13 March 2009


Well, it's been real. It's been fun. But Peace Corps is leaving Madagascar for the time being. This means I'll be in the United States in a couple weeks? maybe? It's a slow process. Anyway, it's overwhelming and sad and... overwhelming. I don't know what to think or say about our evacuation. I've been frustrated and sometimes frightened by the political situation, but I don't think I ever really believed that PC Madagascar would be suspended. Now that I'm being sent home, I think about all of the friends I've made, language I've learned, and work I've done and have yet to do. I haven't even begun to scrape the surface of life in Madagascar...

Anyway, more to come when I can process all of this :)

amy menaraka indray! - till next time!

07 March 2009

Looking Forward

During my first 3 months at site, I have been primarily concerned with the future.

“I have only 22 months left! That's less than 2 years!”

“If the Peace Corps experience was one week long, we would be coming up on midnight of the first day!”

But just recently I have become intrigued by the desires and expectations which brought me here to begin with. I was reminiscing with a fellow volunteer the other day about how we started applying for Peace Corps, and we both realized that we began the application and never looked back. I don't ever once remember thinking of applying to another job. Now, I'm not one to believe in fate of destiny or “everything happens for a reason,” but one almost has to think that way to make it through the first couple of months of service. Right now I'm trying to believe that somehow this life decision, to live here for 27 months of my life, is going to turn out to be completely worthwhile. Somewhere in my mind, I know I will look back on this experience with nothing but tenderness and gratitude.

Already I have had flickers of light shine on the murky future. When my 16 year old friend, Yvette, came over to my house with an officially stamped ticket inviting me to her dance performance, I realized I had won the respect and admiration of a local. When I walked down the street today to the chorus of children shouting their many forms of “Lindsay,” I knew I was no longer a tall, scary “vazaha,” but a welcome member of the community. (For the record my name sounds like: Wendy, Linny, Lindy, and my favorite, Lin-Chee!)

Stepping onto that plane leaving JFK airport, I threw my “what if” questions out the window and just trusted that Peace Corps was going to be something I could survive, even enjoy. When I walked home with my host family, not even able to say, “So what is your name?”, I put one foot in front of the other, hoping I was going in the right direction. And as I waved goodbye to the Peace Corps car and closed my door on the first night alone in my home, I let out a sigh and began the next 2 years of my life.

Someone said that Peace Corps will cause you to experience your lowest lows and highest highs. Even within one day of Peace Corps service I can feel those two extremes, but I'm realizing now what little time I have to feel these feelings and sense these surroundings. 2 years will probably not be enough, and did I mention I only have 22 months left?!

18 February 2009

18 Febroary 2009
So after 3 weeks of being away from site, I finally get to return tomorrow. On January 26, all hell broke loose in Tana as the (now ex) mayor Andry declared himself president, and protests turned into burning and looting. The unrest spread throughout the country during the next few days, causing Peace Corps to call all volunteers into consolidation. By the 31st I was at Mantasoa, Peace Corps old training center, where between 40 and 80 volunteers (depending on the day) were held in limbo. Each day, news from Tana was different. Some days I was sure we would soon be on a plane for South Africa; other days I was mentally preparing to go back to site.

But here I am now in Tamatave, buying provisions, finally checking internet, picking up mail, and other odds and ends. Going back to site is going to be challenging. As the newest volunteers in country, my health stage had only been at site a mere 7 weeks when we were yanked out. My return feels like starting all over again, and I can't help but have a sneaking suspicion that we'll be yanked out again...

Every day in Tana there are demonstrations, Andry's people trying to take over the ministry and convince the current president to resign. Although the violence is almost entirely confined to Tana, something has got to give sooner or later – whether Andry is arrested or the president resigns or who knows what – but this stale mate is doing nothing but upping the prices of rice and oil. Even in the past week there has been looting in Diego and Toliara, signs that people who already don't have enough money to eat are feeling an increase in desperation.

Fortunately for me, Tamatave has been quiet and well behaved. I hope it lasts so I can forget about this ridiculous political coup and get on with life in ambany-volo (the backwoods). My little village is, of course, safe and far removed from the dirty politics in Tana, but the moment violence spreads again, or planes stop flying, or roads are cut off, I could find myself in South Africa or even America. And from what I hear about job availability and the economy, the U.S. would not be the best place right now. These next few weeks and months will be tense, but I'm just going to try to live the quiet village life and forget about Tana. Hopefully it all works out in the end!

10 January 2009

Think of me...

Whenever you have downtime, think of me in Madagascar and what I'm doing at that very moment halfway across the world. I'll give you a hint. I'll most likely be doing one of the following :

1. Having a laughable conversation of perpetual misunderstanding with a Malagasy person.

2. Cooking an unappetizing concotion, usually containing potatoes or rice or pasta.

3. Sleeping fitfully under the protection of my mosquito net, wondering if that noise is coming from a rat or a cockroach or yet another disgusting creature Madagascar has yet to reveal to me.

4. Sitting in my bamboo chair, staring at various parts of my banana leaf and baboo house lit by a single candle, wondering if 7:30 is too early to go to bed.

6 Janvier 2009

Today I gave a kabary (presentation) on clean water - add some "Sur'Eau" (bleach), set it in the sun, or boil it. Before I began, I was feeling confident and proud of the awesome poster I had made to complete the kabary. However, once I introduced myself and asked my introductory question:

"Can you drink the water directly from the pump?"
I was met with a bunch of tired faces nodding "yes."

"No!" I said in horror, "There are microbes in that water that can make you sick. It's really dangerous!"

From that moment on, I knew my message was falling on deaf ears. One face in the crowd particularly drew my attention. I could see what she was thinking:

"What the world are microbes? And I don't think I'll die from drinking the water I've consumed for the last 35 years. This vazaha's stomach can't handle it, but Malagasy stomachs are different."

I moved on and went through my demonstrations, knowing full well that no one was going to change the way they treat their water. It's really difficult to know which health messages are the most important for me to deliver and which messages are actually going to bring about change. There's not much use in telling a group of women that they need to fully vaccinate their children when they are already at the clinic for vaccine day.

Don't worry. I'm not giving up hope yet. Every day is a new challenge, and every day I have something positive to reflect upon. Today it was the woman with severe diarrhea who I gave the recipe for the oral rehydration solution to. Yesterday it was a compliment I got from a vendor at a local epicerie (store) :

"You're learning Malagasy so quickly! And you already have way more friends than the last volunteer did."

Right on! That last compliment has carried its positive energy for two days now, and I realize that I may not change the life of that disbelieving woman in the audience, but my friends are another story all together. In two years I will most certainly effect their lives, hopefully changing the way they manage their health and encouraging them to spread their knowledge to others. My goal here is to improve the health status of this community, and I think I will find that my impact will be greatest, not in giving kabarys, but through seemingly ordinary, everday contact.

Ohhhhhhhh Vazaha!

Not a day has gone by here in Ampasimadinika that I don't hear the word “vazaha” spoken. In Malagasy “vazaha” means “foreigner,” historically meaning a French person, but now applying to anyone obviously not Malagasy. It comes in a wide variety of forms.
General Commentary : “Oh look, the vazaha speaks Gasy... that's weird.”
Bad Pick-up Lines : “Ohhhhhhhh vazaha!” followed by a wink and a head jerk from a Malagasy man.
Referring to Language : “When you get good enough at Malagasy, can you teach us “teny vazaha?” - vazaha language, meaning English.
Discipline : “If you don't behave, the vazaha will eat you.”
Describing Merchandise : “Oh, you bought the vazaha broom.” - not the typical straw tied to a stick kind.
My favorite is actually the experience of another volunteer who quickly put out his cigarette, took off his hat, and bowed in reverence after noticing a passing funeral procession. Just as quickly, a man from the procession pointed excitedly and yelled, “VAZAHA! VAZAHA! VAZAHA!”
It's like a nervous tick. A Malagasy person sees a white person, and as if forced by some other power, they must utter the word “vazaha,” whether it be shouted or muttered almost inaudibly. White people aren't the only ones haunted by the labels of the Malagasy. Anyone looking remotely Indian is labeled Karana. Anyone looking Asian is called Sinoa (Chinese). And anyone who looks anything like them is Malagasy, even if that person is actually American.
It's no wonder the Malagasy are obsessed with that which is different; after all Madagascar is an island and poor infrastructure makes travel within the island difficult. Many Malagasy are born, grow up, work, and die on the same part of the island. If they can afford it, they will have a radio or a TV to give them a glimpse of other cultures and other kinds of people. But the stations provide little of reality and a lot of Michael Jackson, Johny Halliday, Star Academy, and Celine Dion.
Although this obsessive labeling can be annoying, it's rarely to never done out of hostility and generally done out of curiosity or out of surprise at that which is out of the ordinary. I compare this to the United States where labeling is politically incorrect and someone who labels is sure to explain why they did so. With easy access to other cultures through TV, the radio, or the internet, I'm surprised at how few Americans are interested in exploring other cultures and religions and nations. We are so uninterested in that which is different from us.
I ran across a quote from Terry Tempest Williams, “I have... listened, observed, and quietly formed my own opinions, in a culture that rarely asks questions because it has all the answers.” It's true. We do seem to have all the answers... for now. But with the increasing instability in this world, I think we need to start looking outside our borders for some solutions.
Maybe we should take a lesson from the Malagasy and begin pointing out differences, and more importantly find out the root of those differences. I think we would discover that we are all humans living on the same planet, trying to achieve that elusive emotion : happiness.

31 December 2008

27 November 2008

Today is Thanksgiving, but here in Madagascar, it's just a regular Thursday.  I am certainly thankful that I have my fellow trainees around me to help celebrate, but I'm realizing quickly that once I'm alone at site, I'll have to find a way to keep homesickness at bay.  And finally I have a glimpse of what life in Ampasimadinika will be like; I just got back yesterday from site visit, which was definitely wild.  We left Alarobia for lake Montasoa (the old Peace Corps training site, which is a lot like a summer camp on a lake) on the weekend of the 15th where we met our site counterparts.  My counterpart is Dr. Vololona, a woman from Tamatave.  I first realized what a struggle my first months at site are going to be once I began speaking with her.  Having never worked with a volunteer before, she doesn't realize that she has to speak simply and with active verbs... none of the complex grammar makes sense in my mind yet.  However, we managed to make a schedule of what we were going to do during site visit.

The following Wednesday, I left for site accompanied by Dr. Vololona, Kanto, Brad, and their counterparts.  We crammed into the taxi brousse for our 8 hour ride, and being that Americans are generally at least 6 inches taller than Malagasy, the taxi brousses are not made for American comfort.  Regardless, we made it to Tamatave that evening, stayed in a hotel, and woke up the next morning to explore Tamatave – our banking town – with our counterparts as our guides.  I immediately fell in love with Tamatave; it's not as crowded and harried as Tana, meaning it actually has sidewalks more often than not.  They also have pousee-pousses (rickshaws) in Tamatave, meaning there are less cars, less traffic, and besides, it's way more fun to travel around by pousse-pousse than by broken down taxis.  Tamatave is right on the Indian Ocean which is accompanied by a nice ocean breeze throughout the day, with temperatures around 80 degrees.  Beautiful.

The next morning, Dr. Vololona and I took a taxi brousse to Ampasimadinika.  Being only and hour's drive, we arrived in no time at all, and before I knew it we were stepping off the brousse and onto the streets of Ampasimadinika.  I must admit, my first ten minutes in Amp/dinika were pure panic.  All at once I realized that for the next two years I will be living alone in a house without electricity, and that I am going to be the only vazaha in town, meaning everyone will be curious about me, but no one will really be able to relate my old life.  I felt like hopping right back on that taxi-brousse and finding the next plane to America, but then I realized life in America wasn't so carefree and easy.  In fact, it was often more stressful than life has been here so far!  Slowly the terror gave way to curiosity and excitement as I saw my new house, met the rasazy (midwife), the mayor adjoint, the pharmacist, and a whole slew of neighbors, all of whom were complementary of my Malagasy and eager to make me feel at home.  Within the first hour, I learned the word “tamana,” which means – to be used to a place, to be comfortable.  Everyone asked me, “Efa tamana anao?” - Are you already comfortable here?

Later in the afternoon, Dr. Vololona, the rasazy (Holida), and I walked up the RN2 – the national highway that runs through Amp/dinika – talking to local vendors and neighbors along the way.  It's leche season right now, meaning the streets are covered with leche skins and seeds, and the harvestors are quickly picking the leches and getting them into trucks along the RN2.  For me, that meant that every new person I met insisted on giving me a handful of leches, which are possibly the most delicious fruits I have ever eaten.  After our excursion on the RN2, I definitely felt tamana.

The next day I returned to Tamatave where I met up with Brad and Kanto at our beach bungalow hotel (20,000 Ar a night = $13.30), fully equipped with running water, a sit down toilet, a hot shower, and a beach.  We were in heaven.  That evening we met up with other Peace Corps volunteers, some of whom have extended their stay in Madagascar, and some who have returned to Madagascar to work outside of Peace Corps.  A group of 8 of us went out on the town (safely of course – don't worry mom and pop).  It was really good to make some new connections, especially since our training group is getting split up all over the country.

All in all, the trip renewed my motivation to work on my Malagasy, prepared me for life as the only vazaha in town, and helped me realize that when the going gets really tough, I always have Tamatave to escape to for a weekend if I need it.  The time is drawing ever nearer to when I'll be living the real Peace Corps experience, and I'm nervously ready for it.

Ino vaovao any Etazonia?  -  What's new in the U.S.?



22 Decembre 2008

Today is Monday, and I've been at site for one week now.  I can't believe it's only been one week!  Adjusting to life in Ampasimadinika has been going pretty well, but I still have quite a long way to go.  Learning how to cook for myself with limited resources, being comfortable with only speaking at an intermediate level, not having electricity, being stared at everywhere I go... they're all things that take some getting used to!

Monday through Friday I work at the Centre de Sante de Base (CSB), which is a little concrete, four-room clinic located a mere 30 second walk from my house.  I arrive around 8 or 8:30 and work until all the patients have been seen, which can be 10:00am or noon.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are the busiest days, and already last Thursday I gave my first kabary (presentation) on Malaria prevention and detection.  The kabary went really well, and everyone present was extremely excited that a white girl was “mahay teny Gasy!!!” - can speak Malagasy.  If nothing else, I get a little boost every day by how astonished people are that I can speak Malagasy.

My doctor and rasazy (midwife) and pharmacist all live right next to me and are very supportive, inviting me to mitsangitsangana (take walks) and chat about whatever I'm capable of chatting about.  Fortunately, I've also made some friends on my own, which happen to all be teenage girls.  They come and find me every day to talk, and walk around, and laugh, and watch me cook pitifully.  I'm amazed at how hospitable and patient these girls are at ages 14-16.  When I was that age, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have befriended a foreigner so quickly, nor taken the time to help her learn new words or clean house or wash clothes.  Every day these girls amaze me with their patience and maturity!

Well my battery is about to die on my computer, so I'll have to put it away until I reach the big city for New Year's!