Returning Home to Madagascar

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"I've struggled for weeks about whether to write this, because Madagascar is my home. I'd love to just talk about the sweet breeze, the little islands, the dugout-boats, the lemurs and the giant turtles— But creating change has to start here."

It’s not easy to talk about discrimination in your own culture, but to create change, we have to…

My return home to Nosy Be, Madagascar, after 35 years, was both life changing and devastating.

We felt embraced by so many people in Nosy Be, Madagascar. It’s my home. It’s where I’m from. I wanted my husband to see my roots, firsthand. We wanted our son to see where he’s from. Not just in pictures. We wanted him to really live it.

There was a strong need to reconnect with my roots. I wondered what I’d experience as a grown woman, a wife, and the mother of a biracial child. For the most part, we felt comfortable as an interracial family. We made connections with amazing people that will hopefully last a lifetime. We saw kindness, and true beauty, and what a community should be—Villagers making sure all of the elders of the villages are fed and visited every day, and that orphans have a place to sleep at night. 

Even within poverty, there was happiness. In so many ways, I’m forever changed by the experience of returning home. It’s been an unforgettable journey.

But there’s something I’ve been truly struggling with for weeks. I’ve been torn about whether or not to write about the racism and sexism I experienced in Nosy Be, because it’s where I’m from. But as a Black woman, married to a white man, and the mother of a biracial child, I feel a responsibility to create change. And things only change in the world when we don’t stay silent. So, I’ve decided to speak up about what I experienced—Not just for me, but for others who could potentially experience the same.

It’s not easy to talk about discrimination in your own country. There’s a protective feeling. However it needs to be known, especially if you’re traveling.

As an ally to gay people, it’s important to note that, like so many places in the world, Madagascar has a ways to go with creating equality for same-sex couples. However same-sex sexual activity is legal in Madagascar, for adults over the age of 21.

The racism I experienced—as a Black woman with a blended family—while traveling in my own country, was devastating.

The first incident was at a well-known Resort, the Andilana Beach Resort, where I was refused entry simply because I’m Black.

The week prior to the incident, my husband was able to go through the hotel, and use the pool with our 3 year-old son. Our son would play in the pool for an hour or so each day.

A week later, when I decided to join them, I was refused entrance, questioned if I was Malagasy, if I had a key, and if they were really my family. I explained (in French) that I was of Malagasy origin, but that I live in Los Angeles, and that they were my husband and son.

The guard asked, through a walkie-talkie, if “the Black woman” can go in. To which the person on the other end said, “I can see her. The Vaza can stay in with the baby, but not her.” “Vaza” means white man.

What they didn’t know is that I understand Malagasy. The guard asked, through a walkie-talkie, if “the Black woman” can go in. To which the person on the other end said, “I can see her. The Vaza can stay in with the baby, but not her.” “Vaza” means white man.

Our son wanted to keep playing in the pool, so I told my husband to stay. But my husband went straight in to the reception area, and spoke to a manager. The manager didn’t even apologize. Instead, she made excuses as to why I was refused entry. When she asked if he wanted to stay anyway, my husband said, “No.” She just walked away.

My review of the hotel, on Trip Advisor, was flagged several times. Instead of flagging the comment, they should’ve owned up to the mistake, and taken steps to ensure something like that wouldn’t happen again.

Experiencing racism at such a well-known resort was shocking. It was a brand of racism that targets interracial couples. Talking to locals around the island, I discovered it’s common practice at that particular resort to refuse people of color.

Because it happened in my country, a place so dear to my heart, it makes it that much harder to talk about. Even to my own family.

The second encounter with sexism and racism was at a hospital, where my son was admitted with a small emergency in the middle of the night. In the morning, when it was time to be discharged, I went to take care of the bill, while my husband got our son up and ready to leave.

At that point, I wasn’t sure if it was a misunderstanding. When I explained I was trying to pay the hospital bill, he was shocked. He said, “Isn’t the white man paying? And you are finished with your job?” Then it clicked… He thought I was a prostitute. He was sending me through the back, without shoes, as if I was done with my “job”.

A Malagasy male nurse came with me to the entrance of the hospital to pick up all of our shoes (no one is allowed to wear shoes in the hospital). Once I had the shoes, we took the elevator to the second floor, where the exit was. He asked me to leave the shoes at the exit of the hospital. Then he told me to go. He kept telling me to leave by waving his hand, as if to shoo me out. 

At that point, I wasn’t sure if it was a misunderstanding. When I explained I was trying to pay the hospital bill, he was shocked. He said, “Isn’t the white man paying? And you are finished with your job?” Then it clicked… He thought I was a prostitute. He was sending me through the back, without shoes, as if I was done with my “job.”

Needless to say, I had a few words with him, which he did not appreciate, and my husband was quite furious. Later that day, when we contacted the hospital, they apologized, but we never heard back with a follow up, as promised.

There’s a deeper underlying issue at play. Young girls and women in Madagascar are sometimes forced into prostitution. Sometimes by their own families. The demand for prostitutes is high with tourism, and a lot of Malagasy girls and women feel like they don’t have a choice. They also come to see white men as a potential way out of poverty.

In Madagascar, I wasn’t always viewed as a strong, successful Black woman. Or as someone equal to my husband. Instead there was often the assumption that I’ve worked my way out of poverty by using my body. 

I’m not sure what the answers are, but with what I saw and experienced, I vowed to help girls and women in Madagascar.  To do whatever I can, to help empower them and give them real hope—Beyond the ‘hope’ of a white man savior.

One woman at a time, I want to create change in Madagascar. To break the cycle of relying on abusive men, that view Black women as objects to purchase and exploit. 

Nosy Be is called “L’ile parfumee” (the Scented Island), and it’s so true. The island is full of Ylang Ylang bushes growing wild, sometimes as far as the eye can see. You can smell it in the breeze as you drive through. I’ve struggled for weeks about whether to write this, because Madagascar is my home. I’d love to just talk about the sweet breeze, the little islands, the dugout-boats, the lemurs and the giant turtles—But creating change has to start here.

 

Myriam Banks hails from Madagascar, grew up in France, and lives in L.A. She writes about race, parenting and travel.

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