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

-Jack Shepard

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.