Over The Lip Of The World


Gifted travel writer, poet, professor of English, and insightful observer of human nature, Colleen McElroy journeyed to Madagascar to undertake a Fulbright research project exploring Malagasy oral traditions and myths. In Over the Lip of the World she depicts with equal verve the various storytelling traditions of the island and her own adventures in trying to find and record them.

McElroy’s tale of an African American woman’s travels among the people of Madagascar is told with ...

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Gifted travel writer, poet, professor of English, and insightful observer of human nature, Colleen McElroy journeyed to Madagascar to undertake a Fulbright research project exploring Malagasy oral traditions and myths. In Over the Lip of the World she depicts with equal verve the various storytelling traditions of the island and her own adventures in trying to find and record them.

McElroy’s tale of an African American woman’s travels among the people of Madagascar is told with wit, insight, and humor. Throughout it she interweaves English translations of Malagasy stories of heroism and morality, royalty and commoners, love and revenge, and the magic of tricksters and shapechangers.

University of Washington Press

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Editorial Reviews

Rain Taxi
McElroy's well-worded account of the sights, sounds, and people of Madagascar offers the reader a genuine sense of place. Filled with magic and intrigue, Over the Lip of the World will take its readers precisely there.
A fascinating look at a part of the world not often explored.
Reprint of a 1999 work about which Book News wrote: Combining her talents as travel writer and poet, McElroy (English, U. of Washington) travelled to Madagascar to study the oral traditions. Her account weaves what she learned about the storytellers and stories with her own adventures in finding and recording them. She transcribes several of the tales and poems, and includes many photographs, 16 in color, but no bibliography. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780295981154
  • Publisher: University of Washington Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2001
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

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Over the Lip of the World

By Colleen J. McElroy

University of Washington Press

Copyright © 2001 Colleen J. McElroy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0295981156

Chapter One

And All the Towns Between

I arrived in Antananarivo, or Tana as the capital of Madagascar is called, in March 1993 at the end of the rainy season, an unhappy coincidence for someone like me coming from the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. In the States, I knew how to clock the seasons by rain, knew the difference between a solid blanket of clouds that would not lift for days on end, and an uneven bank that signaled a sadden thunderstorm. But the sky above the Highlands of Madagascar was not the endless gray that shaped Northwest winters. The Southern Hemisphere lay under the sweep of summer rains, and the sky was a palette of changing colors and shapes, one moment as placid as a watercolor landscape, the next filled with thick, viscous clouds streaked with red and yellow spears of light like a Van Gogh painting. From the balcony of the La Karthala Pension, I watched the weather come in from the south and scatter across the hills, shadows of approaching rain smearing the whitewashed houses into a monochrome gray. And then the rain, sudden and fierce, streaking over the cup of the valley, threatening to turn everything into silt. But sometimes, as quickly as the rain shower began, it would end, and the sun would return to the Highlands as if the storm had never really happened--as if, indeed, the ancestors were smiling upon Antananarivo.

I came to expect those sudden bursts of rain, an almost welcome relief from the gritty air that usually cloaked the city. But the relief was always momentary; within the hour, the soil had soaked up the moisture, leaving Tana coated with a layer of pale ocher dust, punctuated by bright patches of green where a profusion of flowering cacti, poinsettia trees, and palms grew on the many balconies and parks terraced on the hillsides above the center of the city. Only in the low-lying areas--the swampy flats near the loading docks of the market, the freight yards spiderwebbed behind the train station, the windowless mud brick houses that skirted the city--was there evidence of the rain storm. In those places, the water was slow to run off, resisting the porous earth that beckoned it. In those places, the clay red soil was blackened by deposits of coal and firewood, and children who ran errands in the market ran barefoot through the muck, ignoring for a moment the work they had been sent to do. From my vantage point on the balcony, if I listened closely, I could hear their voices rising above the rush of traffic, the call of vendors, and the soldiers, stationed in the barracks between the pension and the market, answering the orders of the day.

Antananarivo--the city of a thousand warriors, the city of a thousand villages--was a city of red-tiled roofs and terraced hills circumscribed by circular roads separating the king's palaces and older houses of Upper Town from the government buildings, hotels, and the Zoma market of Lower Town. La Karthala Pension was located on the slope above the Zoma, not quite Upper Town but high enough to leave me with a view of the elementary school and army barracks on the side street above the market, high enough to allow me to see the sweep of land on the other side of Lower Town, picture perfect hillside houses crowded together in a seemingly chaotic sprawl that kept to its own sense of order. The main thoroughfares and arterial streets were crisscrossed by a spiderweb of hillside climbs, some no more than stone steps passable only by foot. But all the traffic spilled down to the Zoma. Everything, from roads and sidewalks to narrow stairways, radiated from the hub of the market. Under a canopy of white canvas umbrellas and peaked vendors' sheds, the Zoma's offerings ranged from refilled Bic lighters and fresh figs to live poultry and intricately embroidered linens. Market stalls were resplendent in the colors of orchids and bird-of-paradise flowers, racks of clothing both old and new, leather and wood carvings, bins of deep yellow', red, and brown spices, carts of dried meats and boxes of delicacies, some for which there seemed to be no name of English equivalence. But whatever the name, if it could be found in Madagascar, the Zoma was sure to carry it.

After the rain, I'd stand on the balcony and listen to the traffic of the Zoma resume its breathless speed--the noise, halted momentarily by the storm, building again until it became a relentless tide spliced now and then by a blast of car horns. Above me, the sky shifted almost imperceptibly from Persian blue to pale blue, sunlight feathered by thin clouds. I watched as the last of the rain, dripping off gutters edging the tiled roof, fell onto the terraced garden that Mme. Arianne, owner of the pension, tended every day. Sometimes after the rain, I'd hear Mme. Arianne playing one of her favorite French ballades, a tune that reminded her, she said, of her university days in Paris. And I'd watch the ever-changing weather and breathe in sugary air scented with orchids and roses.

On the other side of the valley, beyond the Zoma, pink and white stucco buildings nestled along the craggy hills seemed to glow under the sun washed sky. Only a few buildings were taller than two stories, but stacked against the hillsides, they created the illusion of height. In those first few weeks in Tana while I waited for the paperwork I'd need to begin my research, I had ample opportunity to count the number of tall buildings: the bank, the French-owned department store, two government buildings of plain colonial architecture, all connected to the center of town by the palm-lined boulevard, Avenue de l'Independance.

But despite the sprawl of its burgeoning business district, and its ever-growing population of over one million, Tana still had the air of a small town. Given the adobe houses, I could have imagined myself in a coastal town in Mexico, or at an intersection in Ipoh, Malaysia; and if I closed my eyes, I heard the bustle of traffic in New York City or Kingston, Jamaica. But the landscape and the people kept jolting me back to reality. This was Madagascar--modern in its intentions, ancestral in its traditions, moving like the clouds, imperceptibly toward its future while never losing sight of its past.

In those first few weeks in Tana, I set about learning the rhythms of the city. At night, I fell asleep to the yelps of wild dogs quarreling their way through the streets in a language only they understood. Mornings began with the sound of roosters crowing, and the call of the reveille bugle from the army post at the base of the hill. Soon after, I'd hear Teddy, the concierge, unlatching the front gate to the pension. Then the skittering of geckos heading for the shadows of flowerpots, and on the stairstep street outside my shuttered window, the footsteps of passersby so close I almost imagined them, geckos and humans, brushing against the foot of my bed. I listened to the vendors hawk their wares, baskets of bread or fruit, or stacks of firewood on their heads as they climbed the hillside, calling erratically to anyone who might be interested in buying what they had to offer. Sometimes I'd hear Teddy call to one, then a hasty exchange before the vendor moved on up the steps. As the vendors went up the street of stairs, schoolchildren laughed their way down. But some mornings were not so peaceful. Before the vendors and children began passing my window, before the roar of diesel engines from trucks and buses headed for the Zoma, I was jolted awake by the thunder of pestle against mortar as a few hillside residents kept to the old-fashioned practice of pounding coarse grains of rice. Whenever the women lifted the heavy wooden pestles and slammed them into the mortar bowls with cannon fire accuracy, tremors rolled under La Karthala and out toward the Zoma, and I awoke, heart in my throat and convinced that the city was under attack. In response to my call of distress, the family on the terrace directly above the pension moved the time for grain pounding from five a.m. to seven a.m., which allowed me to escape into the madness of city traffic before they began.

All of this made it possible for me to understand the stubbornness of time in a land made famous by lemurs and elephant birds, baobab and tamarind trees, by magnificant comet butterflies with yellow wings that sometimes measured as much as eight inches tip to tip, by chameleons that were all eyes, and walking sticks that measured the length of a schoolchild's ruler--flora and fauna that seemingly had remained unchanged with the passage of centuries. In those first few weeks, with all of the frustrations of bureaucratic red tape, I had a chance to get my bearings in a country that had been both politically and geographically isolated, a place where the past and the present, in all of its extremes, merged into the vividly colorful and sometimes unsettling fabric of the culture. And I learned to come to terms with Tana, with the snail's pace of its business day and the breakneck speed of its traffic.

By the end of my first week in Madagascar, I hired, as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot would say, "a guide most excellent." Tiana Flora Tsizaza was a fourth-year student of English literature at the University of Madagascar. She was particularly interested in American literature--every thing from The Great Gatsby to The Color Purple and The Women of Brewster Place. For her, the bonus was that I was an African American writer and a professor of literature. For me, the bonus was in having found an assistant who was not only interested in literature but also able to translate from Malagasy and French into English. With Tiana's command of these languages, and her familiarity with a few others that she alluded to but would not claim, we trekked through the maze of government departments for culture and antiquity, the tangle of academic protocol, and the puzzlement of arranging transportation to places where railroads ended and airlines did not venture. The theme song of these offices seemed to be, "Ce n'est pas possible." "This is not possible." But I persisted. Some office calls were made three or four times, until a clerk, catching sight of us again, simply gave in and signed the necessary documents of les certificats administratifs. And if we needed duplicates, in Malagasy or French, Tiana copied them right on the spot before the clerk disappeared into the bureaucratic labyrinth and we'd be forced to start again with someone new.

While Tiana translated my intentions to the offices of Recherche et Services des Finances Exterieurs, I tackled the formidable Mme. Bodo of the Agence de Voyages. I mapped out a tentative research itinerary. "I am interested in villages," I told her during the first of many visits. "Places where storytelling is a common occurrence."

Mme. Bodo shrugged her ample shoulders and said, "Possible. Perhaps," in a voice that reminded me of my cousin Anna, who had been a third grade teacher and used the voice of patience as a weapon against even the most truant student. In fact, Mme. Bodo Raobelina looked like my cousin Anna--meticulous and exact behind her night-colored eyes and full lips, round face and soft brown skin, plump fingers that were always counting, counting.

One day, Mme. Bodo turned her patient gaze on me and Tiana. "Are you relatives?" she asked, ticking off the costs of destinations and mileage on her calculator.

Tiana and I looked at each other. There was a similarity in the shape of the face, the nose, the complexion. Could we have had common ancestors? Teddy, the handsome concierge, could have been the brother of one of my classmates at Sumner High School in St. Louis. And surely, someone who looked like Mme. Arianne had sat next to me in a university class in Pennsylvania or Kansas.

"It is possible," Tiana smiled. "Perhaps," I added.

"Do you really think I look Malagasy?" I asked Tiana.

She leaned back and studied me. "Some women in the village where my mother was born braid their hair like yours, but you also look like someone from the South."

I laughed. "I am from the South," I said. "Only the South that I know is thirty thousand miles away from this land." I stared out the window. We were driving along the road outside of Tana heading for a place called Ambohimanga, "the blue mountain." Our guide, Haingolalao, another student at the University of Madagascar and a friend of Tiana's, had promised that at Ambohimanga, I would see the palace of the first king, the birthplace of the Malagasy state. The bustle of Tana had given way to rice fields. In the lemon light of morning, white egrets floated above the young shoots in flooded rice fields, and behind the fields, the hills kept watch. But there was a harsh contrast between the green fields with their flooded dikes, and hillsides scarred from the slash and burn that bared the land for the planting of rice. That was where saplings were gathered to build fires for the rice pots, leaving behind bright gashes of laterite, red and swollen like open wounds, ribboned through the earth. The scene reminded me of the strip-mined hills of Appalachia.

"Is your country very different from this?" Haingo asked.

"In some places," I said. "Although maybe the soil is not so red. Maybe there are not so many villages any more." Already we had passed a half dozen towns, but according to Haingo, we were still some distance away from Ambohimanga.

"The blue mountain is where we have the oldest rova," Haingo said. "That is the king's palace, and for the Imerina, it is also the place that once held the ancestral tombs of the royal family. For many years it was forbidden for the people to enter this place without the permission of the king. But now it is a holy city. If we are lucky, we will see those who have come to speak to their ancestors."

To speak to the ancestors, I thought. And I believed that was possible, because the farther we traveled from Tana, the more I felt as if we were traveling into the past. Here and there, towns were cupped in patches of green, but everywhere, there was dust. Perhaps it was the dust that gave me the illusion that I was moving into some ancient time. Dust, churned up by the wheels of the car, blurred the lines between road and field, and the road seemed to undulate, rising from hillsides crevassed with the red scars of erosion, then falling in swirls onto sparse green valleys that I glimpsed only for an instant before the road sent us spiraling onto the next hill.

For miles, ours was the only car on the road, and when we appeared, villagers looked out from their houses like sentries watching us pass. Although there was some distance between villages, there was also a sense of intimacy when we passed through one, the roads so narrow that, if we'd slowed down, I could have shook hands with the people who stood in their doorways to watch us drive by. But their vigil was momentary, because the car whipped through each outpost in almost a blink of the eye--then it was on to the next curve in the road, the next rise of hills, the next town, the car leaving behind it a trail of red dust.

In Tana, I had always been aware of the thin layer of dust that covered everything. At the pension, the wood was polished, the floors scoured with coconut shells, the corners brushed to keep away the dusty pale patina that settled on everything by nightfall. But on the road, the faint red coloring I saw in Tana suddenly took on a deeper shade, staining the countryside between the patches of green with a color that I could scarcely find a name for, a red so vivid that I found myself trying on all the labels I knew: rubia, crimson, cranberry, cinnabar, magenta, mercuro, ocher--and none of them quite right. As we drove along, a comet of red dust whirling behind the car, I hoped that words would not fail me when we reached Ambohimanga.

The road seemed endless, twists and turns through the hills, past rice fields and dikes, and then a swatch of a town that looked like the other towns I'd already seen. Abruptly, the road ended in front of a medieval looking gate. A thatched guard house was perched on the arch of the gate, and pushed to one side was a stone, round as a millstone but so huge, only the gods could have used it for grinding. Haingo told me that the measurement was 4.50 meters, which I calculated to be nearly 15 feet.

"They rolled it over the opening to keep intruders out at night," he said.

"Like a drawbridge," I told him.

The path was steep and wound its way past a few small houses kneeling into the dirt road. Although the houses appeared to be occupied, everyone we met looked like a visitor. "They come from Tana," Haingo said. "And all the towns between."

Tiana recognized a few girls from the University. "Because this is palace of King Andrianampoinimerina, everyone comes to see where he lived," she said. Then, noticing that I was wheezing, she added, "It's very steep, but you can see everything for many, many miles."

I followed her up the slope, and when I reached the first cluster of buildings, sat down on a low wall to catch my breath. Families walked past me--grandfathers leading children, mothers hurrying along beside their mothers, younger sisters with babies on their backs, and lovers, giggling and holding hands. A group of musicians walked by, carrying trumpets, guitars, and valihas made from beautifully carved bamboo, strips of the wood cut away to form a circle of strings, like a harp, around a tube of wood. I had heard the sound of the valiha only once before, at a concert played by Rossy in the U.S. I found its music so hauntingly beautiful, I would never forget it. They all moved briskly, making me grow even more impatient with my faulty breathing. Then I noticed a group working its way up the path at an even slower pace than I had managed. From a distance, they were so tightly clustered together, they seemed to be marching in slow motion. The men were wearing red and white lambas tied over their trousers. "The lambas have the pattern of a nearby village," Tiana said. It was only when they came closer that I noticed they seemed to be supporting two older people in the middle of the group who were moving so slowly, I thought at first that they were being carried.

"They have come to consult with the ancestors," Tiana said. "Maybe someone is sick or someone is in need of money. In the rova, they will find a person who speaks in the voice of the ancestors."

"Like an oracle?" I asked.

"No, it is the ancestor who speaks," she said.

"That is what we believe," Haingo said.

We moved past the group and on up the slope. I made the rest of the climb effortlessly, and when I reached the square at the top of the slope, I saw the musicians, who'd been climbing up the hill a few moments earlier, setting up their chairs on a small stage. In the middle of the square, children played tag, and their parents strolled around the edges of the square. The terrace of a restaurant at the opposite end of the square was already crowded. (Later, I would discover that behind this restaurant was an outdoor privy unique to Madagascar: two turtle shells placed on either side of the hole. And there, I also discovered that my balance was much better than my breathing.) Across from the restaurant was a set of wide stone stairs with a constant stream of people moving up and down them.

"That is the rova," Haingo said.

I spotted the red and white lambas inching up the steps. "They will have some ritual up there," Tiana said.

"Will they let me watch?" I asked.


Excerpted from Over the Lip of the World by Colleen J. McElroy Copyright © 2001 by Colleen J. McElroy.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

IllustrationsIntroductionThe Tapestry of Languages in TranslationSelected BibliographyAND ALL THE TOWNS BETWEENHow Stories Came to Be: three viewsOrigins of Myths, Alphonse RaharisonTapasiry: Tales from the South, Aurelien de Moussa BehaviraThe Oral Tradition, Ernest RakotosalamaUNDER SOUTHERN SKIES: MEMOIRS OF TOLIARAPapango Fito Loha: Seven-headed HawkJust HeadBabaky: Squash BoyTRAFFIC IN SALT COUNTRYThe Three BrothersTwo Girls and the Old WomanRafaravavy and RandrianoroSPIRITS OF WATER, SPIRITS OF LAKESThe Legend of TritrivaRafara: Girl of the WatersROCK, PAPER, SCISSORSRaharinora and RandriantsaraFaralahy Mahery: Strong Youngest SonRavolamamba and TsaramiambyPEOPLE OF THE HIGHLANDS; PEOPLE OF THE LONG VALLEYS; PEOPLE OF THE THORNSIt Was There But Goes By Quickly (hiragasy)Moonlight poem by Mme. MadelineWater: The Source of Life poem by Mme. MadelineThe Way to Say Farewell poem by M. ErnestEach Day Now Breaks poem by M. RadoAfrika! poem by M. RadoMaliciousness poem by M. RadoNostalgia poem by M. RadoTURNING THE BONESAndriananahary (Zanahary) sy Andriantompo: The Lord Who Creates and the Lord Who OwnsTHE LIGHT STILL SHINES TOMORROWThe Rite of Bathing the KingJadan'IkotoJaotombo, The FishermanONLY THE SEA BEYONDBetombokoantsoro: The MonsterIndex

University of Washington Press

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