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: Sharon, a Malagasy-American born and raised in NYC reveals how it wasn't just the concrete jungles that formed her into herself but her diaspora community of family and friends as well as the strength and spirit of her Malagasy ancestors she holds within her.
Hi everyone! My name is Sharon Rakotovao and I’m a first generation Malagasy-American that was born and raised in New York City. My parents are both natives of Madagascar and came to the United States back in the 80s. My mother previously visited N.Y.C. with her parents in the 70s, briefly returned to the Motherland before ultimately, deciding to relocate to the States afterwards. Then, my father arrived and not too long after, they got married in 1985 at City Hall. When I was a kid living in Spanish Harlem, I had a few neighbors that were Malagasy so we all became acquainted thanks to our parents. Plus, most of us knew one another from the RSM games and Malagasy parties that happened almost every year. It also had its advantages when many people know your parents or even your grandparents, so naturally I grew up surrounded by our people. Growing up Malagasy, I was very grateful to have parents that spoke to me in our native language and exposed my impressionable mind to our music, delicious food and culture, as well as, to be surrounded by a fairly small Malagasy community in the Tristate. I’ve been to Madagascar only once in my life, but appreciated the experience of meeting my first cousins and extended family there (trust me, there’s a bunch of us) while being immersed in the culture and way of life.
Although I grew up on the shy side, I’m also the type of person to ask questions in order to have a better understanding of something, especially in regards to Malagasy phrases, customs and history. So, if I say or hear something and don’t fully comprehend it, I will ask my parents for an explanation. Thus, in case they have trouble expressing their point, I’ll do my best to help translate because I’m sure we’ve all dealt with the complexities of the English language in comparison to literal Malagasy terminology. I find myself correcting my mom whenever she gets into the habit of replacing one or two words in English (Editor’s note: we lovingly call this phenomenon Vary Amin’anana) while the rest of the phrase is in Malagasy or vice versa. One example being: “Please, can you omena ahy ve zavatra iry e?” Translation: “…give me the thing over there?” I always give her a hard time about it, but it’s also amusing to us since I’ve compiled a mental list of incorrect phrases she has said over the years. I’m sure many of us can laugh and compare stories about such instances with one another.
One of the downsides with being born outside of the Motherland is that there are some snobby Malagasy folks who have this assumption that we don’t speak or understand Malagasy. I end up having to defend myself and having to reiterate that I cannot write in Malagasy, but I can speak, comprehend and read (slowly yet carefully) in our native dialect. My mother always warns others never to gossip or speak foolishness around me because I will bite back, if necessary. Back when I went to France in May 2018, I was attending a family wedding and I wish that I took a Polaroid of the look on everyone’s face when they realized that I spoke Malagasy. One of the guests that sat by me who happened to be the woman that spoke during the Kabary, which is a traditional Malagasy custom in which the families of the bride and groom discuss the importance of marriage and whether or not the couple is a good fit. Long story short, she started speaking to me in French and frankly I responded in Malagasy saying: “Miteny Malagasy izaho, fa tsy dia mahay miteny frantsay tsara.” Translation: “I speak Malagasy, I don’t really know how to speak French well.” Generally, I had to use our native dialect mostly because I’m not fluent in French, so I had to get rid of my complex of feeling that I had an American accent when speaking Malagasy. As for my new acquaintance, she was not only shocked, but quite relieved to hear me say that. Thankfully, my family members and other table acquaintances were extremely encouraging and impressed that I’m fluent in our native tongue even though I was born and raised in the U.S. They seemed really fascinated by that fact for some reason, but it was all positive remarks.
Sadly, there’s also this stereotype that Malagasy parents in France don’t teach their children how to speak their native language, so many are left at a disadvantage all because of this unwarranted fear that the child will not be fluent in French. Anyway, I’m very appreciative that my parents took to heart the advice of the American nurses that took care of my mom, after I was born, that it’s really important to speak to your child in your native tongue. Of course, it didn’t take me long to pick up the English language once I started attending Day Care. My mother said that it probably took me about two weeks or so to pick it up. But, both of my parents made sure to still converse with me in Malagasy so that I would be bilingual and for that I’m thankful.
I’m not going to go into too much detail, but I’m sure the majority of us had to deal with the annoying questions regarding: “How do you pronounce your last name? Where are you from? Like your ethnicity?” on the first day of class or arrive anywhere that requires documentation and someone spots our unique, long last names. As for having to explain where my family is from, I know ALL of us are exhausted from hearing the response: “Gasp! Like the movie? Wait, that’s a real place? There are people there? I didn’t know it existed! Ohh, so you’re African? Wow!”. It may be frowned upon to slap someone over ignorant statements, but that’s not to say that it hasn’t crossed our minds every now and again. I’m so blessed to have friends that always encourage me to continue to embrace who I am, to speak out when I choose to, love the skin I’m in, nourish the hair on my scalp, and the beauty of where I’m from. They also understand firsthand that some people are curious and some are uninformed, so they just don’t know better. Furthermore, I choose to exhale and educate the masses about my people: our unique heritage and our cultural influences of East African and South East Asian, our history, our fertile land and our eighteen tribes of beautifully, diverse Malagasy people. Gasy ka manja! We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m glad that we’re slowly yet surely receiving the recognition and representation that we deserve. I’m not only proud to be a young and vibrant African-American, but I’m incredibly blessed to have the resilience and the strength of my Malagasy ancestors racing through my veins.