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.