My name is Andrianina Irina Randrianarivelo. My names represent the two sides of me: One that is American, and the other that is Malagasy.
Growing up, I only exclusively used Irina as Andrianina was too difficult for Americans to pronounce correctly. It created a separation in identities for myself that never came to a head until I moved to Madagascar in 2019. I am both, so in Madagascar, who should I choose to be?
I relish in calling myself a unicorn (aside: it’s more of being like a hybrid car, but I enjoy calling myself a unicorn since I love them and they are unique). In continuing this unicorn imagery, having a multicultural background can make me feel like I am sticking out with a huge horn glaring on my face, and other times I can feel completely invisible. It’s a never ending identity crisis, so when I was first called out by my name as the term Vazaha-Gasy, let me tell you, I was shook.
As a child of immigrants in a new country, they would recount tales of their motherland: the hardships, cultural phenomena, family stories and dramas, and beautiful tales of their youth. Growing up in the US, my siblings and I assimilated to our new country and formed new roots, friendships, hometowns, and tales of our own, but having no real connection to be able to tell the same tales about our other motherland.
In the Malagasy language, vazaha means foreigner and usually refers to white folks. I never thought about the implications of being a vazaha as I was already grappling with assimilation, identity issues, and young adult angst, so to add feeling like a foreigner to my own Malagasy people was something I never expected to be added into the mix.
I was first called this term while working during the Loharano Program, a Malagasy Ministry of Foreign Affairs/United Nation's OIM sponsored pilot volunteer project in the rural commune of Manjakandriana in summer 2019. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, my fellow volunteers and I arrived eager to tackle our community projects.
Once we settled in, we learned that the locals liked to call us Vazaha Gasy as a sort of term of endearment but instead it felt like a slap in the face of why we came to the village. Our primary work was to undergo a cultural exchange with the locals and just learn from each other. However, I can also understand why the term came about.
We were outsiders, coming to be involved in a community we had previously no connection to, bringing Western ideals, teaching the English and French language, and business development and entrepreneurship to improve 4 local associations all in the span of 3 short months.
I was already feeling like an outsider. I looked and dressed differently, not able to relate to the locals, nor speak Malagasy fluently enough to be able to fully express my thoughts. Stumped and dejected, my fellow volunteers and I reflected and put our heads together. We had to recognize our immense privilege, swallow our egos, and decided how best to get to the root of what the locals thought of us to build interpersonal relationships.
We realized that this exchange was creating a small but positive change, and began to build a bridge between us and the Malagasy locals, to repair ties. You see, most locals believed that since we lived abroad, that we abandoned the Malagasy people. We listened and heard them and our actions reflected a step towards cultural sensitivity to build foundations with our students we hoped they could continue once we left. But our work is far from being done. I don't want this to sound like we saved our village and were the superheroes at the end of the day. The deep schisms in the Malagasy society deserve examining, care and attention, self-esteem raising, and unity between the Malagasy people that can't be solved by outside forces.
Honestly, I hate this term Vazaha Gasy. I am trying my best to understand what it is to be Malagasy, to live and experience Malagasy ways, but the gatekeeping of who gets to be and feel Malagasy is not fair. Who gets to decide if you are/not 100% Malagasy? It may be something you can trace by your family tree and DNA tests, but identity is a personal experience and for the individual to decide and understand for themselves.
This whole discourse has made me feel like an "other" where I am not American enough and not Malagasy enough because of a missing link, and I sometimes I think I just have to accept this part of myself that I will never really belong on either side.
The experience of living in Madagascar has humbled me in more ways than I can even comprehend. As a reader you are right, I may never fully know the whole Malagasy experience but know that my heart and intentions are there to learn, build bridges, and simply to understand and be understood.
I don’t have a conclusion for all of this as it is all a work in progress but our collective work has just begun. I know and am personally experiencing that Madagascar is incrementally changing, even if it’s at a frustratingly slow pace. I wish we could quickly find the solutions to fix our country and bring prosperity for our people, but we have to acknowledge the positives even with the negatives. The answers are coming and everyone must do their collective part to do good for the country. Whether you are inside Madagascar, or abroad, it is a duty to work hard to achieve feats and bring representation for our people in whatever you’re doing.
It’s one of the many reasons why I wanted to create MadaLiving as a space to show the diverse Malagasy and Diaspora identities and beautiful complexities that makes us human and a culture. I am so excited to build a community around the world that reframes our narratives where we are in charge of our image, where we respect and embrace the beauty of Malagasy people, our land, and empower people to take actions from our words and videos.
If you were wondering, I now introduce myself by my full name but allow people to choose which name to call me by. Clever right?