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

-Jack Shepard

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Don't Play with Fire[works]

The first anniversary of my love-hate relationship with Peace Corps Madagascar was last Friday, July 22. I could be cliché and say that time has flown, but no. Hellz to the no. This year has been long, complex, and darn fantastic. Life finally feels “normal” in the sense that I’m staying busy, being inspired, setting goals, and compiling a list of tangible accomplishments. Fort Dauphin feels like home, though not enough to make me want to stay past my close of service (COS) date. One of my current goals/challenges is to apply to grad school this fall and hopefully get accepted so that I can begin as soon as I get back to the states next year. Anyone want to write me a letter of recommendation? Hehe.

Work has been hectic over the past two months (well, as hectic as Peace Corps work can get…I still feel like I’m on an extended vacation). I finally feel like I’m growing – not just mentally, but professionally. I spent most of May organizing what I called my “World Environment Day English Competition.” It was a city-wide competition for high school-level English students in which they could write a short story, poem, or song in English relating to the theme of “grassroots conservation.” I ended up with 20-some total entries (way more than I expected, and many were group entries). Over the weekend of June 5 (World Environment Day), all of the contestants had the chance to read/perform their entries for the public outside the town hall; I'll try to post some of my videos. The top 3 winners received baskets of school supplies and English-Malagasy dictionaries donated by QMM (the local mining company). Visits to local conservation areas, including Andohahela National Park, were awarded to the top contestants as well.

This competition was my baby. I was like a proud mama watching the fruits of my labor get up on that stage to share their English-speaking, environment-loving talents with the world. Laugh not! I know this kind of work is standard for many people, but this was my first real experience with project development. What began as a little seed of an idea planted in the soil of boredom sprouted out into the real world of meetings and deadlines and blossomed into a full-blown accomplishment. The fact that I did everything – pitching the idea to the regional environmental department, meeting with QMM representatives to solicit prize donations, begging the English teachers at the town high schools to encourage their students to participate, attending several meetings in which I had little to no idea what was going on but nonetheless feeling shamelessly proud to have been invited as a regional environmental representative, reading and rereading the entries 20+ times because I was too darn proud of all of the contestants to chose winners – made me realize that I actually am capable of turning my ideas into reality if I just put in the effort. (Note: I realize this is essentially the job description of a Peace Corps Volunteer, but just let me have my moment anyway.)

I ended my classes in early June – a month early – because English is the only class my students have year-round. I could tell that 4 hours of English-learnin’ per week over the course of three trimesters was starting to dampen their already less-than-tremendous enthusiasm. June 26 was Madagascar’s 51st birthday and justification for a weekend-long celebration. A fairground was set up near the city center, though it was composed of more bars and gambling stations than child-friendly amusements. A huge stage was built in front of the town hall, where concerts were held each night. Saturday was fireworks/Black Nadia (a famous pop singer) night, and I’ve never seen so many people squished into what I previously thought was a spacious area. By some insane stroke of luck, I ran into a friend of mine who invited me to sit with his friends at a table in a prime concert/fireworks-watching spot. Little did I realize, as I was enjoying my beer and brochettes (meat on a stick), the danger that wonderful table would put me in.

It was a dark night, so I didn’t notice much of what was happening around me. With no warning, WOOSH! A blast of light shot up into the night sky and exploded into fiery splendor…from only 25 feet away from us. A couple more blasts and I was still a little shaken from the surprise, but so far so good. Then the military guys set off this funky dancing firework that sent sparks whirling and twirling in random directions through the air and low to the ground. One of the sparks decided to fly straight for my face (mind you, there was nothing – people or otherwise – between me and the launching point). Everyone at the table did a flinch-and-duck, but it must have burned out right before it reached us because I was only pelted with small black things that looked like charcoal. After that, we were all on edge but tried our best to enjoy the rest of the show. The next few funky dancing fireworks in the mix shot rogue sparks at new targets. One hit the serving table where they were making our food, one hit a lady in the crowd (I’m pretty sure she was okay), and one traveled down the hill toward the port and struck a wooden house…which then to burst into flames. Why they didn’t just shoot the fireworks from the safety of the port, I’ll never understand. Not exactly the most enjoyable fireworks display of my life, but definitely the most exciting. I later heard that a few people were killed during shows in other parts of the country. Way to go, Madagascar.

After Independence Day, I began a round of new English teaching gigs. While Israel and his counterparts cover many of the start-from-scratch beginners in town, I seem to have found my calling in the environmental and professional circles. In addition to my private teaching of various professionals, I now teach a class at the regional environmental office, a community course for professionals, and, my personal favorite, two classes (beginner and intermediate/advanced) at QMM. I love this one because I only have to walk 2 miles to their community center, then a bus picks me up and takes me to their [air conditioned, cubicle-lined] office building 7 miles north. Because I’m a volunteer, I get to eat a free lunch in their amazing cafeteria then teach employees from the biodiversity and community relations departments over their lunch break. We have class in a temperature-controlled conference room with cushion-y seats and a whiteboard, and I can use their copy machine to make handouts for my students. The people who work there are the bomb friggin diggity – as students, as workers, as human beings... Sweet deal. Anywho, this round of new classes has done wonders for my teaching abilities. I learned all the basics from my classes at CEL, but eventually I got comfortable, we developed a routine, and I stopped being as creative toward the end of the year. These new students, with a mix of levels, personalities, and goals, are forcing me to think of new methods, activities, topics, you name it. Maybe by next year I’ll feel confident enough to actually refer to myself as a “teacher.”

Alright, I’m going to cut this post short[er]. I’m currently lounging in the Peace Corps transit house in Tana, waiting for my flight to South Africa – then back to U S and A, where a 10-day family reunion cruise extravaganza awaits me. Woot! Hopefully I’ll get some videos/pics posted when I have access to America-fast interwebbing. Check back soon. Note: I arrived Sunday and am posting this from the muggy heat of the Mid-Atlantic.

One of the contestants reading her poem at the town hall.

Me with students from 2 of the participating schools.

Check out the song the second place contestant wrote for the competition. I sense an international hit.

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