Well, after a few weeks of bopping around and helping out with projects at friends' sites, I'm back in Tana and will be finally heading back to my own site in a couple of days. After my training, I headed south to Glenda's site, a little bit outside of Antsirabe, for a week. Her clinic has an outdoor kitchen area for the women giving birth. They usually stay at the clinic for a few days, so it's nice to have an area to cook food. The cookstoves that were already there were pretty rundown, though, so we decided to help build new ones. We've learned how to make high-efficiency cookstoves out of local materials such as dirt, clay, ashes, or rice flour. They help contain heat, using less wood or charcoal than simply building a fire, so the Malagasy term for them is "fatana mititsy" ("stingy stove"). We gathered all of the patients & staff at the clinic and explained the process for making the stoves and benefits of using them. Then we got them to help us sift the materials and make the mixture. A lot of people seemed very interested and were asking a lot of questions about the stoves, wanting to know what other kinds of materials could be used for the mixture. And of course, it was fun to play in the mud! Here, Monique, Glenda, and I are beginning to sift the materials and mix them together with water.
I also celebrated Christmas at Glenda's site, along with Monique and Erica. We made our best attempt at the "Peace Corps oven" (a fairly imprecise method involving sand, empty cans, and a very large pot over a gas stove) and baked some Christmas cookies. They sort of all ran together, but considering we've been in Madagascar for over 5 months, we thought they got the job done.
Glenda had also bought a "Christmas tree" (though, the Malagasy and American concepts of what shape a Christmas tree typically are seem to differ a bit). We did our best (thanks to Colleen for the decorations you sent in the package!) to perk it up it in an American fashion, though it still had an uncanny resemblance to the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
After Christmas I proceeded on to Tisa's site near Fianarantsoa. We did a training with the health educators in her commune and taught them about the "hot box." In the same concept as the fatana mititsy, the hot box is a way of cooking over fire for a short period of time, and then moving the food to a box/basket/some sort of contraption that contains heat so the food can keep cooking without using up resources. We used woven baskets, fabric, and blankets-items which probably every Malagasy family has in their house. The cookstoves and the hot boxes are great for the environment and health - they cut down on smoke which causes respiratory infections. On subsequent days, we went out with the health educators into the villages further away to teach villagers about the technique. Figuring a demonstration would help, and knowing how much the Malagasy people love their rice, we actually cooked rice in the hot box so everyone could see it in action. It was a huge success! Tisa's going to go back out and follow up in a few weeks and see if anybody has actually started using the hot box to cook.
Even though it was already after Christmas Day, the celebrations were still in full swing at Tisa's site. One afternoon we went to a "Christmas Spectacle," which had an array of performances but featured a kids' Christmas pageant. The script told the story of the birth and included musical interludes in Malagasy, French, and English. I was especially moved by the part of the story where Mary and Elizabeth greeted one another ("Bonjour Mary, Bonjour Elizabeth"), and discussed the pending arrival of their sons. The mayor's son's rendition of Michael Jackson's "We Are the World" was also informative - I had not previously realized what a pivotal role that song played in the birth of Jesus Christ. Here you can see everyone gathered in the stable - complete with baby Jesus lying on the ground and Herod's soldiers (wearing pink glittery wizards' hats) standing in the background.
Tisa's site is also right near the enormous tea estate at Sahambavy, where Madagascar's famous vanilla tea is made. So we took a stroll one by the plantation and saw where the tea grows. In case you can't tell, Erica, Tisa, and I are spelling out "TEA" in the picture.
Finally, I reigned in the new year with a bunch of other PCV's in Fianarantsoa. Of course I put the New Year's hats and necklaces that Colleen sent to good use and made my American friends wear them around town with me all day. We attracted even more attention than we usually get just for being "vazaha," but I'm pretty sure the Malagasy people got a kick out of it (thanks again, Colleen!)
Tomorrow I'll be flying back to Morondava. Word on the street is I have a ton of letters and packages waiting for me; I'll be picking it all up and then hopefully head back to my site in the afternoon - thanks in advance for anything you've sent! Since I'm itching to get back and really get settled into the new house and start things all over again, I'm not planning on being in town any time soon. So it may be a while before I update again, but know that I'm thinking about and missing you all. Hope everyone had blessed holidays!