A line of stone in the foreground, a cluster of tall trees right behind it. That is what one would expect to see from the window of room 236, where I would be teaching the third year literature major students on a hot Tuesday afternoon. I would pace around the room to monitor the students’ discussion on the day’s literary piece as each small group would try to answer the guided questions I assigned to them. They look so serious with their brows knitted, wholly absorbed in the text in front of their eyes. The last one we read together in that room was an extract from Steve Tomasula’s The Book of Portraiture (2006). I would usually pause briefly in front of the window to watch the students seated on the rarivato (stonewall) in front of the faculty building, under a range of pine trees. There would be about three or five students; sometimes a larger group, engaged in a heated conversation, their bodies animated and their hands moving in all directions. They seem so lively, full of youth’s candor and insouciance that the whole yard alights with life. They would invariably inhabit the place at all hours despite the Dean’s formal warning lettered in chalk-white paint along the stonewall surface: ‘TSY AZO IPETRAHANA ETO’ (Do not sit here!). Not even the threats from the revered professors lecturing in the amphitheater across the way could make them move. As I watch them play with the authorities like this, a smile would appear on my lips. Memories of our student days are coming back. It has not been that long since we were in those students’ shoes, laughing at life as if nothing else mattered. Now, the roles have changed and we are the ones giving lectures, getting mad at the “noisy brats.”
Five months and counting of lockdown and the whole place still looks empty and forlorn. The students are gone and so is the familiar scene, leaving only ghosts of their lively presence. Even if the surrounding trees have blossomed, faithful to the yearly rendezvous, there is no one around to appreciate it. The university doors will surely re-open within the coming months but the atmosphere of convivial sociality has been forever altered. The new health constraints of social distance and faces hidden behind mandatory masks will redefine the old sense of togetherness that former generations associated with the space. The excitement and curiosity of the university experience has ineluctably changed for the next batch of freshmen. They will not know the hot afternoons of chatting, grazing on the rarivato or sitting under the buvette’s umbrella shade. The coronavirus pandemic and its aftermaths has erased a whole way of experiencing university life in Antananarivo. I wonder what my students would think now about being in such an altered scene.