18 October 2008

Introducing Peace Corps

The mayor points towards a building that was a little further up the dirt track from the cluster of houses we just rolled into. “Erryyy,” he says with the upward inflection used when indicating a location a little ways off. He directs the driver to his office, which is across the soccer field from the elementary school. As we pull up to the office and get out, we are swarmed by hundreds of students in their green and white checkered school uniforms, curious to see who the guests are that have arrived in such a nice Land Cruiser. The teachers must be in a meeting because it seems like none of the children are actually in the classrooms even though it is midmorning. Then again, as I later learn, they have 1300 students and only seven teachers in this commune, so maybe they are just waiting for their turn to get to learn.

This is one of two towns in the area that we are visiting as part of the site development process, in the hopes of placing a new environment volunteer here early next year. Stan, my fearless leader, is based in Tana and on this road trip to make sure all the preselected sites are up to snuff and that the villagers are still motivate welcome a series of Americans into their community for the next 6 years to help them with environmental work. He has invited me along to these two sites to give a volunteer’s perspective about the town and the potential work, and to introduce me in case any follow up needs to happen before the volunteer arrives.

On paper, these sites are very similar. Both sites are in the south-east, are both of the same tribe and are both commune seats, meaning they have all the county level offices and if there is a hospital or middle school, it would be in these bigger towns. Still, there are big differences between these two, due largely to the location of one along a major road with easy access to bigger cities, and this other, where we are now, a several hours walk to the nearest public transport and shipping route.

Walking into the office, we greet everyone, saying hello and shaking hands with all the men present, left hand placed under right elbow. Then we sit and say hello again, ask the news, etc., before getting to our business. This is a procedure I have grown used to over the past few months, repeated every time I have entered an office or been invited into someone’s home. Stan introduces us and then we go outside and wait, as the mayor spreads the word for the town meeting. Within half an hour we are seated in the shade of some mango and litchi trees (it is sweltering hot), on a woven mat that has been brought out for us, joined by the mayor and a couple of his side kicks, with all the men and women of the town gathered around us. The women sit together with their babies under one tree, the men under another, with the mpanjaka, or traditional king, sitting at the sacred north east corner of the assembly. For about an hour, Stan and the mayor take turns explaining the situation, what peace corps is, what their responsibilities are and the like. Villagers ask questions, they debate about the house and then things start winding down. I have been mute until this point and even though it has been explained that volunteers speak Malagasy, they clearly don’t yet believe it. But then Stan asks me to speak. I say nothing more then my name, where I live, who I work with- all totally basic and not even that in good ‘Gasy. But they love it. Everyone gets really excited and they start asking me questions and applauding and praising me. It is a really beautiful moment for me, and I see that their whole understanding has changed about what it means to have a Peace Corps volunteer in their village, how different it is than working with other NGOs. A vazaha speaking their language is as seemingly wonderful to them as if I had made their forest regrow. The rapport built from that simple act will make regrowing that forest with the community that much easier.

We are treated to lunch in the mayor’s house: Rice (duh!), canned sardines (a luxury item, meant to impress), beer, cola, and bananas for dessert. Then we spend the afternoon wandering around the countryside, checking out all the cool things they are already doing. They already plant cloves and pepper, vanilla and coffee, transplant Albizzia and Gravilia which are two nitrogen fixing shade trees. They are really excited about new techniques and are excited to share their knowledge with me. We head down to the river where there is a beautiful swimming hole. We have been regaled in true country side manner. We finally leave, feeling really excited about the site.

The next day we head down to repeat the process at the second site. The Minister of Transportation hails from the city just to the south, so the road here is amazing. Traffic flows both ways here between the two regional hubs at either end of this 100 km section of road. It takes us a third of the time, to go the same distance as yesterday, and we aririve to find that it is market day, which means are Moses of an SUV has to part the sea of people that pool everywhere.

When we get to the office, greetings are done as usual but then we find out that the mayor is busy because someone has died but we should be able to have our meeting in a couple hours and we are left to explore the market in the meantime. It is the crowded market I have been in; we are constantly being elbowed aside and have to fight to move along. I have to duck my way under the shade tarps, being a head taller than most folks around, and am luckily still aware enough to catch the would-be pickpocketer as he tries to reach into my pocket in the chaos. At one point, Stan and I get stuck, or way blocked by a current of bodies that we are unable to break into. We have to retreat and decide to go out into the countryside, to wind our way among the coffee and rice to eventually get back to the mayors office.

When we finally have our meeting, it is in the school house. This town is much to big and chaotic to assemble everyone; instead, it is the lehibe in town, the big shots (all male of course), who show up. Stan, the mayor, his side kick, and I are seated up front as a panel facing the other 25 or so men. I see that this meeting is going to be more formal, sticking to the power hierarchies. This time, when Stan speaks, he does a kabary, the traditional Malagasy speech. He thanks the big wigs, apologizes, does an introduction and uses proverbs, all before actually talking about Peace Corps. When he and the mayor are finished, and after a few other men have stood up and given speeches, too, Stan asks me to speak. I am nervous because I haven’t memorized how to do a kabary yet, but I screw convention and just start rambling about all the same stuff I talked about yesterday, trying to throw in jokes about eating so much rice and what not. Grafefully, they were as receptive an audience as any I have had in this country and ate it up just like the day before. They got really excited and we chatted about swimming and being afraid of sharks and all formality was dropped for a few minutes. That couple minutes of connection was well worth the stress of the market place.

This time, when the meeting ended, there was no other plan. We didn’t walk around town or go to see projects with the mayor or the forest they are supposedly trying to protect. The mayor was busy. He paid for us to eat in a little hotely across the street from his office, though he had to run to eat with someone else. The laoka was tilapia, that ubiquitous farmed fish, despite the fact that we were only a few kilometers from the ocean and right on a major river. Says something about how depleted the fisheries are around here (sound familiar to anyone?).

As we leave this town I am questioning whether these folks will actually come together to build the house the volunteer needs and wondering about what rapid development has done for the people their. I know which of the two towns that I had visited in the past two days I would prefer to live in, but the real question, which I can’t yet answer, is which one they would prefer.