ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR — The biggest potential threat to Madagascar's culture, sighs local poet Ranoe, is the cellphone. Each minute of talk is so expensive, he says, that people have to get to the point quickly not the Malagasy way.
"We are about circular movement. We are about our ancestors and their words of wisdom. We are about harmony," waxes Hanitravio Rasoanaivo, a singer.
"Basically," he concludes, "we are about taking it slow."
Self-made millionaire Marc Ravalomanana, the newly elected president of this island nation in the Indian Ocean, knows this truth well.
The crowds in the capital who came out to celebrate the victory of their "American dream" candidate may have been sporting cowboy hats emblazoned with "OK Ravalomanana!" in English, and they may have been cheering for the "US style" economic reforms they hope he will introduce, but when it came time for their leader to address them, they wanted nothing like a US politician's barrage of sound bites.
They wanted kabary.
A form of traditional Malagasy oratory, kabary is based on the unhurried telling of ancestral proverbs, metaphors, and riddles, frequently in a dialogue using call and response.
Originally used in public gatherings and political assem- blies of a pre-literate era, the form has since evolved and been popularized, but it has kept its specific rules. Today, despite the rising literacy rate and the familiarity with different manners of speech, kabary is still considered necessary for communication during ritual events, and is also used widely in regular, day-to-day talk.
"I'm a businessman," says the Western-educated Mr. Ravalomanana in an interview. "I am all about setting an agenda. Setting a time frame. Going through that agenda. One. Two. Three." In theory, he muses, the people might respect that directness but not if it comes at the expense of their traditional ways. "I have been learning," he admits with a smile.
"No, no, no straight talk," says primary school teacher Bonnard Ohiria, putting her hands over her ears as she explains that only 20 percent of any good oratory should be "to the point." The rest "the very long rest" she says, should be all about word play.
One of the main rules of kabary is that the subject or point of the conversation can never be broached directly and in some instances cannot be stated at all. During a funeral or condolence call, for instance, uttering aloud the name of the deceased is taboo. To express that someone is missed, Ranoe offers, one might begin with a story about the short grass on the highlands plateau that a great grandfather once trod upon. Then, the speaker might embark on a tale about the pearls of the deep sea and how grass and great grandfather and sea have become torn apart.
Kabary is spoken solely in the Malagasy language, which like the Malagasy themselves is a synthesis of Indonesian, Polynesian, African, Arab and European influences.
"The idea is to roll our thoughts and our ancestors' thoughts all around on our tongues in pleasure but never give voice to the main point," says Tsiky Rakolomavo, a professional mpikabary a person skilled in kabary who is often hired to represent brides or grooms in the lengthy, crucial kabary meetings between families before a wedding ceremony.
Such meetings, explains local musician Ndrina, are of major significance.
"If one family does not like the word play or the proverbs the other family is using," he says solemnly, "the whole wedding can be called off."
The concept of including ancestors and their words of wisdom in daily existence is found throughout Malagasy culture. During the Famadihana ceremony, for example, the dead are exhumed and treated as if they were alive and just returned from an extended absence. The relatives are entertained, danced with, regaled with stories of recent family events, turned to for advice, and then reburied with new shrouds and presents.
Malagasies acknowledge that in striving to modernize their society, in electing a "modern man" as their leader and in giving their children access to modern communications, they risk losing parts of their cultural heritage.
"We want to move forward, but we want our past to move forward with us," says Malala Rafam'Anducenjly, an English professor and mother of four. So she envisions her children moving easily between the e-mail chat forums in their school computer classes and school assemblies where they speak in kabary.In recent years, popular kabary classes and after-school clubs have sprouted up in Antananarivo to help parents educate their increasingly busy children in the ways of the past. Meanwhile, kabary is opening up to new metaphors, and even slang associated with modern life.
"Today we don't need kabary for communication,' says Ranoe, "but it is important for our culture. It is essential for our souls."
As the poet talks on, a Christmas jingle sounds. It is his cellphone. His cousin Sylvain is on the line, and the two break into a staccato kabary conversation, with Ranoe laughing heartily and waving his arms in the air. After 10 minutes they hang up.
"What did he want?" the poet is asked. "I don't know," he replies. "We didn't get that far."