I’m currently being held captive against my will in the Malagasy capital by the Peace Corps medical team. I have ebola or SARS or something. They won’t release me until the results of medical examinations are in and further experimentation has been conducted (probably Thursday). Good news though – there’s 24-hour free wifi in my cell.
Lots of fun has been had in the past three months. Went on a couple crazy trips around the south of Madagascar (see pictures on Facebook – will try to post some here). Spent 2 days and 15 minutes on a camion from hell in which people are regarded as cattle and squished into rows of 9 people (designed for 6 people). Began teaching 2 of my fabulous university classes again and gained a new, equally fabulous class. Saw some famous Malagasy pop stars perform in Fort Dauphin. Got stalked by an old Pakistani man. Had 2 kickbutt Thanksgivings. Killed my first turkey. Went to a string of parties ranging from fantastic to painfully quirky.
Also. Much to my mother’s elation, I’ve been attending church almost every Sunday for over a month. No, no, no, my first birth remains the only, but it’s a fun community activity and good bonding time with my “in-laws,” who take care of me and feed me several times a week. I’m no closer to Christianity than I’ve ever been, but I actually enjoy the services. And let me tell you, these are no sleepy “Is it communion yet??” Catholic masses. Not that I’ve had much experience with other denominations, but this church is what I imagine Pentecostals on crack would be. The 2.5 hour service begins with a 1 hour warm-up of earsplitting rock music complete with full drum set, keyboard, electric and bass guitars, gigantic speakers, microphone-wielding choir, and who-can-belt-the-hardest-for-Jesus diva-offs. As if this in itself isn’t entertaining enough, groups of kids (some of which can’t be more than 5 years old) separate into boy and girl dance groups on the stage and perform choreographed routines to all the songs as well as spoken worship times in which a large black woman (and not always the same one) half-sings half-screams the good Lord’s praises to the soothing sounds of electronic keyboard. I call my side of the church’s dance group the “Altar Boyz II Men.”
But wait, the fun doesn’t end there. God wouldn’t approve of the congregation just sitting around and watching the worship, we all must take an active part in the festivities. Everyone from toddlers to tottering old ladies gets up and grooves to the music. At my first service, I couldn’t help but notice an especially enthusiastic man waving a humongous flag and spinning in circles down the aisles. He later turned out to be the preacher. For the main event, the preacher gets on stage, cries out the glory of the son of God, leads some prayers, and oversees some group-prayers. The group prayers are superfun because everyone has license to give praise in whatever way they deem fit. Some do the quieter bow-of-the-head whispered prayer. Others raise their hands to the sky and speak/weep in tongues. Still others become possessed by the Holy Spirit and scream, wail, pant, jump, roll on the floor… The best part of the service is, sadly, the part I haven’t even witnessed yet. Sunday afternoons are the healings. I teach a class at that time, but the in-laws always give me the 411 later that week. People from all over the region, whether they’re of this denomination or not, bring their sick and injured to the preacher to be healed. I’ve heard tales of a blind man regaining sight, a mute exclaiming “Jesosy!” [Jesus], and a woman being cured of diabetes – in addition to all the more “lackluster” miracles. And this has all been since October. At this point, these healings are the equivalent of the local cultural beliefs in ghosts, witchcraft, and the living dead – I’m not sure if I believe all of the stories, but I desperately want to. I’m just waiting to see everything for myself.
One kooky cultural observation I don’t think I’ve discussed yet: Malagasy kids can kick American kids’ butts. Literally. These small people are built strong and built to last. From the time they’re born, they’re strapped to their mothers’ backs with a sarong, heads a-bouncin’ and a-bobbin’ all over the place. Yet no necks are snapped. Once they can crawl, they’re basically turned loose on the world to play in the dirt, put things in their mouths, and take naps on the ground. Toddlers are given small, round candies to eat and learn to climb trees and play with sharp objects. Small children, who we still think of as helpless and innocent are given adult responsibilities. They are sent to the store to pick up oil or cigarettes. They collect large buckets of water on their heads that are heavy even for me. They carry their small siblings on their backs around town. They are taught how to collect things like shells, jewelry, and shellfish and sell them to tourists. When this fails, they are taught how to beg money from white and/or rich people. They are integral parts of the household, helping with cooking, cleaning, message-delivering, chicken-catching, cattle-wrangling, and family trades. When they’re not working, they roam around town, play with handmade toys in the streets, and swim in the ocean – all without adult supervision. And the extent to which children physically resemble their parents here is startling. Like creepy miniature clones.
Anyway, life in my second year in Madagascar is going fantastically. It really does take a year to fully become part of a community – I can’t even imagine what it would be like if I stayed here 3 or more years. It’s almost laughable now how I used to think I knew my community after a couple months, after 6 months, after 10 months… There’s still so much I’m learning, but I finally feel like an accepted member of the town, not just an outsider that people are used to seeing every day. I’m confident in my teaching abilities, and I know my place as a PCV and where I can be the most effective. I have a strong network of friends in diverse circles, and all I think about while being caged here in the capital is going home to Fort Dauphin.
A strange thing has also happened in this second year: I’ve experienced this funky cultural perspective switch. When comparing Malagasy and American cultural differences, my subconscious immediately tells me that the Malagasy tradition is normal, while the American one is strange. For example, I see a Malagasy woman whack her 3 year old child with a stick for getting distracted by a piece of trash on the street and slowing her down. Then I see a white woman trying to placate her squirming and screaming toddler in a stroller with food and toys. Where’s the damn stick?? I walk 2.5 miles to the market and am still put to shame by old ladies carrying 20 lb baskets on their heads 4 times that distance just to sell their goods around town. Then I think about how I’ve driven my car around the block just to get from the supermarket to the bank. Is it really that much of a sacrifice to get off your butt every once-in-a-while and actually interact with people on the street? Here, I buy a live bird or a cut of beef straight off the cow if I want to eat meat. Then I remember how we pay more for pre-killed, pre-cut, pre-cleaned, pre-packaged, pre-frozen meat off an animal that died who knows when/where. How crazy is it to find entire refrigerated isles of plastic-wrapped meat thousands of miles from the gigantic slaughterhouse it came from? I avoid Malagasy street dogs like the plague because, well, their legions of fleas may actually carry the plague. Then I see a vazaha tourist cuddling up to one of the filthy beasts and cooing something about animal cruelty. In America, wouldn’t that be the equivalent of hugging a large rat that just crawled out of a dumpster? I’ve learned to reuse everything and get phones, electronics, shoes, etc. repaired to within an inch of their lives before even considering throwing them away. Then I think about how we buy brand new everythings just because we’re tired of our “old” ones. Why toss a perfectly good metal plate if you can just throw a piece of duct tape over that pesky hole? It’s not so much that I’m “against” our American lifestyle or am going to drastically reform my previous way of living when I get home, I’m just amazed at how our perception of what’s normal and logical can be so easily molded by the people and culture we’re surrounded by.
Alright, back to my House marathon. Once I bust out of this cage and get back to the FD, I’ll be spending the holidays around town and frantically prepping for the arrival of my parents and brother on January 2. Finally someone is coming to visit me – I’ve still got 9 months here homies!