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.

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