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What's In A Name?

Posted on 23 February 2006

Did you know that people in Madagascar do not have last names? This type of anonymity is hard to imagine in today’s world, where tools for identification seem to be basic. People in the African Island do not have a standardized family name—a father does not share his last name with either his children or his siblings.
Did you know that people in Madagascar do not have last names? This type of anonymity is hard to imagine in today’s world, where tools for identification seem to be basic.

People in the African Island do not have a standardized family name—a father does not share his last name with either his children or his siblings. When a baby is born, the parents choose both a name and a last name for their child; careful thought is given to the name’s meaning, which can relate to the day the baby was born, the moon, the stars, their ancestors, or nature.

A unique last name largely defines who you could become as a person, which makes it all the more important to bear the name of something meaningful, something that marks you in an interesting way. I think this tradition serves as an ideal example of the Malagasy way of being. It shows how important it is for them to maintain a strong connection with both the environment and with their ancestors.

One of the field agents that worked with me was Sylvain Razafimandimby. Sylvain comes from ‘Sylvester’ — the guardian of the forest. He is an example of a how a name can influence your life’s choices; he has committed himself passionately to the protection of nature. Sylvain is also known as Monsieur Fourmi, or Mister Ant, because of his acquired expertise in ant identification and ecology. As one of my field mentors, he was possibly the best guide I could have had, for he taught me an incredible amount about Madagascar’s plants, animals and culture.

The other field agents and my friends were called Sata, Manaitra (Malagasy for spectacular), and Ludovic Tomainty (Mainty means black). They call themselves ‘The Three black Musketeers,’ a ‘spectacular team,’ the ideal match for Sylvain in Ankarimbelo’s field office. They come from very different backgrounds and were brought together by a shared commitment to conservation of their country’s natural resources and to the improvement of people’s lives. Along with Cyrile, they bring in the perspective from the community when it comes to the implementation of natural resources management plans, and they also add a touch of joy and youth to the group.

These were my companions during my field trips and were my link with local communities. They eased my connection with the local townships, not only through translation and guidance, but also through politics.

This aspect is especially important with regard to the Tanala culture, since strong differences exist between Malagasy ethnic groups and the Tanala are characterized by a reserved character and distrust of foreigners.

The field agents taught me about their traditions, their particular fady (or taboos) and the most suitable ways to approach people. Thanks to what I learned, I was able to do things that only a few foreigners have done: visit the Sacred Cascade of Matitanana in Vinanimasy, engage talks with local nobles, promote rising women and youth associations, and have the blessing of old wise men to work in the zone. All of these features were among the most rewarding elements of my internship.

It was through my relationships with the Three Musketeers, Mister Ant, and my female friends Rina, Rosine, and Erika that I opened the door into the Malagasy culture.

We cooked and lived together, and our adventures in the corridor and in Ankarimbelo made us great friends. The nights we spent under the light of the cooking fire in our small kitchen were full of stories about their ethnic groups, their traditions and their dreams. These stories would fascinate anyone, since Malagasy people’s dreams and lives are both fantastic and realistic. Stories were ruled by the presence of their ancestors and the laws they have set for each family (fady).

I was particularly startled by the customs followed in a funeral, which include 3-day visits of people from neighboring towns, a special preparation of the deceased body and the construction of family graves. On the other hand, their dreams implied some things that people in other countries give for granted: have a house of their own, being able to leave their town in discovery of nature and other cultures, having access to electricity…

All the stories I heard enhanced the growth as a person that I went through in Madagascar. I learned about the value of traditions (mine and theirs) and of things and opportunities that are not always treasured by us. And without me even noticing it, they transmitted skills and willpower -such as how to develop physical strength, manage dehydration and fatigue, and traverse strong rivers- that came in handy during the field trips, and will definitely be with me in my future adventures.

Sylvain, Manaitra, Ludovic and Sata introduced me in one way or another to the Malagasy character. They have overcome the adversity of growing up in an economically poor country and have done it with courage. Even though some of them went to college, the general rule was that their knowledge and skills came through individual efforts and life experiences, not through formal education. The will they had to learn and to help their community is very motivating and is inspirational. If anything it should show the world that there is always a way of becoming part of a positive change—a change that entails a recognition of the work and lives of people like them, a recognition that may one day become coordination in a worldwide youth movement in environmental conservation.

The lesson that stems from the Malagasy names is that meaning is found through action, reached through work and experience. They helped me reflect upon what it means to do what I do, to be a biologist, to come from Latin America, and inspired in me refreshing ways of working for change in the environmental and social situation of Ecuador. Why should not this inspiration affect others?

Carolina Zambrano-Barragán, October-December 2005
Village people
© WWF / Carolina Zambrano-Barragán