my sister to think that I slept. Maybe then they would go to sleep too, trusting that I knew that fear had made this danger up. I tried to convince my heartbeat to lie to them, to tell them that I had only heard the wind in the palms or the stumbling cough of a rum drinker going home. Don’t act stupid, their deathly still body reminded me. Not even rum drinkers dared to go out that night.

I had forgotten to keep track of how much time had passed since I heard the men come into the courtyard. Had enough minutes of silence followed them in for me to give up believing in them? Or had I only let myself get distracted for long enough for them to sneak into a position where they could wait for me to fall asleep? I felt for their looming just beyond the walls and resolved to challenge it with an alertness that could outlast their stillness. Don’t act stupid, my sister chastised me again. If they had gotten this far, nothing we could do would stop them. Not my vigilance or my light skin. Despite what folks said, they did not fear us. They already knew where we stayed. They knew we could not have taken to the sea like everyone else because our father and brother had left with the outriggers months ago when they followed the wind and fish up north. Had they known when they came the first time too? My sister said that they come in the night like this. That they had waited until morning, when their mother woke to make donuts before the sun broke. That they had hit the woman and forced themselves into the house where my sister still slept with the blanket pulled up to their hair. That they had put a bag over their head and told them not to make any noise. That they must have walked through the mangrove at high tide because my sister felt the water up to their thighs and their feet sinking in the mud until sharp roots cut them and crabs pinched them. How did they know about my sister? How did they know that only women stayed in the house at the time? Or that their mother woke up early to make donuts?

Nenikely insisted that someone from the communitymust have helped them. How else could they have known their way through the mangrove? Or which house to find my sister in? We all knew who, of course. Nenikely never said their name, but everyone knew they had gotten rich helping dahalo steal cattle and bones. Even if things had not gone the way my sister said, as I had heard a few folks suggest, someone still must have told the bandits where to find them and that they could probably get money by asking the foreigner for a ransom. Their second store opened onto the main road north of the gendarmes office. They must have seen my sister sneaking home in the early hours of the morning. They must have heard the whispers about where the woman spent their nights. It made more sense that the bandits would have taken them over there. They wouldn’t have needed to come so far into town, passed the gendarmes office, through the small passageways between courtyards, down where the only escape meant knowing the sea or knowing the mangrove. Up north, they could have driven right up beside the woman as the sun still lulled its way to the horizon and snatched them before their scream could reach the nearest ears.

The jolt from the sound that reached mine in that moment almost broke through the weight of fear that pressed me so deep into the mattress I could feel each edge of the wood slats below it. It yanked my mind back from its restless wanderings to remember to sense for my sister’s learned stillness. It tried in vain to yank my body up into action as well, but somewhere our shared blood refused the ocean that separated us and made my body learn from theirs the stillness it had never known. If I had convinced myself that I could not remember the sound of shots fired at human flesh, that delusion left me with all my breath. I could only hope I had heard the gendarmes, so close now that they must have reached the Protestant church. I could only hope that Nenikely had called them. Awake like us in the neighboring house, they must have heard the dahalo enter the yard, braved the dangerous rustling of their duvet to reach for their phone, hidden its glaring white lights as they retrieved the captain’s number that they had stored the day before when news spread of the impending raid. Or had they never even gotten into bed, sat up ready for this moment, protecting their child and grandchild with the determination they owed their sister and I mine.

I broke my promise and reached for their hand. I knew where to find it, cradling the growing slope of their lower belly. Like everyone else, I had seen them eat donuts and fried fish. I had seen them dance all night on New Year’s Eve, and though I had not seen it with my own eyes, I had heard they drank that night too. I had seen them shake a stranger’s hand and go with Gloriano’s mom to Ernestine’s house. Some people still ate oily food while pregnant, though, and dancing would not hurt the fetus despite everyone’s insistence that doctors said pregnant women shouldn’t dance like that. Maybe Gloriano’s mom, not my sister, still got a Depo shot even though they told their husband they would have another child, and the stranger’s handshake looked more like a mistake of habit. I could not believe the rumors that they faked the pregnancy. For what? People said to get money from their lover or to convince them to take them abroad. Maybe just to talk, but now they could not admit they had lied because of everything that had happened. Not just the kidnapping, because people said they lied about that too. They probably snuck out early in the morning and stayed with a friend in the next village over for a few days. Maybe if the foreigner thought they had gotten kidnapped while pregnant with their child, they would send even more money or acquiesce to marriage. When the money never came, they walked back to town and told everyone they had escaped the dahalo.

If dahalo had really kidnapped them for ransom as they said, if they had stayed three days and nights with them cooking their food and cleaning their clothes, if they knew how to describe where they stayed and how many of them the gendarmes would find in the spiny forest on the southwestern edge of Ambanyranomena just before the path opens out onto the beach, why hadn’t they recognized the leader’s face when someone brought them the photo? How could they have? It took me several minutes to even recognize a figure. What part of their face remained recognizable blurred into the sand it lay in and the grain of the cellphone screen on which it circulated. How could they have recognized a face when someone needed to use their pinky nail to point to brain matter in the sand and trace the outline of the gaping hole in the back of the man’s head before any of us could recognize any human at all in the photo? For what? Because after a month of angered searching the gendarmes had caught the man? Did they confess? Or did everyone already know that that man had led the dahalo the night of the shootout, when the gendarmes had surprised them in the spiny forest on the southwestern edge of Ambanyranomena just before the path opens out onto the beach, when they had killed one dahalo, when one gendarmes lost an ear, because my sister came home one morning with cut-up feet, smelling of rum and fire, having escaped their captors over the preceding night, run down to the beach, through the rocks and coral along the edge of the water for hours because they knew that if anyone followed them that they may know the mangrove but they wouldn’t know the sea.

I held their hand and felt the breath filling and emptying their gut. I knew they would have protected their child. I remembered the stories Nenikely would tell us of their own mother. I had never known them. They had passed during an appendectomy when the electricity in the hospital went out a few years before I first came to the island as an adult. They married my father long after my mother had moved back to the States with me and the man had quit playing soccer for Brazil to return home. Nenikely told us how my father loved them so much that even when they had gone to prison, he spent all of his money to stay in town and bring them food every day. They gave birth to my sister there during a three-month sentence for breaking a man’s nose who had tried to poison them out of jealousy that they had left to marry my father instead. I imagined you would do the same to protect your baby, so I trusted you despite what people said. Had you lied, what difference did it make now? Now the dahalo had come for their revenge. Now we had not taken to the sea. Now we fought off sleep out of fear, and Nenikely sat up through the night with their phone in their hand, and gendarmes fired shots down the alleyways and from behind market stalls.

I did not remember falling asleep or the noise that brought me back to an empty bed in a sun-filled house with the doors open and the curtains catching the wind. Outside, everyone had already finished breakfast except my sister, who offered me their last donut and a cup of tea. They laughed when I asked if the gendarmes had caught the bandits. What bandits? The ones from last night, in the yard? Don’t act stupid, they laughed, nobody came last night. What of the noises? What noises? Hadn’t they heard? I slept. The gunshots, the people in the yard. Probably dogs. And everyone who went to sea? People do too much when they get scared of dahalo. But everyone said they would come to seek revenge? People talk. They stood and began sweeping the yard. They had laundry to do and worried about where to find fish to fry for lunch since nobody had gone out the night before.

Authors

Cory-Alice André-Johnson

Cory-Alice André-Johnson is a postdoctoral fellow in Africana studies at Tulane University doing sociocultural research in southwest Madagascar on the ways people use refusal, opacity, and not-knowing in becoming human and building social ties. These then form the basis for developing decolonial anthropological methodologies, theories, and writing practices.

Cite as

André-Johnson, Cory-Alice. 2024. “Vazaha Always Want to Know, But We Talk Like Dreams.” Anthropology News website, April 30, 2024.

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