Saturday, July 30, 2011

1 Year Anniversary

QUICK ANNOUNCEMENT ABOUT MAIL: I still don't have a firm date, but I'll be moving sites around mid-September. Shayla will still be able to claim anything that arrives after I leave, but it probably doesn't make sense to send a package at all right now or any letters after about August 20th. You can still send letters and packages to the address in Antananarivo, and I'll get them in a much more reasonable time frame from my new site. I think I'll have a PO box once I get to my new site too, but I don't know for sure. Also, please comment/email/facebook with a current address for yourself and dates it would be valid. A bunch of you are going abroad, or returning from abroad, or moved places in DC, or moved to another state, or any other number of things I cannot keep track of from this island. Even if your address is the same as last year, I'd appreciate knowing that too. Thanks! :)

I'm sure you're all wanting to know about my new site. I'm going to be moving to the plateau region in the center of the country because the climate is much colder and therefore unlikely to cause heat rash issues. My new site will be near Ambositra (south of Tana & Antsirabe, north of Fianarantsoa). There's already a SED (small enterprise development) volunteer, Charity (goes by Chacha) who's been there since May. I met her when I got back from the states, and I think we're really going to hit it off as sitemates. I just got the information from my supervisor about the site, so I'll include that in my next update. But now, a little bit more about my life for the past few weeks at my current site.

One of the greatest challenges I continue to face here is the inability to speak fluent Malagasy, despite my best efforts to do so. I had previously heard that it takes about a year to develop language fluency in a foreign country. Either I'd heard incorrectly, or perhaps it is based on the assumption you've already been studying that language in a formal setting, or maybe it's just blatantly false. Whatever the case may be, I just passed the ONE YEAR IN MADAGASCAR mark (!!!!!!) last week (July 22), and I can say with certainty that I am nowhere near fluent in Malagasy. I look back to where I was this time a year ago, barely able to say, "My name is Kristen. Where is the latrine?" and realize how far I have come . . . but I still have a long way to go. In addition to ongoing confusion over the Malagasy language, the culture remains at times an even greater code I've yet to crack. And it seems more often than not that these two things work together to leave me utterly baffled. A perfect example of this happened a few weeks ago.

One afternoon I was heading to the market with my friend Isabelle when she asked me about the 3 poisoned children. I said I hadn't worked at the clinic that morning and didn't know what she was talking about. All she knew was that 3 children had been brought to the clinic because they had eaten poison; 1 had already died, and 2 were still very sick. I then wanted to know how the kids got the poison in the first place. Granted, the idea of locking chemicals in a cupboard under the sink is not exactly standard practice here (not having cupboards, much less sinks), but I also have seen very few Malagasy families that have ANY objects sitting around. Most people buy everything they need exactly when they need it in exactly the quantity they intend to use right then. Rather than buy a whole liter of oil or a large bar of soap, they buy a few tablespoons or a small bar each day. (For some this is an economic necessity, for others I think just habit.) So anyway, I was trying to imagine a scenario where a family may have had poison just sitting around, unattended, for kids to get into.

When I was asking about this, Isabelle told me that they had been poisoned from eating street food/market food stalls. I was very concerned because I often buy snacks at the market, but she reassured me that it wasn't anybody at the main market but certain ones set up at people's houses. She continued to explain and say that sometimes bad people poison the food because when kids eat it and die, there has to be a funeral, and those bad people want to get free food at the funeral. I had been following her up until that point. Then I began to seriously question my understanding of the conversation. When this happens, I first try to figure out if I even understood all of the words correctly. I repeated what I thought Isabelle had said to me, and she confirmed it. Then I started trying to remember if any of the words might have multiple meanings. Some of the medical terms in malagasy are especially tricky. For example "fanafody" typically means medicine, but can also mean poison, chemicals in general, or in certain contexts refer to charms/witchcraft/traditional beliefs. But, Isabelle had been using the French word for poison (which is also "poison," incidentally, so I was pretty sure I understood). I had thus reached the point at which I usually chalk it up to a cultural disconnect.

Although I had assumed the idea of a food vendor intentionally poisoning children was pretty far-fetched, I guess I shouldn't have ruled it out entirely. Or, maybe the kids had somehow gotten their hands on some poison that was lying around, but the story got embellished somewhere after several retellings as tends to happen in small towns. I also wondered if maybe something else had made them sick: a virus, contaminated food, parasites, etc., and that the story was the result of a lack of medical knowledge. I figured I'd ask about it at work the next day. When I did, the midwife seemed to have absolutely no idea what I was talking about, and I never was able to figure out exactly what had happened.

I would say this kind of thing happens on a pretty regular basis, at least a couple of times per month. I find myself in a seemingly ludicrous situation, and never do figure out what's going on. At times this gets incredibly frustrating. It's rather disheartening to know that I have been living and working here for over a year and still get confused about the language and culture. It's also incredibly humbling. There are times that I'm considered the "expert," because most people here know that I have a university degree and work at the clinic. But as this example shows, there's still a lot I don't know, and although I can help to provide knowledge and skills to my local counterparts, I'm equally dependent upon them for my own survival, understanding, and success as a volunteer. I don't think there will ever be a time during my service when I can stop asking questions and trying to better understand the situation I'm in. This symbiotic relationship is, I believe, the crux of the entire Peace Corps program. We learn from each other, and through that we develop as a human family. Looking back on my first year, I feel really great knowing that I've made enough progress to feel like while I have something to offer, I also have much to gain from this experience. So, raise your glass in celebration of a great first year and hope for an even better second year! (Just make sure there is no "fanafody" in it before you drink, please.)


  1. Oh my lovely wallie. I'm glad you're getting a site change. It seems to be the best thing for you. And it won't be the "ENTIRE" struggle all over again. You know more about the culture than you think you do and as you said your language skills are better. I feel like this will be an easy transition and because you understand better you'll know how to approach people and maybe make friends faster. I say jump in with both feet and start your kids health clubs and women's groups in your new sites. Take advantage of your newness - people's natural curiosity and rope them in early. I love you muchly and I know you'll do great things. MUAH

  2. Can I just ditto the whole last comment. You are going to do a fabulous job! I can't wait to hear about the new site. Kudos to you for even having the guts to do all of this in the first place.

  3. Hey,

    So I am finally ready to send my package move. Oh well, I'm glad you're feeling better (again)! Miss you! Meagan

  4. Wallie!! I'm seriously missing you. Please post your new address as soon as you know. Also, you're amazing.

  5. Yes! I agree with Lauren. We need your address!!! We miss you Kristen!

    Love you and miss you, Meagan

  6. The poison thing seems to be widespread. "They will poison you"


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