My Malagasy Diaspora Tantara: Diaspora Stories Told Around the World
Today, an estimated 300,000 Malagasy people live outside of Madagascar and live all around the globe. No diaspora story is alike but what we share is that love and connection to Madagascar that we carry in our hearts, new hometowns, and life. Here are our stories.
Today: Our Diaspora Tantara is dedicated in loving memory to our contributor Nirina’s Mam, Hanitra Plunkett née Rasamoely (1957-2012). Nirina is Malagasy-Irish and gives a beautiful account of how important her Irish and Malagasy heritages are to her as well as how she maneuvers being mixed raced, dealing with the "Where are you really from?" question, and sharing her love for Madagascar in Ireland.
Hello everyone, manao ahoana! My name is Nirina Plunkett, and I am a Malagasy-Irish living in Dublin, Ireland. Every story you’ll read about the Malagasy diaspora is different, so let me tell you mine…
My parents met in Munich, Germany in the 1980s. My Dad was sleeping on the floor of his friend’s friend’s room in a small apartment in Studentenstadt, though he rarely saw that girl due to different work and school schedules…he eventually got to know her very well. That girl was my Mam. They got married in 1985, had my brother a year later, and then I came along four years after that. We were a happy little ‘multi-culti’ family living in Munich, then in 1997 we moved to Dublin.
My Malagasy origins come from my Mam, she was a wondrous woman from Antananarivo, the middle child of seven siblings, and the only girl in the middle-class Rasamoely family. When Mam was 18, she moved from the Motherland to Lyon to study, and then to Munich to further her studies. Speaking native Malagasy, fluent French and German, by the time she was hanging out with the cool kids in the 80s in Munich, English became her fourth fluent language. My parents often told me how they taught me Malagasy, English and German from when I was born but as a little one I found it hard to manage three languages, so they had to decide on two only for schools – unfortunately Malagasy had to be forgotten.
My Irish origins then come from my Dad, who is a hard-working, jolly man who spoils those around him. Hailing from Dublin, he was brought up in Annagassan, Co. Louth from the age of eleven with his three siblings – a tiny seaside village, where I then spent all of my summers until my early teens. In between his college terms studying engineering in Co. Carlow, he spent summers in Germany, learning the language and earning money as a factory worker, then in due course he met my Mam and they settled down in Munich.
Growing up in Munich as a child of mixed race and mixed cultures was definitely enjoyable and interesting. There was a very small community of Malagasy in Munich, but I remember loving that there was a community. Our home proudly displayed many pieces my Mam brought with her and had shipped over from Antananarivo, including our drums, stools, coffee table, tablemats, solitaire tables, jewellery and handbags, dresses, figurines, a number of valiha, spices and a lot of vanilla! I always found them beautiful, fascinating, unique and even just looking at them now as I write this, I feel immense pride in being Malagasy. My Mam would play a lot of Malagasy music throughout our home (including from her future friend Justin Vali) and we’d often have dance and singsong sessions with the few other Malagasy friends my Mam made whilst living in Munich. Mam ensured my brother and I were taught culinary lessons from the Motherland; I adored learning how to make sambos, eating ravitoto, watching her make Malagasy pickle and how we had rice with almost everything! I learned of how important June 26th is, and why we celebrate Madagascar Independence Day, and from a young age I was taught our Malagasy colours even if I was yet to develop my own. Although Mam had Malagasy friends in Munich, I remember not having others my age who were neither Malagasy nor Irish. I felt a bit like the odd one out in my German classroom.
Similarly, my Dad ensured my brother and I were aware and as proud of our Irish roots – we are direct descendants of the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish Proclamation signatory, Joseph M. Plunkett as well as Saint Oliver Plunkett. We had Irish emblems and a harp displayed in the home, learned our cúpla focal and the national anthem, and holidayed at my paternal grandparents’ house every summer. And although my Mam enrolled both me and her in an Irish dancing school, (which took place in the early hours of an Irish pub on a Saturday morning!), I didn’t have any Irish friends whilst living in Munich. It felt like not having an identity.
When we moved to Dublin though, a lot changed. Everything was suddenly Irish! Because I was 8 when I joined my school, I was to learn the Irish language too but the problem I had when I was a little one happened again, and I slowly forgot my German…though I picked it up again when I went to secondary school, and continued to study at university auf Deutsch. I was like a yo-yo with languages!
My school friends, and almost all of my teachers, and probably every other person I came across had never met a Malagasy person. It was like I was an alien from another planet, yet to people I was “the exotic one”. On my first day at school, my Mam dressed me in a light blue Malagasy dress that made me stand out from everyone else wearing their school uniforms – for my fellow Gasy reading, you know the pretty one with the embroidered flowers, elasticated top, collar and the puffed sleeves? Yeah, that one! And even though I did not make my Communion like the rest of the class, I was in the class photograph wearing a bright red Malagasy dress alongside all the girls in white. My Mam wanted to make sure people knew of my Malagasy origins even if it was through fashion, and I adored her for that. Because although I am from Dublin and I am Irish, I am also Malagasy.
Throughout my younger years I didn’t realise how little Irish people knew about Madagascar. But the older I got the more I realised this. Hardly anyone knew it was the island off the south-east coast of Africa. That it’s the fourth biggest island in the world. That people and food and animals from Madagascar are known as Malagasy. All of these realisations added to the regular struggles my Mam and I had living in Ireland. I once wrote a strongly worded email to Marks & Spencer for their use of ‘Madagascan Vanilla Ice Cream’ because Mam, her Malagasy friends and their friends in the UK were always complaining about it amongst other supermarket goods, to which I received a generic reply that they “will look into it”. I never got another response and they still use the wrong demonym to this day.
Malagasy names are beautiful, however it seems a struggle for those outside the Motherland. My Mam and I tried to always speak clearly when asked our names, and even though I annunciate or phonetically help them every single time, people still can’t pronounce my name correctly. And I live in Ireland where names like Saoirse, Siobhán, Tadhgh, Ruaidhri, Caoimhe and Donnchadh come from! Nirina and Hanitra are not that difficult, possibly two of the easier to pronounce names of Madagascar. Mam just adopted her shortened name of Hani, but for me I began to tire so much of ‘Narina’, ‘Nurina’, ‘Nerina’, ‘Noreen’, and even ‘Narnia’ and ‘Nirvana’ at one point! For a very brief stage I hated my name because nobody could pronounce it. I asked why I couldn't just have been given an Irish name (my middle names are Sinéad Olivia, which I then preferred). But Mam told me of how in our Rasamoely family all of my uncles had nicknames and my Mam’s one was Nini – so I decided that that was my chosen nickname for the Irish who cannot pronounce Nirina. Today I still love both.
Another constant when being mixed race was that the more often I heard and was asked, “Where are you from? [Dublin] Yeah…but where are you really from?” the more it set in that I really was different. Apparently I can’t be Irish if I’m darker skinned than my fellow white comrades. There’s no doubt my fellow Malagasy around the world (and any non-white people living in a predominantly white community or country) have been asked this question in a variety of ways – but for a mixed Malagasy-Irish whose home is Dublin, it’s exhausting. My skin tone isn’t “an amazing tan”, it is my skin that happens to tell a story of family origin and my mixed race. It doesn’t come from a bottle…but my colour has often been a target from the racist bullies throughout my adolescence and from the many adult ignoramus in inner-city Dublin. I enjoy talking about my background, but it seemed the specifics of identity was more an issue for others than it was for me.
Then after the movie release of Madagascar in 2005, whenever I had to answer that aged question, oftentimes the reply I got was, “no way, like from the movie?!” or “are there really penguins in Madagascar?” It really began to infuriate me that, as a teenager and then into my 20s, people still had no clue of a country, its people, its cultures, or how ignorant they were being.
Living in Ireland, Mam couldn’t have been more disconnected from Madagascar, as there wasn’t (and isn’t) much of a community here – but she thrived in being a Malagasy in Ireland. She did have a few Malagasy friends in Dublin and Limerick, and when they got together it was always such a joyous occasion. Malagasy can talk and laugh all day long and I loved that. I loved Mam’s friendships with the girls and am grateful they are still in my life today. Mam did manage to connect with her family still in Antananarivo via Facebook, she ensured our home was still rich in Malagasy culture, and she loved sharing stories, facts and photos with our Irish family, our neighbours and any person with whom she spoke when they asked that aged question. Each and every one of them were so enthralled by Mam and Madagascar – they had never met someone from the Motherland. I loved watching Mam tell them about Tana, about her family celebrations, and the many funny stories to do with Malagasy pickle or sambos. It inspired me to be more open and positive about how I answer the question.
She took me on holidays to Rome in 2008 and we happened to be there for Madagascar Independence Day, and had a glorious celebration with the Malagasy community there; full of music, dancing, good food and laughter. Despite not being able to speak Malagasy, I could only understand a little bit, and it felt like home. It was also only then that I met more Malagasy who looked different to my Mam and my Gasy family – they were from the west coast as well as the east coast, but we were all one people. Mam took me on a lot of trips to France over the years to meet her cousins and my cousins, and I loved it. Being so engrossed in my maternal culture, laughing with family even if there was a language barrier, dancing to valiha music and eating Malagasy food was truly wonderful. Although I haven’t been back to Madagascar since I was three years old, my brother has visited a few times in his adulthood and shares his stories with others of beach trips and visiting lemurs, and we love to learn and remake our Mam’s recipes when we can. My Malagasy memories still put such a smile on my face.
Today, I like to use the few phrases I remember, and speak about my family origins often and with immense pride. I embrace my darker skin tone and Malagasy curviness, freckles and features. Though Mam passed away in 2012, I ensure that my brother and I always remember our Malagasy roots, and try to do something Malagasy every day. And when I have children I will be sure they do too. I hope to one day have my own café that celebrates Malagasy culture in the Irish capital, to help people on this island learn about life on another. I am proud to be Malagasy-Irish.