Literally, the term Fianarantsoa is translatable as “the city where you learn the good” or “the place where you can learn something good”. The first time we saw it, the centuries-old houses of its supreme and oldest area suggested an exotic and antipodean Coimbra, a Malagasy “lesson of dream and tradition…” that we were not willing to miss.
Like Coimbra, Fianar – thus treated with special affection – unfolds down the slope of Ivoneana to the banks of the rivers that flow through its base, the Tsiandanitra, the Mandanofotsy. It occupied the space of an old betsileo village with the same name, translatable as “where the dead are hidden”.
Located at an average altitude of 1200 meters, Fianarantsoa is divided into three historical and urban levels that are easy to disentangle: the Upper or Old Town, the heart of its origins, where most of the traditional buildings are concentrated.
The Colonial City, located on the neighboring hill of Tsianolondroa, housed almost all the administrative buildings built during French sovereignty, between 1894 and 1960. Finally, the Lower City, spread by the alternation of small hills and valleys around it.
Even if his mentor Ranavalona Iª stated that she was opposed to the influence and arrogance of France and Great Britain – and even more to the Christianization attempted by the London Missionary Society in the reign of her predecessor Radama I – the (French) colonial imposition and proselytism Christian who came to him, they did not take long to triumph.
Stairs, Churches and Much Faith
This explains the nearly fifty Protestant, Lutheran and Catholic churches that exist there, in the largest concentration of the entire island of Madagascar, and the succession of faithful in their best attire that we find as we climb the cement staircase that leads to the heights of the Old City , and as we wander through the alleys and alleys that serve it.
We entered one of the Protestant temples that hosted Mass, the FLM Trinitie Masombahoaka church, from 1859. There we came across a Eucharistic scene that would be familiar at all, were it not for the believers to leave free a wide front of seats that kept them far from both the altar and of the choir installed on your right.
The Mass ends with the faithful leaving in an orderly fashion through the central aisle, escorted by the priest and acolytes who place themselves at the exit of the temple, as a way of saying goodbye to the flock.
Outside, other faithful climb the wide steps of the Rabaut St. Etienne staircase and the old, somewhat uneven floors of Rue du Rova.
The Secular Daily Life of Fianarantsoa
But the Upper Town of Fianarantsoa does not live on faith alone. On those same sides, a group of women in lively play chastises the families' dirty laundry in a public washroom at the base of the hill.
A young resident of one of the traditional homes made of brick and plaster in pastel tones, spreads out some of his clothes tucked into a tight CR7 t-shirt from the Portuguese national team that combines with a garnet imitation of All Stars tennis.
At the base of the Upper Town and the social pyramid of Fianarantsoa, peasant vendors from the surrounding villages try to make a living in a small market with a makeshift floor against one of the many ocher adobe walls.
There they have bags of rice from their last harvest, bananas, pineapples, peanuts, tomatoes, other vegetables. Part of them share the Indomalayan features and caramel skin tone that migrants brought from those parts of Asia to the largest of the African islands it is believed to have been around the XNUMXth century AD
Merinos at the Summit of the Malagasy Ethnic Mosaic
Others have much darker skin and less refined facial features. The difference, as well as the colorful and patchwork pattern they wear as a kind of rural fashion, leaves us intrigued as to their ethnicity.
At that moment, we didn't have around the guide and driver Lalah Randrianary, himself a merino with almost white skin and eyes that were still somewhat slanted. Pondering on our own, a meaning for the genetics of those people would be, from the outset, an impossible mission.
We prefer to resign ourselves to the fact that there are eighteen main and official peoples who share Madagascar among themselves. And that, as one would expect, over time, these peoples amalgamated into something that can only be described as Malagasy.
We buy bananas from two of the sellers, chat a little about it, we don't even know what. Enough for us to ingratiate themselves with them and let us photograph them, even in those preparations that – for this we were warned over and over again – were not worthy of our work.
Up and Down the Steep Alleys of Rova
We point back to the top. In the square that serves as a preamble to the ramp that leads there, a worn sign indicates the direction of the “Centre de Santé de Base Niveau de Rova”.
It is preceded by a spontaneous parking lot occupied by brightly colored cars and vans, almost all of them French. There, two Renault 4Ls, among Clios, Peugeots 205 and the like, stand out for their maturity and chromatic exuberance.
Some kids ask for money they tell us for school notebooks. When in doubt about the destination of the budget, we bought a set of them. So we surrendered to his approach plan, which included carrying out the collection at the nearest and most convenient stationery entrance in the area.
A young mother appears at the door of a craft store with her heavy baby in her arms, between colorful straw hats and a metal basket in which she sells loose eggs.
The Convenient Lookout at the Top of Fianarantsoa
In this final ascent of Rue du Rova, we came across more believers, this time coming from the Protestant church of FJKM Antranobiriky, pointed to the semi-base of the hill of Ivoneana, from which the cathedral d'Ambozontany stands out, the largest of the churches in To bail, at least as far as the Old Town is concerned.
We climb to the top of the hill, the site of a palace built in 1830 by Rafaralahindraininaly, one of the city's governors, under Ranavalona Iª.
A sealed water reservoir prevents us from exploring it as it deserved. To compensate, the summit reveals views over the Lower City and the green hills and valleys that surround it.
We don't even lack the company there. A kind of gang of airy, good-natured kids appears out of nowhere. They ask us what we are doing there and point us to some of the places down there that they can identify.
One of the girls, probably the oldest, is carrying a child aged one and a half, two years old at most. “It's my baby now, you know. His parents disappeared. I take care of him.”. The message, direct and genuine, in good youth fashion, moves us and leaves us almost embarrassed.
At least, until one of the young friends intercedes and plays with the child and the adoptive mother, with a much more mature sensibility than her puerile face would let her guess.
With the passing of the hours and successive contacts, we began to feel that the people of Fianar of all ages shared the same subtlety of being, a tact and common sense with their touch of contagion. Given the city's history, such attributes seemed as unexpected as they were explainable.
Ranavalona Iª – the Queen Averses Colonial Interferences
As the French and British emissaries witnessed, Ranavalona Iª, the founder of Fianarantsoa, did not joke about service and made a point of making it very clear: “To all Europeans, English or French, in recognition of the good they have done to my country by teaching wisdom and knowledge, I express my thanks to you….
And I declare to you that you can follow your habits, do not be afraid because I have no intention of changing them….” Now notice the reader in the warning that follows: “but if I see any of my subjects wanting to change whatever is in the rules established by the great twelve kings of my ancestors, that I will never allow…. So, with regard to religion, whether on Sundays or during the week, baptisms and communions, I prohibit my subjects from taking part in them, leaving you Europeans free to do as you please”.
Lady with an imperial nose, Ranavalona Iª wasted no time in endowing her southern capital with academic institutions that attracted more and more intellectuals from the kingdom, some professors, others not really. After her death, her son Rakotosehenondradama succeeded her as king Radama II.
No matter how childish, Radama II despised her mother's isolationism and anti-Europeanism. He proved to be a strongly Francophile monarch who admitted that, in addition to schools and other academic institutions, the religious and cultural institutions that persist and proliferate in the city are joined.
Little by little, Fianarantsoa shone with knowledge and faith. To which was added the no less French-speaking trump card of having become the wine and gastronomic center of the great island of Africa.
The Bipolar Relationship with Ravanalona Iª the ex-French colonists
During the 50s, the Malagasy people underwent the independence process common to all African colonies.
Although the French maintain their historic stamp in Fianar and in Madagascar in general, whenever the nation is threatened by excessive post-colonial intrusions, it is common for the Malagasy in the city (and beyond) to exalt the reference to the cruel sovereign Ranavalona Iª, not that of the almost Gallic descendant Radama II.
This, despite the fact that the queen ensured her reign of 33 years and 15 days after having murdered all the regents who threatened her in the succession of her late husband: other women, children and even her own mother, of having tortured and murdered numerous Malagasy subjects but also foreigners.
And many Malagasy dissenters treat its validity as "tany maize” or “the years of darkness”.
At dawn, led by the native Lalah Randrianary, we embarked on another of the European contributions that Ranavalona Iª would have allowed and thanked: the Fianarantsoa-Côte Est railway.
This railway was built by the French in ten years (1926 – 1936) to connect, in 162 km, the plateau where Fianar expands to the tropical coast of the east coast of the island. The TGV (Train à Gran Vibrations) Malagasy took almost 40 hours to complete the journey. Fianarantsoa was almost entering another era.