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The River, the Road, and the Rural-Urban Divide: A Postcolonial Moral Geography from

Southeast Madagascar
Author(s): Philip Thomas
Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 366-391
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide:
a postcolonial moral geography from
southeast Madagascar

University of Kent at Canterbury

In this article, I analyze how ideas of attachment to place and the experience
of political and economic marginality combine to produce a particular moral
geography for people of the Manambondro region of southeast Madagascar.
Though the elements of this moral geography comprise an archive of sorts of
the colonial encounter, they also speak of people's consciousness of their
marginality within the postcolonial present. I argue that moral geography rep-
resents a structure of feeling, a form of social consciousness that captures
something profound about people's senses of place and also, regarding their
ambivalence toward modernity, their sense of who they are and who they
might become. [colonialism, modernity, moral geography, place, postcolo-
nialism, structure of feeling, Madagascar]

On an overcast afternoon in mid-1992, I stood next to Kotozaka, watching t

events held to commemorate and honor a deceased elder of the village of Mana
bondro in southeast Madagascar. At one point, Kotozaka turned to me and sai
"Fomba gasy-ohatran'ne biby. Ratsy ne fomba doboky. Misy depense be" [Thi
Malagasy custom-just like animals. Funerary customs are bad. There is great
pense]. Did we vazaha (foreigners) do such things, he asked, did we kill cattle w
an old man died?1 "No," I said, "We don't kill cattle, though we do spend a lot
money on a funeral," and I proceeded to elaborate on the nature of "our custo
When I had finished, Kotozaka turned to me and said, "Tsara-tsara nandr
[Good-it is good to be developed].
Kotozaka's remarks were not the only time I encountered debates over diff
ences of custom and issues of what it is to be developed played out in relation to th
dead. One day, news reached Manambondro that Neny, a woman from a nearby
lage who had lived for many years in the capital of Madagascar, had died and that h
body was being returned to her ancestral homeland (tanin-drazana) for burial.
news prompted discussion between Neny's relatives on her father's and moth
side, and it was agreed that the funeral would be hosted by the mother's group. A c
ple of days later, a truck arrived bearing Neny's brother, several relatives on her f
ther's side, and Neny's corpse in a casket. No sooner had the casket arrived tha
argument broke out between Neny's brother and people of his (and Neny's) mother'
group. The brother demanded that the funeral should be conducted in his own villa
(that of Neny's father's group) rather than in the mother's village, this despite the
that the elders of the father's group had already agreed that the mother's group w
host the funeral. The argument continued for much of the night, and early next mo
ing senior members of Neny's father's group arrived to try and resolve the situatio

American Ethnologist 29(2):366-391. Copyright ? 2002, American Anthropological Association.

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 367

But Neny's brother was adamant and additionally insisted that the funeral would not
follow ancestral custom (fomban-drazana); instead of a teza (a carved wooden post)
being erected for his dead sister, and on which would be placed the horns of cattle
slaughtered in her honor, a wooden cross was to be raised and the horns thrown
away. The response of elders from the mother's group was equally uncompromising.
If that is what he wanted to do, then the brother was free to take the body, they said,
but they wanted nothing to do with it; a cross is "not custom" (tsy fomba) they pointed
out. The argument simmered for two days and resulted in Neny's brother being fined
three oxen, one of which was given to Neny's mother's group as a fine of the tomb
(sazy kibory).2 When the fine was presented, Neny's brother also gave 25,000 Mala-
gasy francs in recognition of the fact that he had spoilt relations between Neny's fa-
ther's and mother's group, but the money was promptly returned-a "fine of the
tomb" is an ox, not money, it was explained.
Both these anecdotes concern funerals, but rites for the dead are not my interest
here. Rather, I want to ask what these events indicate about people's senses of them-
selves and their experiences of changes in their lives and their world. On the face of it,
these two events are part of ongoing debates about custom. Neny's funeral prompted
an argument between residents of a rural ancestral homeland who insist on following
ancestral custom and an urbanite migrant intent on the adoption of practices that his
rural relatives deem "not custom." But as Kotozaka's remarks imply, the argument
over Neny's funeral also is an argument about being "developed" and, by implica-
tion, about claims to being modern through the adoption of other people's ways of
doing things; in short, this argument is about identity, about who people are and who
they are not.
These vignettes introduce the analytic focus of my article on the moral geogra-
phy of a postcolonial modernity in the Manambondro region of southeast Madagas-
car. They allude to the complex intertwinings of ideas about the "Malagasy" and the
"foreign," ancestral custom and other ways of doing things, the rural and the urban,
development and progress, and what might most easily be glossed as tradition and
modernity. To speak of the rural and the urban, and tradition and modernity, is to re-
fer to sedimented deposits of modernist narratives of development and progress that
colonialism bequeathed to much of the postcolonial world (Gupta 1998). To some
extent, then, I address in this article Stoler and Cooper's call for further investigation
of some of the ways in which "the categories of colonialism . . . have shaped post-
colonial contexts and have been reworked by them" (1997:34). With this aim in
mind, I analyze these categories as constitutive elements of a moral geography that in-
forms local people's senses of themselves, as well as their relations with one another
and the wider world. Yet, although these categories may be traceable to the period of
colonial rule, they continue to have relevance because they express something funda-
mental about the geography of a postcolonial modernity that exhibits marked conti-
nuities with the asymmetries of the colonial era. In short, they capture the complexi-
ties of contemporary experience in the Manambondro region and the social, cultural,
political, and economic processes that have shaped people's lives over 100 years of
colonial and postcolonial history.3

of moral geography
As Akhil Gupta (1998:8-9, 179-180) notes, the opposition between tradition
and modernity is one of the most productive and enduring dichotomies that colonial-
ism bequeathed to colonial and postcolonial subjects (cf. Pels 1997:176-1 77), an ob-
servation that might equally be applied to such oppositions as the rural and the urban

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368 american ethnologist

(Williams 1973:279-288) and the indigenous self and the colonial Other (Taussig
1993). But as much recent work has shown, none of these ideologically loaded terms
can be taken at face value, as if their meanings were transparently obvious or inher-
ently stable. The terms tradition and modernity, for example, are cornerstones of
modernist narratives of development and progress, even in contexts where these nar-
ratives are disrupted, and as such they live plural existences, configured in a variety of
ways in different settings (e.g., Gupta 1998; Kaspin 1993; Morris 2000; Thomas
1992). Similarly, notions of indigenous self and foreign Other (e.g., Keesing 1992;
Thornton 1995), and representations of the rural and the urban (e.g., Comaroff and
Comaroff 1987; Ferguson 1992, 1999; Gupta 1998:79-101) comprise more than sim-
ple afterimages of colonialism, for the meanings of such terms are invariably reconfig-
ured by the complexities of postcolonial contexts, their semantic fields and valences
shifting in response to newly emergent differences, hierarchies, and exclusions.
Moreover, these categories and oppositions often speak to and speak of one an-
other. For people in the Manambondro region, the urban often is associated with the
modern and "developed" and contrasted with rural traditional customs of various
kinds. Although the rural-urban contrast contributes a crucial spatial element to the
geography of postcolonial modernity, its moral dimension takes the form of an ethical
contrast between doing for oneself and doing for others. This ethical contrast is itself
mapped on to the rural-urban divide and intertwined with the opposition between
"Malagasy" and "foreign." Thus, the elements of moral geography are interwoven in a
complex field of structuring and structured categories, each of which is implicated in
others. It is the complex interdigitation of ideas about progress and backwardness,
identity and difference, place and morality that has produced a particular postcolo-
nial moral geography-a spatial imaginary through which people locate themselves
and others as moral persons, ethical subjects of a postcolonial moment that exhibits
stark continuities with the colonial past.
A product of historical and personal experience, moral geography is both consti-
tuted by and constitutive of people's senses of place, their understanding of who and
where they are. As Walter puts it, places are "location[s] of experience" (1988:21)
that evoke and organize ideas and images, passions and sentiments; above all, they
are "work[s] of imagination" (1988:21). Just how significant place is in the lives of
people in a variety of locales is testified to by an impressive range of anthropological
works that reveal the manifold ways in which persons, practices, and identities are
implicated in cultural landscapes (e.g., Basso 1996; Feld and Basso 1996; Gray 1999;
Hirsch and O'Hanlon 1995; Kahn 2000; Morphy 1993; Santos-Granero 1998). As
much of this work demonstrates, places are locales of intense emotional attachment,
thick with meaning and memory, shaped by both local and translocal phenomena;
they possess the "power to direct and stabilize us, to memorialize and identify us, to
tell us who and what we are in terms of where we are (as well as where we are not)"
(Casey 1993:xv).
In my own attempt to make sense of place during fieldwork in the Manambondro
region, I explored the set of spatial images contained in ritual and everyday contexts
that located persons and collectivities in the landscape, and I noted instances when
people voiced the largely tacit set of feelings they held about their situation, in the
sense of both a specific place and a particular set of circumstances. In time, I came to
realize that people's senses of place were tied up with a historically constituted iden-
tity defined in relation to the sharing of custom and place. I explore the cultural land-
scape of this sited identity and the notions of centeredness at its heart, along with the
imagery of "ancestral homeland," "roots," and the river. But, as Margaret Rodman

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 369

(1992:646-647) notes, even in circumstances where local identities are constituted in

relation to places, notions of place are frequently both multivocal (exhibiting a range
of contested and contradictory representations and imaginings) and multilocal
(framed by horizons that are not only local, but regional, national, and even global). I
came to realize that in the Manambondro region a sense of being centered within the
ancestral homeland coexists with a sense of being peripheral to places and processes
located beyond it. The dominant imagery and concepts of peripherality, which I ana-
lyze below, include the rural-urban divide, roads, and the practices and ideas associ-
ated with tradition, development, progress, and modernity. I show how, as places, ru-
ral communities and the urban milieu take on-in imagination-qualities of moral
exemplars, while the road figures as a site for imagining possible futures.
In the Manambondro region, people's senses of place are not just a matter of the
embeddedness of memory, ritual, and social relations in the landscape; they are also
a vivid commentary on people's experiences of unequal relations between rural com-
munities and the state and their marginal position within the regional, national, and
global economy. As the term moral geography implies, I am dealing here with some-
thing altogether more allusive than a simple model of the structural features of eco-
nomic development. I am dealing with something akin to what Raymond Williams
called a "structure of feeling," a specifically interrelated-hence structured-set of
elements (including semantic categories, feelings, practices, and relations) that are
both a product of and a means of formulating understandings of lived experience and
that, though they escape formal definition, exert a palpable hold on social conscious-
ness (Williams 1977:128-135). Moral geography and sense of place, I suggest, repre-
sent an understanding of experience that remains, in Williams's terms, a "cultural hy-
pothesis" (1977:132).
To speak of moral geography and sense of place as a structure of feeling has obvi-
ous methodological implications. It means that analysis must go beyond formalized
statements and narrative to explore the inchoate and ineffable, for the consciousness
that is moral geography and sense of place resides largely in unstated ideas, in idioms
and images that frequently lack exegetical commentary. As a result, my under-
standing of them often emerged from statements whose meaning was left implicit, or
in events such as those with which I began, where moral geography is present in turns
of phrase and figures of speech rather than as the object of discourse. Not that I am the
first to find it necessary to go beyond what people say to look at the way in which they
say it (see, e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:32-39). Nor should a situation such as
this be a bar to analysis, for much of anthropology is an exercise in what Richard Far-
don has called "collaborative" meaning (1988:293)-accounts derived from observa-
tions of what people say and do, their reflections on what they say and do, and the an-
thropologist's interpretations of both.
In the absence of formalized statements about place and moral geography, I
therefore present an account arranged around a number of spatial images and seman-
tic oppositions and associations, a set of tropes and figures on whose meanings I sel-
dom heard people reflect but that nevertheless were significant elements of their inter-
pretations of experience. These tropes and figures are the elements and contours of a
moral geography that can be read as an archive of the colonial encounter (cf. Coma-
roff and Comaroff 1992:34-36). But moral geography is more than that, for it also
speaks of people's consciousness of their present and future; it is an idiom by which
people give voice to their sense of marginality within the particular configuration of a
postcolonial modernity, and from which they attempt to chart the possibilities of an
uncertain future.

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370 american ethnologist

siting identity: the river

The Manambondro region lies a little south of the Tropic of Capricorn on the
southern reaches of the east coast of Madagascar. The region's inhabitants, who refer
to themselves as Temanambondro, comprise part of a polity spread out over the lower
reaches and interjacent lands of the Manambondro, Isandra, and lavibola river val-
leys.4 These rivers descend eastward from the fringes of Madagascar's southern high
plateau and are prominent landmarks in a region where the vast majority of people
are subsistence farmers whose livelihoods combine the cultivation of wet and dry
rice, cassava, sweet potato, fruits, and legumes, with the herding of cattle and the
small-scale production of cash crops, principally coffee. Most villages in the region of
the Manambondro River are located along its banks or those of its tributaries, and
these waterways serve as routes for travel and sources of water for drinking, cooking,
and washing. The river is thus a significant aspect of everyday lived space, but its sig-
nificance is not confined to the practicalities of quotidian life; it also is an important
element of identity and history.
In common with other peoples of southeast Madagascar (see Deschamps and Vi-
anes 1959), Temanambondro comprise a collection of named ancestries (karazana),
each composed of one or more great houses (trahobe). Occasionally found in differ-
ent villages and river valleys, ancestries are not territorial groupings, though they are
spatially anchored through the one tomb (kibory raiky) they are said to share; great
houses, by contrast, are spatially discrete groupings residing in a particular village.
With one exception, Temanambondro ancestries are immigrants who trace their ori-
gins to other polities in southeast Madagascar, and stories of migration and settlement
that I collected reveal the landscape to be a prominent feature of the historical imagi-
nation among Temanambondro. Through reference to such things as toponyms, vil-
lage sites, and land cleared for cultivation, people literally emplace the past in a land-
scape both constituted by human history and a way of speaking about history (cf.
Rosaldo 1980).
When I asked people how ancestries of different origin had become Temanam-
bondro, people commonly mentioned the importance of shared customs or ways of
doing things (fomba) and shared place (faritra, toerana). Although the term fomba
covers a range of habitual practices, such as the way one cooks rice or constructs a
house, when discussing Temanambondro identity, people invariably use the term to
refer to rituals-such as marriages and funerals-which are seen to typify the ways of
the ancestors (fomban-drazana). Talking with those people who were pointed out to
me as authorities on the past, it became clear that Temanambondro identity was an
outcome of political agency, forged through the imposition of a common set of ritual
practices on immigrant ancestries. But another way of representing things was to at-
tribute an agentive role to place in the process of identity formation. People in the
Manambondro region often speak of fomba as practices associated with particular
places, such as when Voro explained that "samby hafa ne fomba n'olo arakaraka ne
faritra misy anazy" [people have different customs according to the place they live], a
point that he illustrated in terms of burial practices and planting cassava. Through the
siting of "custom," place becomes an element of identity, a point that Aban'i Ramose
made explicit when I asked him what made people from diverse historical and geo-
graphical origins Temanambondro: "Samby mana ne viany aby n'olo fa he faritra
nampitambatra anazy" [Everyone comes from somewhere different but the place
brought them together]. And of the places that were said to have brought people to-
gether, one in particular appeared as a recurring motif: the Manambondro River.

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 371

In the Manambondro region, the river figures prominently in ritual practice

(Thomas 1997). Its water is said to posses sacred efficacy (hasy) and is employed in
rituals of blessing, purification, and the annulment of taboos (fady). More signifi-
cantly, people are described as taranaka (children over successive generations) of the
river, a metaphor elaborated on in rites that literally emplace persons in the landscape
of their ancestral homeland. Soon after birth, the placenta of a newborn child is either
buried in the compound of the father's great house or disposed of, as is the umbilical
cord (foitra), at a specific place along the riverbank, linking person and place through
the corporeal tie between mother and child. Death, too, reconstitutes ties between
person and place in a literal rite of passage when the corpse is taken downriver by ca-
noe for burial in the tomb located at the embouchure. These rituals reveal that for
people of the Manambondro region the river and its waters are part of an emplaced
ontogeny and ontology, both punctuating and constituting the life-course of the per-
son, part of the process by which persons become full and moral social beings.
Among most of the people I knew in the Manambondro region, the river seemed
to be a largely taken for granted element of their everyday and ritual lives, and I found
explicit formulations of the river's symbolic significance largely confined to those
people with an intellectual curiosity about things Temanambondro. From talking to
such people, I came to realize that the river itself was a significant element in the his-
tory of the Temanambondro polity (see Thomas 1996, 1997). The name Temanam-
bondro means "people of the Manambondro River," and the river is central to their
conceptualization of themselves as a distinct kind of people. An example of the way
places contain memories (Casey 1987:214), the river is said to be named after another
of the same name, located in the ancestral homeland of the polity's founder. Although
many ancestries migrated into the Manambondro, Isandra, and lavibola valleys sub-
sequent to the founding of the polity and from different places of origin, the renamed
Manambondro River is spoken of as the "ancestral water" (ranon-drazana) and the
"great trunk" (fotora be) of all Temanambondro. Employing similar imagery, Aban'i
Betongotra explained to me that "ne fototra no iorenany maha-Temanambondro ne
Temanambondro ne renirano" [the river is the root and the basis of what makes {peo-
plel Temanambondro]. Moreover, he added, the embouchure (vinany, vava rano)
unites (miray) people, for "misy fihavanana amin'i'olo mana vava rano raiky" [there
is a state of relatedness between people {who} share one river mouth].5 A site of con-
centrated sacred efficacy (hasy), the embouchure is also the location of tombs (ki-
bory), items of built form that are central to the constitution of ancestries. Historically,
allocation of a place to build a tomb was one of the ways immigrant ancestries were
incorporated into the polity, and possession of a tomb at the embouchure is consid-
ered a defining feature of an ancestry's identity as Temanambondro.
Imagery of "roots" and "trunks" and their "branches" (sokazana) is common in
Temanambondro discourse and can be used to stress unity while alluding to division
and vice versa. This is itself exemplified by the river, a "root" and "trunk" that also sig-
nals division and hierarchy within the polity (Thomas 1997:33-34). For example, al-
though all ancestries in the Manambondro region are said to have a tomb at the
mouth of the Manambondro River, the actual location of a tomb, particularly whether
it is north or south of the river, represents an ancestry's position within the former
ranking system of the polity. Though the system of ranking and ritual agency on which
it rested was largely abandoned at the close of the 19th century, the river still figures
in the traces of this former hierarchy, with routes for taking corpses and memorial ob-
jects to the tombs prescribed to the different categories of ranking. A few ancestries in
villages located away from the river mouth have attempted to extricate themselves

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372 american ethnologist

from the practices that serve to objectify the memory of symbolic domination and
have established new tombs close to their villages. Although they no longer take their
dead downriver for burial, they assert their Temanambondro identity by pointing out
that they still have a tomb at the embouchure, albeit no longer in use, and (as do peo-
ple on the Isandra and lavibola valleys) they say they are Temanambondro because
they passed (nandalo) the Manambondro River, either to settle elsewhere or move
their tomb from its embouchure.
Implicated in a multitude of contexts, the Manambondro River is a multivocal
image that connects people of the region to their past and to one another. And al-
though the river signals division within the polity, it also represents the unity of Te-
manambondro in opposition to other polities around them. In local terms, people are
"rooted" in the river, a spatiotemporal center in the web of connections between peo-
ple, and between people and places. To be centered for Temanambondro, then, is to
have roots in places, or more particularly, in the landscape of their ancestral home-
land-roots that draw together and unify diverse social, spatial, and temporal rela-
tions.6 People's attachments to this landscape-at once practical, sentimental, and
experiential-are part of their sense of who they are, and even those people who at
one time or another leave the area to live in other parts of Madagascar speak of its
continuing hold over their lives. Some of these emigrants told me that they often saw
the river in their dreams, even sensing the taste of its water. They also live their lives
inside its symbolic ambit. Migrants invariably return to their ancestral homeland for
the birth of their first child and ensure that those children born subsequently have
their umbilical cords returned for disposal in the river. At other times, migrants return
to sanctify their marriages, or to hold rites using the river's water, which cleanse
(madio) transgressed taboos. And even the dead cannot escape the river's calling, re-
turning like Neny for burial in their ancestral tombs, sometimes years after death
when their bones are brought back, enclosed in a casket, as one man observed wryly,
"like sardines." For those people who remain in the ancestral homeland and those
who venture from it, the river remains a constant center, a place to which they remain
connected even when they live far away.
This complex of associations among ideas of person, people, place, and history
combines to produce a sited identity, a sense of collective self located within a spe-
cific landscape. Several Temanambondro I spoke with gave place and custom agen-
tive roles in their accounts of history and polity formation, emphasizing that they had
been made by place as much as the place had been made by them: By a variety of rit-
ual and everyday actions, they had made their ancestral homeland a place to which
they were attached by roots. Although a key trope of the "sedentarist metaphysics"
identified by Malkki (1992), Temanambondro botanical imagery involves not just
ideas of fixity (rootedness) but also growth, proliferation, and movement. Making
place for people of the Manambondro region is likened in many respects to setting
down roots, which both attach people to place and represent the nurturant source of
growth manifest in branches, fruits, and cuttings-these metaphors also being used in
a variety of contexts in the Mandambondro region to refer to people.7 And from
places where they have roots, people have spread out across the landscape "akao mit-
siry voankazo ne olombelona, mizarazara" [growing like fruit trees, spreading out
and dividing], for though people have roots in places, roots may be cut (fira)-like
shoots of cassava and sweet potato-and transplanted. Roots, then, summon up ideas
about attachment to places and others in those places, as well as the possibility of
movement away from them.

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 373

Place making, however, needs to be understood not just in terms of the practices
and representations that contribute to the production of a sited identity, but also in re-
lation to the siting of difference (Gupta and Ferguson 1997). For people of the
Manambondro region being centered through roots coexists with feelings of peripher-
ality, a sense of being becalmed beyond the pull of modernity's current. To explore
these feelings, I must move to a larger spatial scale and investigate the contrast be-
tween town and country and the significance of the road. In doing so, I move away
from idioms and images of centeredness, identity, and the ancestral past to concen-
trate on representations of peripherality, difference, and the history of the colonial
past and postcolonial present. Colonialism has undoubtedly influenced people's
senses of place. By this I do not mean that Temanambondro identity is a colonial in-
vention, produced through the entextualization of custom and tradition, or that peo-
ple's experience and representation of their relationships with their ancestral home-
land has been formed as a response to land alienation or the demarcation of tribal
territory.8 In fact, neither of these events occurred. Rather, colonialism bequeathed a
set of signs that, although they describe certain aspects of the colonial encounter, re-
main symbolically productive in the postcolonial present because in certain respects
the present does not mark a radical departure from the past. For many people of the
Manambondro region, parts of the archive of the colonial era-roads, towns, and the
opposition between Malagasy and foreigners-retain interpretive power as signs that
capture something about continuities in their political impotence and economic mar-
ginality, as well as charting contemporary moral fault lines and people's ambivalent
relationships with modernity.

siting difference: town and country

Following the French annexation of Madagascar in 1896, the people of the

Manambondro region found themselves subjects of a colonial power intent on mak-
ing its presence felt through such acts as banning swidden agriculture and introducing
corvee labor and taxes. Published reports on the security situation in southeast Mada-
gascar during the early years of colonial rule make little mention of Manambondro,
and focused instead on the rebellious occupants of the forested escarpment to its west
(Hellot 1900; Lyautey 1903); but in late 1904 resentment of French attempts to re-
make people's lives and livelihoods came to a head and an anticolonial revolt broke
out with its epicenter in the Manambondro region. Although the revolt rapidly spread
inland and along the coast, it was soon suppressed in Manambondro. Many villages
that had been razed by fire were rebuilt in their original locations, but French officials
relocated Manambondro village from a relatively inaccessible island in the river to
the adjacent mainland to aid surveillance and administration.9 Oral accounts of this
time reveal that one effect of the suppression of the revolt was that a significant
number of people fled the region, and many feared that the French would seize their
land.'0 These fears were largely unrealized, however, and the Manambondro region
did not witness the large-scale land alienation that occurred in some parts of Mada-
gascar (e.g., Althabe 1969; Sharp 1993). In fact, it remained an underdeveloped and
marginal region, far from centers of economic development, a situation that remained
unchanged after Madagascar's independence in 1960. It is the experience of under-
development that lies at the heart of people's sense of peripherality, something ex-
pressed in part through the opposition between town and country, a contrast that has
its origins in the spatial axes of colonial rule and administration.
Although the imagery of roots makes the Manambrondro River and the ancestral
homeland in which it lies symbolic centers, people of the Manambondro region have

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come to perceive their homeland as peripheral to centers of urban development, an

alternative axis of center and periphery relations introduced as a result of the system
of pacification and administration instituted by General Gallieni, Governor of Mada-
gascar from 1896-1905. Gallieni's pacification policy, developed during tours of
duty in French Soudan and Indochina, involved what was known as the "oil spot"
technique (tache d'huile), the radiation of military power and control across a territo-
rially divided landscape from posts of central command.'1 After pacification was
complete and authority passed to civilian control, these posts served as the basis of
the administrative division of the country into a nested hierarchy of cantons, districts,
and provinces. As throughout Madagascar, posts in the southeast were built accord-
ing to a model of rational administrative efficiency, integrated into a regional and a
national communications network, and laid out according to zoning practices that
placed native residential areas around an administrative and commercial core (see
Wright 1991:287).
Posts were perceived by the French-as were towns and cities in the colonial
metropole-to have a civilizing effect on those that inhabited and frequented them,
and after Gallieni's governorship, much colonial development seems to have been
premised on the equation of urbanization and modernization (see Wright
1991:299-300); however, the development of posts as urban centers was highly un-
even, concentrating primarily on provincial and some district seats, leaving smaller
posts to stagnate as rural backwaters.'2 This process is now vividly apparent in south-
east Madagascar, where efforts during the colonial and postcolonial period have been
concentrated on the former district and provincial seats of Faradafay (Fort Dauphin),
Vangaindrano, Farafangana, and Manakara, the latter a colonial port and railway ter-
minus. For people of the Manambondro region, these urban centers, called am-positra,
are markedly different from the landscape and smaller settlements that lie beyond
them "in the countryside" (ambanivolo). Derived from the French poste, the term am-
positra signals a former post and a particular scale and type of settlement distinctive in
terms of its differential possession of infrastructures and amenities. These towns are,
for example, served by paved roads, airports, telecommunications, and regular public
transport; they possess technologically equipped hospitals, the full range of schools, a
supply of electricity and piped water, large bustling daily markets, and numerous gen-
eral stores with a wide range of industrially produced commodities. By contrast the
"country" consists of farmland and forest, as well as settlements, but these lack the
distinctive features of "towns." It was this lack that featured in many people's com-
ments about their sense of peripherality. People frequently pointed out that the main
road serving the Manambondro region is very poor; there is no high school (lycee) or
weekly market (tsena); there is no television; people drink water from the river.
Of course, all things are relative, and towns do not exist in singular form (Wil-
liams 1973:289). Although most people in Manambondro experienced their life in
Manambondro village as being of the "country," I once heard a woman from a
smaller outlying village speak of "visiting the town" (mamangy am-positra) when she
arrived in Manambondro. Unlike her home village, Manambondro lies on the vehicu-
lar road, and has a rudimentary hospital and dispensary, a primary and junior school,
a small market (bazara), and four general stores. To some extent, inhabitants of
Manambondro village were in implicit agreement with this woman's remarks and re-
ferred to their home as more developed than other villages in the vicinity. But the am-
biguous position of Manambondro village notwithstanding, people throughout the re-
gion saw themselves as peripheral to places like Vangaindrano and Faradafay.

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 375

Beyond signaling the presence or absence of certain infrastructures and ameni-

ties, the opposition between "town" and "country" carries a wide range of further as-
sociations. Towns, for example, are seen as nandroso (developed), a term that carries
with it the implication of modernity.'3 Conversely, the country is spoken of in terms
redolent of the notion of tradition: People in the country are widely perceived to fol-
low more closely the ways of the ancestors (fomban-drazana). The valuation of these
associations, however, is largely situational. For those in towns, following certain an-
cestral customs is sometimes seen as backward, and I heard zealous urban Christians
deride people of the countryside as unenlightened (mbola meza, lit., "still dark") be-
cause they "do not pray" (tsy mivavaka). In fact, many people in Manambondro are
Christians. Moreover, they proudly cite membership in the Church as evidence of
their own modernity, and many do not find being a Lutheran or a Catholic necessarily
incompatible with the ways of the ancestors. However, they, along with Manambon-
dro's non-Christians, are just as likely as urbanites to essentialize the difference be-
tween town and country. For example, I heard people in Manambondro comment
that the countryside is quiet (mangina) whereas in towns "there are things going on"
(misy maresaka)-a remark that for some indicates the dubious morality associated
with the urban milieu.
Such essentializing of town and country is paralleled in the contrast between
gasy and vazaha.14 The latter term is used in the Manambondro region to refer to
"whites," especially the French, but it also is frequently employed to denote Malagasy
people whose behavior is perceived to be incommensurate with local ancestral and
Malagasy custom. Beyond the ambiguities of its nominal sense, vazaha also takes an
adjectival form. For example, people of the Manambondro region typify their own
lifestyle as one of fomba-gasy (Malagasy ways) in opposition to fombam-bazaha (the
ways of foreigners) frequently adopted by townspeople. In this context they contrast
their agricultural labor (mamboly) with working for a wage (mikarama) that, when it
does not involve physical labor-as in the case of urban functionaries-is commonly
said not to constitute work (asa) at all. Similarly, townspeople are frequently noted to
live in trahom-bazaha (foreign-style houses), which, in their design, furnishings, and
use of space, are seen as markedly different to the wood and palm houses that are pre-
dominant in rural villages (see Thomas 1998). The contrast also is applied to medi-
cines, whereby herbal medicines and witchcraft are both labeled fanafody gasy
(Malagasy medicine) and contrasted with biomedical cures and practices, such as an-
tibiotics and injections. Finally, various plants and animals are differentiated along
the lines of putative foreignness and autochthony.
From the perspective of people in the Manambondro region, the contrasts be-
tween town and country and gasy and vazaha also carry distinctive moral overtones.
People routinely distinguish behavior that displays a liking for others (tia nama), col-
lective in orientation, from behavior that signals a liking for oneself (tia teha), the latter
seen as typical of vazaha. A striking image that captures this interplay of oppositions
and the complex of associations between morality and economy relates to the use of
standard measures. Throughout Madagascar, the kapoaka (a ten fluid ounce con-
densed milk tin) is used as a measure for rice. When purchasing by the kapoaka, the
seller fills the tin until overflowing, such that the spillage and the rice in the tin are
counted as part of a single measure. This excess, I was told, comprises a gift
(fanomeza), and to fill a kapoaka so that its contents are level with the rim is, as they
say, to "fill it in the vazaha manner" (feno vazaha). The inclusion of the "gift" embod-
ies the ethic of "liking others"; its omission signals a "liking for oneself."

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A widely noted form of resistance to colonial rule has been the fashioning of a
"grammar of difference" (Stoler and Cooper 1997:9), whereby the colonized have
created a space-physically and imaginatively-apart from a foreign cultural order
operating in tandem with forms of political and economic domination. In the Manam-
bondro region this process has yielded a discourse in which the country is figured as
the locus of tradition, and tradition itself is constituted in mutual antithesis to urban
modernity. Town and country are topoi in a complex moral geography in which cor-
ruption and virtue, altruism and anomic disorder are mapped onto the rural-urban di-
vide.15 The result is a landscape that has come to embody different ways of living and
being through people's identifications of its features with different elements of these
oppositions. The terms am-positra (town) and ambanivolo (country) are "partial inter-
preters" (Williams 1973:296), tropes by means of which people formulate their un-
derstandings of time and place as having been transformed by processes that have
fragmented the very landscape of people's lived world.
As I have already noted, the opposition between town and country, and the tradi-
tional and the modern, speak of other contrasts-between gasy and vazaha, and "lik-
ing oneself" and "liking others." These oppositions are often represented by people in
the Manambondro region as being as clear as the spatial separation of town and
country. But these contrasts are wrapped in ambiguity. Many people I know in the
Manambondro region envied vazaha for the wealth they command and the secure
life it gives them; in people's eyes, it enables easier access to such things as formal
education, long-term employment, vastly superior health care, a huge range of com-
modities, and the benefits of technological modernity that they themselves are denied
because of their powerlessness and poverty. But, though envied, vazaha also repre-
sent in people's views a perverted self-oriented sociality and morality that, taken to its
most nightmarish extreme, has given rise to the fear (still real for some) that they are
pangalak'aty (liver thieves).16 The semantic and ideational domain of vazaha is thus a
terrain of shifting valences, for things associated with vazaha display a Janus-like
quality, provoking both awe and fear, desire and repulsion.'7 This kind of ambiguity
also extends to people's equivocal relationship with the urban milieu.
Many people in the Manambondro region desire access to the kinds of infrastruc-
ture, amenities, and entertainment to be found in towns. Yet, although they recognize
towns as modern progressive places, they also perceive them as morally corrupt and
corrupting. To leave one's ancestral homeland is a fraught affair for people of the
Manambondro region, for there is always a risk that they will become lost (very) by
dying and their body not being returned for burial, by marrying among other kinds of
people (karaza'hafa), or by adopting the customs of another place. Long-term urban
migrants (rerelava) are especially susceptible to becoming "lost" and are often spoken
of as people who have "become vazaha" (lasa vazaha). In a striking inversion of
French ideas about the civilizing influence of towns, many people of the Manambon-
dro region see towns as places that foster self-interest and in which it is difficult to trust
people, one of the reasons given for the prevalence of courtyard fences (lakoro)
around urban houses. Similarly, they point to townspeople's continual search for
money (mitady vola), not only evinced by wage labor, but also linked to such phe-
nomena as burglary and prostitution.
If these ambivalences undermine any neat hierarchical ordering of town and
country, the polarization of spaces, moralities, and ways of living associated with the
rural-urban divide also sit awkwardly with people's experiences of rural life. Not only
does the money scale of value pervade a great deal of rural economic life, there also is
an almost daily search for cash to buy the basic commodities of household provisioning.

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 377

To this end, many sell some of their produce in Manambondro village market and
combine subsistence agriculture with occasional agricultural wage labor and other
cash-earning occupations. Money is also a significant element in intimate relations,
and, I was told, it is common for a man to approach a potential lover (sakeza) by bran-
dishing a banknote. But this, I was told, was not the same as prostitution; it was just
"Temanambondro custom." Yet I also heard some women refer to their sexuality as
their lova (inheritance) and fanaka (household furnishings), with the clear implication
that these all had potential exchange value, realizable in a time of need. Finally,
money is an important component of ritual. As Neny's brother found out, cattle, not
cash, are the means of payment for fines of the tomb, but in other contexts cash can
substitute for cattle in funerals, and gifts of money during funerals and circumcisions
amply demonstrate that money and the ways of the ancestors are not necessarily in-
Other aspects of life associated in popular rhetoric with the urban milieu are also
present in the countryside. Burglaries occur, and as a result many people lock their
houses, including those people (mainly returned migrants) who have built what are
called "vazaha houses" surrounded by courtyard fences (see Thomas 1998). Mean-
while, many people in Manambondro village talked about a tendency toward house-
hold atomism in patterns of production and consumption in terms of people being
motivated by a "liking for themselves." People's concerns about this shift frequently
manifested themselves in their conversations about mealtimes, especially the use of
traditional large wooden plates (atova). In the past, I was told, people from several
households would gather together for the evening meal, men eating from one atova
and women from another. But nowadays, people would add, everyone eats sepa-
rately (manokana), each household to itself, each person served on a separate plate.
No longer called atova, the store-bought plates are known by the French assiette. Re-
iterating their interstitial position in the moral geography of modernity, people in
Manambondro village told me that if I visited more remote settlements, where people
more closely followed the ways of the past, then I would see people eating together
from atova. Implicit in such remarks, occasionally tinged with nostalgia, was an ac-
knowledgment that people in Manambondro village were in a small way becoming
vazaha; yet, at the same time, people's remarks contained a certain amount of pride,
for eating in this way also signaled that in their eyes they had become developed.'8
Incidents of urban life could also be cited to show that just as practices associ-
ated with towns are present in the countryside, so, too, is the opposite the case. What
is most striking about this "rhetoric of contrasts" (Comaroff and Comaroff 1 987:201) is
that it continues to operate as a dominant set of framing images in speech and
thought, even though people experience instances to the contrary. Williams (1973)
writes about English constructions of the country and the city but in terms that are
equally applicable in the present context. He notes that these oppositions and their

at times ... express, not only in disguise and displacement but in effective mediation
or in offered and sometimes effective transcendence, human interests and purposes
for which there is no other immediately available vocabulary. It is not only an absence
or distance of more specific terms and concepts; it is that in country and city, physi-
cally present and substantial, the experience finds material which gives body to the
thoughts. [Williams 1973:291]

Towns, vazaha, "liking oneself": These are not only the causes of the changes that peo
of the Manambondro region have experienced over the past century, they also a
the outcomes. They represent the categories of a social system that has transformed-

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378 american ethnologist

politically, economically, morally, and spatially-their sense of themselves and their

place in the world. Because that system has emerged out of an encounter between
colonizer and colonized, it is not surprising that, like other colonized peoples, inhabi-
tants of the Manambondro region have come to represent its effects in such starkly po-
larized terms (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 1987:204-205; Graeber 1996:429), though
a look at people's actual lives reveals these representations to be wrapped in ambigu-
In the Manambondro region, people's perceptions of towns are shaped partly by
a set of moral criteria (cf. Ferguson 1992), a view of the urban milieu largely shared by
those urban migrants with whom I spoke. Many said that they were not "content in"
or "attached to place" (tsy tama) in the towns in which they lived, and they spoke in
nostalgic tones of the longing (manina) they felt for their ancestral homeland and rela-
tives there. They were adamant, however, that they had not become vazaha. They fre-
quently visited their ancestral homeland and attended rituals there, they said; they
had land, cattle, and houses there, and they would return there when they retired (see
Thomas 1998). By such acts as sending remittances to their rural relatives, returning to
the ancestral homeland for a birth, funeral, or marriage, and maintaining property
there they sought to demonstrate their enduring commitment to their ancestral home-
land and to its customs and social and moral codes. They sought to escape the social
oblivion of becoming-as they put it-lost, "like a person without roots" (akao olo tsy
manam-pototra). Despite spending the better part of their adult lives in towns, these
migrants revealed themselves to be, in James Ferguson's terms (1992, 1999), "local-
ists" who continued to view their ancestral homeland as their primary home.
As I have tried to indicate, representations of town and country are fraught with
ambiguities and ambivalence. Some people-such as young unmarried men and
women-see towns as, among other things, places of revelry and escape, although
those people who have spent time in them tend to be less sanguine. Others desire to
exploit the economic opportunities they see present in towns by selling their produce
in urban markets. And some, although holding to the dominant discourse of urban cri-
tique, also appear to want Manambondro village itself to become more like a town.
For many people, whatever else they are, towns are places of possibility, and they
project these possibilities and the reasons why they are so often thwarted onto that
which joins town and country, the road.

siting the present, sighting the future: the road

Though colonial policy and practice shifted in various ways after the period of
Gallieni's rule, perhaps most markedly during the governorship of Marcel Olivier
(1924-30), people of the Manambondro region endured demands for corvee labor
during both administrations, deployed, among other things, for the construction of
roads. In late-1 9th-century France, a road system that had earlier facilitated the lim-
ited diffusion of state power was enormously expanded, for the first time creating
something approaching national unity and a high degree of political and economic
integration (Weber 1976:195-220). This instrumental approach to communications
was shared by Gallieni and others (see Conklin 1997:38-72; Murray 1980:168-1 77)
who used roads and railways as technologies of empire, and as he had in his previous
postings, Gallieni made road building central to his colonial program in Madagascar
(Gallieni 1908:59-60; Rabinow 1989:144, 149, 157). In the southeast part of the is-
land, except for a vehicular road between the high plateau and the coast, these routes
initially comprised paths and tracks that linked together the posts established during
the period of pacification, making possible surveillance and administration, troop

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 379

movements and the provisioning of posts, and a level of economic integration. As

contemporary accounts make clear, the construction of these routes was often the first
of demands for corvee labor imposed on recently "pacified natives" (Hellot
1900:298-299; Lyautey 1935:62, 100, 106). Though these roads and tracks served as
conduits for the diffusion of colonial power, in their early and later incarnations they
appear in the estimation of some colonial officials not to have been the "motors of
civilization" (Weber 1976:195) and economic development that they had been in
metropolitan France. Indeed, in the 1930s the colonial administrator Deschamps
complained that "the creation of... roads [in the Vangaindrano-Manambondro re-
gion] has had no influence on the population" (1936:76), though in looking to the fu-
ture he added that he hoped that they would "soon open new prospects for com-
merce" (1936:187). Given that the region had not seen nor would it see the
establishment of plantations and other enterprises, such prospects were undoubtedly
limited, a situation that endures to this day.
Often perceived as agents of change by remote populations to whom they come
and by the officials who design and build them, roads figure as spaces for the imagin-
ing, experience, and remembering of transformations in supralocal relations within
former colonial situations and places closer to the imperial metropole (see, e.g.,
Auslander 1993; Fernandez 1982; Giles-Vernick 1996; Hirsch 1994; Roseman 1996;
Santos-Granero 1998). Despite differences in their political and economic circum-
stances, it is perhaps not surprising, then, that statements made by people of the
Manambondro region are similar to statements made by their erstwhile colonial rul-
ers, at least insofar as they both view the road as a route for and metonym of relations
between rural communities, the state, and the regional economy. For roads are not
only a convenient image for the imagining of relations between the local and the na-
tional-indeed making them palpably visible-they are also an important element in
the very constitution of these relations. As I will show, for people of the Manambon-
dro region, the road (lalana, alt. arabe) figures not only in their experience of colonial-
ism, but is also a key trope in their relations with the postcolonial state.
The road in question is the Route Nationale 12 (RN12), which runs a little inland
of the littoral for some 240 kilometers along the southernmost stretch of the east coast
of Madagascar between the towns of Vangaindrano and Faradafay. Along the way, it
passes through several villages-including Manambondro-and crosses a large
number of rivers by bridge and ferry. Constructed between the late-1 920s and mid-
1930s, a period during which Olivier and his successor oversaw a large-scale pro-
gram of public works construction throughout Madagascar (Wright 1991:291,
297-300), the RN12 came to replace the paths and tracks fabricated during Gallieni's
governorship. Originally paved in some places with cobblestones, the RN12 has
gradually degraded. During the period of my stay it was impossible to travel by vehi-
cle along its entirety, as many of its ferries and bridges were inoperable.
My initial interest in the road was in relation to the possibility that it was a site of
memories of the colonial period. Certainly those men who had participated in the
corvee (fanompoana) vividly remembered it. "We were made [force] to work all day
long and without pay, and the French didn't even feed us," one man recalled, and he
told how failure to turn up on time meant a 15-day spell in jail where inmates were
fed only water and dried cassava.19 "The French liked roads too much," he added.
"They built not only big roads for cars but smaller paths for motorcycles. Too many
roads." Such recollections, however, had to be elicited by my prompting, and listening to
people talk among themselves about the road, I came to realize that, although it was for
some a site of memories of the past, for most people the road was more significantly

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implicated in their concerns about the present. Accordingly, I turned my attention

away from the period of the road's construction and toward its contemporary signifi-
cance. If the river can be said to connect people of the Manambondro region to their
ancestral past, the road connects them to their present peripherality and to imagined
"The road has changed [nampiova] the village," one woman told me, a rather la-
conic remark that speaks volumes. People in Manambondro village see the road,
along with Christianity, as having been instrumental in having developed-in a cul-
tural rather than simply a material sense-the Manambondro region. Yet its often de-
plorable state and the lack of regular and affordable public transport mean the road is
also perceived as a barrier to progress, a symbol of and a causal factor in people's
continuing peripherality, which they attribute to the postcolonial state's indifference
to their plight.
Though the limited spatial field of the road was an apt metaphor of the state's
very partial presence in rural communities during the latter years of the Second Re-
public under then-President Didier Ratsiraka, the postcolonial state is variously impli-
cated in the road.20 By the early 1990s, the policies and practices of Ratsiraka's pur-
portedly socialist government had had a deleterious effect on the nation, leading to
the near total collapse of state infrastructures, especially in rural areas. In the Manam-
bondro region it had in fact become a rather distant and largely ineffectual presence
(cf. Cole 1998): People had not paid a variety of taxes in years, and in Manambondro
village responsibility for the upkeep of state infrastructures (such as the schools, hos-
pital, and dispensary) had largely been taken on by the local mission of the Catholic
Church. Not that this was seen as a radical departure from the past, for many people
viewed the twilight days of the Second Republic as merely the nadir of the postcolo-
nial state's disinterest in their lives and livelihoods.
Symbol and embodiment of state neglect, the road also is a tangible reminder of
its false promises. At a crossroads between Manambondro and Vangaindrano (the
nearest town, some sixty kilometers distant) there laid-and doubtless still lays-a
pile of gravel that sums up much about people's attitudes toward and experiences of
the state. The gravel had been placed there many years beforehand for a road im-
provement scheme that had never materialized, and it was frequently pointed out to
me as I passed it with traveling companions, sight of it spurring them on to talk about
their desire that the state improve the road. Experience had led some to believe, how-
ever, that the state was deaf to their requests and blind to their hopes. During cam-
paigning for the presidential election of 1989, Ratsiraka stopped off in Manambondro
village, and while there he was informed of people's desire for an improved road to
Vangaindrano and the opening of a lycee. In response, the president promised money
to rebuild the existing junior high school, if he were reelected, and discussed the pos-
sibility of road improvement. In fact, all Manambondro village received after Rat-
siraka's victory was a television and a videocassette recorder. These, as it was scorn-
fully pointed out to me, for a village without electricity!
The president's perfidy surprised few in Manambondro. Indeed, most people ex-
pect little from those who they say "mahaypolitique" (know how to do politics), using
the French word as a euphemism for deceit and manipulation (cf. Barthes
1970:137-144). People of Manambondro further demonstrated their resigned attitude
toward the state when they talked about the bridge where the RN12 crosses the
Taratasy River, a little to the south of Vangaindrano. By 1992, the bridge had become
so rickety that it was closed to vehicular traffic. A few years beforehand, a concrete
bridge had been constructed across the Taratasy further downstream and along a minor

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 381

road that passes through the ancestral village and on to the large farm of a former
member of Ratsiraka's cabinet. When the bridge on the RN12 closed, it became nec-
essary to make a lengthy detour via the new bridge, and in places cut a new road to
rejoin the main highway. That a new bridge was constructed along a side road that
led to the ancestral village and private farm of a former government minister, rather
than along the route nationale, was seen by those who talked about it as symptomatic
of their own peripherality and powerlessness.
Without anyone to support their cause in government, people in Manambondro
village expect the state to ignore their requests for an improved road. Others-such as
local merchants-have a more vested interest in a functioning RN12 and, along with
representatives of the Catholic Church, sporadically attempt to plug the potholes of
state neglect. In 1993, things began to look up when a number of local merchants
who used the road privately financed the re-leveling of some stretches of the RN12 by
purchasing fuel for a state-owned tractor. News of the project reached Manambondro
long before the tractor, raising hopes that prospects for commerce would indeed open

As well as mediating local-state relations, the road also figures in people's expe-
riences of and ideas about wealth. Those who regularly travel the road to Vangain-
drano are commonly said to be "seeking money" (mitady vola), "making a profit"
(manao profite) from "doing traffic" (manao trafic); for, as a neighbor pointed out to
me, why else would they go there so often? Among those involved are merchants
(mostly ethnic Chinese) who run rural trade stores, stocked with industrially produced
commodities brought in from towns, and control the market in cash crops, purchased
from rural producers and shipped out along the road. Like other people with money
(olo manambola), they invest some of their wealth in motor vehicles, seen as objects
of phenomenal value and the apogee of vazaha technological cunning. Those people
who control transport and frequently journey along the road make tangible in their
persons and possessions the links between towns, roads, and wealth.
Though I only knew two Temanambondro who ran rural stores, there were many
who envisioned the possibility of using the road to profit from urban markets through
the sale of rural produce. Long- and short-term fluctuations in the prices of cash crops
and store-bought commodities are a brute reality of life in the Manambondro region,
and people are keenly aware of price differentials between different places at any
given time. During visits to towns such as Vangaindrano, I often heard people from
Manambondro talk about how much cheaper commodities in general stores there
were and, more significantly, how much more expensive rural products were in the
market. Yet, with no access to affordable and regular public transport-due, people
pointed out, to the state of the road-those people who attempted to take advantage
of price imbalances were few and far between.21
The re-leveling project was one reason why people in Manambondro village be-
gan to give voice to their sense of peripherality, but talk of the road also was prompted
by a sense of mild optimism generated by the political climate of 1992-93. Though
distrustful of the party officials that visited them, people in Manambondro village re-
acted to proposed changes to regional political boundaries made by the Federalists
(associated with Ratsiraka) by reassessing their own position within the national po-
litical-economic order of things, a topic that I heard discussed on a number of occa-
sions. A few people remarked that being part of the province (faritany) of Fianarantsoa
and the district (fivondronana) of Vangaindrano had brought them no benefits, a point
some people illustrated with reference to the road. Some wondered if it would be bet-
ter to be part of a region centered on Faradafay, where market prices for the kinds of

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foodstuff grown in Manambondro were known to be high. Others countered by say-

ing that Manambondro should retain its long-standing ties to Vangaindrano and Fara-
fangana. On one occasion, I heard a man suggest that Manambondro should petition
to become a district itself and extricate itself from the control of Vangaindrano. Others
agreed, and were it to happen, many people thought that some of the things they
hoped for might come to pass. The road would be improved, perhaps even paved,
and a bush-taxi service would begin to journey daily to and from Vangaindrano;
Manambondro would be granted a lycee and there would be a weekly market (tsena)
bringing in people from near and far. When people voiced these thoughts, they com-
monly remarked on the primarily economic and infrastructural benefits that an im-
proved road would bring. Yet, what was also implicit was an envisaged future in
which Manambondro village itself would effectively extricate itself from the periph-
ery to become a "town." The political events of 1992-93 and the re-leveling project
brought to the fore of many people's consciousness their sense of peripherality. Not
that such feelings were wholly latent at other times, however, for they were made pal-
pable in various ways-by the pile of gravel by the roadside, by the hours and days
spent walking to Vangaindrano or Faradafay, in the prices of goods in rural stores, in
the sacrifices made to send a child to a lycee, and, most tragically, in the loss of those
who die for want of adequate medical provision.
The road is a striking paradox: perceived by people in Manambondro to have
changed and developed the village, it is also represented as a cause of its continuing
underdevelopment. If it makes visible the connections between town and country as
parts of a single encompassing political economy, its poor state also helps reinforce
their symbolic opposition, and though those men who built it bitterly remember the
labor that was extracted from them by their colonial rulers, the dominant repre-
sentation of the road in everyday discourse and people's consciousness is not of an
image of the past but of the present and of two possible futures. The first of these is
continuing state neglect, of which the road is a potent symbol of political impotence.
The second is of a future in which people from Manambondro will no longer be pe-
ripheral and marginal to the urban milieu but empowered to profit from it by journey-
ing along the road. In fact, another version of the second alternative is more radical
still: The trappings of modernity will follow inevitably in the wake of an improved
road-the sacred center of the ancestral homeland will become a town, a center of
progress, development, and modernity.
These alternatives appear to carry with them certain unresolved contradictions.
The general desire for development, modernity, and progress shared by a great major-
ity of people in Manambondro village exists alongside a view of towns as potentially
corrupting places in which people become "lost" and alienated from the customs that
are such a fundamental aspect of their sense of who they are. Although the elections
and road improvements prompted people to voice their sense of peripherality, I never
heard anyone comment on the apparent conundrum entailed in the desire for
Manambondro village to become more townlike. But it could be argued that people
of the Manambondro region have already adopted a strategy for coping with the con-
tradictions between dreams of their urban modernity and the possible effects of such a
development on life in their ancestral homeland.22 In an attempt to stem the influence
of vazaha values and practices, they have effectively ring-fenced tradition by elimi-
nating all forms of modernity and innovation from tombs. They have created what
they call a "tabooed forest" (ala fady), an arboreal cordon sanitaire around the space
that functions as a metonym for that which is not modern and vazaha.23 Prepared to
envision the influx of things associated with modernity into the space of the village,

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 383

they appear unwilling to let it pollute the quintessential place of the ways of the an-
cestors-hence the rejection of the money that accompanied the oxen given as
Neny's brother's fine of the tomb. Here the contrast between gasy and vazaha, the
ancestral and the modern, is played out as symbolic practice. Precipitated by the col-
lision between two radically different ways of acting and being, in the form of the
tabooed forest, people are struggling to separate in space what has come to coexist in

closing remarks
The river, the road, and the rural-urban divide-these are some of the elements
of the moral geography I have detailed here, a spatial imaginary constituted from the
interweaving of ideas, idioms, and images of practice and identity, morality and so-
ciality, memory and history, experience and imagination. Moral geography encom-
passes a multilocal sense of place the horizons of which extend outward from the
ancestral homeland to the towns beyond it, the region in which it lies, and the nation-
state and world of which it is seen as a marginal part. But moral geography is not just a
concatenation of places and spaces, for it is also imbued with the vestiges of history.
Many of its elements are categories that chart the front line of the colonial encoun-
ter-gasy and vazaha, "liking oneself" and "liking others," town and country, the an-
cestral and the developed. These categories are implicated in the practices of colonial
modernization and its practitioners' dreams about the "moral and material conquest
of the natives" (Lyautey 1935:256) and of their "voluntary and directed evolution ...
toward . . . civilization" (Deschamps 1936:219). But these categories do not speak of
the success of this modernist project. Instead, they speak of the experience of margin-
ality and privation, and of what the Comaroffs identify as a key feature of the post-
colonial predicament throughout much of Africa, the disruption of "grand narratives
of progress and development" (1999:289; cf. Ferguson 1999).
Moral geography can thus be seen as a map of the present that is distinctively
postcolonial, a present that, to paraphrase Nicholas Dirks (1992:23), comes after co-
lonialism but not without it. But if some of the elements of moral geography have a
colonial genealogy, it should not be assumed that they speak only of the burden of
colonization on contemporary lives, as if they "impl[ied] that colonialism was the
only thing of importance to people who live in what were once colonies" (Stoler and
Cooper 1997:33). Indeed, although these elements reveal that there is a continuation
of sorts of colonial asymmetries and hierarchies, the elements themselves have been
conspicuously refashioned to speak meaningfully of experience in the postcolonial
present. One of the most striking things about the road is that a space that I assumed
might figure in local historical consciousness as one of the "keepers of memory"
(Casey 1987:213) of colonial rule was implicated more significantly in people's pre-
sent and future. A significant site of colonial memory for some, it also is a site of be-
coming, a space for imagining modernity's possibilities. Or take the opposition be-
tween gasy and vazaha. This opposition is one of shifting significance; it no longer
refers simply to differences between Malagasy and French but has become a site of se-
mantic ambiguity where people play out ideas of identity, morality and sociality, and
their ambivalent relationships with modernity. In effect, it has become part of an on-
going existential debate in which people are frequently engaged, how to become
modern while remaining themselves. In short, moral geography draws on the past to
make sense of the present, but that past is not "unambiguously determining" (Stoler
and Cooper 1997:20) of the present and has been reconfigured as a means for imagin-
ing the future.

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384 american ethnologist

As a structure of feeling, moral geography represents aspects of people's knowl-

edge of their present situation in the form of "approximate expressions rather than ex-
act explanations" (Jackson 1996:10), expressions that have a hold on consciousness
without being consciously articulated as a subject of discourse. A part of people's
senses of themselves and their place in the world, the moral geography I have de-
scribed here is a domain of understanding and imagination that draws on a deeply
emplaced identity and ancestral history, the experience of the vicissitudes of colonial
rule, and a sense of political impotence, economic marginality, and exclusion from
many of modernity's benefits. In its spaces and places, categories and contours, this
geography captures something of the moral dilemmas of people's lives and their ex-
perience of changing times in a changing land; it captures their sense of who and
where they are, and, through their dreams and desires, fears and fantasies, their sense
of who they might become.


Acknowledgments. This research has been funded by an Economic and Social Resear
Council (U.K.) Postgraduate Research Studentship and a British Academy Post-Doctoral Fello
ship. In Madagascar, field research was facilitated by the Mus6e d'Art et d'Archeologie/lnst
de Civilisations of the University of Antananarivo in conjunction with the Ministere des Aff
Etrangeres and the Ministere de I'Enseignement Superieur. I am grateful to these institution
enabling me to carry out my work. Earlier versions of this article were presented at a work
on "Mythical Lands and Legal Boundaries" held at the Department of Anthropology, Univer
College London, in October 1997; at the University of Sussex social anthropology semina
February 1999; and at a conference entitled "Rural-urban Relations and Representations: Co
parative Perspectives" held at University College London in April 2000 and funded by the E
nomic and Social Research Council (U.K.) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. My thanks g
participants at each of these events for their comments and questions. I also am gratef
Cecilia Busby, Jennifer Cole, Eric Hirsch, Pier Larson, Karen Middleton and American Ethn
gist's anonymous reviewers for their careful readings of earlier drafts. Needless to say, my gre
est debt of gratitude is to my Temanambondro hosts; I hope that one day the future they d
will materialize to their satisfaction. Finally, responsibility for any errors of fact or interpret
remain mine alone.
1. Although I have here chosen to translate the word vazaha as "foreigner," the reader
should note this definition is offered as a provisional gloss pending a more detailed discussion
2. Fines (sazy) are meted out to people held responsible for contravening customs or ta-
boos. Fines for relatively minor infractions are payable in money or alcohol whereas more seri-
ous offences (such as transgressing customs and taboos regarding tombs) require the killing of

3. For other discussions of colonialism and its legacy in Madagasca

subject in a variety of registers, see, for example, Althabe 1969; Cole
2001; Feeley-Harnik 1984, 1991; Graeber 1996; Middleton 1997, 199
4. In this article, I use the phrase Manambondro region to indicate
dro valley. Fieldwork was carried out in the region over a 22-mont
tional research during this time was carried out in Temanambondro
and lavibola valleys and among Temanambondro urban migrants in
gascar. Although aspects of ritual practice and social organization d
common throughout the polity, it should be noted that people's sens
particular to their geographic locations. I therefore speak of "people
gion" or "people of Manambondro village" rather than "Temanambond
ited validity of a specific point. I reserve Temanambondro for describ
applicability across the polity as a whole. Raw data taken from the
cate a resident population in the Manambondro region of around 8,00

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 385

so settlements (tanana) ranging in size from 200 or 300 persons, to the largest, Manambondro
village itself (the principal fieldwork site), home to just under 3,000 people according to local
census takers (personal communication).
5. This view of the relationship between geography and polity is not unique to Temanam-
bondro; it is widespread with some variation up and down the east coast of the island (Thomas
6. It is worth noting here the etymological connection between a number of the terms
mentioned: root (fototra), trunk (fotora), umbilical cord (foitra), and center (foibe)all derive from
the root fo. For a fuller comparative discussion of "roots" in relation to the conceptualization of
place, see Thomas (1997:35-37).
7. This imagery is part of a more general botanical metaphysic in the Manambondro re-
gion in which people are likened to plants (see Thomas 1996); similar parallels have also been
noted in other parts of Madagascar (Bloch 1993; Feeley-Harnik 1991). That arboreal imagery
has the potential to symbolize both rootedness and movement can also be seen in the ethno-
graphic cases discussed by de Boeck (1998) and Lovell (1998).
8. My point here is that, unlike the situations described by Pels (1996) and Steedly (1996),
Temanambondro were not subjects of colonial attempts at producing definitive textual ac-
counts of their language, customs, and traditions; nor can the whole of people's attachments to
their ancestral homeland be attributed to the kind of political, economic, and legal processes
that led to them being associated with a particular territory (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 1991;
Kaplan 1995). In fact, Temanambondro appear not to have been recognized as a distinctive
tribe (tribu) in any significant sense by the French. Deschamps, for example, calls them an "as-
similated" group of a larger "tribe" (1936:77-80). In addition, they largely escaped the gaze of
the missionaries and colonial officials who produced numerous detailed ethnological accounts
of Malagasy peoples. Furthermore, although the French sought to establish administrative divi-
sions along the lines of ethnic boundaries (Gallieni 1908:141; Lyautey 1903:381-387), for rea-
sons as yet obscure, the region occupied by Temanambondro came to fall within two different
provinces. In short, a sited identity is something Temanambondro have shaped themselves
rather than something they have had foisted on them.
9. Much work remains to be done on the uprising of 1904-05, one of the first major anti-
colonial revolts of the postpacification period. For summary accounts from the French perspec-
tive, see, for example, Gallieni 1908:267-270 and Deschamps 1936:178-182; compare Jacob
1981. Deschamps comments that "the rapid suppression of the uprising left a profound impres-
sion on the rebel tribes and their neighbours" (1936:181). Perhaps no evidence of this impres-
sion is more telling than the fact that people from Manambondro did not participate in the better
known and larger revolt of 1947 because, as one man told me, they "had already seen what
guns can do." The sentiment is strikingly similar to that expressed by one of Cole's informants in
explaining why the experience of 1947 made people of the village of Ambodiharina in east
Madagascar fearful of the 1992-93 national elections (1998:618).
10. Fear that the French would expropriate land appears to have been well established
prior to the outcome of the revolt. When a French merchant proposed establishing a trading
post on the lower Manambondro river in the late 1820s, he reports being asked by the ruler of
the region "if the project has not the aim of one day seizing [the ruler's] land as [the merchant's]
compatriots had already done [i.e., some two centuries beforehand at the short-lived French
colony] at Fort Dauphin" (Leguevel de Lacombe 1840:230). Such fears also persisted during the
period of my fieldwork.
11. This system of pacification and administration is detailed in the numerous accounts
and reports gathered in Hellot 1900, especially Gallieni's "Instructions du 22 mai 1898" (Hellot
1900:332-344), and at numerous points in Gallieni's memoir of his period as Governor Gen-
eral (Gallieni 1908). For a useful discussion of Gallieni's colonial policy, situating it within its
intellectual and historical milieu, see Rabinow 1989:126-167.
12. As Green (1990), Weber (1976), Williams (1982:354-356), and Wright (1991) note, in
late-1 9th- and early-20th-century France the urban milieu was viewed by many as the heart of
French culture and civilization, an idea of great importance in the internal colonization of
France's own provincial subjects (Weber 1976:485-496). Indeed, in both metropole and colonies,

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386 american ethnologist

towns and cities were occasionally referred to, as indeed were colonies themselves, as "labora-
tories" (Rabinow 1989:289; Weber 1976:232; Wright 1991:73, 85, 300), a metaphor that is viv-
idly suggestive of the idea that the urban milieu was involved in the forging of new
subjectivities, one manifestation of more general ideas, which Rabinow (1989) shows to have
influenced Gallieni among others, about changing people through transforming their environ-

13. The verb nandroso (past tense) derives from the root roso, which takes on a number of
forms, all of which involve the notion of moving upward or advancing. For example, one uses
the imperative mandrosoa to invite someone into one's house, an action requiring a step up
from the ground, whereas the substantive fandrosoana has been adopted by the Church and
both the colonial and postcolonial state in a modernist discourse of progress, civilization, and
development. By contrast, ambanivolo (the term for countryside) derives from ambany (be-
neath, below). In Temanambondro "quality space" (Fernandez 1982:410-412), things "above"
are accorded greater symbolic value than things "below" (Thomas 1995:344-346), so the idea
that towns are oriented upward and above the countryside makes sense within a more encom-
passing cultural logic that interweaves notions of spatial and cultural hierarchy.
14. The opposition between gasy and vazaha and its various associations has been widely
described throughout Madagascar. See, for example, Bloch 1971:12-32; Cole and Middleton
2001; Feeley-Harnik 1991:267-271; Graeber 1996; Middleton 1997; and Sharp
1993:1 58-159. Due to the ambiguity of the terms, I hereafter leave them untranslated.
15. For comparative material on representations of the urban milieu in Madagascar, see
Bloch 1971:12-13; Feeley-Harnik 1991:231-301; and Sharp 1993. The kind of oppositions be-
tween town and country identified here are a refracted image of the form they have taken in co-
lonial metropoles, described in different ways by Green 1990; Weber 1976; and Williams

16. Representations of vazaha as thieves of body parts and bodily fluids (liver, heart,
blood) are widespread throughout Madagascar (e.g., Althabe 1969:38, 308; Bloch 1971:31;
Jarosz 1994; Sharp 1993:215) and appear to date back in some parts of the island to the late
19th century (Jarosz 1994:427). Such representations bear a striking resemblance to reports of
vampires and the theft of body parts in Africa (e.g., Comaroff and Comaroff 1999; Weiss 1998;
White 2000). The imagery of liver thieves and their counterparts in other parts of Madagascar is
certainly highly suggestive: the theft of body parts can be read as a powerful metaphor of the
violence of extraction (of labor, taxes, resources), and the relations of oppression and domina-
tion between colonizers and colonized. Following the Comaroffs (1999), it also may be read as
a representation of the particularly postcolonial experience of the iniquities of contemporary
global capitalism. But before making these kinds of claim, more detailed ethnography of these
phenomena is required, for although there are obvious parallels between the Malagasy case
and the examples discussed by the Comaroffs (1999), there are also significant differences. For
example, in the Manambondro region liver thieves are not viewed as witches (mpamosavy).
Moreover, witchcraft is seen as a prototypically Malagasy ability, usually practiced by commu-
nity insiders; liver thieves, on the other hand, are vazaha, outsiders par excellence. Further-
more, neither witchcraft nor the theft of body parts is viewed as an occult means of capital
accumulation; like liver thieves, witches' deadly actions are seen as an end in themselves rather
than means to other ends. Finally, and more broadly, none of the Malagasy ethnography sug-
gests the existence (either real or imagined) of a market in body parts; nor do rumors and reports
of liver thieves and other such beings appear to be on the increase (but see Sharp 2001). All of
this is to say that it is important to remember that accounts of beliefs and rumors about those
who steal body parts and so forth are configured in relation to specific political and economic
contexts and local cosmologies of occult powers, the body, and human life.
17. A similar ambivalence toward vazaha and aspects of modernity is noted by Bloch
1971:12-13, 30-31; and Cole and Middleton 2001.
18. It is significant that in Manambondro village the use of atova is confined to ritual occa-
sions, events that embody ancestral custom. Also striking is the fact that on days of Christian and
national festivals (Christmas, New Year's Day, Independence Day), domestic meals are often

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the river, the road, and the rural-urban divide 387

served up in individual portions using the local equivalent of "the best china," store-bought ce-
ramic or glassware that is recognized as vazaha in style.
19. The prominence of food in this man's memories of the corvee is notable given that the
ethics of Temanambondro sociality require hosts to feed guests. That the French did not feed la-
borers and fed prisoners on what was not seen to constitute a meal illustrates the gulf between
the French and their subjects and, as Tenanambondro see it, the contempt held by the former for
the latter.
20. Ratsiraka's presidency ground to a halt as a result of widespread protest in 1991-92.
Afterward, a new constitution was drawn up, inaugurating the Third Republic under President
Zafy Albert, elected in early 1993. In 1996, Zafy was impeached and Ratsiraka subsequently re-
turned to power. It is important to note that my period of fieldwork (1991-93) coincided with
the transition from the Second to Third Republic. The significance of this time frame will be-
come clearer below.
21. Limitations on entrepreneurial activity are due primarily to transportation costs and
the disinclination of those who control transport (which they use to realize profits in their own
trade activities) to carry bulky rural produce. It is notable that I only knew of one enterprising in-
dividual from Manambondro who went to Vangaindrano to sell foodstuffs. His exploit was un-
usual enough that he became known, after what he sold, as Dried Cassava Koto. After three trips
with a product whose price to bulk ratio was relatively high, Koto ceased his activities when his
labor was needed in his rice fields.
22. It is interesting to contrast representations of roads in Manambondro village with the
case described by Sharp (1993:30, 79) for the town of Ambanja in northwest Madagascar: Here
improvements to the national highway are resented by the region's indigenous inhabitants be-
cause they have led to increased immigration, a higher crime rate, and other urban ills.
23. In other parts of Madagascar, ritual practices and spaces have been objectified in simi-
lar ways. See, for example, Feeley-Harnik 1991 on Sakalava royal funerals and tombs, and Mid-
dleton 1997 on Karembola circumcision.

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accepted July 6, 2000

final version submitted August 8, 2001

Philip Thomas
Department of Anthropology
Eliot College
University of Kent
Canterbury, CT2 7NS
United Kingdom uk

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