Sunday, August 1, 2010

Flying Solo

As fair warning, this post might not be suitable for young readers. One of the alternate titles I mulled was, “Death, Blood, and Alcohol.” That enough of a hook?

Arriving back in Vondrozo from my Ranomafana/Fianarantsoa trip, I found an empty office; all the WWF agents were working in the field, and weren’t expected to return for a week or more. After a few days of getting my house in order, starting to build my garden fence, and making day trips to nearby villages on RN27, I decided it was time for an extended work journey of my own. So last Saturday, July 24, I saddled up my bike and set out. And what a journey it turned out to be.

I was up against a familiar foe: the road south. Its name, I recently found out, is the Route d’Intérêts Provincial Vondrozo-Vangaindrano, commonly abbreviated as, no joke, the RIP. Think back a few months to me crashing into ditches like Billy Lewis breaks tables—that is, loudly and with embarrassing frequency. In all the biking I’d done since then, I’d stuck to the better roads to the north and west, mainly to spare my bike, body, and confidence the beating the RIP was sure to give them. But the only feasible way to get to the three southern VOIs is that road, so I finally had to face the task. I hoped it wouldn’t be the death of me.

Now that I’ve taken on the RIP again, I’ve drawn a couple of conclusions: The road is bad, but not nearly as daunting as I first made it out to be. And I’ve gotten a lot better at biking, but still have far to go.

Despite having to get off and walk some of the worst stretches, I made it from Vondrozo to Ampasimposy in a quick two hours. The shop where Robson and I had stashed our bikes the last time was shuttered, but a few friendly villagers told me I could leave my bike with them, and a VOI member agreed to lead me to the first village, Mazavalala.

Of course, the thought had occurred to me that trekking into the corridor alone might not be such a hot idea. Out of cell phone range, still barely speaking the language, not knowing the footpaths leading from one village to the next, I’d be leaving my conspicuously white self pretty damn vulnerable. But I’d conferred with WWF and other friends in Vondrozo, and they (almost) universally said I shouldn’t be worried. I also can’t do my job, I told myself, unless I trust the VOIs and villagers to treat me right, show them that I trust them, and know myself capable of handling solo trips.

So I handed my bike over to a group of strangers and followed a random dude into the forest.

After hiking for forty-five minutes, the VOI member told me to wait on the main path and ducked off to the side, where I heard what sounded like a party in progress. He came back a few minutes later with Tsavo, Mazavalala’s VOI president, who was clearly very surprised to see me, and drunk (the smell of toakagasy is strong and unmistakable). Normal protocol for field visits includes sending a letter of advance notice, but because of how the trip had fallen together, I hadn’t done so. Regardless, Tsavo indicated that it wasn’t a problem and led me into the village.

At first, I thought I was crashing a circumcision celebration. ‘Tis the season here; villagers wait until their sons are 2-4 years old, then have a public ceremony and throw a rager. Once I’d conferred with a VOI member sitting near me, though, I found out that it was actually the tail end of a wake. Malagasy custom—at least here in the southeast—calls for three days of observance following a person’s death. I’d walked in on the final day, when mourners sing, dance, drink heavily, and slaughter a cow. Tsavo disappeared for a bit before reappearing to tell me that we could hold the meeting I’d asked for the next day, no problem.

I hung out, talked with people past sundown, ate my fill of rice, and was getting ready to sleep when Tsavo showed up again, this time with a huge hunk of raw beef hanging from his hand. He sat down with me and gave a lengthy speech on Malagasy custom surrounding death and the importance of togetherness (I think), and then offered the beef to me. Honored—and confused—by the gesture, I accepted it and mumbled what words of condolence and gratitude I could muster, wondering to myself what exactly was happening and why I’d just been gifted a chunk of meat. A moment later, though, the VOI secretary, Berto, led me to another hut, where it became clear I was supposed to cook the beef, right then, for us to eat. So I brought out the tomato paste, onions, and salt that I’d packed from Vondrozo, prepared the meat, and shared a last meal before bed.

The next morning I woke up ready to get a first community meeting under my belt. The actual purpose for the trip, in short, was to get the ball rolling on my Community Diagnostic Survey (CDS). The CDS is a report on a PCV’s site—its history, geography, political structure, productive activities, educational system, health issues, environmental status, etc.—and the principal Peace Corps requirement during our first three months of service. It’s not used universally by PC programs everywhere; in fact, we’re the first PC Madagascar Environment group to do it. Living in Vondrozo but working with five corridor VOIs makes my situation a little different. Instead of writing about one place, I’ll be writing about five—probably on a more cursory level, but hopefully still capturing the important points pertinent to the work I’ll be doing.

I was helping Berto prepare breakfast and reviewing my list of questions when another man came into the hut. It was chilly out, and he was wrapped in a blanket, under which he was clearly holding a baby. He and Berto discussed something back and forth, but I didn’t catch what it was. I looked over and gave him a big “Good morning, how’s it going?” in Malagasy. “Good,” he answered, “and you?” “Very good!” I said.

Then five women entered the hut, sat down, and said a few brief things back and forth. I heard the word vahiny, which means stranger/guest, but didn’t understand the rest of the context. Then they got up with the man holding the baby and left. Berto hurriedly put aside the cooking he was doing and turned to me. “Maty ny zaza,” he said, before ducking out and following the others.

“The baby is dead.”

And then I got to witness, tragically, what happens at the beginning of the mourning process—wailing, moaning, screaming, crying. There was no discernable pattern to it. They each seemed to be voicing their own, personal pain. But, taken together—and repeated over, and over, and over—a collective sound emerged: the eerie, desperate agony of a community grieving the loss of its child.

It was haunting.

Berto returned after fifteen minutes or so to tell me that I’d have to move my tent from the hut where’d I’d slept because they needed the space. I went over, unpopped the poles, lugged it by the hut full of screaming villagers, and set it up outside, wishing the whole time that it wasn’t such a bright shade of save-me-when-I’m-lost-in-the-woods orange. Thankfully, Tsavo showed up soon after. We (obviously) couldn’t have meetings for the next three days, so he thought I should go on to the next village and come back at the end of the trip. I thought so, too.

One of the kids in town led me on the two-hour hike to Ambalatraka, where I checked in with the next VOI president, Harisony. He’d seen me the previous day in Mazavalala, so he knew that I’d be coming, though he was expecting me a day or so later. The following afternoon, I held my first meeting with a sizeable group of VOI members—maybe around 35 men. I’d asked Harisony to include women, and he’d said that he would, but (surprise, surprise) none were present. The guy is a domineering figure; when he was present during the meeting, it was him that answered nearly every question I posed. Only when he periodically left the room was I able to get other folks to chime in. One of the topics I asked about was decision-making and leadership. Harisony assured me that the fokon’olo, or assemblage of people, made decisions together, and that they’d chosen him as their president. Sure.

At any rate, I finished up with my questions, compiled information to create a seasonal calendar, and had them draw out an area map. Then most of the VOI members departed, and I was left with Harisony, his son, a few other folks, and Harding, a 28-year-old guy who grew up in Tana, lives in Farafangana, and was visiting relatives in a nearby village. Harding spoke French, and helped me through some of the harrier parts of the meeting, translating back and forth. He also was wearing a 49ers shirt, and—even though he had no idea who the 49ers actually were—therefore seemed like a good guy to me. After the meeting, I was in for another bit of cultural education. See, Harding and Harisony’s son were about to become brothers.

Initially, to be honest, I thought they were about to start up some sort of drinking game. They sat in the middle of the hut, a dish on the ground between them. Then a kid came in and poured a clear liquid in the dish; I thought it was toaka. But I didn’t smell the toaka, so I figured it was probably water, which it was. So not a drinking game, I decided, but what?

Next, the kid brought in a burning piece of wood, a spear, a knife, and a spoon. He dropped the wood in the water, where it fizzled out, stuck the spear head in the wood so that it was standing up straight, and placed the knife and spoon on the ground. Harding and Harisony’s son leaned forward and grabbed the spear, their hands touching and alternating, one on top of the other. The kid started spooning water over their hands. Another man walked over, picked up the knife, and began tapping the head of the spear. Then, he started chanting.

What’s the chant? I thought. Why the spear? Are they going to stab someone or something with it? Are they going to stab me with it?

It went on like that for about five minutes—the water, the tapping, the chanting. Once the chant was finished, Harisony handed a razor blade to his son, who then used the blade to slice a small cut on his chest. He scooped up some water with the spoon and dabbed the bloody blade in it, and then passed the spoon to Harding, who drank the blood and water. Harding then did the same, cutting his chest and filling the spoon for Harisony’s son, who also drank what he’d been given. They flicked some water on each other, dumped another spoonful on the ground, and then were done.

That, Harding later explained to me, is how you become blood brothers in Madagascar.

The rest of the trip was less strange but still eventful. I hiked to the village of Manomboerivo and on to Ankazomaneno that evening, where I held my second meeting the next day. It was a smaller group of men and women, which worked out much better than the all-VOI arrangement. Since the proper number of days hadn’t passed for me to go back to Mazavalala, I loitered in Ankazomaneno for the day, hiked around the area, learned Malagasy names for local plant-life (lantana is riadriaka, Dad), and sat in on a toaka brewing session. They boil the fermented sugar cane water under an old oil drum and run a pipe through a dug-out tree trunk where they pour cold water to make the alcohol condensate. Not quite the Jameson distillery, but to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, boozers find a way.

Since three days had passed and all I had left to do was the survey work in Mazavalala, I returned there led by Ankazomaneno’s president, Kotilio. Unfortunately, it turned out that Tsavo and other VOI officers had gone south to the town of Vohimary Atsimo for meetings, so I asked Kotilio to guide the way back to Ambalatraka. Harisony had said there was a fetin'i ala, or forest party, the next day, and that a WWF agent was supposed to be coming. I hadn’t heard about it, but it sounded like a good deal, so I planned to attend. Being a good sport but also tired (we ended up hiking for over five hours), Kotilio agreed to take me back to Manomboerivo, but said I should sleep there and go to Ambalatraka the next day. That night, I cooked up some of the beans I’d brought from Vondrozo for dinner. They tasted like gasoline—stored too close to the shop’s petrol stock, I guess. They were all I had for breakfast the next morning, too. Thankfully, I didn’t throw up or go blind.

Harisony showed up in Manomboerivo to walk with me to Ambalatraka, though I’m not sure how he got word that I was there. After a brief stop, we continued on to Ambalamanga, where the fetin'i ala was being held to mark the VOI’s third anniversary. Florent, WWF’s office chief in Vondrozo, was indeed there. He gave a speech about the importance of preserving the forest for future generations, after which the villagers butchered a cow and danced kilalaky, a traditional, fast-paced Malagasy circle dance. We hiked back to Ambalatraka after dark under a completely clear, star-and-Milky-Way filled sky, and continued the fety well into the night. The following morning, Harding pseudo-led me back to Mazavalala; he’s new to the area, too, and we got lost a few times along the way. Regardless, we made it, found Tsavo, and held the final meeting. Berto walked with me back to Ampasimposy (where my bike was still sitting!), and I pedaled my way home.

A stack of mail was waiting for me when I arrived in Vondrozo, including an envelope from Katie McHugh with a copy of ND Magazine. Exhausted, ecstatic, relieved, and nostalgic, I put on Rudy and passed out.

To paraphrase Fortune, I’m five feet nothing, a hundred and nothing, and have hardly a speck of athletic ability. But if I can hang in doing this for two years, I’ll be a happy, happy man.

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