A Cutting

Lindsey Clark

Chanted singing, occasionally interrupted by long, hollow wails of a conch shell, begins in the early afternoon. The voices ringing from the east end of the village suggest a traditional ceremony is brewing, but I have no clue as to the event. I have been living in this hamlet of thirty or forty wooden houses in southeast Madagascar for nearly a year and a half. In that time, I have heard the shell blown to announce community meetings, marriages, deaths, cattle thefts, and even an uncontrolled brush fire in the adjacent national park. Funeral rites are sometimes conducted with a raucous festivity that would put an American birthday party to shame, so I cannot even tell whether today’s call is in celebration or lamentation.

My American reluctance to interfere with a family’s private life or invite myself to a party keeps me from walking over to investigate. In reality, the Malagasy of the Antandroy and Antanosy tribes (who mingle in this village in a tribal transitional zone) would not even identify with my concepts of privacy and imposition. But I just stick close to my house. If it is okay for me to participate, someone will eventually call me into the fray.

Within a few hours, the singing blossoms into a stomping dance, its instigators migrating among several clusters of houses. They gather force as they go; soon the posse is fifty people strong. My curiosity becomes nagging. If there has been a death, is it someone I know? I resolve to ask the next passer-by what is going on.

Just then, my friend Molisoa appears, walking straight for where I sit reading on my porch. She is one of my favorite people in the village, in part because of the sweet genuineness with which she tries to include me in everything. Her patient smile has been my guide through a wedding celebration, national Independence Day, and several rice transplantings and harvests.

Today, she has something specific to say. She says it several times and unfortunately, I still have no clue what is happening. She points to the party zone, speaking rapidly, using words I do not know.

Tsy azo, I don’t understand, I apologize. Misy fety? There is a party?

Eka, Yes, she confirms.

A marriage? I guess.

No, Molisoa shakes her head. She begins explaining again, this time making a scissoring motion with two fingers. Instantly, I remember where I have seen this gesture before.

Azo amizao, Now I understand, I assure her.

Molisoa looks relieved and asks, Do you want to go with me?

I nod enthusiastically. There is going to be a circumcision.

As part of the intensive training I participated in before coming to live in the village of Tsimelahy, I was coached in Malagasy culture by a Peace Corps employee. Jouvin was of Antandroy ancestry. He spent long afternoons teaching my group of three hopeful volunteers about the traditional ceremonies of the Antandroy region and arming us with the proper things to say on each occasion.

One afternoon, he introduced a new word with the endearing giggle he let loose around any sensitive topic. We stared at him blankly. Then, with a scissors-snipping gesture, he raised his eyebrows sky-high and pronounced in heavily accented English: ceer-cum-see-zhon!

Our laughter dissolved into semi-alarmed awe as he detailed the procedure, Malagasy-style. Female circumcision is not, thank goodness, practiced in Madagascar. But boys are expected to face the knife. In very remote areas, a visiting doctor might attend to several dozen boys between the ages of one and ten in an assembly line. Snip, snip, snip! Jouvin’s fingers cut the air as he explained. Families that can afford individual ceremonies hold a party in which everyone stays up all night dancing; the operation is performed at dawn when the child is, in theory, be too tired to fully register his pain. Snip, snip, snip!

Jouvin wrote out the Malagasy word for circumcision on a flipchart: tapaka. The same as the verb meaning “to cut.” Then he went on to describe various methods of disposing of the foreskin, one of which is to stuff it into a banana and feed it to the child’s grandfather. Jouvin giggled and snipped the air once more as we struggled to absorb this highly unusual information.

When Molisoa makes that same scissors gesture to me on my porch eighteen months later, I have yet to witness a Malagasy circumcision ceremony. The closest I have come was my first week in the village, when a toddler named Goa visited me daily to display his newly circumcised penis as it progressed in the healing process. Now, my sojourn in the village is nearing its end. I am grateful for the chance finally to see a tapaka ceremony. As we head through a cluster of wood houses toward the party, I thank Molisoa for her invitation.

We find the straw mat where her husband, Firiana, is already seated, leaning against a mud hut. He happily gestures for us to join him, and we sit. Several people call hello and wave to me as I look around. Most of the children are caught up in the nomadic dancing troupe that stomps and sings its way among the wood-plank houses. The adults chat, relaxed. The women wear their newest, brightest dresses under lambahoany, colorful cloth wraps. Many of the men hold sleek, lethal-looking spears with long wooden handles and metal tips.

It is not just the traditional costumes that indicate the special occasion. I marvel at the large bottles of Coca-Cola and Fanta being passed around; few in this village can afford such luxuries and the nearest place to buy them is more than five miles away down a road that only sees two public bush taxis per week. Other glass bottles contain toka gasy, the local sugarcane rum. One man sitting several yards from me is bedecked in an oversized sports coat, ragged shorts, gold-rimmed sunglasses with ocean-blue lenses, a spear in one hand, and a bottle of toka gasy in the other.

Molisoa interrupts my staring at the man in blue sunglasses to tell me this is an individual circumcision ceremony for a two year-old called Sijira. It is fomba gasy, Malagasy custom, she says, that you give the child’s family some money to wish them well on such an important occasion. I ask her how much, and she looks embarrassed, insisting that it is also okay not to give money. I feel an all-too-familiar confusion. I want to give something, but not ostentatiously more than other people. After several minutes of faux-casual conversation, I finally wrestle it out of Molisoa that her family will give one thousand ariary, about fifty cents.

Once I have the information I need, I feel bad for making her uncomfortable, and I change the subject. Is it true that people will stay awake to dance all night?

Yes, she nods, And then they will do the circumcision at sunrise.

And will they put the foreskin in a banana for Grandpa to eat? I ask. Not knowing the word for foreskin, I call it “the thing that is cut off.” Molisoa looks at me with an expression I cannot quite read and shakes her head no. Is her smile amused or confused?

Our conversation is interrupted when the singing and dancing troupe heads our way. Some of the kids who visit my house daily for games and idle chatting with the vasaha (foreigner) break their expressions of concentration just long enough to give me brief, shy smiles. Their stomping kicks up thick clouds of dust. I cough, squint my eyes shut, and uselessly fan the air in front of my face as all the adults around me do the same. The kids dance on.

Go dance with them! Molisoa prods me. But I hate the way my presence tends to become the focus of any situation, destroying the moment’s natural grace. Glaringly inept dancing would only quadruple the effect. I resist.

I do not know how, I tell her.

Just try, she hollers over the harmonizing.

Seeing the vazaha dance would give everyone a good belly laugh, I know, but I am just not in the mood. At twenty-eight, I am less than five years younger than Molisoa, but she has three teenage children. My failure to reproduce even once makes everyone see me as much younger than I am. But no one over the age of twenty is up there dancing. I resort to what I suspect is a safe gamble.

Okay, I yell back, I’ll dance if you do, too!

As I had hoped, Molisoa doubles over laughing and refuses my offer. Just then, the sweating, stomping, singing circle veers away from us in another huge cloud of dust. The girls go one way and the boys go the other. They reunite by unspoken consensus on the other side of the courtyard. Now we can watch without a dust storm and converse without shouting. Molisoa points out Sijira’s mother, a girl in her late teens. She moves busily through the crowd with wild, unkempt hair that contrasts the neat braids of the other women.

Firiana and Molisoa’s daughter Hafalia appears beside us. Molisoa tells her to go haul some water. Since I need to do the same chore, I decide to take a break from the party and go with Hafalia to the stream the village women visit several times daily. We both stop at our houses for buckets before walking to the water. On the way, I compliment Hafalia on her obviously new, bright orange dress. Her mother made it, she tells me, smiling softly. Then, with gentle tact, she points out a huge dirt stain on the back of my dress. At a formal ceremony like a tapaka, unnecessarily sloppy attire could be seen as an insult. Good thing I did not get up to dance, after all. I thank Hafalia and, swinging our buckets, we continue down to the water terrace.

By the time I eat some dinner, wrap myself in a clean lambahoany, and return to the party, dusk has fallen. I have difficulty recognizing people’s faces on such a moonless night. Looking for Molisoa and Firiana’s mat, I see that many of the revelers have been feeding their appetites with the homemade rum. When I finally find him, Firiana sits exactly where I left him an hour earlier, but his speech is slightly slurred as he introduces me to his father, a spindly old man now seated to his left. A third man, whom I do not recognize, sits to the left of Firiana’s father. As soon as I am settled, the stranger quickly shifts to sit beside me. His manner is urgent, but I cannot make any sense of his sentence fragments. Something about my family in America? Molisoa steps in to explain that he assumes I am related to an American named Wendy who lived in this area a decade ago.

I am saved from describing the size and anonymity of America by another voice calling my name: Leen-see! Vetivety! Avia! Lindsey, come over here a moment!

It is Ramose Jerve, the village mayor and schoolteacher. He sits in a huddle with two other men. One is the man in blue sunglasses, who has not discarded his prized apparel just because night is setting in. As soon as I crouch alongside them, Ramose points to the large communal mortar and pestle behind me.

They will pound the rice but they will not winnow it! he tells me with great urgency. His breath reeks of toka gasy but he is aware enough to register my confusion. We are telling you about Malagsy custom! he exclaims.

Oh, yes, I nod.

He continues: There is a chicken, and the child will eat its left thigh.

No, right thigh, right thigh! admonishes the man in blue spectacles.

Excuse me, right thigh, Ramose corrects himself, lifting his hands from his left quadriceps to replant them on his right leg. Then he points to the house behind him and says something I do not catch at all, ending with iza iza’ny fomba gasy: And that is Malagasy custom!

So, you understand? he slurs.

Azo, I understand, I tell him, deeming this an inappropriate moment to ask again about the banana and the foreskin.

Do you understand it all, or just some of it? he persists.

I only understand some of it, I admit, But not yet all.

You don’t understand it all yet, he repeats, But you will see, soon you will see Malagasy custom.

I thank him and say that I am going back to sit with Molisoa, but that if they have anything else to tell me, I will return. All three men nod in satisfaction.

Back on the other straw mat, I ask about some of the things I do not yet understand. Molisoa patiently reiterates that tonight, a special kind of rice will be prepared along with a chicken. In the morning, after the circumcision, Sijira will be fed the right drumstick.

But why? I ask, wondering what is special about the right leg.

Firiana interjects with a fervor to rival Ramose’s and a single, emphatic nod of his head: iza iza’ny fomba gasy. That is Malagasy custom!

Thus inspired, he takes over my education. Stripes of hair will be cut from Sijira’s head, one starting from his forehead going back to the nape and another from ear to ear, crossing over the top. Then a silver bracelet will be sewn into the remaining hair on the crown of his head. I try once more to get at the origins of this custom: why? But the answer is simple. Firiana nods proudly and repeats, iza iza’ny fomba gasy.

Then he loses me in a long monologue that I become desperate to follow when I see him pantomiming the cutting of the foreskin. Finally! My question might be answered. I listen intently for the word akondro, banana, but it never comes. Firiana finishes his explanation with a flourish, a dramatic pointing toward the sky, a vigorous nod of his head, and iza iza’ny fomba gasy!

I am determined to get to the bottom of this. I tell him I do not understand and ask him to repeat. Again, Firiana holds out his index finger, and again, he mimes the circumcision. Then he points to his finger.

Basy, he tells me, then mimes returning the foreskin to his finger. I am so focused on his pantomime that I hardly listen to the words. But when he makes an exploding noise, I suddenly remember the meaning of basy: gun. I have heard of this before. After Jouvin explained the attention-grabbing banana method of foreskin disposal, he mentioned a second possibility: families fortunate enough to own or borrow a gun will stuff the foreskin down the barrel, aim for the sky, and pull the trigger. There might not be any doctored bananas on the way, but vaporizing the foreskin in a terrifically loud gunblast could be interesting, too.

Suddenly, Molisoa stands and heads to an adjacent house, motioning for me to follow. For a moment we just stand in the doorway. Inside, several hands hold kerosene lamps high against the total darkness of the night, illuminating the people packed from wall to wall.

Let’s go, calls Molisoa before diving into the crowd. It seems impossible there could be room for two more people inside, but I plunge in after her, ushered forward by the people whose toes I crush with every step.

Azafady, azafady, Excuse me, Sorry, I apologize again and again, until I finally near the opposite wall and rediscover Molisoa. Everyone in the room has begun chanting, hopping, and stomping to a primal, rhythmic song that veers from joyful to sad to eerie and back again. The air hangs acrid with thick smoke from a fire being started against the south wall. My eyes water and my throat burns. Huddled on the floor to my right is a tiny child. When I see the silver bracelet atop his head, I recognize Sijira. He looks concerned, but not nearly as terrified as I expect a toddler might be under the stomping feet and growing volume of this celebration in his honor. Molisoa tries to pull me closer to the center of the circle she has joined.

Akoho! Chicken! she shouts amid voices that slide low, then rise higher than ever. She points. I peer over another woman’s shoulder to where a straw basket and a blanket of feathers cover the floor. The women who can reach are frantically helping to tear a chicken limb from limb. Each part is reduced to smaller pieces with a kitchen knife. Blood trickles down their forearms and the chanting rises to a roar. For a few perfect moments, I feel totally invisible, lost in the beat of feet on the dirt floor, consumed in a thick soup of humanity that has lost its self-consciousness and succumbed to pure harmony of purpose. The women surrounding the basket jump, thrusting bloody chicken organs high into the air alongside the kerosene lamps, knives, and spears of the others. Among the smoke comes whiffs of toka gasy and sweat. My eyes blur, straining into shadows. My ears ring. People jostle against me from every direction, and I feel utterly surrounded by the vibrant urgency of life.

Then, just as mysteriously as it built, the intensity fades. The voices lower, the dancing calms, and the spell is broken. I become hyper-aware of all the knives and burning oil held so close to people’s skin and hair. The woman in front of me has sliced her finger open and stops dancing to wipe away the blood and search for a rag to bind it. Sijira begins sobbing loudly. Someone sweeps him off the floor and tries to comfort him. Though I did not even notice the movement, all the chicken parts have been passed to the pot above the fire. Four men stand surrounding it, stirring the water with the wooden ends of their spears.

On seeing them, I realize the crowd has thinned, people slipping outside one by one. A few of the remaining women start giggling and staring at me. To my left, I hear the conch shell being blown once again. Sijira’s father cradles it in his palms, performing his own private dance. Then he stops, and with a mischievous smile and a glance at me, he repeats the announcement that caused the giggling: iza iza’ny fomba gasy! This is Malagasy custom! Everyone left in the room grins at me. Molisoa rolls her eyes and leads me out of the house. Sijira’s father continues to sound the conch and holler after me: Malagasy custom! This is Malagasy custom!

Outside, the party gathers around one of the thigh-high community mortars. Sijira’s male relatives line up to take turns pounding the rice he will eat in the morning, separating the grains from the hulls. They use two pestles made of tree trunks. The alternating rhythm of their work becomes the base for a mournful-sounding call and response among the women standing in the outer circle. Gusts of wind from the mountains keep putting out the lamps until, finally, someone fetches a flashlight. I feel a tug on my arm and turn. It is Mayor Ramose.

Now do you understand it all? he asks me.

Yes, I tell him, Thank you.

That’s good, he nods, Now you see Malagasy culture.

Though I hadn’t realized she had disappeared, Molisoa reapproaches from the direction of her house. I tell her that I have money for the family. She leads me over to where Sijira’s mother holds him in her arms to watch the preparation of the rice. I give her a little less than Molisoa told me her whole family would contribute. She thanks me graciously. Then Molisoa walks away from the crowd, motioning for me to follow.

The preparations are over, she says, And now we can go home.

Really? I try not to sound too relieved.

Yes, she assures me, Some people will stay up all night but I am going to eat and go to sleep. Then she hesitates, adding, Or do you want to stay up so you can eat with them?

The truth is I feel almost sick with sleepiness and had been dreading staying up all night but had not wanted to seem ungrateful for her invitation by going home to sleep. Now, I admit I already ate and am dead tired. She laughs, and we agree to return to the party together at dawn. We say goodnight, and as I turn and stroll a few starlit steps farther to my own house, I suddenly find my eyes welling up. I feel small, yet part of something big, something beyond my understanding, that includes me regardless. I fall asleep to the nearby sounds of whistling, singing celebration.

The morning sky is pale and clear, the air crisp. The most dedicated revelers are still singing, though with much less energy. By the time I dress and seek out Molisoa, Sijira’s father has resumed his conch shell call, beckoning back anyone who went home to sleep. When Molisoa sees me coming, she ducks back into her house and brings out a basket containing two cups of rice, a cup of kidney beans, and a small bottle of Coca-Cola. She hands them to me ceremoniously, saying they are from Sijira’s family. It is their way of thanking me for the money I gave since I was not there when they shared dinner with the other guests. I feel terrible: this food cost twice as much as the money I gave them. I try to refuse but Molisoa insists. It would insult the family if I returned their gift, she says. All I can do is dash back to leave the food in my house.

Molisoa and I rejoin the party, squatting in the hushed crowd as one of the women begins a repetitive, dirge-like chant. Others add their voices to the core phrases, pulling their blankets tighter around their heads and chests against the slight morning chill. Sijira’s mother wanders around looking dazed. Sijira himself perches on an uncle’s shoulder, head resting wearily in his hands, a bored expression making him look oddly mature.

The man with blue glasses has not lost them during the night. He begins a spirited debate with a woman seated on the other side of the courtyard. At first it sounds like an argument, but eventually I realize it is choreographed, a performance of sorts. I cannot follow what they say, except for when the bespectacled man declares there will be no speeches.

Sijira is carried off to the side of the crowd to where a cow, the most sacred possession of any Malagasy, has been presented in his honor. Two men wrestle the animal into a firm hold while a third pours a cup of water over its head. Disgruntled, the beast thrashes away through the brush. Its captors, their mission apparently accomplished, scatter and rejoin the crowd. Then Sijira’s father appears, quite drunk, and loudly demands some chairs. Several people scramble to accommodate him, for in his wake walks a quiet, graying, dignified man I have never seen before. He is the doctor invited to perform the circumcision. He, at least, looks sober and well rested.

Three chairs materialize. While the doctor sits on one and arranges his instruments on another, Sijira is placed on the third, held in an uncle’s lap. He has finally begun to suspect that this might not be all fun and games. When onlookers start pressing into a tight circle around the trio of chairs, his fears are confirmed. He begins to cry. Either out of instinct or vague understanding, he presses his palms down to protect his groin. But he is no match for the dozen hands that reach in to help hold his arms and legs and remove his shorts. His cries escalate to screams and his eyes dart desperately among the doctor, who draws local anesthetic into an ancient-looking needle, and those of us who watch but fail to help him in his distress. I feel a wave of shame at my voyeurism, but curiosity prevails. Sijira’s cries peak and he pees everywhere as the doctor injects the anesthetic.

After leaning in to assure him, It doesn’t hurt anymore, now! It doesn’t hurt! Sijira’s father takes a swig of rum, swishes it around in his mouth, and spits it all over Sijira’s crotch. He passes the bottle to an uncle who does the same. I sincerely doubt that the alcohol in the rum cancels out the germs in their saliva, but the doctor remains unfazed. He wipes the rum away with a cloth and gets to work. His ungloved but practiced hands quickly place two clamps on the foreskin around the tip of Sijira’s penis, makes the famous snip between them, and sutures the wound. Sijira continues to cry, but now struggles only halfheartedly against the hands that hold his legs. His eyes are slightly curious as he watches the doctor’s needlework. His father shoves a Gouty cracker into Sijira’s hand and tells him to eat. Still sobbing, the poor kid cannot eat, but he keeps a firm grip on the cracker for the rest of the procedure.

About ten minutes after taking his seat, the doctor is finished. He hands Sijira to his father and the foreskin to the grandfather. Both men disappear with their prizes as the doctor cleans up and the crowd disperses. Molisoa has left without me noticing. Even Sijira’s grandmother leaves her house with an empty bucket and walks toward the water terrace. I figure I will not be missing anything if I do the same. Down at the river, the all-night dancers chatter and scrub twenty-four hours of dirt off their feet. They greet me cheerfully.

I am leaning down to fill my bucket when the air rings with a gunshot. We all start and twist our heads toward the village. A few of the girls snicker before resuming their baths. I cannot believe it: I missed the climax of the whole ceremony. But looking over at Sijira’s grandmother, I realize that it was not for me to see.

She smiles at me and says, vita ny tapaka, the circumcision is over. Then, she adds, iza iza’ny fomba gasy.

I blink a few times, tears gathering on the rims of my eyes. I do not even know what prompted them. Happiness? Confusion? Weariness? Gratitude? Amazement at this place, my home, this planet, these people, the entire beautiful chaos of humanity?

I smile back at Sijira’s grandmother and ask, And now you can sleep?

Now we will sleep, she agrees.

We hoist our brimming water buckets onto our heads and walk slowly back to the village.