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Jeanne d’Ampondralava

July 22, 2014

I will never forget her. Not even in a next life. She was the first person, my first day in a strange new village, who took me by the hand and went for a walk with me. Her and Virginie. She sauntered over, tall, thin, flawless. Baby brother on her hip. Virginie was slightly shorter, a little stockier, her easy smile and quick laugh gave away that she was a lot younger than Jeanne, Or maybe that’s my memory projecting what I know now onto what I knew then, which is a a lot like nothing.

We headed south-southwest on the sand road that divides Ampondralava into the next town, Bekolah. Along the way they chattered, testing the edges of the limits of my Antakarana. It was the first day I’d get to be surrounded by the tinkling song of that language. They lost interest in me pretty quickly. Once they realized I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, they fell into conversation with one another. I can only imagine that it was gossip, and chit chat, and the kind of day dreaming that only adolescent girls can keep up for more than 15 minutes, at the age when the whole world is one big dance waiting to happen, and all you can think about is who you might get to dance just one song with.

Our first stop was to family, so they could visit with the baby. It’s funny how strange memory can be. I remember it was someone’s grandma, but I can’t remember whose. I can guess it was Jeanne’s. The skin around her eyes puckered into the kind of smile that we reserve exclusively for close kin, and even more specifically, for new kin. She took up her grandson and swung him onto her hip in one smooth motion. After catching up, and this I do remember, talking about the end school, at which point Jeanne and Virginie received a scolding for not acing their exams, we sauntered further south.

By this time, it was getting late in the afternoon, and with my first-day jitters, I was eager to get home and finish putting my new domicile together. Politely as a I could in broken Antakarana, I explained it was time for me to go home, that I was tired, that I needed to start cooking dinner. They both giggled their goodbyes, and kept along their way.That’s about all I remember from my first day, aside from the market, my walk alongside the setting sun and it’s long rose shadows with Jeanne and Virginie.

Over the next couple of months, her youthful light started to fade, like the sun on that first day, but with storm clouds on her brow that were absent in our ever-sunny skies. She lived next door to me, in what can most easily be described as my uncle’s (or maybe older brother’s) house. We shared the same familial well, and some mornings she would brush my greetings aside with a brusque grunt; sometimes not even that. The more she pulled away, the more fearful I was to say hi, to try and talk to the first person who was kind to me in a land of heat, dust, chameleons, and rice. A pattern began to emerge as the dry season blazed away. After a couple days of household chores and planting rice, she would disappear. The days she was around, I would try to say hi, to talk with her, but she blew me off time and again. As observant as I was, I was blind to what was going on. Until I slowly started to put the pieces together one by one.

I was walking, visiting a friend, when my uncle’s motorcycle came blazing by, his silouette and Jeanne’s sharply outlined against the soft oranges and pinks that welcomed a velvet sky and evening stars. Her outfit matched the sky; bright and bold, it exuded out it’s own hot pink energy. We waved, and to my surprise, she waved back, a look of haughtiness and privilege distorted her young open face.

I would notice her from time to time, on the back of that motor bike coming and going. Going always confident, done up, bright and clean. Coming always somehow deflated, tired, with dulled eyes that gave away a dulled spirit. There were a couple large parties in the village over that time. She danced like no one I have ever seen. She wouldn’t let herself go, but there was a comfort in her enthusiastic gyrations and pelvic tipping and dipping that hinted at many dances past.

This intersected with the time that my language skills began to soar. I could now confidently say hello. I could understand the complicated fiscal language. I could follow most gossip. I started to learn slang, and was finally taught the word for “strumpet” or “slut” or “whore” or “working girl”. The first day that it was used to refer to Jeanne that peculiar juxtaposition occurred where all at once I was indignant and shocked and also suddenly cognizant of a deeper truth I had known all along. Jeanne was a “working girl”. And I do mean girl. She could dance like a woman, her build and frame was a woman’s, but in so many other ways she was very much a girl.

When it came time for school to start, I stopped seeing her on the back of her daddy’s motorcycle in the evening. She stopped disappearing for days. She started to say hello at the well again, her bright teeth flashing a perfect white grin. She started to joke, and talk, and laugh again. Her brooding silence was broken, and the light of her unweighted soul started to flow from her eyes like the dawn breaking through fog.

Her family all said that she wouldn’t be in school long. That she would go back to whoring because she liked it; the money that is. The girl who flounced up to me in her brand new school uniform most definitely didn’t seem the materialistic type. She seemed the excited to learn and belong with other kids type. She seemed like the girl who couldn’t wait for the next dance. I encouraged her; told her I was happy she was going back to school. Told her she was smart, and not just pretty. Showed her that smart girls can have fun too. Hopefully showed her that sex isn’t everything.

She’s a lot stronger than me. Maybe it has less to do with strength and more to do with a certain kind of broken. It came to a point where I couldn’t look her in the eyes anymore. I was now the one whose soul was dulled, fogged over. I felt somehow responsible for not being able to help more. Nothing I did in Peace Corps was ever enough. I withdrew and disconnected, and was frustrated at how powerless I was to stop the predators circling this vibrant young woman. For a quick buck. And I do mean a buck. Especially if she was turning tricks with Malagasy Johns. She had no more choice in her fate than any of us. Seeing her, in her smart beige skirt and top, still thin and perfect, but young again would choke me up every day.

There’s all kinds of literature, of “results based evidence” for the value of education. For her it was simpler than tests without bias, and control-block trials. Education was not just a way out, but a way up. It was fitting in. It was being normal again. It’s taken my soul a lot longer to lighten up, to be able to free-wheel through the sky like it used to. I will never forget her, and what her story taught me, and what her father made her do, and the way school made her come back to life. I’ll never forget any of Madagascar. Writing it down helps solidify the memory, but better than that, when I close my eyes, I can still feel the sand beneath my sandals hear the soft chatter of teenage voices and the gurgle of a baby brother. I hope she’s still in school. I hope she knows that I’m still walking with her.

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