Published in Africa Geographic, April 2005
“Excuse me, please may I speak to you?” The young porter looked nervous.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, I will wait until you have finished with your group”.
We had arrived at a comfortable seaside hotel in Nosy Be, and were all looking forward to a bit of relaxation after a hectic tour of Madagascar. The Malagasy hate giving bad news so my heart sank despite his reassurance. When I’d finished matching up the last person with their room key I turned to the boy and said, brusquely: “Well, what is it?” He cleared his throat, stood to attention, and recited what was obviously a carefully rehearsed speech: “You are Mrs Hilary Bradt. Seven years ago you gave your business card to Sambava-Voyages and Mme Seramila gave it to a schoolboy who wrote to you. But you were away so your mother answered the letter. She wrote many letters. My name is Maurille and I am that boy. I work here now and I want to talk to you about Janet Cross, and Brian Cross, and Andrew Cross…”. There followed a list of every member of my family.
As I listened incredulously I recalled the original letter. Maurille had written asking to correspond so he could improve his English. “We love England strongly, especially London, Buckingham, Grantham, Dover…” I remembered passing it to my mother, then in her 80s, saying that I didn’t have time. And I remember my relief when she agreed to answer him. She kept it up for a couple of years, and she sent a photo of the family gathering at Christmas, carefully writing all the names on the back of the picture. This brought an indignant letter from a cousin: “I have seen your photo. It is a very nice one. I asked Maurille if he could lend it for one day only because we all study English so we must have photo of English people more to improve this language, but he refused me strongly because they are only his friends, not mine.” Patrice pointed out that this was particularly unfair since he was more intelligent than his younger cousin.
Maurille brought out the treasured photo. It had suffered from the constant handling and tropical climate and was peeling at the edges. He wanted to trim it, he explained, but then he’d have to cut off a bit of one of my mother’s beautiful chairs and he couldn’t do that.
Later that year I sent Maurille an album filled with family photos. I never heard from him again – that’s how it is in Madagascar – but I have no doubt that it was received with great happiness.
School children in Madagascar still seek out tourists with a view to starting a correspondence, but the innocence of my experience is rare now that there are far more foreigners in Madagascar. Some prospective correspondents are looking for romance and many more are after material benefits. But… it’s worth the risk, and something you can plan for. These days letter-writing is out of fashion and it’s unlikely that a school child in the developed world will want to bother. But grannies? They are the ones with the stories to tell, the ones who remember the old days when life in their country was not so different from present-day life in Madagascar, and the ones who never lost the art of letter-writing. And, as I know, it does no harm to pass on your Malagasy kid’s address to someone who will take the responsibility seriously.
My story has a twist to its tail. A few years later I returned to Sambava for the first time since the original visit twelve years previously. Then I had been researching my guidebook, now I was shepherding a group of tourists around. Two lively girls from the Peace Corps turned up in our hotel and asked if we would like to take part in the evening classes for conversational English that they had instigated with the help of the local teacher. “We want to get them accustomed to all sorts of accents” they said. The group readily agreed and we took it in turns to stand in front of the class and say something about ourselves, then take questions. I told them about the last time I was in Sambava, and how I gave my business card to the lady at Sambava-Voyages, and how I eventually met Maurille who had moved to Nosy Be on the other side of the island. I told them about the cousin who also wrote a letter. “I think his name was Patrice.” I said. The teacher stood up. “I’m Patrice” he said. “Yes, I remember writing to Janet Cross.”
© Hilary Bradt