28 March 2008

Life in Our Training Village

So I have been in Madagascar for over a month now, and am finding my training both challenging and rewarding.

I live in a small village on the plateau, within easy driving distance of Tana, by means of a nicely paved road (which is a rarity in this country); that is, once I walk the two kilometers to the bigger town next door.

The main income in town, aside from housing all of us volunteers, is rice farming, and the valley bottoms all around this hilly area are filled with paddies. On the hillsides, people farm other subsistence crops like manioc, carrots, potatoes, and taro. There are also several stores in town, rooms in the bottom floors of their mud brick homes, that sell candles, soap, toilet paper (the first kind I bought was more like sandpaper than tissue), bananas, dried fish, and assorted “Made in Mad” (or China) processed foods.

I live with a family of 4, very small my Malagasy standards, and have a room to myself. Christin and Noeline are 32 and 28, respectively, and their girl, Ioni is 11 and Tslavina, their boy, is 7. There is no electricity or plumbing, even in this fairly wealthy area. Life is simple and nights are ling. I use a chamber pot at night and empty it into a latrine in the morning. It is not culturally appropriate for us to go out at night here, everyone is in doors after dark, which arrives at 6:00ish. One reason is fear of witches, of which there are many stories, but there may be others as well. Since I have a separate entrance to my room and am shut in by myself after dark, I am often asleep by 8:00. I find a full belly and candlelight less than conducive to staying awake (though many a Monday and Tuesday night I have a hard time sleeping at all because I am still having crazy prophylaxis dreams after taking my weekly dose of mephloquine).

My shower is a bucket with water heated in a pot, on a grate, over the wood fire that serves as a kitchen. It is certainly a challenge to learn how to cook over a fire. As for food, I eat rice 3 times a day and am actually fond of it! I’ve already come to the point where I don’t fell full unless I have rice, and a lot of it. In addition, I usually eat beans and carrot salad and bananas or pineapple for dessert (oh, the pineapple!) Some days though, we do eat pancakes or latkas for breakfast, though I think Peace Corps taught them how to cook those so that we don’t go crazy. And, thank Andriamanitra (or God), my family drinks coffee every morning (even the seven year old, though I have tried with my feeble language skills to warn against that).

Apart from everything that we learn just by living with our host families, we have daily workshops on topics from building fuel efficient cookstoves, to improved rice growing techniques, to maintaining tree nurseries, farming chickens, community needs assessment, the nature of sustainable development, etc. Mostly, it is current volunteers who do the training, but sometimes we have guest speakers, Like Dr. Steve Goodman, a zoologist who is an expert in the biodiversity of the island, and Mark Freudenberger, head of a USAID program here with many years experience in development work. When we aren’t doing technical training or learning about Peace Corps policies (my favorite – boy do I live bureaucracy!), we are in language class. I am the only one headed to my particular region of the country in the Southwest so I have a language class to myself and nobody in the village speaks my dialect. As you might guess, I am having a challenging time learning to speak Antefasy. I am progressing though, and by now can have what would at no other time be considered a conversation, but right now is the pinnacle in cross-cultural communication:

“It’s hot outside.”
“Yes it is. I’m tired.”
“Me, too.”


“What did you do on Easter?”
“I went to the lake for the party and ate fried bananas.”
“I ate samosas.”

So tomorrow, after five weeks of training, I leave to visit my site for the first time. Then four more weeks of training before all 32 of us are cut loose across the country to do our best to make a difference (I’ll settle, for now, on just having a conversation).

24 March 2008

Easter, Gasy Style

“There are too many of us and we are all too far apart”- Kurt Vonnegut, Adam 1954

It’s Easter, known as Paka here. Being a largely Christian country, this is a national holiday, as are Pentecost and Asuncion, whatever those are (I am ashamed of my ignorance but there you have it). On Sunday, everybody goes to church in the morning. And I finally went with my family, though dad stayed home. We went to the church farther up the road in another village where my host-mom is from. Two other volunteers and their families came here, but most others all went to the bigger church in the bigger town.

It is interesting to see everybody in his or her Sunday best. Here, that means a clean, unholy (but maybe holy?) outfit of the most random assortment: from ill-fitting prom dresses to “Beijing Basketball” hoodies to tailored suits, with most people wearing flip-flops.

We sat through all the usual rigamoral of sermon, singing, baptism (I think?), but then something unexpected happened and I didn’t know what to make of this at first. A man in a lime green suit walks up to the front, and standing behind the podium he holds a live chicken up high over his head with both hands. Then he starts to yell. I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand him if he was yelling slowly, but he wasn’t anyway – he was on a roll, very passionate persuasive. Then people started calling out to him. It seemed to me that he was getting the audience worked up for something that something appeared to be an animal sacrifice. I knew already that they do practice sacrifice here, as an offering to the ancestors when someone dies or there is another major life event. But I didn’t expect it here in church, and was shocked and considering getting up and going outside (which, incidentally, wouldn’t have been inappropriate because they sell concessions outside and people go in and out all the time). But then, he handed the chicken to somebody who brought it to the audience and placed it under someone’s seat. Now I was thoroughly confused but that was short lived. Someone then handed the would be Master of Death a pike of bananas, that he then proceeded to hold up and yell about. Then a couple of bottles of milk, some eggs, a cake… that’s right, it was an auction to raise funds for the church or maybe some other cause. Typically, instead of passing the basket around, they will have the whole assembly file to the front of the hall where a box is and you put your donation in there. This may happen two or three times during the service so they tend to drag on. But this was a special Easter fundraiser, and I was damn glad that they weren’t spilling chicken blood all over the church.

We harvested and threshed rice in the afternoon and then had Easter supper. Usually they turn the radio off for the meal prayer but this time they didn’t for some reason and I found myself straining to hear my host-mom over some country song. Dinner was rice, eggs, carrot salad, pasta, and greens, and pineapple. Nutritious and delicious.

But the fun doesn’t stop here. Easter Monday is also a holiday and everybody goes for a picnic. My family for some reason though, ate lunch at ten in the morning and then walked the couple of kilometers to the dam on the lake where everybody was hanging out. The place is called Pasi-potsy, or White Beach, and it was more of a small fair than anything. There were booths set up selling foodstuffs, a shack with a generator and television showing Fists of Blood dubbed in French, a human powered carrousel, and motor boat or canoe rides. I mostly wandered around eating mofo akondro, which is deep-fried battered bananas, played some soccer and lounged around in the shade of a tree. I think that I like Gasy holidays.

15 March 2008

First Rainforest Excursion

We are at Mahatsinjo, a private reserve run by an NGO where another volunteer works, literally across the street from Andasibe National Park, the most visited park in the country. We are all excited to finally see the rainforest after 1½ months of seeing only the transformed landscape of the plateau. Most of us are in a hotel but a few of us have chosen to camp at the park. They have a few sand pits with ravinala roofs over them that you can set your tent up in. They even have a light bulb, which I think is a bit excessive.
It is really nice to be in the rainforest, though it is awfully dry and there are eucalyptus and pine trees all around. But as soon as one gets back into the forest proper it is clear how much incredible biodiversity there is here and how totally unlike the rest of the plateau it is.
Two days ago we went on a night hike. I didn’t see any nocturnal lemurs, but rather a huge chameleon, and a nocturnal moth and snail, both of which are the size of my hand. We also saw Brookesia, the family that claims the smallest chameleon in the world.
Today, we got to see and hear the Indri, who’s haunting song carries for kilometers and is one of the most incredible noises I have ever encountered. Sifaka, brown lemurs, couas (one of the five endemic bird families on the island), paradise flycatcher, giraffe-neck weevils, you name it. Everything but the golden bamboo lemur, one of the rarest primates in the world, which was recently discovered in the area.
It is very inspiring to see all the scientific work that this local NGO is doing, and how they are using ecotourism to fuel the development of their village. I also got a chance to build some rainforest trail and help plant trees in a forest restoration project. They collect mycorrhizal soil and seeds form the forest, grow the seedlings in the nursery, then plant them in strategic patches close to the forest, paying attention to the interspacing of fast and slow growing, short and long lived trees. The forest is given enough of a head start this way that it can out compete the invasives that one finds all around where people once cut and burned the land. It is an incredible process to see and unfortunately in danger from loss of funding.

01 March 2008

Sickness During Pre-Service Training

My energy has been taxed to the max by training so I haven't had the ability to write regulary or to do much self reflection. Plus I have been SICK for the past three days! For two nights I was completely delusional - I wasn't able to tell sleep from being awake and when I was finally able to figure out how to wake up, I was more exhausted than when I went to sleep. I'm sure it was caused partly by the malaria medicine and partly by the 101-102 degree fever that I can't seem to shake. to compound it, I half a cough that bends me double and my lungs feel like they are slowly filling with liquid, soon to suffocate me. Two others have the same thing, though one thinks she has Malaria. Wouldn't that be a hoot.

This afternoon was the first time we have had off, then we get tomorrow off as well. I don't know what to do with myself; maybe go for a walk and take pictures or something...

This morning I gave my first presentation in Antesaka (the dialect of my region). It was only two minutes long, on composting, or komposta, as it is known here, but it was fun and seemed to go over pretty well. Then, host mom and I went for a walk to the next town up and bought beans and peanuts and stuff.

I haven't been yet, but I will try to get out of going to church tomorrow: I still need to rest, a lot. I ave had a hard time adjusting to the rhythm of the sun. When it goes down (or dies, as they say here...maty ny maso andro... the eye of the day has died) then I am locked in my room (they are very afraid of witches here) and it is hard to keep myself occupied for long my candlelight. Then, in the morning, I don't want to get up until 6:00 when everyonr else is up at 4:30.