Velom iaby e

Rarely have I felt as heartbroken as I feel right now. I have been putting off writing this blog, but now seems like the perfect opportunity to curl up in my hotel bed, put on some Ben Harper, and write. Around the end of January, I was living in my village of Ifaty, happy because I was finally able to have real conversations in Malagasy, planning a big public toilet project, and just generally loving life (although, I admit the heat was getting to me). One day I received an email about a political rally in the capital, Tana, but it barely made a bleep on my radar. A few weeks later there were more rallies, and rumors started spreading about the mayor of Tana, a former DJ named Andry Rajoela, challenging the president, Marc Ravalomanana (listening to newscasters trying to pronounce these names has been very amusing). When I heard that the television stations and all Tiko and Magro (president-owned dairy company and supermarkets) stores had been destroyed I was totally shocked. In Tulear, people were being killed by bags of rice falling on them while they were looting. At this point the police were doing nothing.
Peace Corps went to consolidation, and at the time I thought it meant we were mere days from leaving the country. I said goodbye to my friends and left for my consolidation point, only to find out that the plan was to stay there for 10 days until things calmed down, then go back to site. I was pissed. Nothing was happening in my village! Only in the cities, one of which I had to travel through in order to reach my consolidation point. I wanted to go back to my village, and the fact that the “situation” in Madagascar changed daily did not help. We ended up staying in consolidation for 3 ½ weeks. Everyday was different. One day the plan was to deconsolidate in 2 days, then the next day we’d be packing for evacuation. It was a stressful situation. When we finally went back to our sites, I had the creepy feeling like we were in the eye of the storm. Propaganda videos for Andry started inundating the villages, showing soldiers shooting civilians at rallies, and people dead from gunshot wounds. They were effective, and while no violence occurred during the UN negotiations, the real war was secretly being fought. I didn’t bother to unpack my bags.
Although I live far from the capital, in an area where people generally don’t care about politics, the existing poverty and global food crisis was combining with drought and heat to create an environment where any added tension could push people to violence. After a series of looting incidents in Tulear, Peace Corps decided to close the region. This meant that I would have to move to a different area of the country. I packed up my house so that PC would be able to pick up my stuff in a few weeks. I flew to Tana with just my backpack to figure out where I would live, and to prepare for training of the new volunteers scheduled to come at the beginning of March. After a week, however, violence resumed and I found out that the training had been canceled. A few days later came the devastating news that the entire program was suspended. We were being evacuated to South Africa. The decision was precipitated by the news that the military had fractioned, and it was unclear who, if anyone, was in control.
Wave by wave, we were sent to Johannesburg. For the past week I have been going through medical examinations, psych evaluations, writing final reports, and waiting in lines to cross my Ts and dot my Is. Oh, and there is the small matter of what to do with my life now that I have lost my job and my house (multiplied by about 130 other people in the same situation). We were told of a possibility to direct transfer to another country, but that it was a difficult process for which “the stars would have to align”. Also, we wouldn’t even know the possible transfer locations for another 5 days, leaving us 2 days to decide what to do before being out on our asses. So, while I considered direct transfer, I also planned a trip through Africa from Capetown to Cairo.
So far my stars are aligning. There is a great program in Tanzania that I qualify for. My initial interview went well, and tomorrow I am going to Pretoria to continue the process. My current heartbreak is due to the departure of most of my friends. Many of them are going on a safari in Kruger National Park, and some are going straight down to Capetown. I can honestly say that I love all of these people. They have been an incredible support network made up of some of the funniest, smartest, and most caring people in the world. I’m shocked at how intensely I already miss them, and can’t wait to see them again.
That’s my story. If things work out in Pretoria I will be trading in Malagasy for Swahili, lemurs for lions, and rice for cassava. I do fear being lonely without my support network, but it seems that my fate is to meet amazing people wherever I go, and I am confident this will be no different in Tanzania. If things don’t work out, I will be able to see my friends sooner than later in Capetown. Either way I have many things to be thankful for. I want you all to know that the possibility of coming back to the US and seeing you sooner than expected did weigh heavily on my decision, but I am just not finished with Africa yet. I hope you understand. I love you all, and can’t wait to see you all again.

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Tao vao vao!

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!

mango mania

I came to the realization that I may be the worst blogger ever. The big thing I think is missing from my blog is a description of my day-to-day life. There’s a lot, so maybe I should break it into topics.
Firstly, travel to my village. Villages around Tulear used to be considered “fly sites”, which meant that when I traveled to the capital city of Tana, the PC would pay for me to fly from Tulear and back. Then I would have to take a taxibrouse to my site. That is no longer the case, since there is a decent road from Tana to Tulear. So now I take a taxibrouse all the way to Tana. There are different kinds of taxibrouses. In the south, there are mainly camions, or big, open busses. There are also covered pick-ups with benches, which almost always have to be push-started. They can typically fit about 20 adults into the back of a truck, along with chickens, children, and whatever else you can stuff under the bench, as well as 4-5 men hanging off the back. The kind of brouse that you take to Tana, however, is a 15-passenger van. It is a 20-hour ride from Tulear to Tana, and there are always several people puking most of the way, so I always bring plastic bags to give out. The brouse stops once at a hotely (Gasy restaurant) for dinner, but there is plenty of food along the way in the form of people who run up to your car with plates of chicken, hardboiled eggs, fried-dough, etc. anytime the brouse has to stop for a police check. Close to Tana, these police checks are quick and simple. As you go further south, the police start carrying large guns and asking the drivers for money. But don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’m not a fly site anymore. As an environment volunteer, especially, it would be irresponsible for me to fly when I can take a brouse. And hey, it makes me more Gasy.
Secondly, life in my village. Although there are no hotelys or resaurants in my village, it isn’t exactly the ambanivohitra (backwoods). It’s pretty simple to get here, several shop owners in town have generators, and they play music videos all night. We even have a solar panel for the school. Everyone lives in grass huts and cooks on small metal stands with charcoal. Rice doesn’t grow here, and it is expensive to buy, so people don’t eat as much rice here as they do on the plateau. On the plateau (the center of Mada) people make balls of rice dough called mofogasy. Here they make a modified version called mokare (moo-ka-ray) that has regular flour in addition to rice flour, that they eat for breakfast. I think lunch for most people is a little cassava, and dinner is rice with fried fish or beans. I am fortunate that I eat with the Reef Doctor people, who have someone to cook for them during the week. This really saves me a ton of time, because food takes a while to prepare. In the morning, the men head out fishing, while the women spend most of the day cooking.

My typical day…
My wake-up time depends on the sun. Not so much because the sun wakes me up, although that has something to do with it. The sun wakes everyone else up, and in turn they wake me up. First it’s the taxibrouses. There is a woman who lives behind me named Madame Vettely. She has a large camion-style brouse, and her son has a pick-up style brouse. They usually pull up next to my house and rev the engines for a while, sending a cloud of gas into my house around 5am. During the next hour other brouses come through, honking their horns the whole way. At around 6am the children start playing in front of my house (I live across from the school) and occasionally try to see how many times in a row they can call my name. Cute. That is about the time I typically wander through the village to buy eggs and bread, or perhaps mokare for breakfast.
After breakfast I wander down the beach to the Reef Doctor office. As usual, I am involved in several different projects, so my activities at the office vary. Since I have access to electricity and internet, I do a lot of research and reading materials for environmental education. Often I am preparing clothes for the women’s association or activities for Kid’s Club. Sometimes I go diving, or study my fish for performing underwater surveys. Lunch is at noon, and after that nothing happens again until 3pm. The excuse is that it’s too hot to do anything, but they take the same amount of time in the winter. This is my favorite part of the day because I usually read a book and nap in a hammock. It’s a tough life, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
After all that napping I really need a snack, so I walk to through the village to buy bonbonkapiky, which is basically peanut brittle. Lately, though, there have been tons of mangoes. They are delicious and practically free, so they have become my new sugar-rush of choice. I can eat 4 mangoes for the price of 1 bonbon kapiky (100 Ariary, or approx $0.06) Also, my afternoons just got really fun. I started practicing with the Ifaty women’s rugby team, who just so happen to be the best team in the country. It’s so great to be playing rugby again, and the women are awesome. They want me to go to Tana and play with them. Technically the rules allow it, but I’m not sure how Peace Corps would feel about that.
Saturdays I usually invite the kids to my house to color, and sit on my porch playing the guitar for them. I also like to make bread or granola in my solar oven. The best is when someone comes wandering by my house selling fresh goat’s milk. Then I’ll make myself a cup of milk & honey, and use the rest to make cheese. Sundays are a lot of fun because I have Kids Club, and then teach an English class in the afternoon to the local fisherman and store owners. Sunday nights are also fun because I have crazy dreams thanks to my anti-malarial medication.

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Environment Kid’s Club

 
So that’s pretty much my life. I’m asleep by 9pm, awake by 5am. I eat lots of rice, beans and fish, and now mangoes. I watch the sun set over the Mozambique channel every day. I miss my friends and family often.

Tiako mandehadeha

The last few weeks have been busy, and really fun. The Ifaty women’s organization had its first exposition for the staff and guests of Reef Doctor. Everyone loved all the beautiful napkins, tablecloths, and pillow cases they had made. The women were really proud, and so happy that the vazaha were into stuff they had made.

There is definitely some sort of ridiculous idea that vazaha are somehow better than Gasy people. I consciously try to break this down. You wouldn’t think that just hanging out with people and getting to know them would have a huge impact, but it does. They love it, and so do I! Ok, I admit it was scary at first, and sometimes it still is. Some people laugh hysterically anytime you speak (not a problem when I’m trying to get a laugh, but otherwise, it makes me want to crawl into a shell), while other people give you death looks. But everybody, and I mean everybody, stares at you at as close proximity as possible (occasionally chomping away on sugar cane right next to my face).

I finally visited Ranomafana national park with my friends Brittany and Dan. I love the rainforest. We had some great hikes, and got up close with lemurs. It’s official, the mouse lemur is the cutest animal ever. Even the fossa we saw was adorable (although, the larger species is supposedly scarier).

We spoke with some of the people doing research in the park. Unfortunately, despite the work to conserve the animals that live in the park, many are still likely to go extinct. For example, the greater bamboo lemur is in danger because the forest bordering the park is being destroyed. The greater bamboo lemur doesn’t live in those areas, but the large fossa that do live there are being forced into Ranomafana, where they hunt the greater bamboo lemur. Why are the rainforests being destroyed? So that a few minerals can be dug up out of the ground. Dumb.
Anyhoo, I spent the past week in Tamatave for the yearly bike race/AIDS awareness event. We worked with Gasy NGOs giving workshops all over the city. It was a really great event, and I got to give a condom demonstration to a group of 10-year-old boys, woohoo. But seriously, it was awesome to see people speaking openly about a subject that some people refuse to acknowledge. Plus I got to see a lot of my friends, which is always sweet.

3 months down, 21 left to go

Hello everyone,
It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I’ve been having a great time at site. I have a computer now, so I will try to keep you all updated more often.

I just finished my in-service training, which means I have completed 3 months at site. That doesn’t actually mean anything to me anymore, because I no longer have any concept of time. Sometimes I also feel like I am also losing my concept of reality. In Tana there are billboards for cellphone companies showing young people in nice clothes sitting around in coffee shops. These billboards are along the same streets lined with make-shift shacks for the many homeless people that live there. In Ifaty, people live in grass huts, shower from a bucket in the middle of the road, defecate on the beach, and fry fish with charcoal on little metal stands. However, for 2 weeks I was taking hot showers, eating pizza and burgers with fries, and watching the olympics while drinking beer with my friends. I even had a halfway decent internet connection. I was starting to feel totally disconnected from life at site.
I certainly don’t want to imply that the hot shower, burger-eating life is better. On the contrary, I had raging heartburn for 3 days straight, I was completely overwhelmed everytime I went anywhere in Tana, and I was broke. I couldn’t wait to get back to my hut, my fish and rice, and even my bucket showers. Also, my time at IST gave me loads of ideas and extra motivation, so I wanted to get back to Ifaty and start some projects.
While in Tana, I made my best purchase ever. I bought a djembe, which is a drum. I knew carrying it back to site would be a pain in butt, especially with the ton of books I had picked up from the PC office, and I was not looking forward to the trip home. I took a taxi to the brousse station with my two friends Katie and Ryan, and as usual, all of our stuff was immediately grabbed out of the trunk by people wanting us to take their brousse. Then everyone started playing the drum and passing it around. They loved it! The same thing happened as soon as we got off our brousse in Ambositra. The next day, on the way to Fianarantsoa, the three little boys sitting next to Ryan were more than happy to play with the drum during the ride. It’s crazy how happy the drum makes people. It just confirms my belief that drums are magical! (A belief I know is shared by many of you 😉
My journey home to Ifaty was long, and I was extremely tired when I finally reached my little hut. As soon as I climbed off the brousse my favorite little buddy, Dougy, was there to help me carry my stuff, so I handed him the drum. Almost instantly the children gathered, and a dance party ensued on my porch. (Here’s a video with Dougy front and center. https://youtu.be/lfQPoX9Sd4o )

Later, some of my rhasta friends from Mangily (the town just 3mi away) showed up at my house with a guitar, so we built a fire on the beach and sat around singing with some of the people from Reef Doctor. It’s nice to travel and see other parts of Madagascar, but man, it’s good to be home.

bonjour vaza!

Hey everyone !

I can’t believe I’ve been out of training and at my site for 4 weeks already. Ifaty is beautiful, and everyone has been really welcoming. I’ve been greeted several times in the village with ‘Salama, Maureen’, as opposed to the usual greeting for a white person, which is ‘Bonjour, vaza!’ (don’t get me wrong, I still hear plenty of that J My Malagasy partner, Madame Jeanne, was so happy to see me when I arrived, and the people at Reef Doctor have really helped me settle in (i.e. they’ve been feeding me). I love my house, and I’m generally stoked on life.

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Shopping for everything in Tulear was absolutely crazy. And I thought I would have a simpler life here- ha! There are stands selling various items all along the streets, so I was running around all day trying to find everything I needed, and bargaining with the vendors. At first I hated bargaining, but by the end of the day I was totally into it. One guy even complimented me on my bargaining skills! Combine that with everyone exclaiming ‘Mahay teny gasy!’ (she speaks Malagasy), and I was feeling pretty good about myself.

It was tough to leave all the friends I made during training. We had a lot of fun the last few weeks visiting protected areas, and hanging out in Tana. We even had an awesome talent show, in which I performed the dance from Little Miss Sunshine (Superfreak). At a protected area in Andasibe we saw tons of chameleons, snakes, frogs, and of course lemurs. But the really exciting animal sighting occurred after I arrived in Ifaty. The first night in my house I heard a rustling of the reeds that make up the walls of my house. When I looked around I found my house was filled with—are you ready?—giant hissing cockroaches! I know, isn’t that so cool?! I’ve created a game called ‘How many giant hissing cockroaches are in my house right now’. It’s such an awesome game I created the at-home version called ‘How many GHCs are in this picture’. I hope you enjoy it. 

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I have already been working to expand the women’s association in this area. On Wednesday M. Jeanne and I went to the town just inland from Ifaty and taught a group of women there some embroidery techniques. My hope is that they will eventually start an association of their own. Also, the farmers in that town have offered to give me an experimental plot, and they are very excited to learn improved farming techniques. I’m stoked to become part of this community.

First post from Madagascar

Hello everyone!
I am so excited to be writing you! So much has happened in the last 3 weeks, and I have a line of PCVs behind me who want to use the net, but I’ll do my best to sum up here. I planned out what I was going to write last night, but today I had the most amazing experience at an orphanage in the capital city, Tana. The kids were awesome, and the environment was so positive and loving. They are practicing some great sustainable activities there. It made me think about how difficult it is to get people in the US to even save a little water by flushing less often. The people at this orphanage have no choice but to make the most of absolutely every resource they have. These kids have nowhere else to go, and money is extremely limited. Check out their website http://www.akanyavoko.com/, then watch my video of the great dance the girls performed https://youtu.be/uRkT_4vse9Q

So anyway, the first week I was in total awe of everything…the beautiful vistas, the endless valleys of rice, and even my walk to school. The newness has worn off a bit, and I have been missing you all, but I am still having a great time.

And I am super stoked to go to my site in 7 weeks, which will be on the SW coast near Toliara. I will be working with an NGO called Reef Doctor. They have a website, but you should check it at your own risk because you will be paralyzed with envy. I will also be helping a group of women open a boutique near the hotels to sell their handicrafts.

My host family is awesome. They are a young couple about my age, with a 1yr girl named Mirantsoa. I swear, she is the happiest baby ever! Last week I went to church with them, and afterwards we went to a family reunion (to my surprise). This was intense for only having 2 weeks worth of language lessons in Malagasy. Fortunately a few of them spoke French, so I was able to get by. A bunch of the highschoolers were learning English, and of course they wanted to practice it, so I literally said every sentence once in French, again in Malagasy, and a third time in English. By the end of the day, I thought my head was going to explode. I slept very well that night.

I am learning so much everyday. Last week I learned how to plant rice and kill a chicken. That’s just how REAL it gets in the PC, yo!!!
I should also mention that the other trainees in my stage rock. I am truly blessed to be a part of this group. But I better go or they will trample me!

Peace,
Mo
ps. i am typing this on a weird keyboard…meaning that the letters are not where they should be. be forgiving please
pps. i go to bed at 8pm. there’s no electricity, and you would be amazed at how hard it is to stay awake by yourself in the dark. letters and postcards are coming, i promise.