Always the trainee, never the trainer.
That about summed up my Peace Corps experience through the beginning of October. I’d gone through Pre-Service and In-Service Trainings, traveled to Ranomafana for instruction on erosion control, spent time learning about my VOIs and their communities, and been a constant (if often distracted) study of Malagasy language and culture. Doubtless I’d tried to give back in ways—helping with projects when possible, teaching conversational English to friends, sharing techniques with colleagues, guiding the Explore! group around Vondrozo—but PCVs are expected to organize more formal community trainings, and on that point, I was slacking.
So, as the Explore! group departed on their first field trip to the north, I readied myself for a trip south to lay the groundwork for my inaugural trainings. The first step was letting the VOIs know that I’d be coming—a bit involved since cell service still doesn’t reach most of the countryside. The easiest way to communicate information is to send a note with someone traveling in the right direction, or to talk directly with the VOI president if he happens to be in town. The best occasion for either is Monday—Vondrozo’s market day, which brings a huge influx of people from the surrounding areas. That Monday, WWF agent Robson helped me compose the letters and track down appropriate people to send them with. And on Thursday, I set out at 6am to make a 9am meeting in Mazavalala.
I didn’t have too high of expectations for the trip—I wanted to show face in the villages, discuss possible projects, and set a date for the training two weeks later. The first VOI president (Tsavo in Mazavalala) had received my note the night before my arrival, so he threw together a meeting of a few people (including no women) and we talked for about thirty minutes (mostly about their top priority: building a new classroom to replace the crumbling one their kids currently use). The second (Arisony in Ambalatraka) was absent when I arrived. A day and many confused conversations later, I realized that the note hadn’t been clear on the location of the meeting. I was there in Ambalatraka, and he’d gone to Vondrozo to find me. Robson had typed the letter, but of course the assemblage chocked the miscommunication up to my poor Malagasy writing skills. I discussed ongoing work with the people present and checked out the land they’d set aside for peanut farming (a WWF-promoted alternative livelihood option), and then hiked on to the next village. The third VOI president (Kotilio in Ankazomaneno) was sick, so I talked with one of the other VOI officers the next day about peanuts and microdams before heading home to Vondrozo.
All told, it wasn’t quite a fiasco, but things went far from smoothly—largely because of the shoddy quality and tardiness of the letters I’d sent. I had a few days in Vondrozo between trips, so I enlisted the help of one of my Malagasy friends, Maxime, and wrote new letters explaining the plan for the upcoming trainings. Cookstoves would be the subject, I decided—simple and straightforward, requiring few materials and little time, and resulting in a product that could be seen and used almost immediately. I arranged the dates, and when Monday rolled around, Robson helped me send them on to my partner VOIs both to the north and south.
On Wednesday, I biked up to Vohimary Nord and met WWF agents Florent and Augustin along with the Explore! group. We hiked to a nearby waterfall (with a sweet jumping spot) and relaxed for the night. The following morning I was off on my own again, hiking to Antaninary to hold my first training the following day. The president, Tano, gave me a warm welcome, and readily agreed to the training. Turnout wouldn’t be great, he said, because many villagers were gone panning for gold. [Looking for gold and vato soa, or precious stones, has become very popular in the area recently. I’ll be writing more about this soon.] Regardless, I began my first solo training the next morning with about 25 villagers in attendance.
There’s an endless variety of improved cookstoves, with different purposes, shapes, and compositions. The type we studied during training is made by sifting, mixing, and adding water to a 3:1 clay:ash blend. Using bricks made from the resulting mixture, you then build and smooth a casing that insulates your fire and pot (with air vents in the back and a section of wall cut out for a door). Depending on location and weather, the cookstove is usually ready for cooking within two weeks. The general idea is that it decreases fuelwood consumption, reduces cooking time, and mitigates smoke inhalation (and associated health problems). Sound like an easy sell?
Far from it.
The training went well, I thought; people were very helpful and seemed interested, and once we’d finished and I whipped my camera out, they were all eager to take pictures with the final product. A few minutes later, though, Tano called me into a hut and said that we needed to have a quick meeting with a number of people who’d been present. Once sitting inside, he explained that they were glad to have done the activity. And that now I needed to pay them.
Huh? I understood that I’d asked them to haul clay, sift ash, and give me two hours of their time, but there was no way they actually did so expecting monetary compensation, was there?
I explained that I hadn’t brought money, that I would never bring money, that if I came to do a training and they participated their only recompense would be, well, being “trained.” They took it well—it was an uncomfortable situation, but there wasn’t anything threatening in their tone. It was a misunderstanding, not an attempt at extortion. In ensuing discussions, I discovered that they’d already had cookstove training several times before, and that they humored me because they thought they’d get some cash out of it. They also related that despite previous trainings, no one in the community actually used an improved cookstove. They’d built them in corners and let them fall into disrepair—not because of any particular design fault, but merely because they weren’t used to them, and they didn’t recognize wood scarcity (or respiratory illness) as a chief concern.
In truth, I’d already learned that cookstoves weren’t a priority for them during my initial community surveys. I picked it as a first topic mainly for my own reasons (I think it’s important; I felt confident doing the building; I wanted a stand-alone, straightforward training to get my feet wet). Well, my feet were wet, but their pockets were empty. If I’m going to win trust and respect—and possibly encourage behavior change—I know I need to do a better job of matching projects and priorities.
In any case, I hiked back to Vohimary Nord with a first training under my belt. And a medical emergency was waiting.
Cara, the American WWF volunteer, was down and out. She felt weak, achy, hot, and chilled, with a headache, diarrhea, and a fever approaching 40 C (around 104 F. Sorry for the gory details, Cara). The WWF agents and community leaders had brought her outside, where she was lying on a mat with an audience of thirty villagers looking on. There was no health worker in close proximity (or really in proximity of any sort), but thankfully Vohimary Nord sits on top of a hill and has one spot with decent cell reception. I dialed the Peace Corps doctor, described her symptoms, and came back with a diagnosis of invasive bacterial diarrhea. He prescribed Cipro as the antibiotic of choice, which luckily Cara had brought with her. With meds and rest, she was back in commission the next day. She's a trooper, that one.
While this was happening, WWF staff members in Tana (and three other WWF volunteers—Christa, Kuni, and Henintsoa—who’d been medically evacuated to Farafangana because of various ailments) were only receiving scattered bits of information about the status of the situation. Eventually, the story emerged that Cara had nearly died of malaria but that I’d shown up just in the nick of time, administered treatment, and saved her life. Add in a few cattle bandits, some waterfall diving, and a tribal sorcerer or two and we could have the plot for Indiana Jones Part V (couldn’t be that much worse than Crystal Skull, right?).
After allowing another day for Cara to recover, we continued on to Vohilava, home to one of my partner VOIs, where we began a four-day forest restoration project. We set up camp near the VOI president’s home—high in the mountains, just below the eastern ridge of the Corridor—and, together with the villagers, built a tree nursery with local forest species. The first day, the villagers dug out beds and filled 13,000 small plastic potting bags, or pôs, with the appropriate soil mixture (made with compost, forest soil, and sandy dirt). The second day, we climbed the ridge and entered the forest to collect 13,000 saplings, which we then planted in the nursery. The third day, we went through and checked the saplings to make sure that they were viable (and to make sure they were actually trees). And the fourth day, we held a cooking and cookstove training with interested villagers.
On day one, once the soil mixture was ready, the WWF agents, volunteers and I began filling pôs to provide examples for the villagers, who looked on with what seemed to be general disinterest. Once the WWF agents began distributing the pôs to community members, though, all hell broke loose.
People were running with baskets, pushing each other, hauling loads on their backs and heads, shoveling soil like it was their job. Whoa, I thought. Where the hell did this enthusiasm come from? It was crazy and chaotic—typically Malagasy, in many ways—but something didn’t quite add up. “Are they getting paid for this?” Cara asked me. “I don’t think so,” I answered.
Wrong again. WWF was indeed making direct cash payments to the villagers for helping with the nursery. For every 100 pôs filled, they were given 5000 ariary; and for every 400 saplings collected and planted, another 5000 ariary. I have mixed feelings about the practice. On the one hand, part of WWF’s mission is providing work for affected community members. They pay porters , cooks, and guides, in addition (apparently) to villagers that help with tree-planting projects. It also gets the project done, shows VOI members what they’re capable of, and, I’m sure, pleases donors and organization higher-ups who want measurable results. But on the other hand, "Let me pay you to plant trees so that your children have access to forest resources" seems kind of counterintuitive, no? The incentive scheme certainly isn’t sustainable, and I’m not sure that most participants took anything away from the activity other than the understanding that you should play along with WWF agents and vazahas because they’ll pay you for it.
Now, of course, I understand much better why the folks in Antaninary were expecting a cash reward for the cookstove training.
Regardless, it was a fascinating and productive few days. Our hike up and over the ridge to look for saplings was my first foray into primary forest near Vondrozo—and yielded a healthy batch of leeches on our feet, legs, and torsos. Sergio, who insisted on wearing his boots while the rest of us had sandals, had the most with 31. He also had a particularly difficult time ascending (and descending) the sheer, dirt path that led into the forest (he’s generally gangly and uncoordinated, kind of like a Spanish version of Huff). Our Malagasy colleagues are learning plenty of Spanish obscenities.
Camping on the promontory afforded us an awesome spot to watch late-afternoon thunderstorms roll in from the coast, put us uncomfortably close to a few lightning strikes, and allowed for the depressing evening pastime of counting the burning pools of doro-tanety on the hillsides below.
Taking it all in, I couldn’t help but wonder:
How many steps forward? How many steps back?