Monday, November 25, 2013

Mazotoa Homena, Ankizy!

One of the main projects I’ve been working on recently is developing a school lunch program for the primary school out in the village of Ambatomboro. It’s the same village where the women basket weavers work, and it was through them that I met the Directress of the local primary school, Madame Mialy. We started a year ago with planting some moringa with the intent to distribute it to different households in the community. Over the past few months, we have planted potatoes, rice and moringa and also purchased several energy-efficient stoves for the school lunch program.

Mialy and her husband, Honorée, have been the driving forces behind the project and are some of the most mazoto (or motivated) individuals I have met in Madagascar. They have single-handedly turned the primary school in Ambatomboro from a single building made of wood about 10 years ago to a model school with over 240 students. Every year, they have a 100% pass rate for students taking the C.E.P.E. test to move on to middle school. After seeing this and recognizing the potential that a regular school lunch program would have on the health, learning and overall development of the students, we decided to develop and implement the project.

We began back in August with preparing the farmland and planting the potatoes, which are now ready to harvest. More recently, we planted the moringa, which are now small seedlings ready to be distributed once again, and rice that will be ready for harvest in March. We also purchased several solar cookers and solar ovens, as well as two large stoves that use half the amount of wood or charcoal that a regular stove requires. We hope to start out with the lunch once a week, with the potential to expand to twice a week. The crops have been growing very well and to recognize and celebrate the opening of the school lunch next week, we held an event this past Saturday filled with dancing, speeches and lunch for all the students and invited guests.

Though it took quite a bit of preparation, the event was a huge success. To start off the festivities, we had a dance troupe from Soavinandriana entertain the crowd with a variety of traditional Malagasy dances as well as modern dances with more of an international flair (including one set to Dire Straits’ Walk of Life). The students then raised the Malagasy flag and sang the Malagasy national anthem in perfect unison. Once all the lehibes (town leaders) arrived, speeches were given one by one, explaining the project and discussing the importance of child nutrition as well as protecting the environment through the use of energy efficient stoves. I gave my first real speech in Malagasy, which was well received by all and from what I was told the Directress was beaming the whole time.

Not only did the Adjoint Maire of Ampefy attend, we also had the Director of Regional Education for Itasy as well as the wife of the Minister of Education in attendance. They were impressed by the project, and the wife of the Minister went as far as to donate 170 additional plates to the school so that we now have enough for all of the students. We also had a demonstration using all of the solar cookers, baking banana bread in the solar oven and boiling water for drinking in the parabolic cooker. Many of the guests were even convinced to buy solar cookers of their own. This is the first step to encourage Malagasy people to transition towards being more environmentally friendly, as much of the forest has already been destroyed for the purpose of firewood. Exposing the school children to this new technology also helps to teach them to protect and value their environment; a significant step as change often begins with the youth.

The event ended with lunch for everyone. We had cooked a special meal for our invited guests, and my other volunteer friends and I ended up serving everyone as they devoured the rice, pork and peas. Only once the 200+ schoolchildren were full of potatoes, pumpkin and moringa could we sit down and eat our own meal. Everyone left feeling satisfied in both body and mind, especially after an impromptu meeting held by the lehibes in attendance discussing the state of education in Madagascar. The bike ride back to Ampefy, accompanied by Eric and Sarah, was as beautiful as ever and although I was exhausted from all the preparation, I felt fulfilled knowing that the schoolchildren will now be healthier and better able to learn in school.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Adventures to Spare

A lot has happened in the past month or so. I’ll start from the beginning, with our GLOW (Girls Leading our World) camp in Tana during the first week of September. I worked with four other volunteers all from my region (central) of Madagascar to hold the camp for adolescent girls from each of our towns. Each of us selected four girls, ages 14-16, and one chaperone to participate in the camp, making a total of 20 girls and 5 chaperones in addition to the 5 volunteers. It was difficult for me to select only four girls from Ampefy; however the girls I chose exceeded my expectations in their participation and growth over the course of the week.

We had three full days of activities and visits focusing on three themes: health, work and education. The first day, two different organizations, PSI and MAHEFA, led sessions to teach the girls about reproductive health, family planning and nutrition. The second day, we visited the American Embassy and had women who work at the Embassy in addition to members of a professional women’s association in Madagascar talk about their jobs and the balance of work and family life. On the third day, we visited the University of Antananarivo as well as the EducationUSA Advising Center to give the girls the opportunity to learn about higher education both in Madagascar and abroad. The last day, we were able to do some sightseeing and shopping in Tana as many of the girls don’t have the chance to make the trip to the capital city often. And now the real work begins, as the girls will pass along the information they learned to their peers in town.

After the GLOW camp, I had about a week back in Ampefy to get things in order before heading out east to the port city of Tamatave to help translate for a medical mission. Members of the organization CRMF (Caring Response Madagascar Foundation) make a trip to Madagascar for a few weeks every year to run rural health clinics and this year, to lead training sessions for midwives. It was my first real experience with the health system and the problems that accompany it here in Madagascar. Each volunteer was partnered with a doctor during the clinics to translate for the patients, which was difficult for me in the beginning because of the different dialect of Malagasy out east. About half the time, I was partnered with an OB/GYN, the other half with a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. One of the most incredible things was the doctors brought a portable ultrasound machine with them to the rural clinics, so pregnant women who never could have imagined seeing their unborn child (and not to mention know the sex before it is born) were both shocked and excited to see their babies, healthy and kicking.

Of course with new life, there is also death. One of the most difficult patients that I had to translate for was a 30-year old woman experiencing heart failure. If she had not come to the clinic, she would have died within a few weeks, and even so it is hard to know what will happen to her. I listened to her heartbeat; it had no clear rhythm and instead a galloping beat – it sounded like rushing water. She also had severe edema in her legs and overall very poor blood flow. We immediately sent her to the hospital in Tamatave, luckily she was able to go in the organization’s private car and the doctors covered her medical expenses. She has six children, the youngest of which was 3 months old and still nursing, so she took her infant to the hospital with her to be able to care for him. Now, I still think of this woman and can only hope that her and her family are ok. Overall, the mission was an incredible experience and I am so glad to have witnessed that side of life here, even if much of it was difficult for me to come to terms with.

Last bit of big news - my mom visited during the first week of October. It was an adventure to say the least, we joked about calculating the likelihood of our survival over the course of the week. We first spent a few (calm) days in Ampefy and had a chance to visit some of the people I work with in the neighboring town of Soavinandriana, including a dairy farmer and a potter. My mom also got the chance to meet some more of my friends in Ampefy and witness firsthand both the joys and frustrations that I experience here on a regular basis. Then what I thought would be the real, relaxing part of the vacation began with a surprisingly smooth AirMadagascar flight up to Diego.

First, we headed south to Ankarana National Park, staying at a lodge on the west side. After a 4-hour drive on a pot-hole filled road, past villages where pigs run around like dogs and hordes of smiling Malagasy children waved to us as we drove by, we arrived at our lodge buried deep in the massifs of the park. I was caught a bit off guard by the organic nature of the lodge, no windows or doors, completely open to the elements. One of the biggest surprises we encountered was a toilet full of frogs once we returned from hiking in the park the first day. We spent about twenty minutes, laughing and screaming, as we attempted to fish the frogs out of the toilet.

The west side of the park is mainly known for it’s large, spacious caverns. We walked through three of them – the first one stunned me by its sheer size as we continued deeper and deeper into the darkness and silence, accompanied only by our guide and small, sleeping bats hanging from the walls. I’ve never been so happy to see the light at the end of the tunnel as when we saw the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the mouth of the cave. We then reached the bottom of a large canyon and quickly entered into the Cathedral Cavern, which resembles a cathedral with its high ceiling and large holes at the top looking up to the sky. One difference were the cackling fox bats, the largest bats in Madagascar that call the cave their home, their shrill voices filling the air of the dark space while guano lay and cockroaches crawled at our feet. The final cavern was the Crystal Cavern, the stalactites and stalagmites sparkling like chandeliers as we shone our headlamps into the darkness.

The eastern side of the park was tamer, relatively speaking. This time we hiked over tsingy (the limestone rock formations found only in Madagascar that formed under the ocean millions of years ago) and through riverbeds. As it is the dry season, we were able to see where two rivers meet to form a giant whirlpool before streaming underground when the rain comes, starting around December. People have died here as it is impossible to tell the flow of the river when the rains arrive. That afternoon, we headed back to Diego and spent a night at the luxurious Grand Hotel before taking a Tuktuk out to Ramena beach the next day.

Thus marks the last of our death defying adventures – this time by the way of boat, crossing the channel to the Emerald Sea at the windiest time of the year. Our wooden sailboat with cloth sail was certainly a bit more weathered and us soaked through by the end, though the sea was beautiful and clear of a color unlike I have ever seen. And we survived to tell the tale.

That’s all for now, pictures to come!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Where Bribes Rule

I was sitting in a taxi-brousse today traveling to the nearby town of Soavinandriana, in the front seat as usual due to my height, when the driver suddenly and urgently asked me for my frais of 1000 ariary.

I fumbled around a bit in my purse trying to find the exact change as he requested, however I was a bit slow in presenting the money, not watching my surroundings but noticing that the car had started to slow down. Just as abruptly as he asked for the money and in seeing me continue to look for the right bill even after we had stopped, the driver turned to me again and quietly said, “Stop, don’t pull out your money now, we’ll get in trouble.” Only at this point did I notice that we were stopped at a Police Checkpoint – one of the many that are scattered along most of the roads here. Realizing the implications of the delay in reaching my money, I smiled, but tried to hide it for fear of the armed policeman asking me what was so funny. Not having received the right change to pass along to the police officer, the driver instead pulled out his phone and transferred credit from his mobile account. My “frais” had nearly become that bribe, and the most ironic thing about it is that the driver thought we’d get in trouble merely for making obvious something we all know exists – and with exactly the person who is perpetuating the crime.

This experience perfectly illuminates the nature of kolikoly here. Everyone knows it’s there, everyone talks about it behind closed doors and in good company, but no one openly admits or addresses the issue and as a result it persists to the very core of this nation. It’s one of those “hiding in plain sight” situations. I know that every time we stop at a police checkpoint – where the police supposedly monitor illegal smuggling of highly valued resources such as rosewood but in reality just receive higher bribes, proportionate to the load – the driver slips a 500 or 1000 ariary note into his vehicle registration book, though at times they are less subtle. The drivers and policemen inevitably keep up this charade of hidden give and take, even though every passenger on the bus knows exactly what is going on.

While this form of corruption does reflect a rotten core, it is relatively harmless compared to other ways that corruption might play out. It merely reflects a slight redistribution of wealth from the bus drivers, who are quite well off as it is, to the policemen. For the most part, the passengers are no worse off, if anything the frais is slightly higher but they still receive the service they paid for (most of the time, but flat tires and overheating engines are not directly due to corruption). In many other cases however, it significantly affects the development of the country and the opportunities available to the Malagasy people.

Clearly this trend reveals itself on the macro level in terms of economics and politics. One only needs to read the news to see that since the government overthrow in 2009, the transitional president has worked to consolidate his own power and postpone elections for over four years. During this time, the country has fallen deeper and deeper into crisis, and an already poor nation has become one of the 10 poorest in the world in terms of GDP per capita. It is no question that increasing amounts of corruption and complete lack of accountability have contributed to this downward spiral. But instead of giving an analysis of this situation and how it affects life here (read the most recent World Bank report on Madagascar if you are interested), I am going to share the example of one of my friends and how her personal and professional development has been stunted due to corruption on an individual level.

Her name is Sambatra, and her family owns the √©picerie across the street from me, a small shop that sells most daily necessities– salt, soap, toilet paper, etc. The shop is rather large and therefore Sambatra’s family is fairly well off, enough so to send her to Antananarivo to study Law. She has been studying for several years now and is soon approaching the time where she will graduate and take her final test with the hope to receive a good job placement. It all sounds very promising. But the last time we were chatting, she revealed her worries about her future once school is over. Turns out only the wealthiest of the students get the good jobs, those as private attorneys or in district tribunals. And they do this through bribing the professors and school directors. So even though Sam is a hardworking and intelligent young woman, her opportunities are severely limited because she is not in this upper class capable of paying her way to the top.

As long as things continue the way they are, it is difficult to imagine how and when it will stop. In the meantime, so many individuals with the potential to make something of their lives are left behind while their nation struggles to stay on its feet.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Basket Weavers

A new year has begun and already started to fly by in Madagascar. Lots of exciting things have happened over the past few months, including a fabulous visit to Ampefy, Isalo National Park and Andasibe National Park with my family. My projects are starting to pick up and I have become most involved with the association of women basket weavers that live in a rural town outside of Ampefy. A few months ago, we received some funding from a group of Americans living and working in Tana (largely Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) to purchase raw materials for the women to scale up their production of weaved baskets, pocketbooks and wallets. They have gone through several trainings with Prosperer on topics ranging from basket weaving techniques to organizational management, however did not have the start-up capital to purchase the materials to start weaving. Additionally, the women are very poor, live in rural Madagascar and are limited in their access to microfinance due to a lack of collateral and high interest rates. Based on these limitations, it was very fortunate to have the group of Americans in Tana who are very eager to help current Peace Corps Volunteers and chose to support our project.

The trip to Tana to buy the materials was an experience in itself. I was in a meeting on a Wednesday afternoon when I received a call from one of the basket weavers saying they had found a ride and were leaving that evening. At that point I had no warning or made any preparations, assured by them we would have a place to stay with family members in Tana. Of course, upon arrival the one woman’s aunt had moved and was unreachable by phone, so we ended up staying with some friends of the family – I shared a bed with the two women from the association that had volunteered to go, as well as one of the younger girls in the family. They left the lights and the TV on all night, so instead of sleeping I watched Skyfall dubbed in French and dozed in and out. The family was incredibly welcoming, although the lack of sanitation combined with the crowdedness of Tana was slightly appalling – when I asked to use the bathroom in the evening, one woman showed me to a darkened alleyway outside.

The next day we woke up early to buy the materials, which was a huge success. We found everything we needed and I went back to Ampefy that same day, materials in tow. The women stayed an additional night to visit other family but I needed a good night sleep in my own, spacious bed! Over the course of the next few days, we moved the materials out to the women’s village, about 8 km away from Ampefy. Since then, we have held a meeting to share the materials between all 18 members as well as elect officials for the association to promote more effective leadership and management. Now the women are hard at work, weaving away after having set the goal of being ready to sell by the end of March for Easter when the masses descend on Ampefy for a long weekend. It’s exciting to see the women so motivated and even thrilled to have the opportunity to finally put to use all they have learned and to pursue an alternative source of income that holds promise for improving their livelihoods.

I have also become good friends with the Directrice of the local primary school in the village of the basket weavers. We have been working together to grow moringa, a plant with leaves very high in nutrients, and are starting to bring a school lunch program to her school. They already cook lunch for the kids twice a month, and the day I visited last week just so happened to be school lunch day. When I arrived, I was greeted by over 100 children singing, dancing and banging on their bowls with spoons, absolutely delighted by the prospect of eating lunch at school. They devoured vegetable soup and bread, and with this newfound energy chased me back down the road as I began my bike ride home. I always leave that place feeling happy and fulfilled, and it is no wonder why.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Hiking in Andringitra

-->It seems like every time I go to write a blog post, I’m at a loss. Things here have become so “normal” for me that I find myself unable to express how different things actually are from that on the other side of the world. I’m looking forward to my family coming in a few weeks so that they are able to experience the madness that is Madagascar.

Thanksgiving was a few weeks ago and I went down to a city called Fianarantsoa to celebrate with some other volunteers. Afterwards, some of us continued further south to hike in a national park called Andringitra. The landscape changed immensely as we worked our way towards the park – the entrance is located a several hour hike from where the taxi-brousse dropped us off, which gives some indication of the level of isolation of the park, named for the mountain range that runs through it, as well as of the surrounding villages and people that live nearby. I have to admit; we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into, which in hindsight was probably a good thing. After staying at a campsite outside the park on our first day, we set out on a three-day trek to climb the highest accessible peak in Madagascar, Pic Boby.


The different landscapes as we made our way up the mountain were absolutely incredible. I think the pictures tell the story better than I can. The hike ended up being a stair climb for the most part, literally climbing up a mountain within a mountain range and then back down again which hurt even more. It was exhausting, and my body still felt the effects days later, but I can honestly say it was the most awe-inspiring hike I have ever experienced. One of the things that amazed me the most was how variable the landscape was, from what is called the “moonscape” to a green valley dotted with grazing cows that somehow climbed the mountain to sheer rock cliffs, which we zig-zagged our way up as we approached the peak. The climate got considerably colder as we made our way up the mountain, and the cool breeze was very welcome during the hot afternoons. We seemed to follow a mountain stream all the way up that was chillingly cold but incredibly refreshing after a few long days of hiking.

At the peak
Once we reached the top, we were at over 2500 meters, well above the clouds. Other than a few lizards, we were the only living creatures in sight. Supposedly, on a clear day, you can see all the way to the Indian Ocean. The way down was considerably quicker, and upon arrival at the base camp we collapsed in accomplished exhaustion. A few days of travel later and I found myself back in Ampefy, as if the whole thing had been a dream if it weren’t for the stress that persisted in my knees.

I’ve now been back for almost a week and my mango addiction has officially been reignited with a vengeance. Peaches are also in season, but nothing quite compares to the lychee – they are everywhere, including in my backyard, and are so sweet and absolutely delicious. I’m discovering the perks of living in a tropical climate during the rainy season.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lunch with the President


It’s been a busy past few weeks. I feel my work and my life here beginning to clarify as I become more comfortable with the culture and the language and begin to develop more meaningful friendships. A few weeks ago was the first annual Festival de Barohoah in Ampefy, a celebration of a type of fish that is famous in my region and throughout all of Madagascar. It was quite an event – on the first day of the festival, the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, arrived and gave a speech. It was very interesting to hear what he had to say, especially with elections scheduled for next May, and then to hear the responses of people in town to his words and ideas. I was even invited to have lunch with him, granted amongst nearly 100 other people, but I was very clearly the only non-Malagasy in the crowd and for that reason certainly stuck out. It was a tasty fish lunch at a beautiful hotel in Ampefy, and luckily a good friend of mine who speaks English was invited as well so we sat together and were able to chat about politics and the food so that no one else could understand.
That same weekend, I went to my first concert here in Madagascar of a group called Mahaleo that has been around since the 1970s. It was really neat to see Malagasy people of all ages at the concert – older people who knew the group from their early days, but also a fair number of younger people who nevertheless knew every word to every song. I promised myself to learn the lyrics before the next concert so that I can sing along with them. It was a great time, largely because many of my Prosperer co-workers also attended and they are a really fun group, dancing and singing the entire time. Since the concert, I have had many people in town compliment my dancing skills – for better or worse, it’s impossible to be invisible here!
Today, I biked out to a neighboring town called Ambatomboro where I have been spending quite a bit of time lately. It’s about 7 or 8 km outside of Ampefy and is located right on Lac Itasy. It’s a beautiful place and I really enjoy spending time with the people that live there, including a women’s association of basket weavers and the Directrice of the local elementary school and her husband. Every time I go out there, I inevitably return home with bags full of fresh green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I anticipate continuing to spend quite a bit of time out there; not only is it a beautiful bike ride along the lake, but it’s a town where I see a lot of potential to develop and really improve the lives of the people that live there. Additionally, it’s the place here where I feel the most at home – it’s hard for me to describe exactly how but I feel that my sense of connection to other people is the strongest when I’m there, perhaps because it is more rural (about 300 people) and they are very open and kind to me. Regardless, it’s a place I think will stay with me for a long time.
On my bike ride home, an older man insisted on walking back with me for the part of the journey. He’s a funny man who I’ve befriended through my visits to Ambatomboro and from seeing him from time to time in Ampefy. Inevitably, on the ride home, there are little children who say to me, “Bonjour Vazaha!” which means “Hi there, foreigner!” Every time, this man yelled back at them “Tsy Vazaha fa Gasy!” which translates as, “She’s not a foreigner, she’s Malagasy!” I was not only honored to be considered Malagasy, but got a kick out of how offended and quick to defend me he was. These outbursts were peppered with comments about the inefficiencies of the Malagasy government and further animated by the occasional spitting out of remnants of chewing tobacco. So, perhaps he’s just a bitter old man, but I hope that I was able to brighten his day or at least provide some comfort by listening to his ramblings.
Finally, just a few quick snippets of life here. I have recently been conspiring with one of my neighbors to steal guavas from her neighbor (not really stealing, we have permission to take them, but still it’s fun to pretend) and goodness are they delicious. Also, one of my closest friends and I joke that when we have children, my son and her daughter will get married, a prospect which never ceases to be entertaining. Another friend of mine left yesterday for a 3-month Prosperer training about farming that I helped him sign up for, walking for over 12km to get there and carrying enough rice on his head to last him two weeks. There is a little crew of 8 and 9-year-old boys with whom I create all sorts of secret handshakes and whose faces light up whenever I see them. And of course the little girls that are too young to really speak Malagasy but are able to yell my name when I walk past (thank you to my parents for giving me a name that is easy to say, in any language). Above all, I feel like I am finally starting to break through the barrier that people here have put up regarding foreigners and although I recognize that can’t change that overall perception, I think we are making progress in that direction.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Party with the Ancestors


Last week, I went to a famadihana or the “turning of the bones” ceremony that is widely practiced in Madagascar. Every year during the dry season, certain Malagasy families dig up their ancestors from the family tomb, wrap them in new fabric, and return the remains to their “eternal” resting place. Though the practice certainly varies from region to region, I experienced what seemed to be a particularly large ceremony. Led by my dancing neighbors and a traveling brass band, over 100 community members paraded through the streets of Ampefy and then up a mountain overlooking Lake Itasy to collect the remains of two individuals – the great-grandmother (buried in 1944) and great uncle (buried in 1980) of one of my neighbors. Upon arrival, the two graves had already been unearthed by family members who then removed the remains of their ancestors from the tomb, placed the mixture of decomposed bone and dirt into the fresh fabric, and tightly wrapped them to be moved to the newly built family tomb. It appeared to be a very joyous occasion, with music playing and people dancing all the way up and back down the mountain. The only difference on the way down were the new partiers in our midst – the two ancestors in whose honor the ceremony was held; perhaps because they were getting cold.

Upon return to Ampefy that evening, the party really started. Music and dancing went all night long and throughout the next morning. Though I did not attend the morning festivities, that afternoon the procession started up again – this time, in the opposite direction towards the newly built family tomb. This time, I was accompanied by my friend Mamisoa and her husband. They were re-burying their nephew who died when he was very young – just two years old. Though I felt a certain level of joy the day before in dancing with the remains of those who lived a full life, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness at seeing the wrapped up remains of a two-year old child. And as I walked with Mamisoa to the new tomb, she spoke to me about how the famadihana is a celebration of the dead filled with dancing and music however it does remind and in a way cause one to relive the sadness felt at the loss of a loved one. This sentiment really struck me when I was told the child died twenty years ago – which means he would have been about my age if still alive today.

To me, the famadihana at first seemed a joyous celebration, representing an occasion to remember and prolong the party with those who died decades ago. However, upon further talking to friends in town and experiencing the ceremony, it seemed more tragic than joyous, uprooting ancestors and never really allowing the feeling of loss to fade. These perceptions are of course influenced by my culture and our attitudes towards death, always considered a very solemn occasion. There is also another underlying implication of the famadihana ceremony – as a display of status and wealth in a time of the year when many families are running out of money to buy necessities such as food, medicine or school supplies. Several of my Malagasy friends expressed dissatisfaction with the practice as an unnecessary expense in a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet. However, it is a custom and clearly one that holds great importance for the Malagasy people to an extent that a foreigner like me cannot really comprehend. All that can really be concluded is that the Malagasy people have developed very unique traditions for coping with the phenomenon of death and loss, but one that will likely evolve and adapt to meet the changing demands of life, as all traditions eventually do.