Happy New Years everyone! I hope you were all blessed with family and friends over the holidays. I was very much blessed with the presence of many of my Peace Corps friends in Ifaty. It really helped lift my holiday spirits, since the extremely hot weather did not feel very Christmasy and I had no Thanksgiving to speak of. It’s ok, though, because I was able to show my friends some of the things that I love most about my village- cool people, cute kids, lakana(outrigger canoe) rides to snorkel at the Rose Garden (our Marine Protected Area), hikes through the baobab forest, and beautiful sunsets. I hope all of this made up for the heat! We brought in the new year with a beach bonfire, goat roast, and kilalaky dancing at Chez Alex.
One of my co-workers at Reef Doctor mentioned resolutions the other day. It hadn’t even occurred to me. I have been here almost a year, and change and growth have pretty much been a constant feature of my life. I can only hope to be able to keep up with and adapt to the changes that will surely come with the coming year in Madagascar.
Some people have asked me, and any discussion about the Peace Corps inevitably revolves around what people ‘accomplish’ during their service. Some people end up feeling unfulfilled by their experience because they feel they didn’t accomplish enough. Some people are called Super-volunteers for building the most latrines, or something like that, only to find out later that they are being used as storage sheds. For many people, I believe that holding on to preconceived expectations about what service would be like is the main cause of dissatisfaction. As with anything, you have to be flexible, open-minded, and remember that each person creates their own experience.
Development work is a long, slow process, compounded by the fact that in Madagascar (and I suspect many developing countries) everything is a long, slow process. Two years is such a short period of time, and here we are, alone in a village with no budget whatsoever. Ha! The thought of any of us accomplishing any big change is kind of ridiculous. But we can make many little changes. Take my women’s group. I have helped them learn a new skill, embroidery, which is not only an activity they enjoy doing, but they are proud to create such beautiful things, and happy to earn extra money for their families. Hopefully I can ensure that it continues after I leave, but even if it doesn’t, I believe I made a small change. Some of the women expressed that they wanted to learn gardening, so I organized a training with a Malagasy gardening expert. I have pretty high hopes that this will be helpful in the long run. Once you have the skills to grow fresh vegetables for your family, and possibly sell some, why wouldn’t you continue to do it every year?
The other thing to keep in mind when calculating success is that the 2nd and 3rd goals of the PC refer to cultural exchange. Even in an area like mine that sees a fair amount of tourists, many of the women saw me as some kind of mysterious being. You get this feeling when people are looking at you as though you’re not a person, but more like a strange animal. At least no one has poked me…oh wait, that’s not true. At any rate, now they’re my friends and we joke around about stuff, like guys and such. The fact is that foreigners don’t have a good history in many places, and even nowadays some NGOs come into areas like they own the place – here to bestow their superior intellect on the natives or something. Whatever! Right now I sometimes look like a crazy outsider, but I will wear all these people down into becoming my friends.
Thing is, this is my perspective and my experience. The PC is full of individuals alone in isolated villages, so each perspective and each experience is unique. We are out here to be agents of change, so success is measured by the amount of change we effect. However, I believe that WE are what needs to change the most, not our villagers, and that can happen anywhere, anytime, for free.
Most of the people reading this are my friends, so I am preaching to the choir a bit when I say this…no one needs to travel to Madagascar to find people who need help. Giving your time and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone to help others is very rewarding, so I suggest doing it no matter where you are. Hey, there’s a good resolution for ya!