Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Good Leaves

In Malagasy, ravina means leaves, and tsara means good. Taken together, you get ravintsara—literally, the good leaves. Back to this later.

In a post from last October, I recounted the figurative kick in the groin I received while attempting to lead my first solo trainings in the field. Improved cookstove buiding was the topic I’d selected, even though the initial community socioeconomic survey legwork I'd done hadn't indicated that firewood scarcity, smoke inhalation-related health problems, or cooking time were priority issues for local people. Why’d I pick it? Well, it was a simple, straightforward enough thing to teach; the necessary materials were readily available; I felt confident enough with the vocabulary to be used; and the benefits, I thought, would be easy to discern.

The kicker came as I was trying to organize a session with VOI members in Ankazomaneno, a village to the south of Vondrozo. I’d sent prior word that I was coming, but the VOI president was in the forest looking for precious stones, so nothing had been arranged before I arrived. Regardless, I told the folks I was staying with that I could still build a cookstove with whoever was available. One of the members smirked a bit, took me aside, and said:

"Mila sakafo iahay. Mila vola. Tsy mila fata mitsitsy." We need food. We need money. We don’t need cookstoves.

It was hard to hear at the time, but I’m certainly glad he said it, because it left an indelible impression on me--and taught me perhaps the most important lesson I've learned about development work to date. If community members don't understand what you're doing as an effective response to a recognized need, they're very unlikely to engage with you, get involved, and take your (and their) work seriously.

Case in point: October is the height of the dry, hungry season in southeast Madagascar. And there I was, essentially saying: “Don’t have enough rice to fill your kids bellies? Well, here’s a cookstove!” Project and priorities—mismatched. So taking his words to heart, I began to look for ways to orient my work around the two issues he’d mentioned: food and money. What I eventually came up with—thanks to much collaboration with WWF and local VOI leaders—were two tree-planting projects that will likely be the meat of my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The first is with moringa (Moringa oleifera), a species that has stupidly nutritious leaves. In Survival and Subsistence in the Tropics, Frank Martin refers to moringa leaves as “one of the best plant foods that can be found.” Thanks to constant repetition from VOI meetings and other encounters, I’ve got the stats down pat: seven times the vitamin C of an orange; twice the calcium of milk; four times the protein of yogurt; three times the potassium of a banana; and four times the vitamin A of a carrot. The first folder of information I got handed on Vondrozo after site placement included several documents that identified southeast Madagascar as a high-priority intervention area for many NGOs and government agencies due to two paradoxical factors: favorable agricultural conditions and high rates of chronic malnutrition. As I reflected on project ideas for improving community and environmental health, permagardens were what initially jumped to mind. But gardens are labor- and water-intensive, require constant upkeep and seasonal planting, and usually involve the introduction of many new types of plant/food, which can considerably hinder adoption.

Enter moringa. When I was up in Antalaha last December, Marie-Helene—a successful Chinese-Malagasy businesswoman and former PCV Annah’s counterpart—joked with us that she’d have to shut her pharmacy’s doors if everyone in town started eating moringa. Moreover, moringa cultivation circumvents many of the problems gardens pose: it's simple to plant, requires little care, is a hardy survivor, produces constantly, and packs a nutritional punch that no other single vegetable species (in my available arsenal, at least) can match. I decided to buy a kilo of seed while passing through Tana in March, discussed the idea of a moringa "reforestation" project with WWF, and received a remarkably enthusiastic response from VOI members. Just like that, we were off and running.

I’ve now trained members of seven different VOIs in moringa nursery building, maintenance, and transplanting. So far, the total number of potting bags filled and seeded is nearing 6,000, and I’ll do a formal count of trees planted after the next round of transplanting trainings. My goal is to have 15,000 saplings in the ground by close of service. In a great stroke of luck, I recently got word that the project is being endorsed and funded by the $10 Club (an association of RPCVs and others who give small grants to support PCV projects). Special thanks to Crystal Thompson for that one.

The second tree-planting operation I’ve got going is with is with ravintsara (Cinnamomum camphora), a species in the camphor family whose leaves can be used to manufacture a high-retailing essential oil. Ravintsara (“good leaves”…remember?) is wildly popular in Madagascar these days; indeed it’s the one tree species that just about anyone and everyone is falling over themselves to get a hold of, making seed absurdly expensive (about $90 per kapoaka/cup). But the opportunity for a significant return on investment is real—a kilogram of ravintsara essential oil currently sells for just over the equivalent of $100 in Madagascar (and even more abroad)—and thanks to the generosity of friends and family (and friends of friends and family) back in America, as well as incredible logistical and financial support from WWF Madagascar, we were able to lock down 30 kapoaka/cups for nursery building with four targeted VOIs. The first-stage nurseries have now been built, the seed has been sown, and initial reports regarding germination rates have been encouraging.

On a quick aside: I probably solicited most if not all of the people reading this blog for donations through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) in support of the ravintsara project, so let me say once again: THANK YOU! I was utterly blown away by your willingness to help, and I promise a fuller update on our progress soon.

The overarching idea with both the moringa and ravintsara projects is that VOI members learn to build and maintain tree nurseries and transplant trees; reforestation helps improve the local environment in a myriad of ways; and local people have a new, highly nutritious source of food, or a novel source of income from the sale of tree products. Food and money.

And that VOI member from Ankazomaneno who clued me in? He just proudly showed me a nursery of 200 moringa saplings his groupement planted on their own after one of my recent trainings. Seven times the vitamin C of an orange; twice the calcium of milk; four times the protein of yogurt...

Well, I’d say those are some pretty damn good leaves, too.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Back in Action

Talk about a drop-off.

Nearly three and a half months after last posting, I’ve finally decided to buck the overwhelming thought of “catching up” and get writing again. Sadly, I don’t have a stash of blog installments I'd been working on or saving up. Quite simply, I got distracted by comings and goings—travel, tree planting (real work!), finding ways to tactfully beg for money, time with other PCVs, and a California girl—and let The Next Crazy Venture fall to the wayside.

But the good news is this: life has been fantastic, work is going well, and with projects and events beginning or progressing, I finally feel useful.

For the sake of my own records, here’s a quick recap of the past several months of life as a PCV in Madagascar:

Because the road to Vondrozo was cut during the heavy rains brought by Bingiza, I spent most of March bouncing between Mantasoa, Tana, and Fianarantsoa, with quick stops in a few other places (notably Ambohimasoa, where I had a quality stay with Erik and Polly). In the middle of the month, I worked at the new training group’s PST in Mantasoa. Highlights were a lunch with my host family from training (along with the new trainee they were putting up), dosing things green on St. Paddy’s Day (water bottles, tea, beer, fruit salad, etc.), and spending time with the new trainees and other training staff.

After my stint at PST, I stayed in Tana for the national Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) meetings. The Sud Est has become its own region, and I’ll be our representative for the coming year. Then I traveled back to site, with a pit stop in Farafangana for Melissa and Raff’s birthday celebrations.

The day after arriving back in Vondrozo, I led two all-day English courses for the WWF agents. It was a great experience, and I plan to continue the lessons throughout my service. While doing the initial language assessments with the group, I discovered that the project officer, Laza, is actually very proficient in English. Turns out he was just holding out on me to help get my ‘Gasy skills up to par.

At the beginning of April, I traveled south for a meeting with the VOI Ampasimposy/Mazavalala. This was the group I mentioned before that had a problem with the president pocketing money that was intended for a project. They were supposed to elect new leadership, but they basically shuffled around the same faces and chose to keep the same president (Tsavo). However, they’ve been remarkably mazoto, or hard-working, since the shakeup—especially Tsavo—so I’m optimistic that things are moving in a good direction.

The following week, I went to Vohimary—to the south, not to be confused with Vohimary Nord (which is, er, to the north)—intending to stay for the afternoon, help with WWF climate change sensibilizations (awareness-raising sessions), and bike back. Instead, I ended up staying two nights. We carried out the sensibilizations (though a malfunctioning microphone made it pretty difficult to be heard), showed a newly-produced WWF film about climate change, tavy, anddoro-tanety in Vondrozo to the locals, and played Malagasy music videos on the big screen so that villagers could have a dance party late into the night.

During the rest of April, I met with VOIs in Tsaragisa, Vohimary Nord, Antaninary, Vohilava, and Madiorano to discuss potential work; wrote several grant proposals for a number of upcoming events and projects; met with local environment clubs to fine-tune work plans and discuss the next academic year; and held two tree nursery-building trainings (in Ampasimposy and Vohimary Nord) at which we prepared 2500 potting bags and planted them with moringa seed (to be discussed in an upcoming post). I celebrated Easter—and Easter Monday, which is a huge party day in Madagascar—with friends in Vondrozo. On Easter Monday, we picnicked a few kilometers outside of town at a riverside spot called “Masomboay”—literally, “Eyes of the Crocodile.” Thankfully, I didn’t have to pull out my inner Steve Irwin and wrestle any crocs; we passed the day lounging, eating, and imbibing in the sun.

On May 5 my training group hit its “one-year-left-until-Close-of-Service” mark, meaning that from here-on out, we’re liable to fall into periodic daydreams of musing: “In a year, I’ll be doing such-and-such in America.” Unless, of course, we decide to extend our service.

For two ridiculously fantastic weeks in May, I had a visitor from Kenya—ladyfriend (and former WWF volunteer from last year’s Vondrozo group) Cara Brook, who was taking a quick break from her research gig at Mpala Station. After helping sitemate Erica Wherry ring in her 23rd year on May 11, Cara and I biked and hiked over 100km in three days around the Vondrozo Corridor, meeting with area VOIs, planting moringa trees, and checking out waterfalls.

May 23-24 was my stage (training group)’s Mid-Service Conference (MSC) in Mantasoa, so Cara and I trekked back up to Tana together, taking in a full moon in Manakara along the way. While in Tana, we were able to meet up with Cara’s fellow former WWF volunteer, Ranto, for his birthday party. Not only was it awesome to see Ranto again, but we also met many of his friends and classmates, all of whom are completing master’s degrees in development and population at the Université Catholique de Madagascar. I’ve no doubt that we were sharing company during that afternoon day-party with the future leaders of Madagascar. The following afternoon, I watched Cara board a plane back to Nairobi. It was an unfortunately quick visit, but much better, of course, than no visit at all.

The next two days and nights I spent reconnecting with stagemates in Tana (and making a guest appearance in a Malagasy music video that we stumbled into the shooting of) before Peace Corps trucked us all up to the Mantasoa training center for MSC. MSC was a much more effective use of time than IST, mainly because now we’re all actually doing stuff at site. Most of the week was spent talking shop—discussing project ideas and mechanics, sharing best practices and contacts, etc. Especially helpful was a session with Nat Delafield and Sarah Osterhoudt, two Madagascar RPCVs who’re now back in-country working with farmers’ cooperatives to certify and export agricultural goods like vanilla and cloves.

The week wasn’t all serious talk, though. In addition to site video-sharing (we each made clips of our Malagasy homes in the vein of MTV Cribs), movie-watching, and a lot of catching up, we also had an epic reunion party our last night in Mantasoa. The theme—“dayglo”—is the reason for the obnoxiously bright get-ups we’re all wearing in the pictures you might’ve spotted on Facebook. Amongst all the training groups in-country, our stage had been lacking a nickname. During MSC, though, it came to us: the Best Stage Ever Stage.

We drove back to Tana on Friday morning for a tour of the new U.S. Embassy complex, which felt like stepping back into a (huge, air-conditioned) office building in America for a few hours. The following evening, Leif (the PC programming and training officer) hosted one of his legen—wait for it—dary BBQs to cap off the week. Unfortunately, the night didn’t go quite as planned. Fellow PCV Esther (from a previous stage) landed awkwardly on the trampoline and broke her ankle in a big way. PCVs and staff did an absurdly impressive job of taking care of her until the PC doctors arrived. They very capably took over and transported her to the hospital, and she was medevac’ed to South Africa the following morning. The great news? She’ll be fine. The devastating news? She won’t be back—at least not as a PCV. If you’re reading this, Esther, you’ve always got an open invitation back to Vondrozo. Just don’t be pissed at me if we end up crammed with 35 other people in the bed of a pickup with gasoline canisters splashing on us for nine-and-a-half hours on the road to get here :)

I stayed in Tana for a few extra days to discuss work details with WWF, which happily allowed me to spend some quality time with fellow ND alums Bill and Chris (yep, there were three of us in country), as well as newly-minted subway alum Soraiya. Chris (Planicka) was a reinstated volunteer, meaning he’d come back after being evacuated following the 2009 coup. He’d finished his service and was hanging out in Tana for a few days before starting his journey back to the United States. We sent him off in style befitting an Irishman—with Maker’s Mark whisky brought fresh from America by Peace Corps Response Volunteer (PCRV) Ryan Marsh (who also happens to be the PCV who lived in Vondrozo prior to the coup).

Luckily, I was able to catch a ride with the WWF Land Rover from Tana to Farafangana. I taxi-broussed back to Vondrozo for a few days of resettling before returning to Farafangana to help organize our regional Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Fety (party). All PCVs in the Sud Est—plus a few from further away—came to town for the occasion. Over the weekend, we hosted a cocktail reception for our counterparts, other NGO workers, and local government folks; spent a day making presentations in Farafangana’s main market area, familiarizing the local population with Peace Corps, its history, its work in Madagascar, and our roles as volunteers; and held an event at the local nightclub (Three Ten) to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and safe sex. We also had a beach bonfire (where the marshmallows you sent came in handy, Mimi) and closing BBQ. Many thanks to James and Maria—the two PCVs living in Farafangana—for their hospitality, hard work, and good humor about having 16 PCVs occupying their living space.

Once back in Vondrozo, I went on two field trips—one to hold a moringa planting training, the other to meet with several VOIs and schedule similar trainings in the coming weeks. And now, it’s Monday—market day. The streets are more overcrowded than usual because it’s the week of Vingt-six, or June 26—Madagascar’s Independence Day. The Malagasy will mark 51 years of independence from France on Sunday, and the party’s already started.

Not yet for me, though. Over the next few days, I’ll be traveling to villages south to build more moringa tree nurseries with the local VOIs. I’ll be back in Vondrozo for the gendarme’s Independence Ball on Friday night, however, and will celebrate the weekend with Erica and ‘Gasy friends in town. It’ll be my second—and likely my last—Vingt-six as a Madagascar PCV.

But certainly not my last Vingt-six in Madagascar.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Year of Island Life

The Peace Corps turned 50 this week, and today is our one-year-since-arriving-in-country anniversary. Sounds like cause for celebration, no? Congratulations to all RPCVs the world over—and especially to my dad, who volunteered in Korea during the 1960s. JFK and Sargent Shriver had the means and the vision, but it was you folks that made Peace Corps real, and it’s an honor to continue the tradition of service that you began.

The next few weeks promise to be interesting. I’m working at the Tana meva right now, helping to prepare things for the new group’s PST. Today I’m also writing blog posts, searching the capital for moringa seeds, and browsing the PC office’s stash of English-teaching materials. Tomorrow PC is throwing a farewell party for Boda, the outgoing health program director (who I spent much quality time with while stranded in Farafangana last month), and Saturday the Embassy is hosting some sort of celebration. Sunday, I’m tentatively planning to head south with a PC car going to Fianar. I’ll spend about a week there and in surrounding towns working on various projects with other PCVs. Then, it’s up to Mantasoa to work at PST for a week or so. Once my commitments there are finished, I’ll make my way back home to the Sud Est, hold a series of English classes with the WWF agents in Farafangana, help Melissa and Raffy celebrate their birthdays, and finally (road conditions allowing) return to Vondrozo. Never a dull moment.

A couple of random things:

Firstly, 20/20 recently aired an “exposé” looking at Peace Corps’ handling of cases involving murder, rape, and sexual assault. The investigation focused primarily on the case of Kate Puzey, a PCV in Benin who was murdered in 2009 (you can find the segment online). I’ll skip a lengthy commentary and instead just say that Peace Corps Benin made a series of terrible mistakes, and the situation ended in heartbreaking tragedy. However, the 20/20 piece is—I think—too quick to transpose that country program’s problems onto Peace Corps as a whole, and too eager to cast the agency as villain in a sensationalized storyline.

Secondly, while I’m in Tana and Fianar, I’ll have access to decent interwebs. Google is currently promoting its gchat phone service (which allows you to dial any number through your account) by granting free calls from Madagascar to the United States and Canada throughout 2011. I’ve used it to call home a few times now, and it works pretty awesomely (provided the interwebs cooperate). If you’re up for a phone call, shoot me a message/email/text and I’ll try to reach you sometime over the next few weeks.

Thirdly, Notre Dame men’s basketball is ranked #7 in the nation and faces UConn in their final regular season game on Saturday. GO IRISH. BEAT HUSKIES, and then bring on the Big Dance.

Lastly, I’m cooking up shoyu chicken for dinner and recently acquired an ukulele (another volunteer who'd lived in Hawai'i ET'd and left it behind), so island food and music are on the docket for tonight. What better way to celebrate a year of island life?


If Katrina, Icelandic volcanoes, and Australian floods have taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that even with Doppler radars and sophisticated response bureaucracies, developed countries remain susceptible to the devastating effects of severe weather events and other natural disasters. Strip away high technology and all but the most basic elements of emergency preparedness, though, and you’re left with an even bleaker picture of unmitigated vulnerability. That’s the reality for people in the developing world in the face of such catastrophes.

Two weeks ago, Cyclone Bingiza hit the northern half of Madagascar with force, dissipated as it passed into the Mozambique Channel, then changed directions, regained strength, and washed over the island’s southwestern flank. Down in the southeast, we were spared a direct blow. But the system still brought several days of pounding rain to the region—and concomitantly a good measure of frustration and adventure.

Our plan was to leave site, head to Farafangana, swing down to Manombo (a village south of Farafangana that will be getting one of the incoming environment volunteers) for a day of site development, trek up to Fianarantsoa for the Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) meeting, and finally continue on to Tana and Mantasoa for training of trainers (TOT). I managed the first leg all right, thankfully. It’d been raining heavily and a dam outside of Vondrozo had burst, but the taxi-brousse still made it through to Farafangana on Tuesday afternoon.

The following morning, Abe and I went to Manombo for site development. Or rather, we tried to go to in the morning and wound up there in the early afternoon. Our taxi-brousse left two hours late and then broke down 15km outside of town. Forty-five minutes later, a replacement car picked us up and took us into Manombo town. I’d arranged for us to meet with the director of the nearby special reserve, but he’d found us as we were leaving Fara to say that there was a schedule change, he was unavailable for the day, and other people would talk with us, instead. When we arrived in town, though, no one knew who we were or what we were talking about. We found the president of the fokontany and spoke with him, had him show us the future volunteer’s house site (they hadn’t started building it), held a quick community meeting, and then hitched a ride 5km back up the road to the MNP office, where the reserve agents were waiting for us.

The conversation went well, except that they were more interested in having an English teacher than an environment volunteer. We finished up by 2:45 and walked out to the main road. We’d made a reservation with a brousse that said it’d be passing around 3:30, so we set up camp under a little hut roof at the reserve entrance turnoff. It’d been raining off-and-on for a few hours, and it began to pick up as we waited. Soon, it was blustery and pouring. 3:30 rolled around—no brousse; 4:00—no brousse; 5:00—no brousse. Finally, around 5:30, our (terribly overloaded with people and crap) brousse showed up. By the time we got back to Farafangana, the Manakara brousse had already left, so we called Farafangana PCV James to come meet us for dinner. As we sat down and began eating at the station’s hotely (our new favorite in town), the downpour escalated into a torrential pounding. We decided to try to wait it out at the hotely. Three hours later, it still hadn’t subsided—but we had made a few Malagasy drinking buddies, who offered to drive us back to James’ so we wouldn’t have to get soaked. Also,we’d heard that Boda—the PC health program director—was in town for the night and driving north the next morning, so we called and she agreed to give us a ride as far as Manakara.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other designs in mind. The rain didn’t stop, and when we left with the PC car (a 4x4 Nissan Patrol) on Thursday morning, we got 10km out of town before hitting The Rapids. The road was completely covered for about 200m in front of us with forcefully flowing water. Abe, James, and I walked out about 30m to test it and concluded that it wasn’t passable, so we went back to Farafangana.

On Friday, we only made it 5km outside of town before encountering The Flood. Some barrier had broken somewhere, unleashing a wash of chest-deep water over a previously-uncovered part of the road. We walked out to test it and considered hiring some onlooking locals to push us through it, but ultimately decided to turn around. James and I biked out to it later in the day to take a look; it’d gone down but wasn’t low enough to get through.

Saturday morning, the water had receded enough for us push through The Flood and on to The Rapids. The tide there had pulled back, too, but after another let-the-vazahas-walk-out-into-the-river-to-see-what-they-can-see event with me, James, and Abe, we realized that we wouldn't be making it through again. Some Chinese folks talked big about rushing it and pushing through, but ultimately they decided otherwise. Dugout canoes were ferrying people back and forth between our side of The Rapids and a site 2km down the road. We got some disheartening intelligence from passengers coming over from the other side. Apparently, what we could see from where we were standing (The Rapids) was actually only the first leg of an inundation intermittently stretched over the next 2km. The end of this stretch, we were told, was much deeper and flowing even more quickly.

Heads down, we returned to Farafangana. James had met a French couple in Fara a few months back (and one of the vazaha canoe passengers we saw earlier in the day turned out to be the husband, Mathieu), and they invited us over for conversation and drinks. It was a blast. Afterwards, we went to the hotely for dinner and then on to 310 for a late night of dancing, staying out until close to 4am.

On Sunday, we were hurting. The PC car arrived at 7am, but it was nearly 8am by the time we’d packed up and dragged ourselves out the door. At The Flood, the road was completely dry and the water had gone down about 6 feet. At The Rapids, things had also gotten better, but it was still impassable, so we turned around and drove back to Farafangana. Again.

As we were walking to dinner on Sunday evening, the PC driver pulled up alongside us. He told us that two 4x4s had pushed through The Rapids and were on their way to Manakara. We couldn’t head out right away (PC doesn’t allow staff to drive at night), but we set out in good spirits bright and early the next morning. And sure enough, the water had gone down several feet—enough for us to get through. Finally, we were free of Farafangana. Tempering our jubilation, though, was the wash of destruction all around. Parts of the road were gone; landslides had blocked lanes right and left; trees had fallen over; villages were partially submerged. In short, people’s lives were massively disrupted.

We’d already missed the VAC meeting in Fianar by several days, so we just stayed there a night before driving up to Tana. TOT in Mantasoa went well. We developed the schedule for technical training, went through some teambuilding exercises, and had medical, security, admin, and cultural briefings with PC staff.

I was originally planning to return to site for about a week between TOT and the portion of the new group’s pre-service training (PST) that I’m officially helping with, but now that's changed. Erica attempted to get back to Vondrozo after spending a few days in Fianar, but once she got to Farafangana, she found out that the road heading west is cut. Two bridges were washed away in the storm’s aftermath, and there’s no telling how long it might take to repair them. I called WWF to discuss the situation, too. Turns out that there are canoes ferrying people across the stretches of water now blocking the road, but no taxi-brousses can make it all the way through from Fara to Vondrozo. It’s been raining every night in the southeast, so there’s no telling whether or when things will get better. Plus, it’s a far trip to make (at least three days’ worth of taxi-broussing) and I could end up sitting in Fara for days again, or possibly make it back to Vondrozo—but not be able to make it back out. So instead, I’m probably sitting tight and helping with projects in and around Tana and Fianar until my PST stint begins.

Erica was particularly bummed that we were blocked in Fara and missed the VAC gathering in Fianar. She hadn’t been out of site in a month and a half and was looking forward to the break. “There are always options back home,” she said, staring out at The Rapids. “But here, we’re just…stuck.” It’s frustrating, but we've learned that you’ve just gotta roll with it. After all, it’s not a bad place to be stuck—especially when the days are long, the beers are cold, and the company is true.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Over the Quarter-Century Hill

At my eighth-grade graduation from St. John Vianney School, we (like thousands upon thousands of other musically-unfortunate students of the era) sang Vitamin C’s craptastically-catchy and unimaginatively-named “Graduation” as our parting anthem. It began, “And so we talked all night about the rest of our lives, where we’re gonna be when we turn 25…”

If you had told my 14-year-old self that the answer to that query was “Vondrozo, Madagascar”...well, I would’ve been confused, curious, anxious, overwhelmed, and utterly stoked. Kind of like my 24-year-old self was a year ago today, preparing to enter Peace Corps service in a few short weeks. And kind of like my 25-year-old self still is on any given day here in Madagascar.

In any case, here I am—freshly turned a quarter-century old. Thanks to all for the birthday well wishes via phone, voicemail, text, email, and Facebook.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent most of my time working in and around Vondrozo, with one quick side trip to Farafangana for WWF regional planning meetings. I’ve had a slew of meetings with Erica and local school officials, trying to get environment and English clubs set up at area primary, middle, and high schools. Progress has been slow, but we’ve now had several English club meetings, are developing an activities program for the environment clubs, and held student officer elections.

The middle school’s environment club elections were a hilariously disastrous democratic learning exercise. The school’s director, Mr. Martin, herded the students who’d signed up for the club (around 125 people) into one of the bigger rooms on campus. He wrote the offices to be filled on the board, and then asked for volunteer presidential candidates. About seven people threw their names into the ring. “How are we going to do voting,” I asked him. “Mitsanga tanana,” he answered. “Raising hands.”

The kids didn’t just vote with their hands, though. They also were apparently convinced that the loudest faction’s candidate would win. No speeches or secret ballots—just a pure, unadulterated popularity contest with 125 hooting, hollering, cheering, and jeering middle schoolers crammed into an undersized room. The volume level was like Notre Dame Stadium after a USC fumble. Talk about a shitshow.

After an hour of raucous pandemonium, we had our officers. Seventh-grader Theophile won the presidency; eighth-grader Christine took the VP slot; and Mr. Martin basically hand-picked the final two winners for the treasurer and secretary jobs. With the environment clubs, we’ll be filing applications to have them admitted to the “Fédération Clubs Vintsy,” a WWF-sponsored, nationwide coalition of environment clubs from the primary-school through university levels. Reviewing the application guidelines a few days later, I learned that the president had to come from the highest grade level (in this case, the equivalent of eighth grade). Granted, an underage former disc jockey overthrew the last elected Malagasy president (and then pushed through a new constitution to lower the requisite age), but we wanted to make sure the Vintsy application would be accepted, so Theophile was out and Christine was in. Mr. Martin wanted to install his hand-picked secretary as president instead (“Because he’s a man”), but I argued that it only made sense to have the VP move up. Erica encountered the same attitude when she sat through the faculty board’s elections. She nominated one of her female peers to be president, after which she was told—by both the men and women present—that only a man should hold that position. Malagasy women are fairly assertive, but traditional attitudes prevail in the political realm. I guess Hillary would’ve lost here, too.

Through all of this work to get student clubs established—and because I periodically tag along with Erica to her middle and high school English classes—I’ve gotten to know the local faculty members pretty well. Consequently, they invited me to their New Year’s parties, held throughout the month of January (and into February). The parties consisted of the faculty cancelling classes for an afternoon/day, going to the director/principal’s house, making a round of kabary (speeches), eating salty snacks, and drinking soda/beer/toaka. One party at the high school (and another at the Catholic church) also featured broadly-daylit dance sessions—a long cry from fomba Ameriken (American culture). Erica passed the responsibility of kabarying on to me, so I stumbled through a few phrases (aided by a bit of previous THB consumption) at each event, trying to convey the appropriate sentiments. Fortunately, they’re still pretty forgiving about and quick to praise anything the resident vazaha says in Malagasy.

The WWF regional meetings in Farafangana went fine, though the results were generally disappointing. The staff I work with had said we’d be building schedules together, so I was expecting to come out with a solid four-month work plan centered around the goals WWF had for each of my partner VOIs. But the project’s budget hadn’t been finalized—meaning there were no activities planned with those VOIs—so “building work schedules together” turned into me making a plan up out of thin air. I decided to focus on establishing solid, specific working groups within each VOI, and training members to build moringa tree nurseries and vegetable gardens. We’ll see how that goes…

One nice ordering principle I had to work with was the schedule of upcoming Peace Corps trainings. I got the nod to help Peace Corps staff with the incoming group of new environment sector trainees. They arrive in March, train for two months, and then are posted to site in May (just like we were last year). I’ve been given a seven-day “PCV of the Week” assignment, so I’ll be living at the PCTC in Mantasoa, leading cross-cultural and technical sessions with the new newbies during the third week of March. I also have to trek to Mantasoa at the end of February for “training of trainers” (TOT), so I’ve arranged my VOI programming around those events, along with our stage's mid-service training/Advanced Service Conference (MST/ASC), which falls at the end of May.

After a final WWF team New Year’s party in Farafangana, I hitched a ride back to Vondrozo and began prepping for a field trip to the south. The going was tough. I was out of field-tripping shape, and recent rains had turned the roads (principally my old friend, the RIP) into a series of washed-out canyons and knee-deep mud-slicks. It took nearly five hours to cover the 20km to Ambalatraka. I lost my shoes multiple times after sinking into the mud, and (on my way home a few days later) I almost fell off a bridge and twenty feet down to the stream below after trying to power through a particularly bad slick.

Regardless, I eventually made it to the village. The day before I’d left, I’d seen Ambalatraka’s VOI president in Vondrozo, and we’d arranged the meeting for the next day. When I arrived, though, there were only three guys plus him waiting for me. And the three guys were completely hammered on toakambazaha (literally, “white people’s booze”), these little bottles of refined rum (well, refined compared to Malagasy moonshine toaka) available in some shops. It turned out that there was a wedding celebration in the next village over, meaning most VOI members were thus unavailable, so I held a meeting with just the president, the former village mpanjaka (king), and the three stooges. I laid out the plan for the next few months, asked the president to discuss it with the members at the next general meeting, and then hiked on to Ankazomaneno.

Ankazomaneno is my favorite southern community to visit, mainly because of the family I stay with when I’m there. They’re incredibly welcoming, accommodating, and helpful. It’s still nearly impossible for me to participate in full Malagasy conversation amongst native speakers—especially in the countryside, where the dialect goes off its rocker—which often makes my village visits akin to marathons of awkwardness. But with this family, I always feel comfortable, even if I’m just sitting and listening through dinner, enjoying the warmth of the meal, the hut, and the company.

Unfortunately, the meeting the following morning in Ankazomaneno was also shot—this time because a WWF agent had sent word that he wanted to have a meeting the next day instead. The VOI president (understandably) didn’t want to call the fokon’olo (community assembly) together for two meetings two days in a row, so I relayed all the information to him and a few other officers present, and asked them to discuss it with everyone at the meeting the next day.

After lunch, I made my way back to Mazavalala, where I met with the president and other officers the following morning. Mazavalala is the weakest VOI that I work with, and the president is apparently on WWF’s shit list because he funneled away a bunch of funding intended to start a fish-farming project. Why he’s still president—and why I’ve been paired up with that VOI—is a frustrating question to ponder. The meeting itself was all right. They spent most of the time explaining that they need money for a new high-quality corrugated tin roof for their primary school. Or, in other words, they asked me repeatedly to buy them a roof. I replied that they should form dedicated groups within the VOI that could undertake specific cash-cropping projects (like growing peanuts, which WWF offered them the seed for a few months back), generating income for the VOI and subsequently allowing them to buy the roof themselves. Logical enough, right? I’m not sure if I failed to communicate it well, or if it just wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They did seem willing and somewhat motivated to form the groups, though, and I told them I’d look into NGO funding they might be able to apply for (the school really is in terrible shape). We adjourned the meeting, I ate lunch with the president, and then I was on the road home to Vondrozo.

Saturday I hit my quarter-century mark. PCVs Abe and James came out to Vondrozo for the weekend to help me and Erica celebrate the occasion. We hiked and biked the hills outside of town, had a few late nights, and enjoyed the American company. Saturday was also Florent’s son Angelo’s birthday, and Sunday was my good friend Eliane’s, so we had a joint dinner party with friends and neighbors on Saturday night. The friends that I invited unexpectedly brought great, useful gifts—a set of six glasses, an umbrella, a lamba, and a bottle of wine. Humbling generosity from people who don’t have much. For the meal, Eliane prepared the rice, and we were in charge of cooking the loaka (side dish accompanying the rice). We made fried potatoes and a big pot of barbeque beef and pork stew, cracking open one of the KC Masterpiece BBQ sauce bottles I’d picked up while home in Hawai‘i. Going in to dinner, I was a little worried that we hadn’t made enough food. Turns out my worries were misplaced, though.

Vony, my good friend Thelemy’s wife, took one bite of the beef and turned to me. “Misy siramamy anatin’ny ve?” she asked. “Is there sugar in this?” I was confused at first, thinking maybe she meant that she wanted sugar or salt to flavor the dish. No, I said, there wasn’t any sugar in it—just salt, pepper, oil, and barbeque sauce. “Ity ny hena aby, ny kisoa da ny omby fangaro ve?” Eliane followed up. “Is this all of the meat, the pork and beef all together?” Yeah, it was. Noticing that some people weren’t taking any of the stew—or were taking very little—I thought I might have made a cultural faux pas by mixing the types of meat. Pork is fady, or taboo, for some people in Madagascar (a lingering relic of Muslim cultural influence on the island). But as dinner progressed, I realized that that wasn’t the problem. Almost all of the Malagasy present just plain didn’t like the stew. The potatoes were gone in a second, but half the guests didn’t touch the meat, and were vocal about how bad it was. Apparently the Malagasy palate—accustomed to rice with a salty side dish for every meal—doesn’t agree with the sweetness of barbeque sauce. And evidently there’s no shame in telling your hosts that their cooking is terrible. The Americans—and a couple of the Malagasy, who very well might’ve been putting on a show for politeness’ sake—thought it was delicious. How could beer-tenderized, barbeque-marinated meat not be delicious? Or so I thought before I saw Florent spitting food out of his mouth at the other end of the table. Well, at least we had leftovers for lunch the next day.

After a final night of revelry, Abe and James caught the Sunday morning taxi-brousse home. I’m leaving town myself tomorrow, traveling to Manombo—a small forest reserve south of Farafangana—at acting Peace Corps environment director Stan’s request. Peace Corps is thinking of placing a new PCV there in May, but they’ve asked me and Abe to evaluate the site further and see if appropriate housing is/will be available. Following Manombo, the whole crew of Sud Est volunteers will be going up to Fianarantsoa for our regional Volunteer Action Committee (VAC) meeting on Saturday. TOT begins in Tana/Mantasoa the Thursday after that, so I’ll have a few extra days in between to spend in Fianar and Tana—time I’ll hopefully fill by meeting with NGOs, catching up with other PCVs, and taking advantage of quality meva internet to gchat and/or Skype with folks back home. Once TOT has finished (around the end of the month), I’ll start the taxi-brousse journey home.

Roads allowing, that is. The rains have finally arrived—and have done so en force. We’ve had showers every day or night, and several extended downpours lasting hours into days. We’re in the midst of one of the latter right now. Also, there’s a category-two cyclone (named “Bingiza”) working its way across the northern half of the island as I write this. Madagascar has been hit by a significant number of storms over the last ten years—much more frequently than historical trends would have predicted. There have been bizarre changes in the Indian Ocean monsoon cycle, as well. At any rate, we’re hoping that Bingiza doesn’t do too much damage, and doesn’t take a southern turn that’ll bring it into our neighborhood.

I’m heading to market and on to Erica’s to cook dinner and put on a movie. Chances are I’m probably stuck watching a romantic comedy tonight. After all, it is February 14. Which reminds me—Happy Valentine’s Day!

Coming back to where we started (sorry, my aging mind is liable to wander)—I gave a speech at that eighth grade graduation, too. In it, I quoted the venerable Dr. Suess’ Oh the Places You’ll Go (original, no?). The book ends with:

“You’re off to great places,
today is your day.
Your mountain is waiting,
so get on your way.”

Fitting words for a graduate. And for a 25-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer? Well, why the hell not. Madagascar is, indeed, a great place—crowded with mountains literal and figurative to climb, stand on, and move.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Never Stop Exploring

Time for a quick game of catch-up. I apologize for going dark over the past two months, for the cursory treatment I’ll be giving my recent comings and goings in this post, and for stealing The North Face’s tagline for my title. So it goes.

Rewind to mid-November, when I was tasked with assisting Augustin and the VOI in Ankazomaneno (south of Vondrozo) with a forest restoration project. Augustin asked me to delay my departure by a few days to await the arrival of two Malagasy university students from Tana, Richard and Joelle, who were planning to carry out socioeconomic surveys with the Corridor communities. Normally, when I go to Ankazomaneno or other nearby villages, I bike 14km south to Ampasimposy, stash my bike, and hike the rest of the way. But this time, since Richard and Joelle were bike-less, we covered the entire 18km on foot. It was a grueling hike, especially since we left in the heat of high noon (when the village guides showed up) and were caught in a rainstorm a few hours later before finally reaching our destination.

Traveling with the students was an eye-opening experience. Part of me had assumed (stupidly) that all Malagasy—that everyone from a developing country, really—would have some sense of what life in rural areas was like. But as Richard and Joelle discussed missing their laptops and the latest plot twists in Prison Break, I realized how completely removed their lives in Tana were from the world ambanivohitra, or “in the countryside.” The differences in dialect were also apparent; the locals repeatedly turned to Augustin for translations of the students’ city-speak Officialy, and Richard and Joelle confessed almost constant difficulty in understanding the villagers’ muffled and slurred Sahafatra.

Our time in Ankazomaneno passed without incident, though the restoration project was delayed several times by late arrivals and frequent downpours. The most remarkable event during the trip was an intense storm that hit us the second night. I’d set up my tent in a clearing on the hill between the school and the village. Around midnight, a sharp crack of thunder woke me up. The lightning strikes were constant—and close—and I curled up on my sleeping mat, hoping the worst of it would pass quickly. About ten minutes later, however, the wind picked up significantly and battered my tent to the point that it collapsed on top of me. As water began pouring in, I shoved all of my belongings into my backpack, staggered out into the storm, felt my way over to the hut where the students were staying, and bunked down with them for the rest of the night. In making a run for other shelter, I’d abandoned the tent for dead; I thought its poles had probably snapped, leading to the collapse. When I checked it out in the morning, though, I was relieved to find it in generally decent condition (other than the lake that had formed inside). All in all, a pretty fun experience.

Stan, our acting environment sector program director, was coming to Vondrozo for a site visit, so after another day of getting the tree nursery set up, I left early in the morning to trek home. After a brief conversation about my work plan and lunch at Behavana, I convinced Stan to come with me to visit the village of Vohimary Nord, 21km north of Vondrozo. Abe (who’d come with Stan) and Erica tagged along for the ride.

Of all the Corridor villages I’ve visited over the past nine months, Vohimary Nord is my favorite. It’s got a beautiful hilltop location, a mazoto (“diligent”) VOI, and a friendly, welcoming, forward-looking population. Peace Corps is always interested in developing new sites for incoming volunteers, and I think that Vohimary Nord would be an excellent place for a PCV to live and work. Shortly after arriving, Stan and I met with the VOI president, his wife, and the village chief to discuss the prospect of having a PCV in town. Afterwards, Stan said that he thought it was an excellent site, but that its isolated location gave him pause. It might be too much for a new volunteer, he thought, and getting PC’s medical and security officers to approve the site would be an uphill battle. I jokingly suggested to Stan that I could move to Vohimary and he could put a new volunteer in my place in Vondrozo. “Now that’s an idea,” he replied. In a subsequent visit to the village, I held a community meeting and helped the VOI president file the necessary paperwork to request a volunteer. PC isn’t planning on placing one of the new environment trainees (who come in March) there, but they’re amenable to the idea of me moving there to test it out for a few months in the future. We’ll see.

After Stan, Abe, and Erica had left to go back to Vondrozo, I hiked on from Vohimary to Antaninary. There I met Florent, Andry, and the WWF Explore! volunteers, who were approaching the tail end of their hike across the Corridor. The next day, we climbed into the mountains and forest above Antaninary, where we set up camp at the top of a waterfall and slept for two nights. After descending back down to Antaninary and spending a night in Vohimary village, we continued up into the mountains and forest above Vohimary, where we explored the course of the Manampatrana river and camped in an absurdly beautiful valley. We returned to Vohimary the following day, spent the night there, and were picked up by a WWF vehicle in the morning.

Back in Vondrozo, I hastily packed my bags, shared a few last meals, and then had to say goodbye to Cara and the other WWF volunteers. Their three-month stint was almost over, I was heading to Tana to catch an international flight, and they’d be gone by the time I got back to the country. My heart was in my throat as I rolled out of town, my eyes glued to the rear view mirror until we turned a corner and their images dispersed. To say they brought a few plot twists to my life…well, it’d be the understatement of the century.

The next two weeks were a blur of airplanes, parties, friends, and family. My first stop was in Washington, DC, where I spent a breakneck 40 hours with most of my best friends from college. We went out on the town one night (4 P’s & Dan’s Café) and had a Christmas party the next. Thanks again to Huff, Katie, Jordy, Claire, and Kristin for hosting the deluge of rumpus that came down that weekend, as well as to all the out-of-towners who made the trip. Seeing you folks made me happier than I could ever put into words.

After DC, I continued on to Hawai‘i for Sean and Michele’s wedding. I helped with preparations as I could (becoming a corner-rounding expert in the process) and did my best to catch up with family and friends who were in town for the festivities. The wedding itself was utterly awesome. The ceremony went perfectly; the reception was a blast; the trolley ride to Waikiki was hilarious; and the hotel afterparty went well into the wee hours (5-hour Energies may have played a part in the marathon celebration).

And then, before I knew it, I was saying goodbye. Again.

I won’t pretend that it was easy. In fact, I was reeling. Peace Corps warns volunteers about the dangers of going home during their service. It wasn’t at all that I didn’t want to come back to Madagascar. But having to say goodbye to the people I love again…well, it was heart-wrenching, to say the least. Coming back was never up for debate, though, so regardless of the emotional rollercoaster playing out in my head and chest, I put one foot in front of the other, boarded the plane, and started the return journey to the other side of the planet.

(Don’t worry—I “wah”ed myself plenty while writing that paragraph.)

How best to describe the trip back to ‘Gascar? Long.

I flew from Honolulu to LA, where I slept through a 10-hour layover. Then it was LA to Frankfurt, where I used my second 10-hour layover to explore the city, hitting up the Christmas market for some currywurst and gluhwein (mulled wine) and walking along the River Main as a gentle snow started to fall. Unfortunately, that gentle snow decided not to stop. Four hours later, sitting on the tarmac, we got word that the airport had been shut down, delaying the flight several hours. We eventually got off the ground, but by the time we finally arrived in Johannesburg, I’d missed my flight to Tana. Thankfully, there were seats available on the next day’s flight. The airline put me up in a hotel for the night, and (despite a booking mix-up that nearly cost me my seat) I made it back to Madagascar the next day.

Immediately after getting back to Tana, I was frantically trying to find a way to get north to the Sava region. I’d been approved to travel to fellow PCV Nick and Annah’s sites to assist with trainings, but all of the flights were sold out by the time I got the final go-ahead. I was mulling heading east to Tamatave, a city on the coast, and taking a boat from there to Antalaha, but PC Country Director John Reddy nixed the idea, saying that it was too dangerous. After talking with a travel agency representative, I decided to head to the airport the following morning and try to get on a flight stand-by. I didn’t think I’d have much luck; there are only a few flights to the Sava region every week, and they were booked solid until Christmas. Somehow, though, more than five people didn’t show up for the flight, and I got a seat on my first attempt—to Sambava in Sava. The flight took about an hour. If I were to have made the journey by taxi brousse, it would’ve taken—no joke—three or four days. Crazy, no?

In Sava, I attended an SRI training at Nick’s site outside of Andapa, as well as ecotourism, reforestation, and cookstove workshops at Annah’s site in Antalaha. We celebrated Christmas and New Years in Antalaha; went to a concert featuring (and got to talk with) Jerry Marcoss, Madagascar’s Jay-Z; met with Madagascar National Parks personnel to discuss ecotourism and long-distance hiking treks; and explored Marojejy and Masoala National Parks. Masoala (which translates as “Eye of the Forest”) is renowned as the largest remaining contiguous swath of Madagascar’s Eastern Rainforest. It’s also infamous as an illegal logging hotspot—especially for highly-prized Malagasy hardwoods like ebony and rosewood. Our trip (I was with Annah and Jonathan, a PCV from the northeast coast close to Ambanja) into the national park began at Cap Est (the island’s easternmost point) and consisted of a one-day canoe ride up the Onive River and four days of forest trekking. The highlight of the venture was undoubtedly the area around Bevontsira, a massive waterfall in the middle of the rainforest. The hike to the top of the waterfall kicked our asses, but it was absolutely worth the view of rainforest-covered, mist-shrouded mountains as far as the eye could see. One other interesting point—in the village where we landed our canoe, we witnessed a large amount of rosewood (about $16,000 worth according to our guide) being hauled to waiting pirogues and transported downstream. Though it looked like a lot to us, apparently hardwood trafficking in the area was much more robust a few months ago. The recent downturn coincided with the publication of a National Geographic article about the illicit exploitation going on, though I’m not sure how much credit should be accorded to the story given whatever else might have influenced the situation. In any case, the traffickers weren’t shy about having their pictures taken; Annah used the better part of my camera’s memory card to document the process.

Several days later and a few kilometers past the waterfall, we descended out of the mountains, rejoined a main-ish road, and turned north towards Antalaha, which we reached the following day after happening upon a taxi brousse headed our way.

Back in Antalaha for one final day, we rested up, enjoyed the beach (with white sand and turquoise water…much nicer than the beaches in Farafangana or Manakara), and took a last trip to the little bar shack on the beach where we’d spent part of New Year’s Eve. It was a great spot, though tragedy had struck our last time there. On New Year’s Eve, we witnessed a guy falling backwards off the seawall about 15 feet onto the rocks below. He was still breathing when his friends pulled him from the water, but his body looked broken and lifeless when the searchlight first fell on it. We asked around afterwards but weren’t able to get any definitive information as to whether he survived or not. Unbelievable.

The next morning, I had to wake up early, pack my bags, say my farewells, and grab a taxi to the airport. The flight—my 11th in 40 days—went smoothly, and I landed in Tana before noon. Then it was home to Vondrozo via taxi brousse and train, with brief stops in Fianarantsoa and Farafangana.

And now, here I am, back. Honestly, it’s going to take some time to readjust after the glut of celebration and exploration. I’ve been doing my best to get resettled into a routine. The jungle took over my garden while I was gone, so I’ve been working to reclaim it (though everything besides a few squash plants and some moringa saplings died while I was gone). WWF has some big wig from the unfortunately-acronymed SIDA (it stands for the Swedish International Development Agency, but SIDA is also the French acronym for AIDS) coming in, so they’ve been fixing up the building, landscaping, etc. They painted the office (which includes my house) Pepto-Bismol pink with baby blue trim, installed a fence around the entire compound, and cleared all the vegetation from the hillside below my house (excepting the jungle-reclaimed garden). In addition to working around the house, I’ve been doing my best to get English and environment clubs set up at the middle and high schools. We have meetings early next week, and then I’ll probably make a few field trips to the villages in early February.

The rains are late this year, but the past two days have been socked in, so perhaps they’ve finally arrived.

Tratran'ny taona. Cheers to 2011, and to the exploring yet to come.