Our Chaotic Pursuit of Harmony

Two theories to explain the persistence of chaos in the Malagasy society.


The Malagasy, it is often said, is driven by a permanent pursuit of a pleasant, harmonious, and peaceful society. It is this pursuit that encourages collective and reciprocal affection among the members of a given community. It inspires conciliation and tolerance. It ensures respect of the individual within the community. Basically, this pursuit engenders the Fihavanana — a harmonious living in a society characterized by a permanent exchange of affection and goodwill.

For somebody reputed for his constant quest for peace and harmony, the Malagasy seems curiously comfortable living in a chaotic environment. Just look around: confusion, disorder, and even anarchy are very common features of the Malagasy society. Periods of stability and areas of peace do exist but they are few and far between. They are the exceptions rather than the norms.

Most efforts aimed at instilling more order either have failed or were resisted. I have two theories that may help explain this persistence of chaos in the Malagasy society: (i) Efforts to bring order failed because they were driven from outside; (ii) Disorder may actually help keep the Malagasy society together.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe the Malagasy genuinely wants order. But only if it is on his terms. He gladly respects any rules agreed within his community, but is very reluctant to abide by any order dictated from outside, even when it is clearly better than the alternative. Just think about those cases when authorities built new cleaner and better-organized marketplaces, which were subsequently ignored by both buyers and sellers who continued to meet at their chaotic traditional meeting places.

It is too easy to generalize that the Malagasy lacks discipline and rigor; that he needs to be taught civics; that his mentality needs to be changed (“mila miova toe-tsaina ny Malagasy”). And that only then would he start to follow the rules and to behave, as we want him to. This condescending logic ignores the key fact that the Malagasy is an individual very protective of his pride, his honor, and his freedom. He would rather live in chaos than put up with an externally imposed order, which he considers as a threat to his honor and his liberty. Just think about those families who preferred to go back living in the anarchic streets of Antananarivo, and to move out of the rigid but safer Akamasoa way of life.

It is also often said that the Malagasy is very conservative, always very careful not to change or disrupt the existing order (or disorder) of things. It is too easy to label the Malagasy as “tsy liam-pivoarana” (not keen to progress), “tsy te handroso” (not interested in moving forward), or even “tery saina”(close minded). He is actually quite open to new ideas and innovations. But he is very susceptible and suspicious of any external intrusion to the established (dis-)order — into his usual way of life. Just think of the fierce resistance met by agricultural extension agents trying to make rural farmers switch to a new and more efficient way of growing rice.

For new ideas to be truly accepted by the Malagasy, they need to be (at least perceived as) owned by the community and to be based on “marimaritra iraisana” (compromise) and “teny ierana” (consensus or collective approval). Any changes driven or imposed by outsiders, especially without consulting the members of the community, are bound to be ignored, rejected, or, in the worst case, sabotaged. Just think of the numerous foreign-brokered peace and stability deals that have been ignored by Malagasy politicians. Given the importance of consultation, consensus, and compromise, progresses are often made gradually and step-by-step.

The persistent back and forth between chaos and order, observed in the Malagasy society, actually results from this step-by-step manner of how the society progressively moves forward. Collective objectives are pursued by jumping from one brief period of peace and stability to another. Between those stepping-stones, the society goes through lengthy periods of tension and confusions — the much needed “savorovoron-kilantoana” (going through chaos in order to reach harmony) periods during which consensus and compromises are sought.

Oddly enough, the Malagasy is often surprised, sometimes disappointed, when a particular target (or the next stepping stone) is attained without too much trouble. For the Malagasy, reaching the destination itself is less rewarding than the process of collectively finding solutions to the numerous hurdles and challenges along the way. Resolving these challenges generates a series of much-needed interactions that help consolidate the fihavanana and provide the Malagasy with a sense of belonging. The tougher the challenges are, the better.

A collective undertaking is actually not considered fully satisfactory unless it involves some dramas, controversies and disputes. These are typically followed by some favorite activities — to atone for any possible offense, to reconcile with former adversaries, and to “mamitrana fihavanana” (mend any broken ties). These activities provide a strong momentum, as the Malagasy and his community get ready to skip to the next stepping-stone in their chaotic pursuit of a pleasant, harmonious, and peaceful society.

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