Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa...then the US

I find it humorous that on my flight home to the US, that I watched a cartoon titled: "Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa" because that is in essence what I did!

I spent about a week in a very lovely hotel in Joberg, South Africa going through the process of closing my service with my fellow Mada volunteers. I don't want to dwell in this place, just note that it was an overall enjoyable last few days with my many good friends of paperwork, writing, sitting in lines, doctors exams, contemplations, french fries, wine, beer, more french fries, more contemplations, etc. I officially closed my service with Peace Corps Madagascar on March 20th, found out that Direct Transfer was not in my future, and decided I was not in the mindset to begin a travel expedition of Africa, Asia, Europe, etc, as many fellow volunteers did. Instead, I opted for the free ticket home that PC arranged for me including my transport to the airport and a little per diem money too.

And so here I am. I am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer with all of it's rights and privileges and I have decided that my taste of volunteer life in Mada was not enough. After about 2 months being home, I am on my way to ECUADOR! I will be working in Youth Development and couldn't be more excited. :D

My time away from PC service has not all been in vain. I have spent some good time at home with my family, including my giant cats! I have visited my dear best friends from Seattle all the way down to Phoenix, and it was all lovely. :D It also has given me some time to process what happened to me in Madagascar - what I saw, what I learned, who I have become. You can't live for 10 months in a place so different from where you are from, a place that you can't even begin to find the words to explain it to someone who has never been, and not be changed. Madagascar is Madagaskara. That is the only way I can explain it. It is unlike any place I have ever seen, smelled, and experienced, and I don't believe that anything will ever quite compare to it again. Nor can I explain it with the justice it deserves in words or pictures. It just is - it is a place that I will take with me forever.

The things I did in Madagaskara are amazing:

I learned a spoken, repeated sound language in a few months!
I became a teacher.
I lived alone and adapted in a new place.
I made friends.
I ate mangoes from a tree in my backyard.
I picked litchis and ate them directly.
I navigated public transportation in a new place with limited language and knowledge.
I learned to carry water in buckets on my head!
I shopped at an open air market daily.
I survived with no refrigeration!
I bathed daily with a single bucket of water and it was the highlight of my evening!
I lived quite well and comfortably on $170 USD a month!
I swam in the Mozambique Channel and the Indian Ocean.
I ate from communal dishes served on the floor.
I gained an awesome sense of patience.
I can occupy myself for days on end...
I learned that life in the developing world is beautiful and simple, challenging but manageable.

(I will keep adding to this list...this is just what comes off the top of my head at the moment!)

I hate to be cliche and end my blog this way, but I feel the lyrics of this song appropriately convey a lot of my emotion in processing my experience in Madagaskara.

3x5 by John Mayer

I'm writing you to
Catch you up on places I've been
And you have this letter
You probably got excited, but there's nothing else inside it

Didn't have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it
When I'm in the mood to lose my way with words

Today skies are painted colors of a cowboy cliche'
And its strange how clouds that look like mountains in the sky
Are next to mountains anyway

Didn't have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it when
I'm in the mood to lose my way
But let me say

You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life
You'll be with me next time I go outside
No more 3x5's

Guess you had to be there
Guess you had to be with me

Today I finally overcame
Tryin' to fit the world inside a picture frame
Maybe I will tell you all about it when I'm in the mood to
Lose my way but let me say

You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life
You'll be with me next time I go outside
No more 3x5's
Just no more 3x5's

I hope that those of you who followed me in my trials and tribulations, my joys, sorrows and frustrations on this blog realize the magnitude of this experience for me. I didn't know how much I loved Madagascar until I left it. On days, and sometimes weeks, it was hard to sort through the good and bad and see that where I was, what I was doing, and what I was learning was exactly what I needed. I have grown so much as an individual, as a human, as a teacher, and as a development worker in the 10 short months I spent in Madagascar. Not a moment was wasted. And every memory brings a smile to my face and some warmth to my heart. I thank the Peace Corps staff in Madagascar for all of the hard work and support they lent to all of us; for so warmly welcoming us and honestly sharing their lives with us volunteers, so that we could be as successful as possible in our service. What an amazing gift they all gave us. I wish I could thank all the kind of people of my community who welcomed me into their homes and lives. I will remember their faces forever and cherish their friendships even longer.

...with that said, here are some links to my facebook albums of photos from Madagascar, Mazatoa! (enjoy!)

Photos from Training:

Photos from Training and Installation at site:


Photos from my Service and Town:


Photos from my winter break with my friend Laila at her site:

The Way It All Ended

Returning to site was a bittersweet morsel of wonder.

I arrived back to Marovoay just in time for the second exam session of the year. I delved into preparing a kick-ass review for my students and writing a test, that although challenging, was well within their abilities and showed mastery of what I had focused them on: comparatives and superlatives, the simple past tense, reading and comprehending simple texts, and writing descriptions using the verbs to be and to have. I knew this wasn't the most exciting way to spend what I knew, in the back of my mind, would be a precious few remaining weeks at site. But, it kept my mind occupied on a task: prepare my students for an exam, proctor exams, grade my exams, and get my "notes" into the office before my countdown clock runs out! I am proud to say that my students achieved an average of 76% on their exams, which in a system where 50% is passing, that is AWESOME! I couldn't be more proud of the way my students performed on the exam! (let's not consider the handful of students that got less than 10/40 on my exam...it just ruins it for me!)

Since I wasn't preparing and reworking lessons and exercises for the three weeks I was back at site, I was able to spend some precious time with the people I love in Marovoay. I spent almost every morning with my dear friend Nazira, sitting with her in her shop, sipping coffee or tea and nibbling on the wonderful Indian treats she made, and enjoying what a wonderful, intelligent, strong woman she is. She and I had made many plans...and she and her husband were the only people who really understood the gravity of the situation in Tana, and why I might not be in Madagascar for much longer - but we chose to ignore that piece. I passed by Madame Iarlalaina's humble house almost daily to check in with her and her newborn baby, Zezedidiah, since she was no longer working down at the market. I sat with Holy, the director's daughter - home from college in Tamatave - while she sold homemade breads and snacks, and laughed for hours in her shady spot. I drew in the sand and played the games of the neighborhood kids whenever I was near. I visited Tiana and her family often to dance and sing to the Westlife videos they loved and grab just a few more hugs from her precious children. And for my two best friends at site, Silvia age 2 and a 1/2, and Angela age 4, I couldn't get enough time with them. They were my laundry buddies, my sweeping buddies, my dancing buddies and of course my snack-time buddies. I miss those precious little faces, personalities and hugs more than words can convey.

But in spite of these gems of moments I was able to experience in my last three weeks, my cell phone seemed to dictate my life. Everyday about 5pm, I would get a text message from the PC office and the news was seldom good; often that would be followed by a phone call from Lucy with some additional bad news specific to our region. It all seemed hopeless for me and my Madagascar. Protests continued in Tana daily and tear gas was now a normal participant, and Mahajunga had recently sucummed to the activities as well. Protesters in Mahajunga had gathered near the taxi brousse station one day and attacked incoming public transit. All brousses from my town stopped transit for a day or so, and then resumed dropping passengers on the outskirts of town to find city buses or taxis into the city center. I was low on funds and needed to get to Mahajunga soon, but PC was not pleased with the situation. Lucy and I had planned a tentative trip - arrive Thursday night, do our business Friday and get out that evening or early Saturday before protests started.

Wednesday morning I had written my first actual lesson since returning from consolidation - it was about local jobs using relative clauses as the grammar point. It was evening and I was just returning home from my English Club at the Lycee...my friend Mampihava was preparing carp for dinner and I sat in her yard and chatted with her and my fave Lycee student Elzira (who I just called El). His phone would not stop ringing! And I loved to tease him about girls since he was just such a cutie! Then my phone beeped - text message:

“Decision made to suspend PC Madagascar. Very sad. Process of leaving will be lengthy. Prepare tonight for consolidation and onward as flights are confirmed. STAY IN SITE. For now we must be able to find you.”

I read it. I read it again. and again. and again. and then, I threw my phone across the yard in a most mature fashion. El dutifully went to retrieve it and asked what was wrong. "Handeha hody za..."(I'm going home...); he an Mampihava looked at me hard, it was dark out, I should be on my way home soon. No, I clarified. I am going home to "Etazonia" (the United States). I spoke with Lucy on the phone, she was so calm, whereas I ranted and raved.

When I stepped foot in my home in Madagascar, I broke down, realizing that I would have to tell Bonne, my counterpart. With tears in my eyes I walked out of my gate and up to their porch. The family was at the table, getting ready for a meal of rice with green beans and beef. Madam Soa rushed me to a chair, and everyone gathered around to find out why I was crying. They were in total disbelief, just like myself. After the initial news of evacuation went out, it was followed up with an instruction to leave quietly, to ensure volunteer safety as we were all traveling independently by public transport. I wouldn't be able to tell my students or many people I was leaving; Bonne understood. But the director's son, Cami, who was one of my students was present, and I doubted his ability to keep the secret. But he did.

As I prepared frantically to leave my house in just under 36 hours, Cami sent his sister and my good friend, Holy, over without telling her why, just that I was upset. She and I cried together while I divided my stuff into what I wanted to take and what I could leave, and she stayed until my bag to take was zipped and closed at about 12am. I gladly sent her away with clothes, shoes, jewelry and other womanly things that are treasures in Madagascar. The next day, the whole CEG family, had lunch together and we all shared that none of us slept, worried and pensive about what was happening.

Wednesday night, I had asked Lucy on the phone, "how am I supposed to teach class tomorrow and not say goodbye to my students?" She told me, "give them a great lesson." I chucked my lesson about local jobs and relative clauses aside, and filled my hour class with some tongue twisters (which I made them copy down, in an effort to make them believe that it was important) and taught them a silly song that involved some even sillier motions. And I took pictures of them...precious. I stood at the door on their way out and gave them all high fives in a effort to convey to them how much I loved each and everyone of them.

The next day, I heard the song I taught being sung as I walked through the CEG, one last time...it should have elated me, but rather it just made me bitter that this whole experience was ending without closure and a proper goodbye. To complicate feelings further, Bonne had called Xavier, the Edu Program Director for the PC in Mada. The PC was stringent on this secrecy issue and had told Bonne that it was just consolidation and that if all was calm through the weekend, I would be back at site. When Bonne reported this to me it just messed with my head and emotions. I called Lucy frantic, "are we leaving or not!? I can't live my life and pack and say goodbye on a 'maybe' basis!" She assured me, we ARE leaving. And that was my worst part of leaving - Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, I said my goodbyes to the people I couldn't leave without closure (including my JICA site mate Kinue, who is still working and helping educate the children of Marovoay!!!!! Bless her!) I had to make these special trips to my close friends to say goodbye, it was the right thing to do, and I would have felt awful leaving things undone; these people were my family in Marovoay and they had shared so much of themselves with me, a stranger!But when the Director, Jean Yves, loaded my stuff into his rickety car and drove me to Nazira's home for one last visit and meal with her, Bonne's family wouldn't give me a real goodbye. They internalized what Xavier had said, and I regret so much that my goodbye was rushed over the phone to him from Tana before I left the country for good.

Friday Evening, March 13th, Lucy and I met at Hotel Kanto in Mahajunga. My cab driver, Buron, was a friend of a past volunteer, and he joyfully drove me to the hotel to unload my stuff and to pick up Lucy who was waiting for me, past the bank to grab some much needed cash, and then to Marco's for one last delicious "Takis" pizza in Mahajunga. We gave him a generous fair for his trouble, our money no longer meant so much to us...I slept for the first night since Wednesday, and we woke up to a cool morning in Mahajunga...the view of the bay from our room was extra beautiful because I knew it was my last. Buron had agreed to pick us up at 6:30am, vazaha time, so Lucy and I stole away for one last Mokary (Sakalava sweet, rice bread made only in the Northwest) and coffee for breakfast; and I got to sit next to a beautiful little Malagasy child and chat for one last time.

We made the 12 hour journey from Mahajunga to Antananarivo one last time, and arrived to a BBQ at the house of our PC Country Director. Talk about culture shock! I ate my meal and tried to enjoy the gathering of PC and Embassy folk which was extraordinarily fun, but really would have preferred my Friday staple of popcorn, seasonal fruit and a movie in my quiet, simple and sturdy house.

I spent the next few days being shuttled to and fro, as I was scheduled to depart Mada in the last group of volunteers. Highlights included one last Montasoa breakfast, a muddy walk into town, a few last "vazaha" calls from locals, and an impromptu goodbye Serenade from Montasoa staff and PC drivers one night. It brought a number of us to tears as we realized that we were the last volunteers in country, and this was really the end for us.

On March 16th, a group of us volunteers ventured not far from the Peace Corps Meva, where we stay in Tana, for dinner. While we dined on some sub-par pizza, the opposition, with the military stormed, the Palace - not 20 minutes from where we were. Peace Corps called to check on us, we were safe, if not shaken, but truly somber. By the time we returned home to the Meva, the BBC had posted pictures and video of the events. It was real. The coup d'etat had occurred.

Our flight was scheduled to leave at about 2pm which meant we would normally leave for the airport at 11:30am. At 9am, the PC drivers showed up and asked us not to venture out too far. There was word that the coup d'etat was planned as a 48 hour offensive, and PC didn't want to take chances with our safety or ability to get out. As soon as there was a report that the plane had left South Africa we were loading up and leaving immediately; if it didn't leave we would be chartering a plane to evacuate us. (talk about privilege!)At about 10am we were loaded and headed out to Ivato, I grabbed the front seat next to Doda, my fave PC diver, for one last ride with him. I loaded my phone with some extra credit, and made some final good-bye calls.

And that was how it all ended for me in Madagascar.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Consolidation: Emergency Action Plan in well...action.

I can only describe consolidation as a crazy and turbulent roller coaster encompassing some of my best and worst moments in Madagascar.

I had only just left the Peace Corps Training Center at Montasoa six weeks earlier after attending In-Service Training before the Christmas holiday. Montasoa is a serene and kind of surreal place for Peace Corps volunteers. It's like being at summer camp; we stay in dorms, and enjoy the luxuries of indoor plumbing, warm showers, and 3 delicious meals plus a tasty sweet snack prepared for us daily, we don't even have to do any dishes or laundry! At the center there are plenty of cozy places to tuck into to read or write, and ample time is spent watching movies and cozying up by the fireplaces to chat with friends.
During my Montasoa stay for IST, I had longed for just one free day to hangout and relax, like we had had on occasion during training. The immediate reality upon arriving for consolidation was that I would now have an undetermined stay at the center with really nothing to do. This seemed like a wonderful, terrible, and daunting task all at once. In my heart, I was thinking, I'll just be here a few days, but my brain was telling my otherwise.

Initially, about 40ish of us were brought to the training center: all the Tana area volunteers, Mahajunga area volunteers and Tamatave area volunteers. Most of the gathered volunteers fell into the usual Montasoa scene immediately: bonfires, binge drinking, and crazy antics all set to an eclectic, yet enjoyable, soundtrack. For the first week, I had a hard time understanding all of this merry making, and wasn't interested in partaking in the festivities. I spent my evenings chatting with friends and watching movies and knitting. :D It felt wrong to me that people were acting as if they were on a special “free” vacation. It felt wrong to be blowing our generally precious Ariary (local currency) on alcohol and living it up when so many peoples' lives and livelihoods were becoming more uncertain with everyday of the conflict, people who had become our neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Not that I wasn't enjoying the comforts of Montasoa, but this stay wasn't part of my Peace Corps plan. I would have rather been with my friends and students in Marovaoy, sweating up and down the hill I lived on, eating rice, showering out of a bucket, and enjoying my simple life.

Each day, during consolidation, two Peace Corps Staff members drove out to the center to check in with us and give an update on the political situation: the events of the previous day, the results of their communication with D.C., and what the PC Mad Office was thinking about the future of our program...these became frustrating only because of the nature of the situation. In cooperation with the US Embassy, the Peace Corps was monitoring the events of the conflict and attempting to set up a rubric to determine if it was safe for volunteers to continue living and working in Madagascar. During the first week of consolidation, the then-Mayor of Tana, Andry, nicknamed TGV, announced himself as the new president of the Republic, and with the exception of a few small gathering and protests, their was no significant activity in the capital. As a general rule, the PC has no problem with regime change as long as it is orderly and adheres to the constitution of the nation; so the announcement was made and we awaited the outcome of a possible change in leadership. But it became clear quickly that we engaged in long-term waiting game, stuck directly in the middle of two opposing senarios: return to site or evacuate. The PC wasn't in a place to determine the likelihood of either of them.

During the first week of consolidation, we organized ourselves into sector-like groups and searched for “projects” around the center to keep us busy. Some of these were necessary, if not overdue projects: organizing/purging the library, erecting fences, working on the garden, moving and organized storage spaces, volunteering in the community, but they divulged into more fanciful projects, paintings and the “Dahline Stairway,” etc. Within the first week, it felt like this was going to be an endless situation. Nothing major was occurring, but their wasn't enough information about the past events or any insight into possible future events for the Peace Corps or Ambassador to confidently send us back to site, nor did the situation seem extreme enough to warrant evacuation. It was all so “uncertain.” So we waited, slowly going insane in our captivity and lacking productivity. Friday Night, we held a “dance for peace” to will peace onto the people of Madagascar and to celebrate Dorothy's 24th birthday. And then...

The first Saturday of February, Andry and his supporters stormed the Presidential Palace with the intention to overthrow the government. President Ravelomanana ordered his personal security team to fire on the crowd as they entered the place gates. Many civilians were killed and many more wounded in an event that the press deemed “Bloody Saturday.” We at the PCTC were devastated, first for the loss of lives and continual breakdown of the conflict into violence against civilians, and secondly because it was obvious that we wouldn't be returning to site in the next week as we had hoped. We received the news of the bloody showdown between government and opposition at about 3:15pm that day; the next three hours until dinner were the slowest, quietest hours of consolidation as we awaited word from the PC office, wondering if this was the final straw in the situation.

In the next few days, more volunteers were brought into consolidation at the training center until we reached capacity at about 80 volunteers, about two-thirds the volunteers in country.
Sporadic occurrences of violence, looting, and arson were taking place around the island, but it seemed random and disconnected to the events in Tana, forshadowing the possible future of the conflicts nature. At this point we all felt pretty helpless in the situation and resorted to a lifestyle of sleeping endlessly, reading methodically, staring into space, ritualistic volleyball games, and the oddest improvement projects to Montasoa...oh and more binge drinking. It seemed about everyday we were making a massive run to the tiny community of Montasoa, carting back crates of beer, boxes of rums and the likes, and all the mixers to go with. In the course of about 3 weeks, we cleaned the town out of beer, liquor, all coke products and most of their snacks (the conflict ushered in a breakdown of efficient transport, it might have got desperate if we had stayed any longer as town supplies were running low)...and you should have seen the piles and stacks of empties! We have some great nights of dancing and sing-alongs.

In the case of unrest, Peace Corps has a general, yet somewhat flexible, rule of a two week consolidation. If things are still not certain and safe, then it is most efficient for us to return to the US or be transferred to new posts, rather than doing nothing really in consolidation. As the two weeks came and went, we knew a decision was immanent. There had been up crops of regional violence, but the PC had decided that is was not directly related to the conflict in Tana so we would proceed with de-consolidation within the week. Tuesday was the decided day; Wednesday we held one last epic dance party to celebrate the “end!” At about 10pm, we receive an ominous text: “DO NOT DEPART FOR SITE. TANA IS ACTIVE TONIGHT. AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.” We all felt doomed and defeated. Breakfast was a quiet meal and their was no detail from Peace Corps as to when we would be/if we would be departing.

Alas, by 9am the first group was on the road toward Fianar and by 11am the six of us headed west were loaded into our PC car. We made a stop by the Peace Corps office and the last words I heard from the Regional Security Officer for western Africa were, “don't be surprised if we call you back here in a few days...” The reality was, the political situation in Madagascar was still unstable and uncertain, but the office in-country decided that is was safe enough for us to go back to post and continue work, for the present.
And so we went...By noon the next day I was home in Marovoay, greeted by the final day of the annual school celebration, where I watched the CEG students perform choreographed dances and was fed a lovely and balanced meal of cold spaghetti salad, bread, and fresh limeade by my 5emeIV class. It was good to be back and terrible to be back all at once...

Monday, May 4, 2009

The beginnings of trouble...

When “trouble” erupted in Madagascar, I was completely naïve to it, like most of the country's population who live in quiet rural communities, I would say. On Jan 24th, I skimmed a string of emails regarding student protests in the capital of Antananarivo, sent by our safety and security officer. In all honesty, I didn't really absorb any of the information. All I could think of was a month worth of internet “to-do's,” and how the rise in per minute internet costs in Mahajunga were going to make this particular day at the internet cafe even more stressful to get done quickly. Plus – as I skimmed all I could think was, the capital, Tana, felt like a million miles away to me (or a least a 12 hour, all-night taxi brousse ride) and I had no plans to be anywhere near the Analakely (downtown Tana) anytime soon. I thought, whatever was happening there, really didn't affect my life out west in my quiet town of Marovoay and generally disregarded the entire warning.

January 26th; widespread looting takes over the capital, the National Radio was burned and no longer broadcasting, along with the Malagasy TV station, TVM. Violence and chaos seem to be the general themes of the day. Like most nights in Madagascar, I called my friend Laila living on the Southeast coast of the island to chat. Her first words to me were along the lines of: “Wow, can you believe this? This is all so crazy! Eugene and I are talking about what happened today in Tana...” to which I respond, “ummm...What?! what's happening in Tana?” I spent all day in class, with students, and clearly there was no “maresaka” (talk) in my town. So Laila laid out the framework of the conflict and what had taken place during the first “real” day of protests, or the day things stopped being peaceful.

January 27th; I set out on a morning mission to find out what my community was saying about the conflict. The general response seemed to be a lot of rolling eyes at the historical mess of Malagasy politics, with everyone saying, “tsy mahay manao politique i Malagasy!” (Malagasy people don't know how to do politics!) There was a lot of talk about the issues in contention, like Mr. President purchasing an AirForceOne-type jet for millions of dollars amongst a land of humble farmers, and his obvious monopoly on manufactured dairy products, oil, and soap, and the distribution of imported goods, just to name a few. In a nutshell, people were pissed. They seemed to think the Ravelomanana got what was coming to him...but they weren't so easy to endorse the fighting and violence. They agreed change was necessary, but they sure wouldn't be taking up arms, and they seemed rather indifferent to what a resolution would entail. Nevertheless, the ladies told me to stock up on soap and oil the next day at the market - products that become scarce when politics heat up in Madagascar.
When classes ended, I called Laila to discuss the events of day and tell her what I heard in Marovoay. From her I find out that Peace Corps had been sending out texts all day which I had not received! The situation had gone from bad to worse. Protesters had sacked Jumbo, the foreign supermarket, looted it completely and burnt it out. Then they moved over to Magro, kind-of like the Malagasy Costco, owned by the President, and hit a variety of other Tana businesses. That day the sacking of Magro took place nationwide, including in my dear Mahajunga. The worst, the death toll was rising, 33 were burned to death in Tana and 3 in Mahajunga. Rumors started to swirl - all food reserves had been destroyed...all food and cooking oil manufacturing plants had been burned...this is the work of the exiled President Ratsirika...Mahajunga was a smoldering town in chaos...PC is going to call for evacuation in the AM...etc. I spent the majority of the night on a 4-way phone call between Laila, Rachel and Jeff. I spoke with the PC Security Officer that evening about the safety of my town, and as we spoke for the first time, my town was not quiet at night. I could hear shouting and clanking in the distance; people were looting two large stores/warehouses in my town. I was scared and so, I painted my toenails because I couldn't sleep.

January 28th; I walked into my 8am class and burst into tears. I turned my back to the class and started to write their lesson on the blackboard, trying to pull myself together. All I could think about was that heinous rumor of evacuation. I had committed to two years of life and work in this town. If I left there was no teacher to replace me, my students relied on me to teach them the curriculum to prepare them for their entrance exams for high school. Additionally, I felt guilty about my easy out in this situation. If times got hard, my government would send me home where soap and oil were plentiful, where trade and transport don't break down on a whim, and while no government is perfect, I could rely that through thick or thin, even in the worst of times and economies, my government would do its best to ensure my welfare. These are luxuries the Malagasy people can't depend on. What would happen to my students and their families, who are literally scraping a life together daily from the soil around them?
At my High School English club, I gave my dutiful students a vocabulary set for them to talk about the conflict, wrote some open-ended questions on the board to guide their thought processes, and asked them to spend 30 minutes exploring and writing about their opinions of the current conflict, its orgins, the impact in our community, and what they thought would be the ideal outcome. I was overwhelmed by their sharp analysis of the situation, and was shocked to find out not a single teacher had brought up the current events of the nation in 3 school days! I led our discussion to address the non-violence movement, remembering that I had seen books in French about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in the town library, and encouraged them to investigate and learn more and of course I was always available to talk.
For the nation, Wednesday was a day of tense calm. The first two days of the week had brought so much destruction and disarray to the country, it was an eerie calm. It was another sleepless night for me, our status had been moved to “standfast” which meant have a bag packed for emergency evacuation and be ready to leave at a moments notice. Needless to say, I didn't sleep much for another night.
Rumors continued to swirl between the plateau and the coastal areas. With the break down in the national radio broadcasting system, concrete events were hard to come by and as the capital was dividing into pro- and con- government groups, it was hard to sift through all the hazy reports and get the facts about the situation. But it seemed certain that the conflict had not yet come to a head, and “uncertain” became the name of the game in Madagascar.

Thursday January, 29th; the Peace Corps made the decision to move into the next phase of the emergency action plan, Consolidation. In the next few hours, volunteers started to move together into groups where the Peace Corps would be able to better manage the crisis, and connect with groups of volunteers by a single phone call instead of calling each of us individually. Peace Corps cars would be able to retrieve groups of volunteers with one stop on a main road. I received the call for consolidation just as I had returned home from my morning classes about noon (although Laila had already informed me via text message.) I was told that I would be moving to the Peace Corps training center in Montasoa because Mahajunga had been unstable throughout the week, there were concerns about holding us in a conflict hot spot, obviously. I knew there wasn't enough time to catch the afternoon brousse to Tana that day, which was nice, as I had a chance to do some packing, prioritizing, and well, laundry and cleaning.
I prepared silently. I knew there was a chance that I would not be returning to my home, I was told to relay the message to my counterpart that I was attending a security conference in Tana for the weekend, and didn't know exactly when I would be returning. I couldn't bring myself to tell my counterpart Bonne that I was going on Thursday. At noon on Friday, I got my courage up and told him I would be leaving in the afternoon, as if I had just found out myself. He looked sad and worried as I told him I was leaving for the “meeting.” He kept saying, “the kids. the kids. they are just getting used to you. they like you. it would be so sad for you to leave them. they would be so sad.” To which I wanted to scream: “what about me!? I'll be sad if I have to leave them! I love them! This is my life here too!”
To my friends, I gave them all big hugs (er...handshakes, Gasy people are big into the handshakes) and told them I would see them soon. They all looked at me like I was CRAZY. There was a BIG protest planned for Saturday in Tana. Why was I going TO the conflict? Everything was perfectly safe in the quite metropolis of Marovoay, why would the Peace Corps have me leave my town to be in possible danger? But it was the question that reverberated all the way down the hill that haunted me: “handeha hody ianao?” (are you going home?) To which I responded: “of course NOT! just to a meeting in Tana...see you in a few days!”
And so I left my town, house, friends, students, and life for almost three weeks of consolidation in Montasoa...

Saturday, January 24, 2009


I can't speak as an authority onthe subject, but truthfully, the entire world watched Tuesday's inaugurationof President Obama. At 8pm, TV M, the only cable station here in Madagascar, switched off it's usual programming to broadcast the inauguration. the best part for me, it was BBC World, no french translation to fight with! I spent the evening at a friends house, because she told me it would beon the radio. Sowe satwiththeradio tunedin andwaited. At about 8:03, a man came running down the hill calling, "miss whitney, miss whitney! aiza i miss whitney?" he finds me,"your president is on tv! hurry!" So he mandrosoas himself into Mampihava's house as she unplugs things and replugs in the TV. The reception was fuzzy and sound difficult, but I saw the speech. It was amazing. In fact, it seems like EVERYONE with a TV watched the speech. they didn't understand it, but they watched it.
It is interesting to be here in this moment. people interested in Obama here and they are excited mainly for that fact that he is black. for the first time the malagasy, are looking at america and seeing a face that doesn't remind them of colonialism and oppression. There are a lot of confused responses. "are you upset? I mean he's black? you have to be angry right?" I tell them, I love all people! I love black people! I gave up 2 years of my life in America to live and learn with black people here in Madagascar, right? (they are unsure of my work. I'm getting rich right? why else would i come here? volunteerism and national service are not really part of the culture here, yet.) But it has been a great avenue to discuss diversity in America and to push home that goal 2 of Peace Corps, increasing the understanding of Americans abroad.
Everyday I am asked "inona no mireseka?" (what's the talk? what's the noise?) And even in little Marovoay, a rice growing capital of a poor, underdeveloped nation: Barack Obama no miresaka be! (he is the big topic!) I hear lots of things like, is your new president going to buy us new desks? Is he going to end the wars of the world? to both of these questions, I have to respond, well, no, but think he will do great things for all the world, we just might not see them all immediately. But I just hear his name everywhere! people are talking about him here! cool is that!? Theophile, one of my students on thursday just couldn'tkeep the words from slipping out ofhis mouth. I had finished teaching the lesson material for theday and giving students time to copy. Theophile sat at his desk, diligently copying, and chanting quietly, "Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Barack..." It was distracting to the class, but it hurt me to tell him to stop saying that, because it felt like I was saying, "stop being interested in the world!"
I think this is one of the first times the people of Madagascar have actually been interested in who is the president of the US, things are changing for sure. I was really sad to be away from the states last tuesday. I love politics, I love policy, I love civics! But it is really cool to be here, right now, watching this change take place. How cool?! I get educate and inform my community, friends, and students about the world outside of Madagascar. Because this is a island nation, sometimes people people seem to believe Madagascar is the whole world at times. I love that I am here to help people break through those walls of misunderstanding, mistreatment, and lies that exist between the 1st and 3rd world. And I am so proud to be doing it behind a man who has such passion and vision for what the United States should be. The next 4 years should be interesting. The next 1.5 years for me, no doubt will be interesting and I continue working and learning here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Weather here is ominous. There is no other word for it. OMINOUS. I have never seen clouds like the ones that sweep off the Indian Ocean, pile over the Mozambique Channel and make their way across western Madagascar. It took me almost 2 months of living at site to figure out that you can't look in any specific direction to predict the weather of the day. Growing up in Central Oregon, I always looked west to the Cascades. If you woke up to a clear Central Oregon day and saw no clouds looming over the mountains you could expect a clear, sunny, lovely Central Oregon day. In Marovoay, it seemed like weather came from all directions, and converges onto the hill I live on. Impossible, I thought! So I started asking people, "what direction does the weather come from?" to this, I usually got a confused look and people just said, "weather comes." Clearly, I am not asking this question correctly, so I checked my vocabulary, put in some intensifier words, and used cardinal directions, the response: "Whitney, the weather just comes here! It doesn't come from a certain place. It just comes!" hmmm, I see. I was not really satisfied with this response. But it is true, weather patterns just converge all over the island at any given place, at any given time. I forget that about living on an island roughly the size of Texas...clealy the weather just comes.
But let's talk about the weather that comes. First, I have never felt heat like this before. The sun here is SOOOO very intense. During the really hot months, Oct-Dec, it actually hurts to be in the sun. I go to the market, at about 7:30 everymorning, wearing my big floppy hat and slathered in sunscreen. I come home everyday a little burnt. Even the Gasy people, won't leave their houses without their lambas to keep the sun off and their hats, proclaiming "may be!" (it's really burning!)
This brings me to a story: the week I got sun-poisioning. My 2nd day back from vacay, I noticed some little white bumps on my arms. Hmm, odd, I thought. By the end of the day, I was covered in little tiny blisters, arms, chest, back, only where the sun touchs me. Dutifully, I call the Drs. in Tana to tell them what's up, they report sun poisioning and lecture about suncreen and hats. thanks, I say, I wear them everyday. I'm just "vazaha fotsy be" (a really white foriegner.) The perscription, apply lotion and stay out of the sun. Cool, I live in Madagascar, almost impossible. I did manage to stay home most of the week, i live where I work, so that reduces sun exposure, and I sent kids to the market for me, (they love being entrusted with responsiblity and helping.) So I healed. The best part was the Gasy response to me being covered in little white blisters. These are a people to never let something slip by with out beating the subject into the ground. And of course they all have an opinion of how this happened to me and how to prevent it. My two favorites: my friend Richard told me it's because I bathed while I was still sweating. You see, you have to let the sweat dry and go back into your skin. If you wash your skin while you are still sweating you depleat it of something, he didn't know what exactly, and that is why I got those little blisters all over me. cool. thanks. the second, an old woman, who hates white people proclaimed it was god's way of telling me to go back to my own country, clearly the sun makes vazaha sick and there is no way of escaping the sun, GO HOME. at this point the crazed old woman was drug away from me in the market, and people assured me that they liked me and wanted me there...oh Madagascar. But mainly people would just look at my skin amess with blisters, make a face and say "don't you have some special vazaha medicine for that? it looks really bad!" again, thanks for the compassion, Madagascar.
Moving on from the heat comes the thunderstorms. Growing up in Central Oregon, I was always kind of scared of thunder and lightening. But in comparisson, the storms of my childhood were just light rumbles compared to what I experience here. Here, you can hear the the storms approaching hours before they actually arrive. From a hundred kilometers away, you can feel the earth shake with the thunder. And when the thunderheads build they are like towers of white marshmellow fluff reacing up to the heavens, they are beautiful. I never knew that clouds could be so BIG! In November and December we had dry thunder storms that would last all night long, never loud cracks, but long, slow, rumbles that made the earth tremble. The storms have changed a bit. The rainy season is upon us, and the storms I get are usually the spin out of cyclone action taking place in the region. Many a night, I study, prepare or read in my house with a beautiful, purple and blue light show outside my house. The storms are up in the clouds, not under them. And I have experienced a few energy charged storms that have passed right over my house, and make me so glad that the tallest object up in Tsara Rivotra, my commune, are the 3 cell towers! I can't even explain the light and crack here. It is deafening, terrifying, and thankfully passes quickly.
And lastly, there is the RAIN! oh the rain! when it rains it pours! a cool yet still very tropical rain. It's not cold but coolm with a warm breeze, bizarre and beautiful. The entire land becomes a river, just rushing by my front door. No leaks in the house yet! the plus to the rain: passive collection of CLEAN water. the water in Marovoay is anything but clean, I have big containers to let water settle out and I filter all the water I drink and cook with. Also, the pumps up on Tsara Rivotra are famous for being shut off for days or weeks at a time. With the rain, I just put my buckets under the eves and catch my delicious, clear water. glorious! the negatives, flooded, muddy, slippery roads and pathways. I have yet to fall down in the mud. But the day is approaching, I can feel it in my bones! I have however fallen into a sink hole...ha ha. avoiding walking through the dirty puddle collected in the road, I was trying to balance and jump like an acrobat...I missed. My shoe was swallowed by the muddy sink hole, i winced, grimaced, and kept searching with no luck. This was a chaco...you can't leave it behind. A stranger came and helped me fish it out of the muck eventually and a lady brought me a bucket of water to wash up with. Of course, I was still covered in mud, and the collection of people who had stopped to watch the vazaha struggle in the mud made sure to point out every speck of mud on me as I went along my way. And, I still had to walk through the market and do my shopping. There was a lot of tongue clucking in disapproval of my muddiness...when i got home, the pump wasn't working. oh the life here! I've also started sleeping without the fan, which is basically a miracle. No longer do I sweat 24 hours a day, now just a few...it's blissful. I am definately welcoming the change. I never thought I would say this, but I was a little tired of a hot, perfect, beautiful sunny day everyday. And the rainy days make me think of home, makes me appreciate a cup of tea so much, and makes me crave soup!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas in Antanarivo

Saturday, I made a mistake. I went downtown Antananarivo mid-day. Friday afternoon, some friends and I had caught a cab from the other side of the city and passing through downtown, Michelle, a New Yorker, commented: “Wow, downtown Tana and downtown Long Island aren’t much different the weekend before Christmas. Frantic shoppers crowding the street!” However, the shopping culture looks a little different…Mall don’t really exist here. And most people here do most of their shopping in the open air markets…food, clothes, toys, house wares, electronics, everything you could imagine!
So downtown Tana is a hectic place any day of the week, add Christmas shoppers and it is kind of like the nightmare on Analakely Blvd. Rachel and I needed to get some pictures developed for friends at site, so we naively walked into the mess of downtown. It was like a raging river of frantic shoppers. Sometimes Rachel and I were going with the current, weaving through people, gripping each others’ hands so we wouldn’t be lost; other times we were going against the current, trying to find a pathway to keep moving foreword.
I have never been so happy to actually arrive on the Analakely, which is like the tourist center of town. Usually, Analakely is pick-pocket and beggar central, but it was one-forth as crowded as the streets surrounding! And therefore a haven of comfort. Rachel and I found the Fuji film place ordered our pics…and went back through the mess to get some lunch and hang out at “The Cookie Shop,” also know as PCV heaven. We had Bagel Pizzas for lunch followed by a snack of delicious, creamy chai tea, and she a brownie, me an apple crumb delicious thing. It kind of made us forget that we were in Madagascar for a few hours! After reading for a few hours and chatting with friend that passed through the café, we went BACK to Analakely to get out pics. It was worse…we took a taxi be (like a bus…) and have never been so happy to be squished into those child sized seats!

As much as I loathed that trip to Analakely, it did make it feel a little like Christmas! Until arriving in Tana I hadn’t seen a single holiday decoration…except at the Chef CISCO’s house. It is interesting, in Tana to see a “middle class” of people with extra money to spend, but not in excess. Two weekends ago I had a conversation with Madame Noro, the Chef CISCO’s wife, and she was spelling out the differences between “the have nothings” and “the have excessivelys” in the majority of Madagascar. I have to say it is a refreshing year, to not be surrounded by purchasing excess and the need and expectation to purchase and receive. With that said, Merry Christmas and Happy Channakah to everyone at home! I miss you all dearly and hope that the season is joyous and memorable for you all!