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

-Jack Shepard

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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

March Mada-ness: The Sequel (Part II)

The MCC: Culmination of Stress, Commencement of Crazy

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned my planning for the American Mobile Cultural Center (MCC) in previous blog posts.  Short background: I started bugging the US Embassy via email for support, or at least advice, in creating an English center in Fort Dauphin sometime last spring.  They kindly informed me that they wouldn’t be able to build any American Corners or English for the Environment Centers here in the near future, but they were supportive in that they invited me to chat with them at the Embassy when I passed through Tana and gave me boxes full of English-language books.  Finally, sometime after I’d gotten back from the states last summer, they told me about their new MCC idea, a sort of multimedia center promoting awareness of the environment, American culture, and the English language.  It would travel around the country, staying a month at each location.  They suggested I try to bring this to the FD as sort of a warm-up to the actual English center that still exists only in my mind. 

This turned out to be a bigger task than I expected.  Luckily, I’d already made all the right connections.  I asked Rio Tinto, the mining company whose employees I’d taught over the summer, to be my partner and financial supporter in the endeavor.  They enthusiastically agreed and generously donated the main room of their community center to house the MCC.  The only major problem was transporting the MCC to Fort Dauphin.  Since roads to the deep south of the island can be impassible during the rainy season (January – March), and that’s when it was scheduled to arrive, all parties agreed that shipment to the Ehoala Port in Fort Dauphin would be the best solution.  The embassy has almost no budget for transportation of the MCC, so the bulk of my work from October – January was working with the Port director to get free shipping, figuring out how the cargo shipping industry works (much more complicated than I was expecting, by the way), and acting as a general coordinator of the whole thing.  There were so many unforeseen issues, and there’s no way I could’ve gotten anything accomplished without almost daily internet access.  I may complain sometimes about being located in a city and therefore not being a “real” Peace Corps volunteer, but I can’t take for granted the advantages I have for actually being able to carry out medium to large-scale projects. 

Long story short(er), it all worked out in the end – just two months later than expected.  Representatives from the embassy came down to help set it up and for the opening ceremony.  The center itself was incredibly modern, very strange to see in this country.  Tall metal columns displayed banners with pictures of Ranomafana (which is their focus this year) and even a picture of my PC stage at our swearing in ceremony.  Attached to two of the columns were four LCD screens displaying slideshows of pictures.  There were four laptops, a big-screen HD television, projector, DVD player, a bunch of DVDs, computer games/programs, and tons of books.  With the help of Rio Tinto, I arranged an opening ceremony for many of the VIPs in town.  It was unbelievably professional by Peace Corps standards.  Then again, everything in Madagascar has to be overly official.  There were several speakers, a tour of the MCC, and a “cocktail” (buffet of various finger foods and sodas) to follow. 

The center stayed in Fort Dauphin for a month.  We were open 6 days a week, including weekends, from morning until evening.  The DVDs were a big hit, especially the ones with English subtitles.  The computer games were popular with the younger crowd, and the more serious learners used the laptops for English listening practice.  The books were the main attraction.  There three bookshelves with books about the environment, American history and culture, democracy, youth activism, and the English language.  We also had supplemental activities like guest speakers, group discussions, games, and contests.

For the most part, the MCC was extremely successful.  In fact, I’d say that at a certain point it was actually too successful, attracting 100+ visitors (mostly students) at a time, which was a disturbance to the people working in the building’s offices.  For a perfectionist such as myself, it’s difficult for me to look back upon the month of March and not brood about all of the problems we encountered.  Thus began March Mada-ness...again.  What is it about this month...?

Just to give a brief overview of the issues faced: too many school kids (not the studious kind), too few professionals, too many people asking for direct translations of long lists of the most random/irrelevant vocabulary imaginable, misinterpretation of the purpose of the MCC, disappointment about the lack of English classes, disappointment and outright hostility about the center not being permanent, and a high rate of book theft.  All of these reasons, but in particular the book/CD theft, sent me into another downward mental spiral that has yet to completely abate.

What travelers, new PCVs, people at home – pretty much anyone who hasn’t lived in a developing country – don’t always realize is that there is no “poor, starving, innocent African” (emphasis on the “innocent”…obviously there’s a lot of poor, starving people) population that we idealize for movies and humanitarian aid donation commercials.  This is just a generalized image, kind of like the “all white people are rich” stereotype here.  In reality, everyone’s got evil in them.  For instance, that poor man on crutches with the polio-twisted leg is still a pervert, and I feel no guilt passing him by when he tries to strike up a conversation about where I live and when he can visit.  I’ve mentioned in previous posts how the little kids on the beach by my house are trained to give big googly-eyes, hold their stomachs, and beg for money whenever they see a white tourist.  Sure some of them are significantly mal-nourished, but you know what will probably happen to the money you give them?  They’ll deliver it to their parents who’ll put it in the moonshine fund, and the kids will scamper off and play until the next tourist passes by.  I had a family down by the beach that I liked to help out here and there, even lent money to when they desperately needed it (because the dad had spent all of their money getting drunk).  I thought I did it subtly, but it ended up causing so much drama among the other families (jealousy, arguments, whispering behind each other’s backs, attempts to falsely befriend me, rumors that people would attempt to steal things from me) that I now refuse to give anything to anyone on that beach.  Same goes for tourists, most of whom would be astonished to know that their gifts of food, toys, or money actually cause more drama and jealousy than happiness and appreciation.

Anyway my point is, people are just as evil here as they are back home.  I have the capacity to loathe individuals just as much as I can love them.  It’s never bothered me that much and definitely never dampened my motivation to work or live here as a PCV.…at least not until the MCC klepto-fiasco.  The technology and quality of materials available at the MCC are far beyond anything the people here in the south of the island will ever have access to, yet the Embassy made the center open to the public and free of charge.  The Embassy and I worked our asses of to bring it down here, and what do the people do?  Complain.  Complain that we don’t sell the books, complain that I won’t let them [illegally] burn the DVDs, complain that there aren’t enough ________, complain that the center isn’t permanent, complain that one month isn’t enough time to learn English (NOT the purpose of the MCC, by the way)…  Essentially visitors decided that, even though the MCC must travel around the whole of Madagascar, they themselves are entitled to keep the incredibly expensive, high-quality materials because it’s not fair to share them with the rest of the country.  Thus began the stealing.

This sent me over the edge.  It felt like we’d given the people a gift and in turn received a slap in the face.  Not to mention it was unbelievably embarrassing for me, the representative of the town, after having talked Fort Dauphin up to embassy officials for nearly a year.  I thought about all the cultural issues I’ve faced in the past year and a half and began to question everything I’m doing here.  Why try to help people who have no interest in helping themselves?  Don’t they understand how this damages their already lackluster national reputation?  How can I get anything accomplished in a culture that thinks Robin Hood-ing is acceptable?

At this point, I’m still pretty bummed about the whole situation, but I have to keep reminding myself that the MCC did accomplish a lot of good things and the books were probably stolen by a select group of misfits rather than the vast majority of visitors.  I think the main reason it killed my spirit was because the MCC project was just a warm-up for my actual goal of creating a permanent English-learning center.  But whatever, membership fees and a few security cameras should solve most issues.

Things I Still Love about the Culture

I sometimes wonder if my blog posts are overly-negative.  Kind of like how, when PCVs get together, we tend to discuss all of our problems and frustrations and things we miss about home rather than our successes and joyful gooey feelings.  The positive stuff just isn’t as fun to talk about.  But it’s still there.  Therefore, I’ve compiled a list of things I still find wonderful or fascinating about Madagascar.
·         Sharing culture.  As selfish as people seem when they ask me to give them things like money, clothes, jewelry, and candy, I’ve found that those same people are just as willing to share what little they have with me.  One time I broke my flip-flop in town and had to walk home barefoot.  Several girls who normally won’t let me pass without asking me for money declared:
“Jess, you’re not wearing flip-flops.”
“I know.”
“They broke when I was walking.”
“Oh…  Do you want to use mine?”

The Malagasy family that lives next to me is another example.  They don’t think twice about lending me household tools, oil or salt, a bucket, their cat, a DVD, etc.  In return, I lend them sugar and coffee and don’t complain when their chickens and ducks walk through my house and occasionally poo on my floor.
(A side note: Lending money, however, doesn’t work in this country.  I’ve never successfully lent it out and gotten any returned.)

·         What to do with a thieving kid: Whoop his arse.  I was once walking out of the marketplace where a kid had just attempted to steal a bottle of cooking oil.  The old man selling the oil grabbed the kid, threw him on the ground, and started whacking him for a good 30-40 seconds while I and the rest of the people on the street watched.  By the time the old man was finished, the kid was bawling and ran home while we just watched, shaking our heads at the nerve of the little hoodlum.  No one screamed or jumped in to “save” the kid or called child protective services.  And you know what?  I bet he’ll never steal again.

·         Kickass old people.  They walk tens of miles barefoot everyday through all weather conditions carrying enormously heavy loads on their shoulders or heads just to support themselves and their families.  Americans start complaining about every ache and pain as soon as we hit middle-age.  If one thing can be said about the Malagasy – they are made to endure.  On taxi-brousses, for example, everyone from old ladies to small children (seriously) sits tranquilly on often painful seats where you’re literally crammed in like cattle for hours or days.  In this same situation, I’ve been known to squirm and adjust my positioning because I long ago lost feeling in my legs.  I’ll admit I’ve even shed a few tears because I’ve never had to endure such intense discomfort for such long periods of time.

·         Death in general.  I admire the way people here deal with death, though I could never hope to emulate it.  When someone dies, it’s just as sad and painful to close friends and family, but in this culture, it’s not life-stopping.  It doesn’t cause psychological problems or tear families apart.  There is a time to mourn, but it’s short and people get back to their regular lives immediately after, simply because they have to.  You can’t buy take-out or frozen dinners here just because you’re too sad to cook or take care of the house.  If you don’t go to work, your family won’t have enough money for food, school, rent. 

According to one local tradition, when someone dies, a certain species of tree is cut into a coffin and sealed with a glue-like substance after placing the body inside.  People from surrounding villages come and sit in the yard around the house.  The women cry, the men don’t.  They drink coffee and help the family of the deceased.  They sit through the night and sing, chat, dance, but don’t sleep.  Goats, sheep, or zebu are killed for the mourners.  They do this every night for a week.  Assuming all long-distance family has arrived by then, mourners bring gifts of money, cloth, or livestock to the family.  The body is buried on an auspicious day, as determined by an ombiasa (witch doctor).  A zebu is killed for the guests.

Death of people you don’t know is regarded a bit less reverently than in the states.  Haja and I were walking down the street once and he sniffed the air.  “Misy olo maty,” he said.  There’s a dead person around here.  We then walked on as I tried to pretend that I wasn’t disturbed by the fact that the odors of death constantly linger around town.  Haja’s aunt and cousin came to visit my house once.  They passed by the beach just as fisherman were pulling out a body they had caught in their net.  Unaware, I greeted them when they arrived at my house and we sat in the yard and chatted for a half-hour or so.  They then casually mentioned what they’d seen on the way and asked me if I wanted to go “look at the dead guy” with them.  Part of me was excited, since I’ve never seen a body that wasn’t embalmed and nicely prepared for public viewing.  A much bigger part of me, though, was freaking out, hands sweating, heart racing, terrified of how I might react.  On the way, they joked about how fish like to eat the eyes and tongues of bodies in the ocean (keep in mind that his aunt  lost her brother to the sea).  Luckily, the body had already been removed by the time we walked down the hill.  That was the third body (that I know of) pulled onto the beach by my house since I’ve lived here.  I still wonder if and when I’ll see one wash up on shore.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

March Mada-ness: The Sequel (Part I)

Every time I write a new blog entry, I tell myself that, after this, I’m going to write shorter ones at more frequent intervals. Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet. So instead of bullet-pointing this one as is my usual go-to style when I’ve got a series of unrelated events to comment on, I’ll just divide it into mini-blogs. Keep a lookout for more Parts coming out soon.


In case anyone was worried, I was eventually let out of my medical prison in good time for the holiday season. Haja (pronounced “Hadza”), my wonderful boyfriend who had been patiently supporting me over the phone every night as I cried about the evil doctors and how they kept tormenting me with the “We’ll wait and see how it is after a few more days…” line over and over, was waiting for me at the airport with a cab driver friend to take me home. I had missed the end of the school term, so there was nothing to do except chill out and settle in. There was a series of sweet concerts that led up to Christmas, starting with Lola (a guy...and Malagasy pop star) who also happened to be on my flight. This would be a good time to comment that Malagasy people don’t freak out when they see famous people, hence why I didn’t realize I was sharing a terminal with a national celebrity until Haja told me upon my arrival. In my experience, people here just point and say, “Hey look, there’s ________.” If the person’s really famous, they might say it with a big smile on their face. The next week there was a concert of multiple “lesser” but still famous artists, and then the grand finale – Tence Mena on Christmas Eve. She’s essentially the Beyonce of Madagascar. Several people have kindly explained to me that Rihanna actually steals her clothing, music, and dancing styles from Tence Mena. Makes sense.

We bought two chickens, one for Christmas Eve, one for Christmas Day, and a whole lot o’ pig meat. (For those of you who are used to buying nicely packaged pork chops and heavenly hams from the supermarket, you might be surprised to know that buying pig meat straight from the butcher’s is actually a disgusting experience. About half of the weight (if you’re lucky) is fat. Pure, jiggly, squishy, hairy pig fat.) Christmas morning we went to church, which was especially exciting because all the kids and teens had put together a Christmas performance. They all did various forms of hip-hop, African, and pop-ish dances to music that had absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. And there was no living nativity scene. Lame. That evening, Haja, Paul, Eric (a health volunteer about 25km away), and I met up at my neighbor Barry’s house and shared food, beer, and good times with his family. It was an absolutely fantastic away-from-home Christmas because there was no gift-buying, house-decorating, or anything else to stress us out and make us think of what we were missing.

New Year’s was mellow, too. Haja and I went all out and bought a duck, some soda, and liquor. I asked him if he wanted to go out or at least spend the evening with his family. He explained that he didn’t want to hang with his relatives (the ones we go to church with) because they don’t drink, and going out to bars/clubs on New Year’s Eve is for prostitutes, drunks, and other bad people. So we hung out at my house with a neighbor friend until about 11:50pm, when they both passed out. I watched the year change on my cell phone and kissed Haja on the cheek as he lay drooling on the bed. Possibly the first time in my life I’ve outlasted other people on NYE. New Year’s Day, the real party time for Malagasy, we killed and cooked the duck, invited our guardian neighbor over for some rum, and gifted him with a huge rope of paraky – Malagasy tobacco that I happened to find myself with – and chilled around the neighborhood all day.

Carags in Madagascar

While I was drinking rum-and-cokes and waiting for the clock to change in Madagascar, my parents and brother, Jon, were drinking champagne somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean after the pilot announced the changing of the years. They arrived in Paris New Year’s Day then flew to Tana, where they spent the night at a hotel near the airport and were shuttled back the next day to catch a flight to Fort Dauphin. Haja and I picked them up at the airport and drove them back to a nice hotel by my house, overlooking the beach and the town. They got settled and gave me a huge suitcase of Christmas gifts from friends and family and other awesome America stuff. For the next two days, I showed them this crazy beach town that’s become my home. On the third day we went for a day-trip to Berenty so they could see tortoises, crocodiles, bats, birds, spiny forest plants, and lots of lemurs up close. We met up with Paul for dinner in Ambovombe and spent the night at a hotel, then continued on to Faux Cap the next morning. I’ve done the drive down to the southern tip of the country several times, but the ecosystem changes along the way never cease to fascinate me. I was so excited to show people the transitions between dry coastal peninsula to greener valleys beneath mountainous forest to transition forest where you can start to see tall, finger-like, otherworldly looking plants with spines to unending rows of sisal plantations to agricultural desert protected by impassible walls of cactus plants to more open desert-like spiny forest to the gradual disappearance of tall trees and plants to the more barren, sandy dunes of the deep southern coast. You caught that, right? Luckily, the full drive takes about 6-7 hours in a 4x4, so I have time to explain everything on the way. I find it especially interesting to watch the transition of people from the coastal foresty-dwellers around Fort Dauphin to the more hardy desert-dwellers carrying spears, wearing sarongs draped around their shoulders, and herding gigantic herds of zebu. My family seemed only mildly interested, even after I exclaimed that this was as close to “real Africa” as they could get in Madagascar.

We arrived in Faux Cap mid-morning and settled into bungalows at Haja’s family’s hotel. They then began a ceremony in which one of their best goats was presented to my parents by handing it off to my brother via one of Haja’s brothers. I could see a sitcom episode being made of this stuff. Pictures were taken, drinks were served, and speeches were made. The cultural significance of this? My family essentially traded me for a goat. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t a marriage ceremony. If it were, I would've had my parents demand at least a medium-sized zebu.) I tried to prepare my family ahead of time about what to expect, and although they were probably confused and maybe a little scared, they didn’t show it. I had explained to them that Haja’s family is very vazaha culture-friendly and wouldn’t actually expect this to be a binding cultural ritual. It was more to give my family some authentic Malagasy experience and to show them that they consider me one of their family.

We took a small break from the drinking to watch the goat get slaughtered. Although I don’t particularly like watching large animals die, I’ve gotten used to it over the past year and a half. Unfortunately, I forgot how much it took for me to get to this point (remember when I freaked out over my host family killing the chicken in Mantasoa?) and didn’t consider that my family might be a little traumatized by the experience. In Malagasy tradition, Jon was supposed to be the one to kill the goat. He politely refused. So we watched. When goats are killed, the throat is slit but the vocal chords often aren’t severed, so the goat continues to bleat during the process and you can hear the blood gurgling in its throat. My father was fine, he’s seen it all before in the Philippines. I was surprised the Jon and my mom were able to make it through the whole thing, though they later admitted that they were a little upset by it. Once the goat was dead, though, the whole thing got a lot more fun. Watching them skin it, cut it up, take the organs out, etc. I think is interesting for most Westerners because we often imagine ourselves lost in the wilderness attempting to catch wild game with crude traps or hunting methods. Rarely, though, do we run through what we will actually do with the carcass once we’ve got it. Watching an animal be dismembered for its meat and innards makes you realize that the process is slightly more complicated than just sticking it on a spit and roasting it over a fire.

After all the excitement we had a lunch of fresh grilled lobsters and jumped back on the road for a two-hour drive to Cap Sainte Marie, the southernmost point of the island. We went to the reserve, which has crazy cliffs, a lighthouse, radiated tortoises everywhere you look, and an awesome view of Antarctica. We returned to the hotel in time for dinner, which consisted of rice, our goat cooked in at least 4 different ways, and a few other dishes. Then began the party. Several of Haja’s 13 siblings traveled home so they could party with us. Most of the local village showed up just to watch the festivities. There was traditional Tandroy (the regional tribe) dancing in traditional-ish garb (a loincloth-like covering for the men) as well as a good deal of contemporary Malagasy boogie down music.

The next day we returned to Fort Dauphin, where we spent the next couple days. We then flew to Diego (at the very northern tip of the island) for 2 nights. On a side note, before we left Fort Dauphin, Jon and I took a walk over to Israel’s house, where we found out he was leaving Peace Corps due to some issues back home. Three months have gone by since then, and it still feels a little strange without him. Israel – if you ever find yourself reading this blog, know that people here (Malagasy and vazaha) still miss you and you definitely left your mark on this town.

In Diego, we did a lot of relaxing and walking around town. I’m not sure how much my family actually enjoyed it, but it was really cool for me to see a completely different part of the country. When we returned to Tana, they took a flight back home, and I returned to Fort Dauphin. Looking back, it was so amazing to have my family there to see a small fraction of this weird life I’ve found myself in. I think about all the ways I could’ve made it better, all the things I forgot to show them or never explained. A lot of it had to do with the limited time they were here, but I was ecstatic that they (especially my mom) would actually consider a [really expensive] flight to a developing country on the other side of the word just to see me for 11 days.