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

-Jack Shepard

Friday, November 9, 2012

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.


  1. Oh, I know those feelings well! In my travels and work, I have discovered some of the joys people have in the way they live as well as some of the hope that stems from other things they see. I go into new environments looking to learn from them and hoping to be changed more than I change them. Perhaps an open mind can help quel the fears of harming somthing that seems to work so well, even if it doesn't follow our specific patterns and rules!

  2. We tend to impose our own values,... you name it on other people we work with/help.
    We all get caught up in the "hedonic treadmill".

    Ferenc Mate just wrote a book "A real life: Rediscovering the roots of our happiness". His interview with Rick Steves starting at 14:34 mn is very interesting http://www.ferencmate.com/mate-books/a-real-life-2/

    A Malagasy Reader

    1. I forgot the link of the interview