How We Came to Be A Multicultural Family — Madagascar, the 1930s

Looking at our family history on both sides, my husband’s and mine, it is plain to see that we did not become a multicultural family out of the blue. There were hints, sometimes more than hints, long before Appa and I were born. So I thought I’d start a series about our multicultural roots. It’s called How We Came To Be A Multicultural Family.

In it I will explore how both sides of our family were exposed to and interacted with other parts of the world. My point is not that there was only one way for us to go given the paths taken by our grandparents and our parents but rather that our multicultural present is informed and inspired by their experiences and ours before we met. I share the series’ credits with Appa’s and my parents who have kindly helped me piece the oldest stories together.

My paternal grandfather was a very young school teacher when he decided to move to Madagascar, then a French colony, in 1934. Madagascar is a large country island about France’s size in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. It was settled only a few thousand years ago. Its people have both Southeast Asian and East African roots. The Kingdom of Madagascar became a French colony at the end of the 19th century.

My grandfather’s letters back home attest to his curiosity for Madagascar’s nature, culture and language. He taught local students, first in Antananarivo, the capital city, then in Farafangana on the south-east coast. Some of his students there were later involved in the 1947-1948 Malagasy rebellion against French colonial rule. My left-leaning grandfather took his mentor’s role seriously so it is possible their conversations with him inspired some of their budding thoughts on independence.

In the fateful summer of 1939 he returned to France after five years overseas. He was still there when WWII began in early September. He was first instructed to report in southern France then, while on his way to Nîmes, sent back to Madagascar. Off he went, unaware that he would not see France and his family again until after the end of WWII.

From 1940 on the island was controlled by the collaborationist Vichy government. My grandfather’s sympathies clearly lay with the Allies so, when the Battle of Madagascar started in 1942, he biked his way to the British front across the island. He later moved to Allies-controlled Lebanon where he spent another couple of years until he could finally return to liberated France. He would spend the rest of his life in his native country.

There is no doubt in my mind that my grandfather’s decade away from France as a young man shaped his life long after he came back. For one thing it certainly informed his views on colonialism and the fights for independence that would take the world’s center stage in the decades following WWII. He had good reason to feel concerned personally. His former students involved in the Malagasy uprising were severely affected by its violent repression.

When I was a child, Madagascar was somewhere in the background. In the wood sculptures in my grandfather’s study; in the stories he told me. About rubber tree tapping; about local people using cardinal points to describe the respective positions of objects; about some of their witty observations on French colonialists… There was my first glimpse of the world beyond France.

2 Replies to “How We Came to Be A Multicultural Family — Madagascar, the 1930s

  1. Your family still has your grandfather’s letters? What a treasure trove. Your observation about absorbing much of value from small details he shared about his past rings true from my experience growing up with my Swiss immigrant father’s stories and pride in his heritage. As a child I learned by osmosis of a world outside my own, I’m grateful too for this enlightenment because it shaped me in ways I see now as very enriching, I look forward to the next installment of the series.

    1. It is true the stories and experiences of our parents and grandparents make their way into our lives as we grow up. Yes, we still have my grandfather’s letters. Come to think of it, I believe I have also been influenced by his and my paternal grandmother’s taste for writing. They met before he moved to Madagascar and they spent many years corresponding. They married only after he returned to France permanently.

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