It’s Valentines Day. Here in Madagascar, the nicer foreign-catered restaurants and shops have hung cardboard hearts in their shop fronts or put lingerie and chocolate on display, but for the most part February 14th could come and go unnoticed as a holiday. Last year, I wasn’t even aware that it was Valentines Day until several friends and I wandered out in the post-cyclone wrecked streets to a downtown restaurant – Sakamanga – and noticed someone passing out roses and that the prostitutes were all festively wearing red.
Malagasy Opinions on Love and Romance
Other than within the confines of upscale commercial establishments, Madagascar doesn’t celebrate Valentines Day. I have had Malagasy friends explain that they don’t give gifts or celebrate Valentines Day “because we are poor” but I get the impression that this excuse is a cop-out for explaining a deeper set cultural mentality and a rather conservative approach to love and romance.
For example, when I asked “Do girls ever flirt with boys?” during my adult conversation class about love, one student replied: “Well, if a girl flirts with a boy, she is… she is… a harlot.”
“You mean, people think she is ‘easy’?” I offered.
“Yes,” she confirmed – but given the prevalence of sex tourism in Madagascar, she may have literally meant that only prostitutes flirt with men.
Couples also don’t hold hands in public (although it’s OK between friends of the same gender) and public displays of affection are a rare urban phenomenon. Once, while passing a park in Antananarivo I spotted a teenage couple kissing and shouted to my friend “OH MY GOD, LOOK! THERE ARE PEOPLE KISSING IN PUBLIC!” Even I had gotten so used to Madagascar’s prudish dating rituals that this couple’s actions shocked me. Seeing those two kids turning a blind eye to conservative approaches to dating and affection felt like spotting a rare lemur.
Speaking of, views about sex in Madagascar are an even more inquisitive and difficult to approach topic. Are Malagasy adventurous in bed? Are there sexual taboos? Is the woman as passive in bed as she is with flirting? I wouldn’t know how to open that discussion, but I am deeply curious.
The Hapless Love Life of an Expat in Africa
So then, what is dating like as an expat in Africa?
Simple explanation: difficult to impossible.
Lengthy explanation: I would personally believe that dating as an expat anywhere has its own set of challenges that arise once we’re off our home turf. The expectations of each person’s role in a relationship between two people of different cultural backgrounds may not be intuitive. In other words, what we may take as givens (like the traditional, man works, woman stays at home mentality that is still prevalent in parts of Madagascar) might not be so given once we shack up with someone who has been raised to understand the world from a different cultural paradigm. Then, even if an expat sticks to dating other expats in Africa, the pool of single, datable people tends to be incredibly limited.
My personal experiences: Dates? What are those? I have become stunted in my ability to flirt or socialize with attractive men – even if I have been on two or three excursions that could be considered ‘dates’ since arriving in Madagascar. At the end of one of these so called dates, I patiently listened to the man rave about Ibiza nightlife while we dipped our feet in his backyard pool and realized that I had absolutely no common interests with him. Literally the only reason I agreed to go out with him was because he is one of the few decently attractive men my age that I have encountered in 20 months and he agreed to pay for the beer.
“Where are my standards?” I wondered.
I hear things get better.