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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 309-318

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Malagasy Commentary

Karl Eggert, University of Colorado

Time itself plays an important role in my commentary about this special issue of Ethnohistory. Twenty years have passed since I last visited Madagascar, and nearly thirty have gone by since I carried out extended research there. The gap between "now" and "then" is obviously great. My hope here is that it can be used advantageously to highlight ways ethnohistorical research about Madagascar seems to me to have changed. Something that has not changed with time but that also shapes my commentary is my bias toward certain approaches to anthropological research. I remain at heart a particularist. What appeals to me most are tightly focused, problem-oriented studies of what people actually do and say in their daily lives. The style of ethnohistory to which I am partial leans toward reportage and relies on eyewitness testimony from individuals who were participants in or observers of past events. My fondness for the particular over the general is partly aesthetic. Including accounts of the behavior of actual persons in research reports can make them more readable, memorable, and humane. This does not mean, though, that particularism is simply a stylistic device. It can also be a powerful methodological tool. After all, the words and deeds of identifiable individuals are the stuff from which explanations are suggested and with which they are tested.

Thirty years ago, as an ethnographer living in a small community in southwestern Madagascar’s Mahafaly region, my primary concern was with current events. Nonetheless, I wanted to know about my hosts’ past. How long had their village been in its present location? Where had their distant and not so distant relatives lived? What was their community’s historical relationship to other groups? How had French colonialism and [End Page 309] Malagasy nationalism been an impact? Community members tolerated my questions about these and other matters, but their answers to them troubled me.1 What they said about the past, their oral histories so to speak, were really about how they presently construed the past to have been. As chronological, factual accounts of when past events had occurred and what had happened in them, they were far less reliable. This was especially so when the events in question had taken place too long ago to have been experienced directly by living community members or their immediate ancestors.2

Independent descriptions of former times against which oral histories could have been checked would have been helpful. Unfortunately there were none. Community members had never written about their own past because none of them, either living or dead, had been literate. A few outsiders had visited the community in years gone by, but none of them had documented what they had seen and heard there. Some descriptions existed for the general region in which the community was found. They unfortunately were too vague or general to have been of much use, which is not surprising since they were written by individuals who had only been passing through Mahafaly country and had no command of the local dialect of Malagasy spoken there.

There were some ethnohistories about Madagascar in print in the 1960s and 1970s to which I had access, but they were only marginally relevant to my research. Their authors were concerned primarily with people living in the central highlands or on the northwest coast, the two places where Malagasy contacts with outsiders had been longest and strongest and consequently most heavily documented. People in these two areas were noticeably different, however, from those living in southwestern Madagascar, so generalizing from them to my hosts was risky if not impossible anthropological business. In addition, most of these ethnohistories were about Malagasy protohistory. They speculated about the origin of Malagasy people, their initial settlement of the island, and their creation of a number of precolonial states, events together that happened in the deep past and for which there was little or no primary, documentary evidence. My need was for regional and local ethnohistories of shallower historical depth for which archival records existed, but they were still on...


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