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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Foreskin on a Fizzy (August 1999)
Ruth Tingay — in Madagascar Project    ShareIn early August there was a pleasant surprise waiting for me when I came back to camp one evening. The truck had arrived from Tana and had brought an American vet-med student, Renee Land. In turn, Renee had brought my mail from Tana! I didn’t know what to do first—read my mail from home or talk to someone who could understand my language! I did both, much to the amusement of the technicians, who hadn’t heard me speaking so quickly and so much for two months!

Renee had come out to Madagascar a few weeks earlier and had been further up north testing fish for signs of pesticides. She was staying at Camp Handkerchief for a week, to test the fish on the three lakes and also to take some blood from some of the eagles, also to test for signs of pesticide residue. This coincided nicely with my research as I had just begun to trap my study eagles, so we decided that Renee should come along and take blood from the birds already being trapped.

Loukman with fish trap for catching eagles.
Loukman with fish trap for catching eagles.
The following week, Loukman, Renee, and I spent most of our days out on the lakes, trying to trick the eagles into coming for our bait. Not surprisingly, the fish eagles had little difficulty in out-smarting us and our success rate was very low. Fortunately, Renee had brought some peanut butter and dried biscuits out from Tana, so our endless hours of sitting in the boat waiting for a fish eagle to make a move were not entirely unhappy ones! By the end of the week we had managed to trap three of them, which was very useful for me as Renee was able to help refine my blood-taking skills. She seemed quite reluctant to get back into the truck and head for Tana and I was sorry to see her leave (although she did give me the remains of the peanut butter which I treasured…thanks Renee!).

The rest of August I spent almost every day trapping with Loukman, who is a master in the art of making a dead fish look like a live one! (Unlike other fish and sea eagles, the Madagascar Fish Eagle doesn’t eat carrion, so we had to fool them into believing our decoy traps were real live fish.)

Local fisherman with his catch.
Local fisherman with his catch.
Our long periods of waiting in the boat were interspersed by conversations with local fishermen. Traditionally, the men folk of the community spend most of their day out on the lake, bobbing around in hollowed-out tree trunks, calling and singing to one another as they bang their paddles on the side of their pirogues to try and scare the fish into their nets. They were very curious of me and my gadgets, the only white woman for miles and miles around, and would often come and sit near me when I was on nest observation and just stare at me as I stared at the eagles. I let them look through the telescope at the eagles, but they thought that somehow I had magically put the eagles inside the scope and that’s why they looked so large! The children especially were frightened of me, as they had grown up listening to stories of how the white stranger (‘vazaha’ in Malagasy) would come to their village and eat them up if they were naughty! Wherever I went, I was followed by shouts of “Vazaha! Vazaha!” as hoards of kids would go running and screaming.

One day in the boat, an old fisherman paddled over to us just dressed in his underpants. I realised how immersed I must have become in this culture as I didn’t give him a second look. If that had happened at home in England, I would have run a mile! He began to speak with Loukman and I noticed them both looking at me, and Loukman burst out laughing. It turns out that the old man had met Rick and his family when they had stayed at the lake about four years ago. He wanted to know if I was Rick’s daughter. Bear in mind that Rick’s daughter was five when she visited the lakes, so either I looked incredibly young or Rick’s daughter had looked old beyond her years!! I was flattered but I suspect Rick would not be.

After a while, the fisherman returned to his nets and Loukman told me we had just been invited to the highlight of the social calendar. There was to be a circumcision ceremony that evening and the community had invited the ‘vazaha’ as a guest of honour! I have to admit I wasn’t that keen, but then thought that I probably wouldn’t get an opportunity like this again so agreed to go.

I left camp that evening with seven technicians (one had to stay behind to guard it) and we slowly motored across the lake in the darkness, using our flashlights to guide us. We crossed the lake and soon found the right camp as about 30 pirogues had been hauled up onto the shoreline. We could hear singing and followed the noise back through the forest to the camp clearing. There must have been about 200 people there, all from the local fishing communities. A huge fire was roaring in the centre and about 80 men were slumped beneath a large Tamarind tree to the left. They were drinking the local moonshine and some seemed to have been doing so for quite some time. The females in camp were dressed in brightly coloured "lambas" (a bit like a sarong) and were engaging in a trance-like dance around the fire, catcalling and wailing to the sound of a drum.

Suddenly word got out that the vazaha had arrived and I was surrounded by dark curious faces which burst into laughter whenever I spoke in my strange language. Two young boys aged about 10 or 11 years were pushed forward reluctantly and I shook their hands. These were the cause of this evening’s celebrations but they didn’t look too worried about their impending fate. I asked Loukman who would perform the deed, and he pointed to one of the men under the Tamarind tree. He had a razor blade in his pocket and a bottle of moonshine in his hand. Loukman must have seen the look on my face as he leant over and said, “Don’t worry, he is a man who has experience.”

We were then summonsed to the chief’s hut where we sat cross-legged for a few hours on a mat and politely pretended to drink from the moonshine bottle. Loukman translated the chief’s welcome speech, which lasted for about 45 minutes. I asked what he had said and Loukman told me, “Welcome. That is all!” I gave my thanks in return, much to the amusement of the gathered crowd, who kept egging me on to speak and then collapsed in heaps of laughter at every word spoken.

The celebrations continued well into the early hours of the morning until finally, it was time for the circumcisions. I chose to stay outside the hut as the intoxicated “doctor” staggered in by candlelight. Above the screams coming from inside, I asked Loukman what happened to the foreskin once it had been cut. “This tribe, they put the foreskin onto a ‘fizzy’ (a firework) and send it off into the sky. But for other tribes they are very strange. They put it onto the roof of house and grandparents they eat it.” No more strange than sticking it on a rocket I’d say.

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