A New Meaning for Watermelon

A young girl in Madagascar sits on the floor, smiling. There is a large piece of watermelon in her hand.
By Olivia Prentzel
Aug. 3, 2019

Lenda! It has a red middle!" the seller yelled to entice me, though she probably didn’t know for sure. While a white center is still sweet, the most mamy watermelons are the ones with red centers.

It’s watermelon season here in the south of Madagascar. Piles of the oversized fruit decorate the sandy roads of the market, going for 200 to 500 ariary each, depending on its size.

I walked over and bought a medium-sized watermelon – its six cents after all. It wasn’t until I got home and halfway through the watermelon that I realized I couldn’t finish it on my own. With no fridge and too many flies, I couldn’t save it. And throwing perfectly good food away was out of the question. And that’s when I learned I was eating watermelon the wrong way.

A young girl in Madagascar sits on a blanket next to a giant watermelon. She is smiling at the camera.
Sylvie poses next to a large watermelon after buying it at the market in her village in southern Madagascar.

My students walk into class, many toting watermelons alongside their notebooks, some balancing them on their heads. In between “Good morning, Teacher!”s are proud nods made toward their watermelons, like prized possessions. We’ll eat them together after class, they assure me with big smiles. As they learn, they place them under their desks, near their feet. As soon as class finishes, they walk to the grass and slam their watermelons to the ground. They explode and dozens of students rush to snag a piece. An extending hand offers me a slice.

A young girl in Madagascar sits on the floor eating a large chunk of watermelon.
Sylvie eats a large piece of watermelon in her village in southern Madagascar.

At home, I get a visitor to my door. In his hands is a big watermelon. We grab a straw mat and go outside. He cuts jagged slices, long ways down the watermelon. With each slice, someone new joins us on the mat. It’s natural the way they stop, sit down and share the fruit with us. No hesitation from either party – there’s an unspoken invitation: please, come eat this with me.

The way we share watermelon here, I soon realized, was quite indicative of the hospitality and generosity of the Malagasy people as a whole. While it is common for Malagasy to offer their food to guests or simply anyone walking by, with “Mandroso!” Come eat!, watermelon is no exception. It is actually considered rude if you don’t extend the offer. Watermelon is an invitation to join one another and enjoy if not conversation – due to mouthfuls of seeds and fruit – then good company at the least. You share it with friends while juice dribbles down all of your chins. You enjoy its sweetness, spitting out the seeds in your hand, saving them to make a salty snack later. And just like that, it’s not so hard to finish a watermelon.

I’ve always loved the oversized fruit, reminding me of warm summer days and barbecues. But now, I’ve learned to love watermelon for a different reason. From now on, scattered rinds on the ground, festooned with seeds, will remind me of good company, generosity, light-hearted conversation and contentment in its purest form. 

Watermelon rinds and seeds sit alongside a knife on a woven mat.

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