"We were not supposed to leave. We have to go back [to the island]!"

-Jack Shepard

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Zay! Teako rehe avao iMadagasikara.

It’s been six months since I left the island, which probably makes this my longest blog procrastination yet - and it’s the last one you’re going to get! At least until the next passably interesting phase of my life, which doesn’t seem likely to occur anytime in the next decade or so.  I feel like I have so much to say, yet where to begin? Can anyone other than RPCVs even comprehend what these past few months have been like?  Is my experience even like anyone else’s?  Probably not.  Let’s just start with the vague generalizations and work our way down.

I’ve actually been surprised by how many people have not asked me generalized questions about my Peace Corps experience.  To be honest, it’s a huge relief because I’d otherwise just default to the stereotypical “It was an incredible experience,” “I learned so much,” “It gave me a new perspective on life” - bland answers that, although true, would just devalue the entire thing.  The question I’m most often faced with is, “Do you miss it?” to which I reply:
“Yeah, a little, but I’m happy to be back.” 
Or, if I know the person a little better:
“Uh, no.”

But, as always, I oversimplify.  I do miss my life in Fort Dauphin.  I miss it like you miss that night when you reunited with good friends from college and the tequila shots just kept on coming.  You sang along to the Black Eyed Peas at the top of your lungs on the car ride home while hanging your head out the window to keep the nausea at bay.  You spent what seemed like hours ejecting the contents of your digestive system in the hotel toilet and missed your flight home the next morning.  You remember the night with nothing but the greatest memories, but you wouldn’t necessarily like to return it.  You learned a lot about yourself, your limits, and the human species.  Some moments are quickly forgotten, and some lessons are imprinted for life - like that gag reflex that inevitably returns when trying to sip a margarita.

Staying true to format, here are some lists to summarize the last few years of my life and where I am now.

Things I Miss about Fort Dauphin/Madagascar/Peace Corps/the Developing World:
  • Teaching - Loved the job and my students more than I ever could have expected.  Would I consider it for a career? No.
  • Conversations with children - My neighbors’ children became some of my best friends. They were open-minded, non-judgmental, always willing to teach and learn, and astonishingly mature in certain ways likely because the amount of responsibility they take on every day surpasses that of the average American college student.  Anywhere I went, if I was lost, confused, or felt uncomfortable around the adult company, there were inevitably gaggles of kids roaming around that I could hang out with.  If a kid on the street was acting up, anyone had free reign to yell at or discipline the hoodlum as they saw fit.  If something needed done or a message sent, you could pull a random child over and have him/her take care of it.  The old "it takes a village" adage is true in Madagascar.  But, you know, you can't really talk to or yell at kids you don't know here.  
  • Conversations with random people - Though I’m not the most extroverted person, I always loved being able to talk casually with market vendors, fisherman, people I passed on the street, beggars (not all of them), people sitting next to me on the bus, people who had heard of me (or another vazaha that they thought might be me), girls who wanted to pop a squat with me (the Malagasy equivalent of girls going to the restroom together?), etc.  There were no awkward elevator silence moments, no assuming I was bothering them, no wondering if they were wearing earbuds or some micro earpiece, no presuming I was crazy for striking up a conversation when they'd never met me, and no lack of things to say (Malagasy people love to fill silences by pointing out the obvious: “It’s hot today!” “Yeah, it’s so hot.” “It was hot yesterday, too.” “Mmm hmm, hot.”  “It’ll probably be hot tomorrow again.” “Probably.”).
  • Walking everywhere - Okay, so maybe living over 2 miles from the market and needing to traverse two steep, sandy hills to get into town might not have been the most fun during cyclone and hot season, but it was darn worth it the rest of the time.  I learned all of the shortcuts and backroads around town, I stayed in relatively good shape without putting in much effort, and I met about 90% of the people I knew just by walking around and chatting (see above).  If you’re a foreigner trying to “integrate” into a new community, this would be my one biggest tip: WALK. Don’t drive around in your SUV, don’t take taxis or even the bus. Walk, get lost, meet people.
  • The constant influx of new, digital media - Somehow, through the magic of PCV file sharing and my mini-laptop, I was able to stay more up-to-date on movies and TV shows than some of my friends stateside.
  • Never feeling alone - For anyone who makes half an effort, being alone is not really an option in a Malagasy community. There’s always someone willing to talk to you, walk with you, teach you, show you off to his/her friends, etc.
  • Always feeling alone - I’m not really sure why my instinct was to put this on my “Things I’ll Miss” list. Maybe because it kept me grounded and constantly reflective on my experiences.  Despite constant company, there’s always a sense of not really belonging anywhere, even among the expat community. The only people I felt truly connected with, even if we only saw each other every few months, were other PCVs.
  • Feeling like part of a community - Okay, I know my list is starting to sound like it’s just contradicting itself, but everything is true in certain contexts.  I’d say it took a good year before I felt like an actual member of the Fort Dauphin community. It was that point where most of the people I passed on the street either knew me or found me unremarkable because they’d seen me walk by every day.  When the novelty wore off and people started talking to me about real events and issues in our lives instead of asking me about myself and what I thought of the country.  When I knew all of the gossip around town and all of the goings-on.  When people started treating me like an equal, not as a shiny new toy.  When I felt I could genuinely offer my help without people viewing me as a foreign piggybank.  When I knew that I had a solid network of friends and neighbors who would help me at the drop of a hat, no questions asked.  It’s so hard, if not impossible, to get that same feeling of community in most American towns, and it’s something I’ll always be searching for.
  • Living life outside - This is another big one. Traditionally, Malagasy houses are used almost exclusively for sleeping and storing material possessions.  All day-to-day activities (cooking, cleaning, eating, socializing, bathing, peeing/pooing...) are done outside.  More modern houses, including my own, tend to have living rooms, kitchens, sometimes even bathrooms, but most people still move fluidly between “indoors” and “outdoors” and don’t enclose themselves within climate-controlled walls like we tend to do.  I miss keeping all of my windows and doors wide open all day, sitting in my yard preparing food, washing clothes, playing with my tortoises, and chasing away the chickens, ducks, geese, cats, dogs, and small children that wandered into my house.
  • Market culture - I was lucky enough to live in an area of the country where food prices are standard and don’t require bargaining (unless you’re a tourist or clueless foreigner, in which case the vendor [understandably] tends to jack up the price).  Certain times of day were hectic at the main town market, but off-times or smaller neighborhood and countryside markets were fun to visit.  You learn where most of the food comes from, how fresh it is, and how the price fluctuates based on factors like seasonality and climate.  The vendors get to know you to the point where they can tell exactly what you need by how long it’s been since you last passed by, and it’s a great place to just hang out and catch up on town gossip.  There are no plastic shopping bags; you bring your woven basket and load it up with food measured by the empty can of condensed milk.  It was also kind of nice having foods available by the season.  It made me appreciate lychees, mangos, mandarin oranges, and avocados so much more knowing that I only had a precious window of time to eat as many as possible.
  • Killing my own food - Not that I particularly enjoyed taking the life of a small animal, I haven’t changed that much, but I believe slaughtering an animal for your food is something that everyone should experience in their lives.  The whole process of physically killing the animal, plucking or skinning it, separating out all the innards, and cutting it apart not only increases your basic awareness of what it takes to get that piece of meat on your plate, but enhances your appreciation for food in general.  Even watching a butcher take your choice cut from a cow carcass is a completely different experience than picking a nicely plastic-wrapped hunk from a grocery store.
  • Living on the beach - Whale-watching, fish/crustacean-catching, oyster-eating, sand-napping, water-floating, kid-playing... Need I go on?
  • My students - As cliché as it may be, my students were the reason I loved teaching.  Sure there were a few rotten apples who were only there because of family wealth/prestige or because the slept with their school principal to pass the Bac (high school completion exam in French school systems); but for the most part, all of the students were like sponges for whatever I had to offer them.  Even the laziest ones would come to my house to borrow books or ask me what certain song lyrics meant.  And I’ll forever love being known simply as “Miss” to my CEL students (e.g. “Good morning Miss!  How are you today?” or “I saw Miss at the taxi-brousse station yesterday.”).
  • Malagasy dance parties - Not going to lie, it took me the better part of my time in Madagascar to really get these down.  American-style dance parties tend to follow a pattern of high-energy dancing and busting out your best moves for a few songs, then breaking for a while before busting out the moves again.  Malagasy dance parties, on the other hand, are marathons, not sprints.  There are very few breaks involved, but rather a sort of rhythmic shuffling to the beat of what tend to be very looooong songs.  Energy ebbs and flows depending on the song or the fellow party-goers.
  • Malagasy music videos - Malagasy artists try so desperately to be as sexy or swag-ified as the artists they see in Western videos.  Though video quality has been slowly improving since I first visited in 2008, they usually fail miserably and hilariously.
  • Never throwing anything away - As I’m sure I’ve explained in previous posts, Malagasy people don’t throw things away; they either can’t afford to or feel no general need to.  They use, reuse, and repair anything from apparel to utensils to electronics to within and inch of its life, then use the scraps for something else.  When I left Madagascar, I vowed to keep this habit strong in my American lifestyle.  So that didn’t last long... but at very least I gained a greater sense of awareness of the things I waste.  
  • Faux Cap - My home away from home away from home.  By far the most awe-inspiringly beautiful place I’ve ever been.  The most wonderful people I’ve ever met.  The location of some of my deepest cultural lessons and memorable life experiences.
  • Musical culture - This is true for just about every non-Western country.  How cool is it to live in a place where music, singing, and dancing are just part of life - not something you have to be “good at” or embarrassed about?  Where it’s not uncommon to find neighborhood 3-year-olds with moves like Usher or voices like Beyonce.  And where karaoke is taken VERY seriously.
  • Wearing flip-flops for every occasion - I can’t do shoes anymore.  I just can’t.

Things I Won't Miss:
  • The constant barrage of moral/ethical conflicts - I’ve waxed philosophic on some of these conflicts in previous posts.  They mostly involve situations when you don’t want to give handouts or be seen as a rich vazaha, yet one of your friends/neighbors needs medicine or school tuition or food for their undernourished children.  You know there will be a domino effect, and you’re never really sure who you can trust, but you feel like an elitist ass if you don’t help because you're living in a culture where everyone is willing to share what little they have with anyone else.
  • Hand-washing my laundry - I was one of the few PCVs I knew who never hired a local woman to wash my clothes.  So now I’m pretty good at hand-washing laundry.  Was it worth it?  Meh.
  • Soaking beans - Beans are good, so good.  And cheap.  But soaking dried beans for 6 hours before you even begin to cook them? I’ll never take canned food for granted again.
  • Bucket-washing my hair - Simple bathing wasn’t so bad, but sticking my head in the bucket then trying to rinse all the shampoo out got old after the first year.
  • Bribe culture - The system of bribing officials/police isn’t all terrible, but ultimately I think it facilitates more grave injustices than it’s worth.
  • Fatalistic culture - It’s understandably difficult, if not impossible, to consider the future when you’re only surviving day-to-day.  Trying to comprehend a culture where you’re not raised to believe you can do anything, be anything, “rise above,” is challenging until you realize that they don’t necessarily believe they have anything to rise above.  Life is just life, and now I understand how our constant need to strive for something more can be mentally taxing and even detrimental to our happiness.  Yet I’m still stuck with that good ol' American “make your own destiny” mentality.

Lessons I’ve Learned:
  • How to function in three languages while only being fluent in one - So I kind of assumed a few months in Peace Corps would make me fluent in the local language.  Not so.  If anything, I learned how difficult it actually is to learn another language and be able to speak it socially and correctly.  With Malagasy, I kind of plateaued after I got to the point where I could say just about anything I needed to say - just not the same way a native speaker would say it.  With a solid framework of four years of high school instruction, my understanding of and ability to use spoken French in real-life situations (basically the two things you can’t learn in a classroom) improved dramatically, though I’m not able to speak it as fluidly as I’d like.  Essentially, my Malafrenglish got me far enough that I didn’t even consider language a major barrier by the end.  Considering speaking English was my primary job assignment, I’m not too disappointed in what I was able to pick up.
  • How to walk/mooch rides/take questionable public transportation everywhere - If you don’t have a car in most parts of America, you’re pretty much screwed.  If you don’t have a car in Madagascar, well, you’re obviously in the majority; so it makes for some fun, terrifying, brutal, and looong experiences with everything from hitchhiking to zebu carts to swanky SUVs to hiding from police in the back of a giant cargo truck.
  • How to travel ridiculously lightly - Toothbrush, prescription meds, ID card, money.  Done.
  • How to handle cat calls (and other unwanted attention) like a pro - Whistles, hissing, tongue clicks, dramatic intakes of breath - I've heard them all.  I've been grabbed, groped, stroked, prodded, caressed, breathed on, and undressed by far too many unashamed eyes.  One of the great disappointments of being a vazaha woman in Madagascar is not the unsolicited attention itself, but the fact that no man will ever feel or understand what it’s like to be us.  The spotlight is never so bright as when we’re walking by ourselves.  It takes tough skin and some serious confidence to be able to handle being put on display in such a vulnerable way each and every time you leave your house.  Eventually you learn to laugh at it as you develop coping techniques and your tolerance level gets higher and higher.  But some things - like that burly thug who believes his wealth makes it okay for him to grab your crotch in front of an entire bus of people as he passes you in the street with his lackeys - will inevitably cause your resolve to crumble, and you feel dirty and depressed for days.

Things that Take Adjusting:
  • Having so much...stuff - One of my first missions when I got home was to go through all of my closets, drawers, boxes and throw away/donate all of the crap that I’ve been hoarding since childhood, thinking it all had some sort of sentimental value or would be “useful” someday.  I had so few possessions that I actually cared about in Madagascar and yet my life was full and fantastic.  Any given Malagasy person can fit their entire life into a single suitcase.  Coming back and seeing all of the things I thought I needed in order to have a fulfilling life may have been the greatest reverse cultural shock.
  • Driving everywhere - My initial adjustment to not only being able to, but needing to drive everywhere has worn off somewhat; but I still miss not relying on a car.
  • Reality TV takeover - It was out of hand when I left in 2010, now it’s just pure insanity.  Does MTV even pretend to care about music anymore?  And for the love of god, would someone please tell me what a honey boo boo is??
  • Technology/internet takeover - How is it that in only 3 years, the internet has completely taken over our lives?  Not that I’m complaining, I loves me my iPhone, but I don’t feel like I was away for so long that it should’ve been as big of a shock as it was.  I mean, DVDs are practically obsolete, as is the need to watch television programs when they’re actually airing...or on an actual TV.  Official paperwork doesn’t seem to exist anymore; it’s all digital.  Everyone and their mom (literally) is on social media, which seems to have quadrupled in quantity - I’m starting to figure out Pinterest, but what the heck is an Instagram..?  My grandmother was reading books and watching movies on an iPad before I even considered buying one for goodness’ sake...
  • #twitter #culture #and #speaking #in #’s - As a continuation of my previous point: Twitter absolutely blew up.  What?!  When I left, I still considered Twitter something for trashy celebrities and social media whores.  Now it’s an essential tool for marketing, politics, PR, news and media, entertainment, educational institutions... I haven’t broken down and created a Twitter account yet, so I’m still not even entirely sure how it works.  And what’s with all the ###’s?  There are certain people on my Facebook newsfeed who I’m ready to unfriend simply because they #post #pictures #and #updates #with #like #50 #of #these.

Anyway, time to wrap this thing up.  It seems appropriate now that I initially created this blog with the “Lost” theme of going back to the island that seemed to hold some sort of inexplicable power of attraction over me.  Like the television series, I tried to extend my time on the island a little to long because of my confusion and infatuation, and I just ended up near-resenting it but was unable to pull myself away because I wanted to see how it ended.  Of course, the ending turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic, and I rushed to fill the resulting void with anything that would keep me occupied until the next phase of my life began.  Now that I’m finally out of that weird purgatory - heading back to school and having a sort-of direction in life - I feel that I’ve come full circle (much unlike Lost, however, because we all kind of suspected they were dead the whole time).  

Peace Corps makes attaining a certain level of integration a top priority of service.  I’d say the greatest lesson I learned from the Peace Corps experience is that full “integration” into another culture is just not possible.  You can learn the customs, history, and language, and you can be welcomed into the community and regarded as a equal, but you will never truly be one of them.  This isn’t as cynical as it sounds; it just means that we all have our own backgrounds, belief systems, values, sub-cultures, etc. that make us who we are, and others recognize that in us.  And it obviously doesn’t mean that we can’t have happy, amazing lives out of the context in which we were born.  

So my overall conclusion is this: Whether you’re traveling, relocating, or simply walking across the tracks, just be positive, open-minded, friendly, and practical.  Don’t be idealistic, pitying, naive, patronizing, judgmental, or reckless.  Every culture (that I know of at least) - heck, every person - has strengths and weaknesses, good and evil, convictions and confusions.  We all think we know what’s best for ourselves and the world; and, ultimately, we’re all just as clueless about life as everyone else.  It’s a new, global society, and no, we don’t all need to hold hands and love each other.  But nor should we simply “tolerate” each other.  I think awareness will be the key word for this new millennium. 

And that, my friends, is all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Everyday

Less than one month left in Fort Dauphin!  I’m so excited and so stressed out.  Sadness hasn’t really entered the mixture yet.  The time constraint in trying to get my English Center functioning is driving me a little insane, so my community better darn well appreciate it.  (And by appreciate it, I mean I expect them all to be fluent in English by Summer 2013.)  Classes are ending pretty soon.  They’re not really a source of stress, but they do take up time I’d rather spend mentally preparing myself for shopping centers and supermarkets.  I’ll miss all my students though…whether they think ozone layer depletion is actually relevant to their lives or not.  My sister, Courtney, arrives the day after Christmas, so I fully intend on doing absolutely nothing for the week she’s here (which will also be my last week at site) except going to the beach, being a tourist, and rediscovering the novelty in all the things I now find so familiar and dull.  My goal is to shed at least one tear of longing for the life I’ve had over the past 2.25 in my isolated, nothing-too-special-about-it beach town.  Hmm, that sounds too negative.  Probably just the stress talking.

I realize that I’ve very rarely blogged about my day-to-day life in Fort Dauphin but instead have spewed out all my more pensive and analytic thoughts whenever I was feeling particularly angry, frustrated, bewildered, or philosophical.  So here are some glimpses into my Posh Corps life:

On  a Work Day:
·         Wake up around 6 or 7, depending on class time. 
·         Find some breakfast – perhaps cold leftovers from the day before, eggs, fruit, or maybe Haja will wake up early enough to make me pancakes or balls of fried bread.
·         Get changed into professor-worthy clothes, get myself ready, brush teeth, prepare stuff for class, and maybe read a little if I’ve still got some time.
·         Walk either 20-100ft across the compound to my classroom.  Prepare stuff for class.  (I’ve been incorporating more technology into my classes this year like using my computer to play recorded conversations or my ipod to play songs for listening practice.)
·         Teach for 2 hours.  Sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes they’re studious, sometimes they’re too tired and hung over to function.  I rank their level of “naughtiness” by the number of times I have to tell them to be quiet and/or the number of times they make fun of my voice.
·         Go home and have a snack.  Sometimes I teach immediately after, but usually my next class is in the afternoon. 
·         Plan for the next day’s class, do work on my computer, clean the kitchen, read, whatever fills the time before lunch.  I rarely leave my house between classes because 1. It’s hot. 2. I have to walk down and up two steep, sandy hills to get anywhere. 3. Eating lunch in town is expensive.  (Recently I’ve been spending all my free time going to work on the English Center – about 12 minutes walk.)
·         Cook lunch using my gas stove.  I don’t usually go all out if I’m working in the afternoon – maybe heat up some leftovers or fry some meat.
·         Teach another two hours of class.
·         Make dinner or ask Haja to make it for me.  Watch a movie on my computer, read, or finish some work.
·         Go to bed around 9.

On a “Free” Day:
·         Wake up around 7 or 8.
·         Throw together a breakfast.  Sometimes Haja will make pancakes, crepes, or omelets if we have the ingredients.
·         Gather dirty laundry, fill the buckets, and wash/hang my clothes in the backyard.
·         Walk into town (20 – 45 minutes).  Buy some fresh food or supplies at the market, take care of in-town work (going to the bank, visiting offices, etc.), talk to friends at their houses or on the road, pass by the hotel with wifi to get some internet work done…
·         Return home and fire up the charcoal stove to save gas.  Easy but time consuming, this involves cutting sticks of wood into kindling, building a small fire, piling charcoal around it, and waiting for the charcoal to heat up.  We’ll usually make lunch from scratch, perhaps combining vegetables and meat in a sauce and of course cooking rice, cassava, or sometimes taro as the main dish.  Whenever Haja’s out of town, I usually just eat beans, meat, and/or veggies without the staple carb.
·         Catch up on housework or other work.  Be lazy and read a book.  Go to the beach.  Nap.  Whatever I feel like doing.
·         Eat dinner – sometimes lunch heated up, sometimes something new.
·         If I don’t have work the next morning, we might go to a bar in town to have drinks with friends.
·         Go to bed at 9 or whenever I get home.

Obviously this varies day-to-day, but I’ve rarely ever felt the “Peace Corps boredom” that so many other volunteers (especially the ones in small villages) feel.  They often go days or even weeks with absolutely nothing to do except walk around and chat with people or read books in their houses.  I go a little crazy if I’m not being productive for extended periods of time, so I’ve managed to keep myself pretty busy over the years with schoolwork and outside projects, exploring town, household chores, applying for grad school, etc.  I’ve actually found that I haven’t had nearly enough time to do the things I’d planned to do with my free Peace Corps time like reading the books on my list, drawing/painting things, and studying for the MCATs (whether I actually decide to take them or not).  I’m actually looking forward to having nothing [much] to do when I arrive home and perhaps even feeling bored again before I start grad school in September.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Help Make My Dream Come True!

I’m coming home in January!  My time in Madagascar is so close to being finished; I’m not sure if it hasn’t really hit me yet or if I’m just so excited to move on with my life that I’m just going to skip the surreal leaving-my-home-for-the-past-2-ish-years gloomy phase.  I’ve been teaching my classes double time to finish them by December.  I’ve already got most of my paperwork in order and have my stuff mentally arranged and packed.  The only major thing left to do is realize my dream/#1 Peace Corps goal that I’ve had since August 2010: Build an English center in Fort Dauphin.  It’s well on the way to becoming a reality – the major obstacle right now is money, not to mention time.  I originally promised myself that I would never have to ask money from my family and friends for a project, but I also never thought I’d be leaving so abruptly with my English center so close to being completed.  I’ve posted tidbits here and there about my efforts to create the center throughout the years, but here’s a more comprehensive description:

I have a dream that someday the people of Fort Dauphin will have a place to gather to speak, listen, read, write, and learn in the English language.  Colonial ties to France are slowly diminishing in Madagascar, and cultural and economic influences from countries like South Africa, Britain, and especially the United States are rising.  Fort Dauphin is an even more special case in that an unusually high proportion of people here can already speak or have a real desire/need to learn English, largely due to the influence from the Anglo-Australian mining company, former American Lutheran missionaries, and international tourism.  Some days I literally cannot leave my house without some person, business, or organization asking me to teach them English.  I’ve often said that Peace Corps could put 10 education volunteers in this town and it still wouldn’t be enough to meet the demand.

There used to be an American English center here, but it failed largely because it depended too much on foreigners to teach and run it.  My goal is to create an English center that is from the community and for the community.  I want it to be run by local English teachers and enthusiasts, not by Peace Corps volunteers or outside interests.  It will be a place where students can read books and literature, use interactive computer programs, hear and watch English with AV equipment, and learn it together whether in classes or casual interactions.  I also want to stress that this is NOT my idea.  The community not only inspired it, but asked for it directly.  I’m just helping the people in Fort Dauphin implement their own dream, which is why I believe it will be both successful and sustainable.  What I’ve obtained so far is a location donated from the Regional government and a good start-up collection of books (mostly about environmental issues and America) donated by the US Embassy in Antananarivo.

All that said, the project has start-up costs, but I have less than 2 months to get it up-and-running.  I’ve been using a lot of my own money to cover minor expenses, but that’s only going to get us so far.  We will of course be soliciting donations from local businesses, organizations, etc., but that could take a while, especially since everything moves slower in Madagascar.  Some things we need to pay for immediately: Repairs to the center location (think leaky roof, missing windows, rusty locks…), paints and brushes to decorate the walls, furniture (chairs, tables, bookshelves), a whiteboard and markers, general office supplies, electricity, signs and advertisements, and an opening ceremony.

So please, if you have a few extra dollars (even just $5 will buy a can of paint) or a larger sum that you were considering donating to a worthy cause, please consider donating it to my English center project so that the people here in the south of Madagascar can learn English, advance their careers or their studies, learn the value of community involvement and volunteerism, and – most importantly – love America more than France!  Kidding…

If you’re interested in donating, please contact me via email or Facebook, or you can talk to my mom.  I can’t give you tax deductions, but I will paint your name or your company’s name on the wall of the English center!  I’ll also send you pictures and updates.  Also, if anyone is interested in donating books, equipment, or other materials, we’re definitely in need of a more complete resource center.  You’d have to pay for shipping, but I think there might be discounts if you send library materials.

Little Huts in Africa

Several weeks ago, I met a man from Australia who was visiting Fort Dauphin for a week doing work with a church group.  He was extremely friendly, cultured, and well-traveled, but he hadn’t had much previous experience traveling in the developing world.  He was asking me questions about my experience here and I was giving my usual answers: “It can be frustrating, but my job is good and I love the people…”  Then he replied, “Yeah, the people here are wonderful – really nice and energetic.  I just feel so bad for them, being born in this country.”
That immediately struck a nerve with me.  Part of me was outraged that he would say something so severe about a people he knew nothing about, and yet, another part of me knew exactly where he was coming from.  I’ve been lucky enough to live almost exclusively in multi-cultural environments for most of my life, but I remember being raised to be thankful that I wasn’t born in one of those “little huts in Africa.” 

What to be thankful for has been a huge source of internal conflict for me, especially since my Peace Corps service began.  In America, we’re trained to be thankful for things like hot water, washing machines, cars, big houses, other luxuries…  And most of us completely take for granted basic “necessities” like electricity, running water, refrigeration, books to read, or a bed to sleep in.  When I tell people at home about life in Madagascar, their reactions are all different, but they inevitably conclude their thoughts with, “Doesn’t it make you thankful for all that we have in America?”  To avoid a heavy debate or awkward transition, I usually just agree, but inside I can’t help but feel – well, no, actually…it doesn’t.  Most Malagasy people are more content with their “minimalistic” lives than I’ve ever been with my relatively privileged life.  Despite all I’ve gotten used to here, I still hear that constant nagging voice in my head that proclaims “things could be better!”  I could buy a better phone, the wifi could be faster, I could have internet in my house, I could take a hot shower, I could eat ice cream every day, I could take a car across town instead of walking, I could make more money, I could hire someone to wash my clothes, I could have a better job, I could have more friends, I could travel around the country…  And we wonder why stress, anxiety, and depression are familiar vocabulary to anyone over the age of 13 in our society; why we need endless cups of coffee or energy drinks just to make it through the day (I recently saw an advertisement for caffeinated gum), and sleeping pills or herbal concoctions to make it through the night.

Even more of an internal conflict for me has been America’s defining value: opportunity.  It’s one thing to say that people can be better off with less material possessions, but surely I can’t deny that we Americans should be thankful for being born in a land with so many opportunities!  Well, yes and no.  I believe everyone has basic rights to things like food, clean water, shelter, education, and healthcare, but these aren’t the “opportunities” I’m referring to.  When Americans think about how we want to live our lives, we envision mountain climbing and bungee jumping, moving to the big city, finding the perfect job, living/working in another country, traveling to exotic locations, learning new languages, making more money and “rising above,” trying new foods, road tripping, seeing new places, and doing new things.  Basically being adventurous and pushing our limits.  We essentially need these things to be happy and fulfilled.  We forget that this pioneering spirit is one of the things that defines our culture.  We tend to feel bad for people like the Malagasy who are generally “stuck” in the lives they were born into.  We pity the man who has to farm cassava every day of his life just to put food on the table.  The Malagasy don’t see themselves in this light.  While Americans like to define their happiness by adventure, discovery, and independence, Malagasy value stability, family, community, and predictability.  I’d even venture to say that most Malagasy people couldn’t handle our way of life, or would at least take many years to adjust to it.  I suppose that could be why there are so few Malagasy people living abroad, and those that do tend to return to their homeland in the end.

Obviously these are huge cultural generalizations and don’t apply to everyone.  There are plenty of Americans who prefer the familiarity of a simple, predictable life, and plenty of Malagasy who would love to discover the world.  And like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our culture is slowly trickling into this country via TV, movies, internet, and personal interactions, and it’s fascinating to observe the changes in values from cities to the countryside.  The “internal conflicts” I mentioned earlier are those that I think any realistic development worker has:  By bringing “development” to this culture, am I really trying to improve the lives of the people or am I just imposing my own values on them?  Is sharing my culture with them good or bad or just inevitable?  How do I work projects into the framework of their culture, or is this even possible?

Heavy thoughts.  Oh well, thank god my job is straightforward and the demand for it overwhelming!  I very rarely try to influence people’s views on the world – I just like to offer mine up for consideration – but I’m going to make an exception today: Please don’t think like that man from Australia.  Don’t pity Malagasy just because they were born in a developing nation – the Malagasy have their own lives, their own cultures, their own goals, and their own values that they cherish and are proud of.  There are plenty of reasons to pity people, but country of birth shouldn’t be one of them.  Nor should the size of their huts.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Note to Outside Readers

It's been more than two years since I first got it in my head to create a blog, and it's gotten more readers than I could've ever imagined. 
A small reminder though: This blog is meant for my friends and family as a somewhat-regular update on my life and thoughts.  I chose not to make it private because that's too much of a hassle for a lot of people and I didn't want to discourage readership.  I've clearly stated that all experiences and opinions are my own.  It is not a textbook, nor is it a forum for debate, criticism, promoting religious views, etc.  If you just stumbled upon this blog or don't know me personally, you're more than welcome to read it for entertainment value or whatnot, but I ask that you please keep your comments and speculations to yourselves. 

Contemplation of Defecation

I stepped in poo the other night.  Not dog or zebu poo – full on human poo.  Haja and I were walking back from dinner in town; I had to pee pretty badly so I popped a squat in a grassy area on the side of the road.  I immediately saw the headlights of a car approaching, so I waddled behind the nearest bush to keep out of sight, fully aware of the risk I was taking.  I finished my business, hiked up my pants, took my first step back to the road and – squoosh. Oh my god.  “Haja, I think I just stepped in poo.”
“You shouldn’t have gone in the bushes.”
“I know, but there was a car coming.”
“I didn’t want them to see – ugh, nevermind.  Just help me check my foot.”
By the light of his phone I could see just how much poo had made its way up the side of thin soles of my flip-flop, just barely missing my foot.  I immediately started freaking out.  It was like my mind was paralyzed with disgust, but my body was jumping up and down trying to fling the shoe as far away from me as possible.  I’m still not sure why, exactly, this poo affected me so intensely.  Goodness knows I’ve stepped in my fair share of poo during my lifetime, human or otherwise.  Hell, it was my job to clean chimpanzee poo (which I assume is biologically the closest thing to human poo) from the night pens during my stint as a zoo volunteer, then went on to collect and search for worms in lemur poo for the sake of science.  I suppose it was because I never actually saw what I was stepping in, and everything is creepier at night.  Regardless, Haja came to my rescue and tied a string around the strap of my flip-flop and dragged it the rest of the way home, kind of like a child dragging around his toy dog.

 I think the point of this story was to segue into my thoughts on excrement in Madagascar.  It’s everywhere.  I suppose that when you live in a developing country, the world is your toilet.  I mean, really, pooing and peeing are such natural parts of everyday life, how dare anyone try to tell you where or when you can relieve yourself?  Kind of like food.  When you really think about it, how crazy is it that you have to have money to buy food, so only people with enough money can be properly nourished?  Shouldn’t food and water and being able to relieve yourself when the urge hits be basic rights of life?  I see it all the time, well-intentioned NGOs and do-gooders build nice latrines to keep people from peeing and pooing on beaches and other public areas, but they’re baffled when stinky piles of poo still litter the beach and people pee on the side of the latrines instead of inside them.  What’s worse is that most of these public latrines charge money to use them.  Seriously?  I won’t even spend that money unless it’s an absolute emergency.  Most of the people that the latrines are built for live on less than a dollar a day (and often have 5+ kids that need to heed the call of nature as well).  They’re sure as hell not going to spend their pennies on an outhouse when there’s a grassy area right next to it.

 I should note that when I say “the world is your toilet” in Madagascar, that’s a huge generalization.  Society does actually have relatively structured rules for relieving yourself.  First and foremost, you can never pee or poo anywhere that’s faly (taboo).  Tombs, burial grounds, sacred trees and land, all off limits.  There’s a particularly high concentration of faly places here in the south, so if you’re in unfamiliar territory, it’s always good to ask a local first.  You should never poo in a public area (except of course in public toilets/latrines) – save it for the outskirts of town.  This rule doesn’t apply to kids.  I once saw an adorable boy and girl playing together in the street; they walked to a pile of trash beside the road, squatted, and took a dump together while holding hands. 

 Urination standards are a little more lax.  Any un-manicured grassy patch is up for grabs, as long as it’s not in someone’s yard.  What took me a long time to learn, and then a longer time to become comfortable with, were the customs for what to do if you are at someone’s house.  During training with my host family, I used the kabone for #1 and #2, so I assumed this was the norm for all households.  Not until much later did I learn that, for Malagasy people, the kabone is only for poo.  So every time I was at someone's house and had to step out for a quick pee-break, I’d ask “Can I use your kabone?” which effectively means “I have to take a dump.”  What’s worse is they’d always offer me scraps of paper or cardboard, which are used as toilet paper after you poo.  So of course, I’d politely refuse.  I can only imagine the impression I left them with…  I’ve since learned that in most households, women pee in a grassy patch in the yard or in the ladosy (outdoor shower structure).  Occasionally these areas are located in full view of the neighbors or even the street.  Now, I’ve lost a lot of my previous bashfulness about peeing in front of people, but in this situation my willingness to use this paticular spot depends on how bad I have to go and whether or not I have a lamba to cover myself with.  Men have no idea how easy they have it.

 As for everyday life, it’s going wonderfully.  I went to my final Peace Corps conference in June then did a week-long vacation in Nosy Be with Haja.  Nosy Be was one of the most incredible places I’ve been in this country.  It’s an offshore island located in the far north, and a favorite vacation spot for Europeans.  I’ve done almost no traveling in the north, so I kind of assumed all of the coastal areas were more or less the same.  Wrong.  Everything is better in the north.  The food is tastier and there’s more of it.  There are deep green forests right up against white sand beaches and turquoise water.  The seafood is cheaper and more abundant.  The people are friendlier and more lively.  The traditional clothes are brighter with beautiful bold patterns.  The roads are better and the towns are cleaner.  If you ignore the rampant sexual tourism and sometimes unbearable hot weather, Nosy Be is the ultimate Malagasy paradise – in my opinion at least. 

 It also gave me a good basis for comparison to the people of the south.  The people down here are a lot more rugged and abrasive.  They will sooner laugh at you than with you, though their intent isn’t to be malicious.  Everywhere you go, people are arguing or yelling at each other - but even their happy or excited voices tend to sound like anger.  The women especially have fiery tempers and are not reluctant to express when they are jealous, frustrated, vengeful, or just plain pissed off.  They don’t cut you many breaks with the language either.  While other people around the country are quick to praise foreigners for mastery of only a few basic Malagasy words, the people of the south are even quicker to become frustrated and dub you tsy mahay, or not good at the language, if you stumble over a sentence or ask them to repeat something.  Even with fellow Malagasy from other tribes, southerners will purposely speak quickly with highly dialect-specific words as if to remind the outsider that he/she is not one of them.  All that said, I love the people here and remain very loyal to the south.  And again, these are just generalizations.  I’ve met plenty of people down here that are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve known.

 Anyway, after returning from Nosy Be, I felt a renewed vigor in my service in Fort Dauphin and realized that there’s still a ton of work I need to finish before I even think about leaving on my extended COS date next April.  Since then, I’ve been assistant-teaching adult classes for 12 hours a week, preparing for more teaching jobs that will begin next month, editing and re-formatting my school’s textbooks, planning for my new community English center, and trying to find volunteer work at a local health clinic to add some new experiences to my service. 

 I’ve also been dealing with some issues concerning families in my neighborhood.  The mother of some of my “beach kids” called me over one day to show me something.  She was holding her youngest child, Soa, an unnaturally cute little girl but bone-thin with dirt covering her body and clothing and a tangled mess of wavy sun-streaked hair on top of her head.  She pulled up Soa’s dress and showed me a huge rash with red bumps covering her genital region and upper thighs.  I asked her the obvious questions: “What’s wrong with her?” “Have you been to a doctor?” “Are you giving her medicine?”  She told me it was syphilis, and, as expected, she hadn’t been to a doctor because they don’t have enough money.  Even the cheapest doctors charge about $2 for a consultation.  That is a small fortune for this family of 6 kids whose father was recently laid off and whose only source of income is the grilled sweet potatoes and homemade necklaces they sell for a few cents each to beachgoers.  Her mom asked me to buy medicine for Soa.  This has always been my biggest moral dilemma when dealing with requests from my neighbors.  It’s easy enough to refuse to give money or handouts, but medicine is a completely different matter.  I couldn’t refuse the mother, especially since syphilis in a child could become serious and I have a soft spot in my heart for this particular girl.  I contacted a doctor friend of mine who agreed to see Soa for free.  I took her and her mother to the clinic the next day.  The doctor was appalled at Soa’s twig-like frame and low weight.  The mother couldn’t remember what year Soa was born but knew that she was about 4 years old.  The doctor looked at the rash and concluded that it wasn’t syphilis, but a bad case of infected eczema.  The treatment is easy enough – regular application of a topical antibiotic cream – but becomes more complicated considering the family has no access to clean water and the mother is often too lazy to properly bathe her children every day.  Haja and I have been checking on Soa daily since then.  She appears to be cleaner, happier, and her hair is finally washed and braided.  Her family still doesn’t have enough to eat, but that’s another problem that I just can’t fix.

Another neighbor issue involves the family that I “adopted” early on in my service and have often written about (the one with the mother who just gave birth after a “12 month pregnancy”).  I’ve had my ups and downs with the parents – there was a period of a few months where they were both drunk and fighting everyday while the mom was pregnant and the kids were hungry.  The husband was recently laid off from one of his jobs, but still makes 30,000 Ariary per month (less than 50 cents per day) as a guardian.  That’s about what I, as a volunteer, make in 3 days, and he has 6 children to feed.  I absolutely love their children; they’ve been my friends, guides, and teachers from the beginning.  There are 3 boys and 3 girls, the oldest is about 12.  They are only able to go to school because a foreigner sends money to the school every year to help them.  This year though, with the dad’s salary cut, only the two oldest will be able to attend school.  These kids are bright, motivated, and friendly, and it kills me to think that they might spend the rest of their lives trying to beg money off of tourists or prostituting themselves (in the girls’ case) when they’re old enough.  Earlier on in my service I would’ve never even considered giving them financial help because I didn’t want other neighbors to get jealous or see me as a bank.  It also went against my objectives as a Peace Corps volunteer because helping one family doesn’t really contribute to the sustainable development of the entire community.  But now that I’ve been here 2 years and my departure is in sight, I don’t really care anymore.  I can give part of my living allowance if it’ll mean these kids get a chance to rise above their family’s poverty. I won’t be able to provide for all of the kids, though (the 5 that are old enough to go to school anyway), nor will I be able to give the school money for years to come, but I figure it’s better than nothing. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Moving Forward but Not Quite Yet


Everything I just said is a perfect example of how un-Malagasy I am and probably will always be.  Malagasy people’s lives don’t change.  They do the same thing day after day, and usually earn just enough to get by.  And they’re fine with that.  They’re happier with their lives then most Americans will ever be; after all, there’s security in consistency.  This is one of my favorite cultural divergences to discuss with my Malagasy friends.  I teach them about the American Dream and the saying, “Time is money.”  (Incidentally, Malagasy people LOVE proverbs.  The Malagasy have a similar proverb along the lines of, “Time is golden,” which I think, when compared to ours, is hilarious in its irony.)  I explain how idleness is like a taboo in American culture and how we believe the harder you work, the more rewards – monetary or otherwise – you will receive.  When you really think about it, it’s absolutely incredible how many aspects of our culture are shaped by the American Dream, which is ingrained in our minds from early childhood.  It’s interesting, though depressing, to observe how Malagasy society is affected by colliding cultures; how the Western ideal of “you can do anything, be anyone, go anywhere” is influencing younger generations, yet they don’t understand why they don’t have the same opportunities as Americans and Europeans. 

On the lighter side…  The days in Fort Dauphin are short now, and it’s getting chilly.  My neighbors’ cat has a 3-month old kitten that has learned how to cry for food every time she sees me, even if she’s not particularly hungry.  One of their chickens also bops in and out of my house with her babies.  Their adult feathers are starting to come in, so they’re not cute anymore.  My classes at CEL finish this week.  Neighborhood dogs walk in and out of our wooden, open-air classrooms when I teach.  This always makes me kind of happy.  My friend down by the beach just had a beautiful baby boy after a 12-month pregnancy.  Puzzle that one out.  I didn’t have enough time to pick through the pile of clothes stuffed in my closet for a decent gift, so I just gave her 5,000Ar in an envelope.  She’ll stay in her 1-room house with the baby for a month or so to fatten herself up.  It’s shameful for her family if she emerges skinny.  I had a kokolampo (a spirit – sometimes good, sometimes evil) living in my body for about 2 weeks last month.  It left, but I think it came back a couple days ago.  I’m re-watching seasons 1 and 2 of Glee.  For the fourth time.  If anyone has season 3, or season 2 of Game of Thrones, or anything Family Guy, (preferably in digital form) my address is to your right.