Several solar-powered street lamps were installed in my village a couple of years ago to deter theft. While small, my village has half a dozen shops and is the market center for the area. Vanessa Paolella photo

Every morning in my village, people congratulate each other for making it through the night.

“Vitasoa’ny alina,” we say, which roughly translates to “Good thing the night is finished.” By day’s end, we say the same phrase with a slightly different emphasis to wish one another an uneventful night.

Even after living here for more than a month, I still think about these greetings often, or more precisely, the reasons behind them. Like many local customs, these phrases are specific to my region of Madagascar.

It struck me as odd that half of the greetings I exchange with folks here are focused on the dangers of the night. Like most people in Madagascar, I retreat to my home when darkness falls.

While my village has several solar-powered lamps that illuminate the streets at night, no one has electricity in their home. Locals rely on flashlights and petrol lamps for night-time activities in their homes, including cooking and eating dinner.

Even so, there’s little about my village that strikes me as especially dangerous. Unlike in the United States, there are no predators here to be worried about — just a few stray dogs.


Theft, however, is certainly an issue.

At night, people bring their chickens inside their house, not only because building a chicken coop would be expensive, but because many believe locks would do little to stop a determined thief. Just a week ago, my neighbor’s rooster was stolen after dark at 8:30 p.m. The man darted through a hole in the fence, grabbed the chicken and ran.

Every night, my neighbor’s more than two dozen chickens sleep underneath their kitchen counter inside their home. Although the family has the money to build an outdoor chicken coop, they say a lock would do little to stop a determined thief. Vanessa Paolella photo

Theft is a concern across Madagascar, not just here. My first host family near the Peace Corps training center in Mantasoa would bring the motorcycle inside every night. Their chickens slept underneath the house, accessible through a small hole in the concrete foundation.

So what is it here that makes the night seem especially dangerous, I wondered.

Evil spirits, witchcraft and cattle thieves, I learned.

It was a few weeks ago while talking with the local English teacher that the topic of witchcraft came up. He had promised my host family that he would warn me not to accept food from strangers, not because of my delicate American stomach, but because the food might carry a curse and kill me.


It’s not that people wish me, specifically, ill, he explained. But if something were to happen to me, it would reflect poorly on the mayor, my supervisor, who apparently has his share of detractors.

I could tell you more about witchcraft here – that people seek out practitioners to help remedy illnesses, curse enemies and change the fortune of those with unrequited love – but I’m afraid I still have much to learn before I can do this topic any justice.

Instead, let’s get back to the dangers of the night.

During this discussion, the teacher told me he didn’t believe in this kind of witchcraft. Yet, he swore by the powers of the mpamosavy, an evil witch that does its most wicked work at night.

Sometimes the mpamosavy runs around late at night freezing people in place with a knock at their door; the teacher said he had experienced it himself several times. Other times, they kill people through various means, including lightning strikes.

The more we talked, the more I began to understand the real and perceived threats posed by the darkness here. And while I’m not convinced that anyone has ever truly been harmed by evil witches or spirits, cattle thieves are in fact a deadly problem.


Three young men drive a small herd of cattle back and forth across a rice paddy to soften the ground in preparation for planting rice seedlings on Jan. 8. Here in Madagascar, cattle are both invaluable work animals and major investments for families. Vanessa Paolella photo

Cattle theft is especially prominent in southern Madagascar, where it was once a socially accepted norm. In one tribe, a man would steal cattle from a neighboring community and offer them to the family of the girl he sought to marry as a show of skill. However, the practice has grown beyond tradition to become a serious threat to Madagascar’s domestic security.

In Madagascar, cattle are raised as work animals and investments. Families often buy calves or breed cattle aiming to sell the adult animal later for a profit.

Now imagine if someone came by your home at night and stole the entirety of your retirement savings and your kids’ college fund. That’s the kind of financial devastation that cattle thieves bring to families here.

But it’s not just theft. The practice is now a highly organized, profitable crime that has rendered some regions of southern Madagascar virtually lawless. These gangs don’t hesitate to kill, and have been known to ambush law enforcement and raze villages.

Only one volunteer has ever died in the 30-year history of Peace Corps Madagascar: 29-year-old Nancy Coutu. She was murdered by cattle thieves in 1996.

My 24-year-old host sister, Fanja, and her 6-year-old son, Faneva, color on a woven grass mat in my house at night by flashlight on Dec. 29. While some families in my village cook dinner using flashlights, petrol lamps are still quite common. Vanessa Paolella photo

Now for some good news. It’s been years since cattle thieves were active in the Ambalavao area; I wouldn’t have been placed here if they were. According to the English teacher, a local organization formed several years ago to combat the problem successfully pushed cattle thieves out of the area.


With all of this being said, I feel very safe in my community. My host dad, a security guard who lives next door, patrols the village every night until 2 a.m.

Even so, I don’t go beyond my backyard at night. I’m not afraid of anything in particular, although I would rather not run into strange men, thank you. But culturally, it’s expected. Once night falls, all the good people head inside.

One of these days, however, I will quietly sneak out to lie in a field and watch the stars — evil spirits and witches be damned.

A reader asked:

Did you pick Madagascar or were you assigned there? — Sam Prout, Portland

I originally applied for a position in Timor-Leste, a small island nation near Indonesia, but I changed my mind at the last minute because Madagascar was a better fit. Funny enough, it was learning that most volunteers in Timor-Leste had electricity and running water that pushed me to make the switch. I hoped that Peace Corps service would help me become more resilient and enable me to learn more about the world beyond my privileged American bubble. For me, learning to live without those luxuries was particularly important. I was also drawn to Madagascar by its mixed African and Southeast Asian culture, as well as the diverse ecosystems on the island. I really liked that the country had a single national language understood by everyone, one which was not a colonial language. It felt to me that Madagascar was where I was meant to be.


Have questions? Send them to or by post to the Sun Journal office at 64 Lisbon St., Suite 201, Lewiston, ME 04240.

On a personal note:

Last month, a woman at church asked me if I would be willing to teach her about nutrition, or at least that’s what I had thought. I spent much of the week preparing a presentation, knowing that I would use it many times over the next two years. That preparation saved me. As it turns out, I had agreed to speak about nutrition not just to one person, but to a local organization. In my first act as a Peace Corps volunteer, I taught a group of 56 people about identifying food groups and the importance of eating a varied diet. Things have been much quieter since then, and I am still working to find where I fit in my village.

Vanessa Paolella

Vanessa Paolella is a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar, a former award-winning staff writer for the Sun Journal and a Bates College graduate. The views expressed in this column are hers alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps, or the Madagascar government.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story