Africa without Madagascar is like soup without salt


Ring-talied Lemurs | Pic by Trhgr

When I was in primary school, our geography teacher made us draw on the blackboard maps of various regions. By the time I was in primary seven, I could draw the Rhineland, curves of the Tennessee valley authority, Africa, East Africa, North America, South America, Australia and so on. Europe was hard but we gave it our best short.

The funny thing is we always forgot the islands. They’re small anyway, we’d say. Easy to miss or leave out. So one time I drew the map of Africa and filled it up but left out the islands. Our geography teacher looked at my map and said, “Africa without Madagascar is like soup without salt.” We laughed, but I never forgot the islands again, the salt of Africa. I don’t know why he singled out Madagascar. Cape Verde, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe were also missing on my map. I’ve been conscious of islands since then and whenever I visit a new country I start to look out for potential islands.

My other important island lesson was in 2009 when I visited Cape Verde and while there I came across the map of Africa. Whoever had drawn the islands—God bless him—they were monstrously large almost beating the entire Africa. Ten of them when we used to make them two or three dots. I was like God, what is this? Whoever drew them out of proportion? Then I realized where I was. When in Cape Verde, respect the islands. They are perceptibly small only in mainland Africa.

Lately I’ve been catching up on short stories and poems from Africa, and just like in the geography lesson, I’m not about to forget Madagascar or any of the other islands. So here let me pass the salt in form of Flavien Ranaivo  (born May 13, 1914, in Madagascar—died December 20, 1999). On to lemur land.

Flavien Ranaivo was a lyric poet deeply influenced by Malagasy ballad and song forms, something that’s called Hain-teny, “one of the principal forms of written literature in Madagascar–a poetic dialogue most written with the concept of love,” and said to be in contrast with Japanese Haiku. What I love most about his poetry is that you can sing and recite it easily. It organically feels part of everyday life like wearing clothes, as it celebrates harmony, feelings of sadness and love.


Six roads

leave from the foot of the traveler’s-tree:

the first leads to the village-of-forgetfulness,

the second is a dead end,

the third is the wrong one,

the fourth saw the beloved pass by

but did not keep track of her footsteps,

the fifth

is for him who is bitten by regret

and the last…

I do not know if it is passable.

Song of a Common Lover

Don’t love me, my sweet,
like your shadow
for shadows fade at evening
and I want to keep you
right up at cockcrow;
nor like pepper
which makes the belly hot
for then I couldn’t take you
when I’m hungry;
nor like a pillow
for we’d be together in the hours of sleep
but scarcely meet by day;
nor like rice
for once swallowed you think no more of it;
nor like soft speeches
for they quickly vanish;
nor like honey,
sweet indeed but too common.
Love me like a beautiful dream,
your life in the night,
my hope in the day;
like a piece of money,
ever with me on earth,
and for the great journey
a grateful comrade;
like a calabash,
intact, for drawing water;
in pieces, bridges for my guitar.

Old Merina Theme

 Plants germinate

spurred by their roots

and I come to you spurred by my love.


At the top of the high trees, beloved

the bird ends its flight

my wanderings never end that I am not

near you.


Stumble, stumble

the Farahantsana waters, dear

without a sprain;

fall, they fall without a break.


My love for you, beloved,

resembles waves on the shore:

I wait for them to dry up. More will come.


Two loves grew up together,

Because twin loves:

Woe on him who betrays.


Farewell, dear, farewell:

Foolish love is a trompe l’oeil,

Indecisive love turns one mad…

From Voices From Madagascar: An Anthology of Contemporary Francophone Literature

Madagascar being Malagasy and French-speaking, Ranaivo wrote in French. One thing I admire about translations is that one is never enough. You have to keep comparing and appreciating the unique meaning and dimension each word or phrase brings. I came across another version of Old Merina Theme and liked it, and certainly preferred some words especially the third stanza. Here we go.

Old Merina Theme

Plants grow

driven by their roots

and driven by my love I come to you.


At the top of the great trees, my dear,

the bird completes his flight.

My journeys are not done until I’m close to you.


The cascades of Farahantsana tumble, tumble.

They fall, they fall but do not break.


My love for you, my dear,

like water on the sand.

I wait for it to sink, it rises.


Two loves sprang up together

Like two twins

Misfortune to the first who is untrue.


Farewell, my dear, farewell,

careless love may fool the eye,

uncertain love brings madness.


Uncertain love, my dear,

like mist upon the pond.

There’s much of it, but not to hold,

for mist upon the pond, my dear,

flirts and then is gone

while avoko flowers

settle ‘round the fields.


A chicken snatched by the papango, dear,

and carried high grows lonely

far, far from his love.

From Bending the bow: An anthology of African love poetry



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