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).