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.