For a graduation present a university counselor gave me a travel guide on Madagascar. In it were anecdotes and asides about the Malagasy people and some of their beliefs that’d seem strange to most first-world countries. At the time I thought the travel guide was being sensationalistic—similar as if someone characterized Americans through the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny—but I’ve lately discovered that these beliefs do exist in the everyday lives of the Malagasy people.
One morning I struck up a conversation with my 10 year old neighborhood friend. It was the weekend and I asked her whether she was going to the beach. She shook her head. “Why not? You don’t like swimming?” I said. “No,” she said, “I’m scared.” I asked why. She replied:
“There are ghosts in the ocean. They’ve killed lots of kids.”
After a few more minutes of questioning I learned that there are ghosts in the ocean who travel by the wind and eat the blood of unsuspecting swimmers. The 16 year old neighborhood girl was scared of the ocean ghosts, too, and so was her aunt. I was surprised that my innocent chat on strolling on the beach turned into a confession on murderous aquatic phantoms. Being a first-world skeptic, I don’t believe that ghosts live in the Indian Ocean. My guess for this belief’s roots comes from children drowning in the ocean and the discovery that their bodies have unoxygenated blue blood.
A few days earlier I discovered similar superstitions about chameleons. In my newfound enthusiasm for the animal I was showing some photos of chameleons I had spotted in the village to my neighbor. The 16 year old neighborhood girl was walking by and my neighbor said to her, “Hey, look. There’s a chameleon here.” The girl yelped and sprinted into the home, crying out, “Where? Where?” We explained that we only had photos of chameleons with us, not the real thing. She nervously stepped out to have a look.
I asked why the 16 year old was scared of chameleons and I received a myriad of answers. Chameleons are evil, my neighbor said, and if you hurt one, you may die from it. “There have been people who’ve died in the hospital here after touching chameleons,” he said. Another fear was that chameleons are very slow movers, and if you hurt a chameleon you will suffer a death as slow as their movements. Thirdly, chameleons don’t have ears, so if you harass and upset a chameleon it’s unable to hear your apologies.
The thought How strange! almost came to me, but before it did, my neighbor asked me, “Does America have beliefs like we do?” I nodded and told him about how some people think that opening umbrellas indoors, coming across black cats, walking under ladders, breaking mirrors and encountering the numbers 6 and 13 could bring evil or bad luck. Then I realized that Malagasy ghosts and evil chameleons aren’t so far off from lots of beliefs in my home country. For how exotic and backwards we often tend to think about Madagascar, sometimes it’s pretty similar to America.