Manahoana daholo (Hello all of you)!
It has been an absolutely wonderful first couple of weeks here in Madagascar!! I am having a blast with my fellow trainees as well as all of the Malagasy people I’m meeting. So much has happened in my first two weeks that I obviously can’t tell you everything, but I’d like to share several highlights and first impressions. (Note: this is a realllllllly long entry.)
After what seemed like endless days of traveling (approximately 40 hours), we finally arrived at the Ivato Airport outside of Antananarivo (Tana). PC staff assisted us through customs, shuttled us into vans, and took us to the MEVA (regional PC transit house). We spent the night of Thursday the 22nd where we had a very fast couple of safety/security, medical, and language sessions. Then that Friday we went to the village where we’ll be staying for the duration of training. I’m not allowed to give the specific location of myself or other volunteers….but I can say I’m not too far from the capital.
The village where I am is an absolutely GORGEOUS town in the plateau region. There are tree-covered hills rolling in all directions, connected by mud/dirt roads and paths and freckled with small neighborhoods of farms and houses. There are also rice paddies and small ponds at the base of all of the hills. There is a small market, a post office, a mayor’s office, and a couple of small shops in the center of town. From there, several dirt roads wind up the hills in different directions. Most of us trainees are in clusters along one of these roads. My house is at the top of a hill, what I would guess is 1-2km from the center of town. All of the host families came to the primary school to greet us and help escort us to our respective houses. My mom (Lala, though I’m supposed to call her Mama out of respect) came and showed me the way to my house, where I met my host dad (Jean de Dieu, but call him Dada) and two younger brothers (Herizo, age 9 and Eric, age 5). They primarily raise pigs for a living, but we also have 3 rabbits and one day there was a random zebu in the garden. My host dad disappeared the next day for a week, and the best I could gather in my very limited Malagasy is that he was in Tana to sell the zebu.
[Interjection #1: Peace Corps is not the job for you if you need to know what’s going on more than 20% of the time.]
To say that the first couple of weeks of my home-stay have been a fiasco would be quite the understatement. Although I’m learning quickly, I can only speak short, broken, and usually incorrect sentences in Malagasy; having a real conversation is entirely out of the question. I have gotten pretty good at making silly faces and shadow puppets by candlelight, which my host brothers find hilarious. Every time I try to teach them an American game, they think I’m trying to play a Malagasy game and just play that instead. However, I did successfully teach them War last night! (Having finally mastered a few words such as good, very good, bad, better, you, me, the same, and some numbers, I felt up to the challenge.) It’s also been hard because they speak Standard Malagasy in this region and I switched over to learning the dialect they’ll speak at my site, so that adds to the communication barrier. In general, Malagasy people can understand each other even though they speak 18 different dialects….but that definitely assumes some mastery of correct grammar and pronunciation. I do keep reminding myself that I’ve only been at my home-stay for two weeks now, so it’s OK that I’m still far from fluent!
As I expected, my house has no electricity or running water. It’s dark by about 6pm, so I use a combination of candles and flashlights to study, read, and journal at night. My family usually sends me to bed between 7 and 8 every night, and I usually go to sleep by 9 (cultural note on that in a minute). My bathroom is a pit latrine about 20 steps from the house, surrounded by a tarp. The “shower” is also a small stall surrounded by a tarp. There is a well down a hill behind my house, which I walk down several mornings a week to get a bucket of water. It’s not very far, but the biggest challenge is trying to walk up and down the hill without slipping in the mud since it has rained almost every single day. They are modest accommodations, but honestly are much better than what I had been expecting and was mentally prepared for, so I’m content.
Regardless of where you are in Madagascar, people probably won’t go out after it’s dark (i.e. 6 or 7 pm). The reasoning behind this varies greatly depending on who you ask. I had read in several places before my departure that witches, evil spirits, and rabid dogs are the primary concerns, though each region, village, or even family may have its own explanation. While I’m still not sure, I get the sense that my family observes this practice more out of tradition than fear of anything (my mom laughed at the word “mpamosavy”—witch—when it came up in my flashcards). Well anyway, one can imagine that not being able to leave the house after 7pm or so could create some challenges…..especially when the “kabone” (pit latrine) is in a stall separate from the house. Enter the “po” (bucket with lid). Any bodily or hygienic function that needs to occur at night goes in the po, which is emptied the next morning into the kabone and then cleaned. As I was well aware of this practice, I approached my first night at my home-stay with a cautious mindset, fully prepared to time my bathroom excursions accordingly and thus try to avoid having to use the po. After dinner my family showed me how to close and lock my door, and before I really realized what was happening I was suddenly in my room (clearly for the night), nowhere near the kabone, and needing to take care of business. I’ll leave the details to your imagination, but I will say that as I had not yet had any digestive problems and didn’t particularly want to give them reason to start, there I was on my first night….caught in a rather impressive balancing act over my po.
[Interjection #2: Madagascar is not the country for you if you have no sense of humor or ability to laugh at yourself.]
Well anyway, I made it through the night alive and well, woke up to a delicious breakfast, and met back up with my fellow trainees for some more orientation.
For the duration of training, all 42 of the people in my training class stay in the same village and surrounding neighborhoods. The PC Madagascar program is Community-Based Training, which means that most of our training is actually directly in the village and not at a PC site. One day a week we do all have sessions at the Peace Corps Training Center (PCTC) that pertain to the entire group (vaccinations/medical info, administrative stuff, safety & security, etc.) We will have the occasional overnight there if we have field trips the following day, but for the most part we are with our families. We have training all day Monday-Friday and only in the morning on Saturdays. Every day is a bit different, but a typical day is as follows:
around 6:00am (perhaps earlier): rise and shine!
8:00-12:00 (with 30 minute break): Malagasy Language
12:00-2:00: lunch back at host family’s house
2:00-4:30: full-group sessions, or technical training (Health for me, Education for others)
evening: head back home for dinner. I’m usually sent to my room by 7 or 7:30 (which I’m actually OK with since it’s about the only time of the day I have to study Malagasy, write in my journal, or read)
It’s an exhausting schedule since the sessions (especially Language) are jam-packed with information, and since it means four times a day I’m hiking down or up the hill to my house (about a 20-30 minute walk each way depending on which part of town I have to go to). Sometimes we’re in schools or community buildings, sometimes we’re in people’s houses. And though it’s exhausting, I’m still loving it—the immersion from not only the home-stay but also the constant interaction in the community is definitely the best way to start transitioning into what my life will be like for the next 27 months.
I’ve been eating reasonably well so far; my family really takes care of me. The books ARE NOT KIDDING when they say the Malagasy eat rice 3 times a day. Every meal involves rice and “loaka” (side-dishes). Loaka can mean anything from a hearty vegetable soup with spaghetti noodles to salad to chunks of beef or pork to shredded carrots to beans to eggs to French fries or anything else. But rice is always the main course, and the loaka is scooped on top of it to give it flavor.
[Interjection #3: Madagascar is not the country for you if you don’t like combining the foods on your plate.]
Peace Corps medical staff have extensive sessions with the host families about our diet and food preparation, and my family seems to have really taken their suggestions to heart. I have a fairly varied diet, and I’m DEFINITELY getting my share of vegetables. If I were to have any wish, it would probably be that I have a bit more fruit….but it is the middle of winter here, and I do still usually get an orange or a banana every day, so I really can’t complain.
Also, believe it or not….I AM THE TALLEST MEMBER OF MY MALAGASY FAMILY!!!! I had read that the Malagasy people as a whole were fairly short, but it didn’t quite register in my brain as I myself am only 5’4” (and a quarter!) However, I’m not kidding when I tell you I am taller than my four host family members. YES!!
I have internet today because I am in the capital. Since we received our site assignments last week, Peace Corps brought us into the city to open bank accounts according to what our site will be. I probably won’t have internet again till the end of training, or close to the end of it at least (i.e. the last week of September). If an opportunity comes up, it will be a nice surprise. I do have a phone now. Reception is very sporadic in our training village, and since I have no electricity I can’t charge it very often. But if you want to talk, give it a shot. (Just please try to remember that I’m 7 HOURS ahead of Eastern time, and that I go to bed by 9pm every night.) If you’re dialing from a landline, dial 011 261 34 439 7767. If you’re using Skype, the number should just be 034 439 7767.
IF YOU ARE READING THIS, PLEASE EMAIL/FACEBOOK ME YOUR MAILING ADDRESS. I did not bring very many with me; I ran out of time when packing. Rather than trying to figure out whose I do and don’t have, just assume that I don’t have yours and please send it to me so I can write to you! Since mail takes at least 3 weeks, please make sure it’s an address that will be valid starting in September. Also, please write to me! I promise to write back to anyone who writes me. So far I have received one card from my mom and one from Greta (both were received yesterday, FYI).
As I mentioned, I do know my permanent site. Since this post is already REALLY long, I’ll tell you about it some other time. I go on a site visit starting next week so I’ll know lots more after that anyway. But if you’re curious and want to look up some info yourself, look up Morondava. That is the closest major city to where I’ll be. (By the way, IT’S AWESOME AND I’M THRILLED!!!!!!!)
The internet is far too slow to upload pictures right now, but I’ll try to get some up eventually. For now, you’ll just have to be content with the knowledge that I am happy, healthy, and loving my life here so far. Every day has its challenges, but every day also has its blessings. A few days ago there was a GIGANTIC rainbow stretching across the whole sky. It’s impossible to stay frustrated for long when this country has so much to offer. So long for now!