Monday, March 29, 2010


The tubes!

It’s been almost four weeks since we arrived in Madagascar—a not inconsiderable duration to be disconnected from email and internet access. We’re currently on a weeklong technical field trip, which is why we (finally) can get online. I’m posting this and two other entries detailing Peace Corps life thus far, along with (hopefully) a few pictures.

Our destinations this week include Moramanga (to talk with ANGAP, or the Madagascar National Park service), Andasibe (the most visited park on the island), Tamatave (a major port on the Indian Ocean), and Full Point (a beach town that we’ll be hanging in). Highlights should comprise lemur sightings, night hiking, ocean swimming, visits with current volunteers in the field, and lots of bonding time for the training group.

There’s plenty to read in the two other posts, so I’ll just take a minute to relay one important point. Site announcements were a few weeks ago, so we all found out where we’ll (tentatively) be living for the next two years. I’ve been slated for a post in (…drumroll…) Vondrozo, a small community in southeastern Madagascar. It’s about 70 km inland/due west from Farafangana, a coastal town where I’ll do my banking, etc. The job description sounds pretty ideal; Vondrozo sits at the southern end of the Eastern Rainforest Corridor, and I’ll be working with WWF and the local COBA (forest users group) to bolster conservation efforts and improve forest resource management. It’s one of the most remote Peace Corps sites in the country at the moment. Farafangana (to the east) is about four hours away by taxi-brousse (long-distance van, the most common form of transportation in Madagascar), and the way heading west from Vondrozo is generally impassable for automobiles. The road to Farafangana can be unreliable during the rainy season (the guide book I have calls it a route “for the serious adventurer”), so trips to the bank could involve a day and a half of biking. Should be interesting.

Anyway, enjoy reading/skimming/ignoring the other posts, and I’ll hopefully write again soon with a rundown of our trip this week. Peace and health,


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Day in the Life

Avy ny orana. The rain is coming.

It’s a useful phrase, and one of the first bits of Malagasy that I’ve mastered. We’re approaching the tail end of the rainy season (summer) here in the central highlands, and water falling from the sky has been a constant feature of our quotidian lives the past few weeks. In fact, it’s raining right now.

I usually wake up between 5:30-6am, make a judgment as to what time it is based on the amount of sunlight filtering in through the cracks of my door leading out to the balcony, and decide whether or not I should get up. I’m out of bed by 6:15 and starting my morning routine, which entails making my bed, taking a bucket shower (I’ve learned to make do with about a third of a bucket or less, since getting water can take up to twenty minutes), and eating breakfast with my host mom. She’s made a range of American and Malagasy breakfast foods for me, including pancakes (delicious, even though maple syrup doesn’t exist here—not Verhampshire, apparently), baguette with butter or freshly pounded peanuts (which they call “pistache,” even though they’re peanuts and not pistachios), fried dough (kind of like malasadas but not coated in sugar), and my favorite so far, mofo akondro (literally, “banana bread,” but better described as battered and fried bananas). She also makes coffee and usually has some sort of fruit for me at the end of the meal.

After breakfast, I meet Annah in our front yard (red dirt) and head to training. Most days we have about a ten minute walk to the local Peace Corps environment learning center in Anjozoro. The first week and a half we would walk down to the main road and follow that to the center, sloshing through mud and dodging piles of tay n’omby (cow poop). After a few days of observing my host siblings march of to their school (which is close to the center), though, we found a more agreeable path that winds by houses and through terraced garden plots along the ridge above our houses. It cuts our “commute” in half, offers an absurdly beautiful view of the town and valley, and generally has less tay n’omby to avoid.

During the first two weeks, training consisted almost exclusively of language (reminded me of prestage back in Angers). It was exhausting but necessary, especially since we were immediately put with host families. There are families that speak French with their trainees; mine isn’t one of them. I’m not sure if my host mom knows how to or not. She’s used words here and there to help me understand important points (since my usual response to anything she says is a smile, a shrug, and a dumb look on my face), but she doesn’t go further than that. She has fourteen siblings, most of whom live in the immediate area, and one of whom lives in Paris. I’ve talked with two of her siblings here and the one in Paris (on the phone), and they’ve all spoken French, which makes me think Neny might be holding out. I know it’s better in the long run, but it never fails to bump up the awkwardness during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The whole situation is exacerbated a bit by the fact that I’m learning Antaisaka, a different dialect than my host family speaks (Standard Malagasy, or Malagasy official). Our language teachers have stressed that speakers of different dialects can understand each other without much difficulty across Madagascar, but experience tells me that might not hold true for speakers of mangled Antaisaka/standard/French/English (or Antaistandardfranglish, as I like to call it). So it goes.

Now that we’re moving into week three, though, training has become a mix of language and technical sessions split between the morning and afternoon. Peace Corps’ two priorities in the environment field here are agriculture and forestry, so our technical sessions will cover things like perma-gardening, intensive rice cultivation techniques, tree grafting, tree nurseries and sustainable wood harvesting systems, and improved cookstoves. We actually had our first hands-on training session today (building a bio-intensive perma-garden), and it was awesome. My host family offered up an ideal plot for us to use, so we’re basically putting in a garden in the front yard that they and the neighbors will tend/benefit from once we’re gone. We’ll also eventually be teaching the community about the techniques we use (in Malagasy), so hopefully the practices will catch on across the village.
Back to my daily routine. So we have a morning session (usually language) from 8am-12pm, then break for lunch, trek home to our families, and eat with them. At 2pm we reconvene for the afternoon session (usually tech), which continues until 5pm or so, when we’re finally done for the day.

That schedule holds true for Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Saturday we only have a half day of training, so we’re free after lunch. Wednesdays we meet at the edge of Anjozoro and get picked up by Peace Corps staff, who ferry us to the Peace Corps Training Center (PCTC) in Mantasoa, a ten minute drive away. The SED volunteers meet us there, as well.

The PCTC is awesome. Formerly, volunteers were housed, fed, and trained in the compound, which sits on a peninsula jutting out into the lake. Nowadays, since we’ve switched to a Community-Based Training (CBT) model and are living with families, the PCTC is used sparingly, mainly to put up staff members so they don’t have to commute daily from Tana, as well as to house us periodically for certain events (like the St. Patrick’s Day gathering we successfully lobbied for last week ). We’re also brought there on Wednesdays for administrative/security/health/logistics/rules sessions. The day goes something like this: Robert (training manager) gives us a rundown of the week and asks if we have any questions/concerns with the schedule, our home-stay situations, etc.; Leif (Acting Country Director) updates us what’s going on at HQ in Tana and makes a few vague comments about what’s going on in the world (HEALTH CARE WHAT); Colby (administrative/procurement dude) tells us what rules not to break and chuckles to himself after describing how cattle rustlers might rob us while we’re traveling to our sites; Johenesa (security dude) reiterates that we should come up with a personal security strategy at site, which includes figuring out the best place for a helicopter to land and making friends who have cars and would be willing to drive us out of town should all hell break loose; and Dr. Alain (Peace Corps Medical Officer, or PCMO) elaborates the different ways worms will get into our bodies and teaches us how to differentiate malaria from diarrhea. Throw in lunch and a few injections (still aren’t done with vaccinations, etc.), and we have ourselves a total Wednesday.

That leaves Saturday afternoon and Sunday for the “weekend,” which so far has meant three things: church, laundry, and mitsangatsangana.

The first two are pretty evident, but require a little elaboration regardless. First, church. As you probably remember from the fact that I have a poster of the pope hanging above my bed, my family is Catholic, and they go to a church on a hill in Anjozoro that’s only about a ten minutes from our house. I went with my host siblings the first Sunday out of curiosity, as did a few other volunteers. It was apparently some sort of special occasion, so the house was packed. The local Boy Scout troop was holding a fundraiser before mass started. They walked around shouting prices while displaying bags of rice, corn, and carrots, as well as live chickens—slightly different than selling cookies or coupon books/Makahiki tickets.
Since it was a special occasion and the building was crowded, we were told that the mass was going to be shorter than usual, and it was. Turns out a three-hour mass is scandalously short here. Yep. Three hours. One of the main reasons for the length of the mass is that the Malagasy apparently love to process. They did it for a round of tithing, where each person in the church went up to the front and dropped an offering in a basket. Then they did it (again) for a second round of tithing. Then they did it to congratulate a family on some sort of graduation, which also called for a one-by-one public cash donation. Then they did it for communion. I’m pretty sure it happened a fifth time, too, but I can’t remember why. On another note, the music would have been great, except for the fact that some not-so-talented woman in the choir decided to sing with the mic more or less inside of her mouth.

After that first Sunday, I decided that going back for another round would not be a top priority. The next weekend, though, I got home a little late on Saturday night (6:45pm, about the time it gets dark) and felt bad to have briefly worried my family (though I had a legitimate reason for the delay: an epic mitsangatsangana, to be explained later). Long story short, I guilted myself into agreeing to go to church with them the next day.

Sunday morning at breakfast, Neny mentioned that the mass would be four hours long. I told her that it was usually only an hour or less in America; she just laughed and said that was way too short. Trying to convince myself that the cultural experience of going would be worth the time investment, I got dressed and began the march to church with the kids, since Neny was staying home to prep lunch (clever, no?). We arrived and spent about forty-five minutes kneeling and singing the same psalm over and over again until the priest decided it was time to start mass (always a moving target). Things proceeded as expected for a while (and the music was much better sans the mics from the week before), but then we reached a point (after two rounds of tithing) where a few members of the congregation got up to talk for some reason. I didn’t understand most of what they said, but they kept repeating different amounts of money, so it probably had something to do with a fundraising campaign. Once they were done, the priest called a young couple up to the front of the church. They looked contrite, the priest kept repeating the word “marriage,” and the woman was very pregnant, so my best guess was that the pregnancy preceded the marriage and the priest was using them (instead of a PowerPoint slide) for his lecture on premarital sex. Or maybe he was congratulating them on being a model Catholic couple. I really have no idea—just goes to show you how confused I often am.
After a little more than two hours, we were suddenly filing out of the church. None of it made sense to me; Neny had said it would last four hours, and there hadn’t been a communion procession. But there we were, walking back to the house, and I wasn’t about to complain. At lunch, I finally figured out the situation. Recognizing that four hours of church is damn long, they break it up into two installments: one before lunch, the other after. I seized the opportunity and stressed that I needed to do laundry, which was an acceptable excuse all around. Once the meal was done, the kids went back to church, and I made my way with Neny, Annah, and Annah’s host mom down to the river.

In the United States, “doing laundry” basically amounts to pushing a few buttons and then folding your clothes—something I readily identify as my least favorite chore (p.s. Tony, you still owe me a free round of clothes folding. You can do it when you come visit). Here, though, manasa lamba really means taking each article of clothing, washing, scrubbing, and ringing it out. We sit on a small, concrete bridge spanning the river that winds through the middle of the rice paddies in the valley, scooping up water as necessary. I tried to follow my host mom’s lead, but I got a lot of judgmental, disapproving looks and clicks from her throughout the process. Oftentimes she’d grab something I’d already put in my “scrubbed” pile and give it a thorough, five-to-ten-minute scrub herself. Case in point: I had a PE shirt from Maryknoll with a seven-year-old stain on its shoulder. She snatched it from me and went to work on the stain. I told her in broken Malagasy that it’d been there forever, but she just shook her head and kept brushing away. Fifteen minutes later, she’d basically gotten it out. Guess Neny knows best.

This post is already way longer than I expected it to be, but I mentioned mitsangastangana earlier, so I’ll try to briefly sum up the idea before signing off. Mitsangatsangana (mee-tsawn-gah-tsawn-gah-na) is a Malagasy verb that means to wander someplace and talk with people along the way. It’s one of the most popular social activities in town (especially on weekends), so we’ve taken to going along with our families or meeting up as groups of trainees and doing it on our own.
A few Saturdays ago, a bunch of environment trainees met up for an afternoon mitsangatsangana and decided to hike to the conspicuous radio antenna that sits on a hill between Mantasoa and Anjozoro. We cut down through rice paddies and across the valley, then started climbing on the opposite side. Eucalyptus trees cover the hills around us—a product of the government’s campaign to reforest highland areas with the fast-growing, useful species. We made it to the top of one hill, spotted the antenna again on another, and relaunched ourselves in that direction. Then we made it to the top of the second hill, spotted the antenna elsewhere, and started off again. A misty rain had been falling up to that point, and it started to pick up and we left the second “peak.” Luckily, we stumbled across some sort of house/refuge in the forest that had a big covered pavilion just as it began to pour, so we waited out the heaviest of it, and then kept on trekking.

After a few more ups and downs, we finally summitted the right hill and approached the antenna. As we got closer, though, we saw clotheslines up, heard dogs barking, and noticed kids running around—then realized that we were standing in someone’s garden. The kids retreated back into a house next to the antenna, the dogs advanced, and a man (the antenna operator/guardian) came out to talk to us. He was surprisingly unconcerned about the fact that ten strange white people had cropped up in his yard, talked with us until we’d exhausted our two sentences of Malagasy, then pointed us in the direction of the nearest road. On the way down, we passed what looked like several “No Trespassing” signs (in Malagasy). Whoops.

We made it to the road and into Mantasoa, then began the forty-minute walk back to Anjozoro. I made it home around 6:45, just as it was getting dark. My host family was assembled and seemed about ready to send out search parties, so I apologized and tried my best to explain the mitsangatsangana by pointing to the antenna in the distance. They looked at me like I was crazy—I’m guessing that hiking there has never crossed their minds as a logical/enjoyable thing to do. If this Peace Corps gig doesn’t pan out, I could always start a Malagasy reality TV show called “White people do the strangest things.”

Sorry for rambling—I’ll keep the posts shorter from now on. Miss you all, and hope you’re well.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In the Beginning

We made it.

The 18-hour flight from DC to Johannesburg via Dakar was pleasantly uneventful. I got a decent amount of shut-eye and shared good conversation with the other trainees. We arrived in South Africa late in the evening, paid way too much for a 5-minute shuttle to our hotel, jumped in the pool, then had what were probably our last burgers and cold beers for a while. I and a few others decided to stay up through the night to try and get our bodies to adjust, so we hung out in the lobby, talking to a Canadian and a Dutch dude who kept giving me grief for being such a white Hawaiian.

We took a 6am shuttle back to the airport and checked in for our South African Airways flight to Antananarivo (Tana). I was incredibly overweight baggage-wise, but thankfully the airline workers put me through without any trouble (probably because I work out with weights). Not everyone was so lucky (nominally Binh, a small Asian woman in our group, who got stopped at every turn for having a bag five pounds over).

We got through security with plenty of time before our flight, so I ate a meal, sent a few postcards, and read. The place was decked out with banners and advertisements linked to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa this summer, which killed a few of us (since we won’t be allowed to leave Madagascar during that time frame because of Peace Corps rules), so I tried my best to avert my eyes.

When they called our flight, we crammed into a shuttle that sat on the tarmac for a good 30 minutes before driving us to our small (dinky might be a better word) SAA Link plane. There happened to be a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV)-turned- State Department specialist on the shuttle, who was happy to share stories of his glory days in Lesotho and a few words of advice, basically amounting to “It’s OK to be adventurous and irresponsible.” Don’t worry, Mom—I’ll do my best to forget the irresponsibility part.

I was exhausted, and fell asleep almost as soon as I sat down on the plane. About an hour later, I woke up drenched in sweat in the steamy cabin. Turned out we were delayed, still sitting on the tarmac, and wouldn’t have air conditioning until takeoff. I felt bad for Minnie, the USC-sorority-girl-turned-trainee I was sitting with, who may or may not have had my damp head slide onto her shoulder at some point. Then again, she went to USC, so she probably deserved it.
I fell asleep again after takeoff, snoozing most of the way over until Minnie woke me up and pointed out the window.

Madagascar. The Red Island.

And red it was. Deforestation has left the landscape barren and vulnerable. Erosion is a serious problem, and the rivers and streams are dyed the color of rust. I remember reading or hearing that when a Malagasy government minister flew over the coast for the first time, he looked down and said, “My country is bleeding.”
The plane landed smoothly at Tana’s airport, which only had a few gates and a single (small) terminal. It reminded me of one of the Neighbor Island airports back home, only it’s meant to serve as the main air transit point for a city of 2 million and a country of 20 million. We were met by a host of Peace Corps country staff, who ushered us through passport control and customs and packed us into a few vans and a Range Rover for the 30-minute drive to Meva House, Peace Corps Headquarters in Tana.

Meva House is actually a cluster of two or three buildings in a secure compound set back off of one of the principal roads in Tana. Because Madagascar is still in the midst of a political crisis that began last year, the staff asked us to stay in the compound for our brief time in the capital. The night went well. We had a few introductory sessions, ate dinner, and hung out talking until relatively late. Breakfast and further sessions started early the next morning. We went over rules and regulations, personal security strategies, basic health training, and a crash language/cultural course. After lunch, we packed up our things and were on our way to the community-based training (CBT) sites, Mantasoa and Anjozoro.

Mantasoa is a small (small) town set on a lake east of Tana, and Anjozoro is a rural village a few kilometers away. To mimic the conditions we’ll have at our permanent sites as closely as possible, small enterprise-development (SED) trainees are living with host families in Mantasoa, while environment trainees (myself included) are living in Anjozoro. The ride up gave us our first ground-level glimpse of the Malagasy countryside, marked by rice paddies and other cropland, rolling green hills, white and red mountains, forests, waterfalls, and towns and villages of orange, red, and yellow houses.

Two vans carried the environment trainees up to a junction heading into Anjozoro, where we disembarked and found ourselves face-to-face with a crowd of Malagasy. It was an absurd moment. After an application process that took many of us over a year, and three solid days of orientation and traveling, there we were: 18 Americans a hemisphere and an ocean or two away from home, meeting the Malagasy families (most if not all of whom have never left the island and/or region) that had agreed to take us in.

Our names were read off one by one, and our host family representatives stepped forward to claim each of us in turn. When I came up towards the end of the bunch, a middle-aged woman and a small, young girl approached me and signaled that I should follow. The Peace Corps staff had given us sheets with a basic description of our Malagasy families (list of household members, etc.), so I quickly figured out that I was with Monique, my host mom, and Letichia, my 12-year-old host sister. I understood nothing of what they said to me during the 15-minute walk to the house (the crash language course we were given included “My name is…” and “I’m from…”, both of which turned out to be useless since they already knew all our basic info), but I was able to point to the landscape around us and say “tsara,” a catch-all for beautiful, good, fine, and well, which at least made them smile.

We stayed on the “main road” (dirt, passable by 4x4s if they drive really slowly and avoid the worst of the holes/mud) for most of the trek home, but eventually veered right up the side of the valley a bit. After passing a few houses of varying structural integrity, we ended at ours, the only white house in the village, at least of what I’ve observed so far. My host mom—who I usually call neny (nay-nee), which is what most Malagasy kids call their mothers—led me upstairs to my room. It’s about 9x9, with a bed, desk, chair, small couch, window, and door that leads out to the second-floor balcony. The view is awesome—rice paddies, forested hills, and clusters of houses along the winding roads on either side of the valley. The walls of my room are decked out with images of Jesus and Mary (my family is Catholic), and a poster of Pope Benedict hangs over my bed. Unexpected? You betcha.

Many other things are as I expected, though. The house has no electricity or running water. We operate at night using a mix of candles/oil lamps/flashlights, and we get our H2O from a well down the street, a spring in a small side valley behind the house, or by putting buckets out when it rains. And oh does it rain.

We cook over open wood fires in the kitchen/dining room, which has a small window and a chimney. Our living space consists of one floor, with 3.5 rooms and a balcony. The bottom floor is occupied by another family…must be related, but my Malagasy hasn’t reached the point where I can understand how yet. There’s a bed set up in a nook outside my door, and another room off the kitchen that has a sitting area and bed. Besides Monique and Letichia, we live with Patrick (9-year-old host brother), Charline (22-year-old host sister), and Serge (37-year-old uncle of some sort).

Long story short, I have an incredible setup. Our living arrangements as trainees vary pretty significantly. Vanessa, another environment person, is in a house with only two rooms: one for her, and another for the kitchen/living room/dining room/bedroom for all members of the host family. Meanwhile, Bill, a SED trainee (ND ’09, was also in Morrissey), lives with the deputy mayor, who showed him Beckham highlight videos in surround sound on his first night here. Most environment folks have arrangements closer to mine or Vanessa’s. It’s frustrating at times because we feel like we’re inconveniencing and/or displacing our families in various ways, but Malagasy culture is all about welcoming and offering your best to guests. So it goes.
In an interesting turn of fate, I’ve ended up being neighbors with Annah, the environment trainee who I met a few months back in DC (I randomly met her brother in the Apple store in Honolulu when I was home over Christmas and got her contact info). We share a kabone (kah-boo-nay) and ladosy (lah-doo-see), which are a pit toilet and bucket shower space, respectively.

A few other points to make in the inaugural entry:

• The people here have very little, yet are some of the happiest I’ve ever encountered. They’re also kind beyond measure.
• Letichia spent our first few hours together pointing to everything in sight and telling me the word for it. She and the rest of the family are going to teach me more than any book or class.
• Our kabone rivals Tony’s NZ pot for the pooper with the best view in the world.
• The town generally frowns upon people being outside after dark, because that’s when witches come out (obviously). Like I said, my family’s Catholic, so I’m not sure if they’re concerned about witches, too, or if they’re just abiding by local fado (taboos) for social reasons.
• One fun byproduct of the no-going-outside-after-dark rule is the pô (pronounced like Edgar Allan), a covered bucket kept in the bedroom that’s used for anything you’d normally do in the kabone during daylight hours. Plenty of stories guaranteed.
• Most trainees are on a malaria medication called Lariam (meflaquine). Besides rage and psychosis, extremely vivid dreams are a possible (and more common) side effect. A few nights ago I sat and talked with a white wolf for hours. Pretty epic.

That’s about it for now. We made it, and life is good.