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

-Jack Shepard

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.

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