Manman! The End of the World at Carnaval

Manman. This deceivingly simple word means mother in Creole but is often used to express surprise—the Martinican equivalent of “wow!” Indeed, there is no better time to explore the complexities of this word than during Carnaval. Songs have been written to this word. Oaths have been taken with this word. This word is shouted from the rooftops, screamed from the streets, and muttered under one’s breath.

Many in the United States hear of Carnaval and think of Mardi Gras. To us Americans, Mardi Gras is a day of bars, booze, and beads. Martinicans do not celebrate Carnaval in any way that is even remotely similar to what I’ve seen in the United States. First of all, one day is not nearly enough partying to make up for the 40 days of Lent that follow. In fact, Lent in Martinique starts two days late—people are too hungover on Ash Wednesday to even think of going to Church. And, then, if they’re not going to Church, they might as well party because Lent hasn’t started yet, right? Somehow, along the way, Ash Wednesday became Ash Friday, and Lent became a sorry 38 days instead of forty.

Each day has a different theme. I’m still not entirely clear what the theme for Sunday was—but if you wear neon clothing with neon legwarmers, you won’t go wrong. Legwarmers have become an accessory in Martinique, but the Minnesotan in me still can’t fathom wearing legwarmers in seventy degree weather.


The other option is cross-dressing. A normally conservative country, Carnaval is the time of year when everyone lets loose–particularly the men who come decked out in five-inch heels and mini-skirts.

cross-dressing during Carnaval

On Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), parades course through every city in Martinique. The main one is in Fort-de-France where they reveal the “Vaval.” Vaval is like the embodiment of the spirit of the year—and particularly of everything that was funny or stupid. Last year, for instance, Vaval was Nicholas Sarkozy, the ex-President of France. On Lundi Gras (Monday), the theme is weddings, but the men dress as women and the women dress as men. On Mardi Gras, the theme is the devil, and everyone wears red. On Mercredi Gras, Vaval is burned and people wear white and black—the colors of mourning in Martinique—to mourn Vaval.

On Dimanche Gras this year, the cars were stacked all the way up the highway in anticipation. If you have never been to Martinique you may not understand this but, due to a very limited amount of parking and a very large number of cars, Martinicans are very creative with the term “parking space.” Depending on how many parking spaces there are, people will park everywhere—on sidewalks, on the street, on the highway. Everything is fair game as long as other cars can get by. And sometimes even if they can’t.

As we walked into the center, we heard loud sirens blaring and car horns pumping and people shouting. We had arrived an hour before the parade was supposed to start and the crowd was already piling up. Finally the parade started. People in cars that they had painted themselves drove down the street with people riding on the hood or on the roof. Others were hanging out of the windows. They pumped up the engine until sparks came out of the exhaust pipe.

The procession was led by the oldest woman in Martinique. She is over a hundred years old, but still finds the strength to lead Carnaval through the streets of Fort-de-France.

the oldest woman in Martinique

After, different organizations followed with teams of dancers and musicians. We cheered for them but everyone was waiting with anticipation. What would Vaval be this year?

People had been guessing for the past month. The end of the world, my students said. It’ll have to do with gay marriage, Sylvie surmised.

As it turned out they were both right. This year, Vaval was two French politicians who are famously anti gay marriage in France. Their names are Copet and Filon. Unfortunate names, Sylvie informed me, when paired together. In Creole, Coupé means “to f***” and Filon means “ass.” I’m hoping I don’t need to spell out why these names were so hilarious to the constituents as paper maché versions of Copet and Filon rode down the street celebrating their nuptials with rings on their fingers.


They were celebrating their marriage with bottles of chlordecone, the pesticide that used to be used on banana plantations in Martinique and has since poisoned the fish and the seafood in the area. One of the bottles was appropriately titled “La fin du monde”—the end of the world.

In a country as Catholic as Martinique, gay marriage is a very controversial issue. And if it is not controversial it’s because the vast majority do not support it. Growing up in D.C. it was fairly safe to assume that your friends supported gay marriage. In Martinique, it’s fairly safe to assume that my colleagues do not. In fact, it’s such a safe assumption in Martinique that some have assumed that I don’t support it and have talked to me about how gay marriage would be devastating for Martinique before realizing that I don’t necessarily share their perspective.


In view of this, however, the reason that gay marriage is called “La fin du monde” stems from the political slant of the country.

The parade continued as Vaval went by, and we continued to watch the show. As people became drunker and the sky became darker, people began to join in singing and shouting. This part of Carnaval is called a “vidé” and most of the songs revolve around profanity. For instance, they’ve created an alphabet song just for Carnaval: one where each letter gets a different piece of profanity in Creole followed by manman. Bondé manman, coupé manman…

One thing to watch out for are the men who cover themselves in sticky sugar cane syrup. Never make eye contact with them, Sylvie told me, and she was quite right. If you do they’ll come up to you and try to hug you—and, trust me, that is a sticky mess you don’t want to be a part of. Literally. Luckily you can spot them and smell them from a mile away which gives you enough time to take cover in the crowd.

(This post is very late, and I apologize. I returned home for a few weeks and have been neglecting this blog.)


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