Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Madagascar

Ile Sainte Marie

Even though we had agreed neither of us felt like drinking beer that day when we left the house in the morning, by the time my friend and I – both of us girls – sat down for lunch we didn’t even have to ask the other to know that we wanted the waitress to bring us two Skols with our lunch. Somehow, the sexual harassment that day had been worse than usual. A policeman at one of the road checkpoints asked for our passports as an excuse to flirt with my friend. Another man grabbed me at the brousse station. Then, even though we were both covered in dust and dressed our dingiest, walked to the Peace Corps house to the whistles, tisks, and other various catcalls of men

“F—this shit,” I said while we waited for our food, “I’m buying water guns tomorrow.”

It started as a joke, but even though the catcalls and inappropriate gestures directed toward foreign women in Madagascar are a common annoyance we as PCVs and expats here have to tolerate, some days I reach a breaking point of intolerance. That day, I want nothing more than to successfully retaliate. It had angered the part of me that wants to scream ‘FREEDOM’ to wearing what I want, not feeling uncomfortable in everyday situations because of my gender, and to reclaim the power and independence of being a woman that I lost when I left the States. But more than anything, I felt this innate need to tell these men that what they’re doing is not OK. I want to tell them that me getting upset at them for yelling “I love you” to me from across the street, draining the phrase of its intended meaning, doesn’t make me mean or stuck-up but rather makes the man saying it rude, mean, or arrogant.

So the next morning at market, I bought two water guns.

In the afternoon, I loaded them up and faced the street again.

Far beyond what I could have predicted, walking around Fianaratsoa with two loaded water guns proved a fun social experiment. From the market stalls and darkened shop corners I could hear people mutter “Kai! That white girl has a water gun,” in Malagasy. Deftly, I swiveled towards them, aimed, and said “watch out!” Most of the shop owners, women especially, would gasp and jump back in surprise before breaking down in laughter when they realized I wouldn’t actually shoot. I tested it on a beggar who was pestering me – he laughed. I shot a few street children and quickly learned it was a terrible idea. They all began to demand I give them the guns or shoot them again. They were riotous.

As for the men I originally intended to use the guns on, most never saw it coming. Walking in the throngs of people along the crowded sidewalks, they pulled the usual lines, sticking their face in my face or trying to block my path, when out of no-where I drew my weapon and shot water in their face. They jumped back in shock, looked offended, and even though they almost definitely learned nothing of the message I was trying to convey, it made me feel gratified and empowered.

Photo: Walking across the jetty in Ile Sainte Marie

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Second Year in the Peace Corps

DSC_0881

I wrote this blog post back in October at the beginning of the school year, but somewhere along the way failed to post it. It may have lost some of its relevancy, but seeing as how tomorrow is the end of Christmas vacation and the beginning of our second trimester, I thought I would go ahead and finally publish it, for whatever it may now stand for. It’s crazy to think that I only have 8 months left in Madagascar, and what the older volunteers have said in the past is definitely true: the second year is much easier, and passes so much quicker!

I am simultaneously dreading and excited for the upcoming school year that we began at the beginning of October. The dread stems from memories of last year, yelling at children to be quiet, and growing frustrated at not being able to communicate properly with my pre-intermediate level English students, and the thought that I have to do it all over again. Excitement shortly follows when I realize that I can explain myself significantly better and really believe I can do all of that better. As they told us in our Peace Corps training, “it’s a new job. You won’t be good at it immediately.” So much learning on the job, getting better through trial and repeat, occurs as a teacher.

What they didn’t tell us is that native English speakers tend to have a much higher learning curve for teaching English, according to an academic study which sought to answer “is it better to have a native-speaking teacher or an experienced one?” For starters, native-speakers tend to make more use of real English media (songs, magazine articles, radio clips, etc.), as opposed to the stuff textbooks provide, in the classroom. Ultimately, it is better for our students to grow accustomed to real-life usages of English than poised, polite, and often cheesy textbook dialogues. Additionally, we correct our mistakes quickly, and possibly because we aren’t concerned with how well we speak English, can focus more on our teaching techniques. Again, most new English teachers, especially the ones who have gotten hired with no teaching experience but solely based on their fluency in the language, realize their shortcomings and are anxious about compensating and becoming good teachers.

While their defense of the inexperienced, native-speaker oozes reassurance for our sorry lot, my one year of experience feels like my strongest armor against in-class riots and blank stares – especially since my Malagasy has improved tremendously and their level is too low for me to expect a class of 60+ students to pay attention without using their native language.

As for results, I have only been teaching for two weeks now, but have already taught them more in six hours of lessons than I probably accomplished in the whole first trimester last year. For starters, I have gotten over my shy-kid-loathing for singing in public (since songs engage students while giving large classes an opportunity to practice speaking and pronunciation without getting too rowdy) and taught my kids “Hello, Goodbye” by the Beatles. Lots of giggling was involved. Now I sometimes catch one or two singing it while we copy things from the board, and do something that was also rare this time last year: smile.

Photo: (1) Two girls who came out of the bushes to chat while I was hanging out at a waterfall in Ile Sainte Marie; the older one complained about how terrible her English teacher was!

Categories
Peace Corps Teaching Abroad

Where Christmas Snow is Only Ever Made of Paper

Creepy Santa

{Teaching Malagasy students about American Christmas traditions}

I taught my 7th grade (5eme) students how to make paper snowflakes and sing Christmas carols this week. When we started the activity, one student held up the test I had just passed back, jokingly suggesting that he would use that to make his paper snowflake. I shrugged because after all, I had used an old exam paper myself to make the demo-snowflake. After the laughter died and we finally began, I felt graciously surprised at the silent concentration that swept over my students as they tried to follow along with folding their papers into smaller and smaller triangles, then cutting it in all the right places. Somewhere along the way, a small din broke out as they passed scissors around the room – of 50 students, only 15 or 20 had scissors. My own pair even got momentarily lost in a crowd of boys each time I finished demonstrating where to cut a semi-circle or triangle into the folds of the ice-cream cone shaped piece of paper.

Once finished, they all held up their snowflakes – which was an awesomely logical and straightforward craft activity for a largely un-artistically inclined culture – muttering phrases like “milay be” (vey cool) or “good, good, teacher!” One boy even went as far as to kidnap my scissors and speedily made a whole pile of snowflakes, filling up one of the unused laboratory sinks with a paper blizzard.

Our Christmas decorations done with, I moved on to a song. When I taught the Christmas carol during the last class of the day (and of the week, the month, the year), two of my more enthusiastic students shouted the carol at the top of their lungs, overshadowing the confused murmurs of their classmates. We all found it tremendously hilarious when I isolated the aisle filled with my laziest and quietest students and their attempts to follow along with “We wish you a merry Christmas” fell apart at the first ‘merry’. Sadly — or humorously, depending on perspective – regardless of my students’ individual levels, they all sung the “Christmas” part in monotone while pronouncing it “Crees-mas”. “Wish” was pronounced “weesh”. Is it bad of me to say that their mispronunciations gave the whole performance a comical feel?

I felt ridiculous for other reasons as well. Mainly, these students have no idea how much I disdain singing in public and the personal sacrifice I’m making by standing in front of this giggle-prone audience and belting out the tunes to English pop songs. I hate it, but after so many requests to learn English Christmas carols I knew I should relinquish a little pride and work it into a lesson. The tattoo of a music stanza on my arm probably throws them off. (Side note: Interestingly, in every country I go people who see my tattoo have a different idea as to how I’m musically inclined. In Central America, people frequently asked if I played guitar. In America, people generally ask whether or not I play any musical instrument. However, in Madagascar the most popular reactions to my tattoo are either “LA MUSIQUE!!” or “do you sing?” It seems as though women play instruments even more rarely here than in the West, meaning a music tattoo could only imply that I am a singer.)

Anyways, it’s difficult to get in the Christmas spirit while wearing tank tops and summer dresses, even if most of the more prestigious shops, restaurants, and bars owners in town have decked out their establishments in shimmery, Chinese-made garland. However, harvesting my students’ enthusiasm about Christmas and the upcoming two-week vacation certainly helped me be more present about the imminent approach of the Christmas holidays.

Tratra ny Kristmasy daholo!
Merry Christmas everyone!

Photo: (1) Creepy Santa giving Malagasy children candy at a friend’s Christmas work party

*I teach all 200 of the 5eme students (equivilant to the American 7th grade) at a public middle school (CEG) in Madagascar. The students are split up into 4 sections, which study English for three hours every week.
Categories
Peace Corps Travel

I Am Expat, Hear Me Rant

Children pointing at the fascinating white lady

Sometimes my inner monologue runs something like “AAARRRRRGGGGHHAAAA fdajfdijaldfda pffffftttttttt…..”

Usually, this occurs when someone says something totally benign and innocent, but is unaware that they’re the tenth person to say the same phrase on that particular occasion that I have boldly left my house. It ranges from remarks about my language skills – how I so incredibly speak their language – or pointing out to anyone who may not have noticed that I am, indeed, white, to a steady, never-ending stream of sexual harassment. Slurred, terribly pronounced French terms of endearment flow out of bars – “bonzour sehr-eee” (bonjour, cheri) – and make me cringe. If I ever date a French boy, he’ll be disappointed to learn that whispering “cheri” or “ma belle” will now only induce eye-twitching and a slight impulse to slap him, rather than the intended swooning.

It’s provoked by that hard, unbroken staring that is totally OK in Madagascar, but I still interpret as rude or annoying by my own ethnocentrism (especially on the one occasion where I began crying because every taxi I talked to was refusing to take me across town, and for a full minute a woman with about five teeth in her mouth and a dirty basket of bananas on her head stood inches from my face watching me but not saying a single word.)

Other times, it’s the unfortunate twists of fate where I find myself sitting next to a two-year-old on a bus who decides to scream for two hours straight or the bus driver has church hymns and outdated Celine Dion songs playing at full blast on blown-out subwoofers. It’s the 60km bus ride on paved road that takes four hours because the engine on the bus exploded… twice. It’s stopping every ten minutes to load or unload crap off the top of the bus. It’s being at a bus station where everyone is talking to me at once, in two different languages that are equally foreign to me.

Then finally, my inner monologue switches to this jumbled cluster of frustrated noises when a student sees me at three in the afternoon and shouts “GOOD MORNING TEACHER!” even though I’ve corrected said student innumerable times.

I don’t mean to imply that I dislike living in Madagascar; it’s just that it seems the little, constant, daily annoyances wear me down the most. Anyone who lives abroad can most likely relate, and in turn it makes me wonder about those newcomers, expats, and immigrants, in the United States. What is it about America that would make them have these same frustrated reactions? What do we say/do that irritates them? I suspect that Americans, like Malagasy, generally remain oblivious when they offend or irk a foreigner, but after my own experiences as an expat, it’s gotten me curious…

Photo: (1) Malagasy children pointing at the “vahazah”, white person

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

How a Peace Corps Volunteer Lives: In Mad Style

Outside View of my House

I love seeing other Peace Corps houses, usually with a combination of pure curiousity and the selfish need to know whether they have better or worse digs than myself. So, a few months ago, I decided to set out on making a video of my house, knowing that other PCVs (as well as other friends, family, and beatnomad readers elsewhere) might have the same curiosity. Unfortunately, my smart phone kept shutting off mid-way through the project so I became frustrated and gave up on using different media on beatnomad.

But now — finally! — I took the time to clean up a bit and take some photos of my house. I didn’t bother with my “shower” (a small, tiled closet with a bucket in it) or outhouse, as they are respectively drab and disgusting. As you can observe from the photos, I cook using a gas stove, usually have electricity all day, but don’t have running water. For water, I have to walk across the school compound to a pump or put buckets out under the roof when it rains. The outhouse situation is also a little obnoxious, especially when it’s raining or there are tons of children waiting for class to start, as I also have to cross the makeshift soccer field to get there.

What you can’t observe are the bats that live in my roof; an accepted nusance since they eat the mosquitoes. Generally my mosquitoe net serves more purpose as a physcological barrier against my debilitating fear of rodents — a fear that I used to lose more sleep over before my school’s guard (the genius that he is) put a brick in front of the hole that serves as a drain in my shower, declaring it the “lalana volavo”; literally, rat-road. Admittedly, I felt a little stupid at the obviousness that rats would be getting into my house through a 5-inch hole in my wall.

So anyways, enjoy the photos of what I call my “dollhouse” because of it’s low ceilings and pink paint job.

KitchenLiving RoomLiving Room/BedroomBedroom

Photos: (1) The outside of the house (2) Kitchen (3) Living room (4) Living room / Bedroom (5) Bedroom

Categories
Peace Corps The Nomadic Life Travel

From Madagascar to Thailand: Getting Off the Red Island

“Okay, let’s get the fuck outta Dodge,” Liz said as we hopped on our mountain bikes and started the long journey from her village at the foothills of Andringitra National Park and up north. We had an hour of biking on rough, dusty roads, then a packed full bus to the nearest town, and another bus to the nearest city. We were remote, and after several straight weeks of being there we were ready to leave and eat a friggin’ pizza.

But now, several weeks later and having finished the one month-long course of teaching ESL to guides in Morarano, the launching point for most independent travelers into Andringitra National Park, I’m prepping to leave the island entirely. Over the past year of living in Madagascar it’s remoteness and the inaccessibility of some of its most beautiful places has been part of its charm — the island isn’t overcrowded with tourists, and even less of these choose to travel Madagascar independently (although this is totally doable!) — but I feel like it’s time to go somewhere that feels more connected to the rest of the world. Sometimes Madagascar seems like the edge of the world, forgotten, and totally detached. We may not be as isolated as Micronesia, for example, but I have still joked that we’re so off the grid that if the world were to end in 2012, it would forget to take Madagascar with it.

Anyways, in a few hours I’ll be on a plane towards Thailand, a country notorious for its tourist friendly paths and booming Westernized capitol, and the thought is a terrible mix of excitement and nervousness. Do I still remember how to ride a train? Will I stare at white people too much? Will convenient stores, shopping malls, and air conditioning be a jarring reminder of modernity? These are the things that run through my head as I flip through the guide book left behind by another Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) at our transit house; nevermind the Buddhist temples, elephants, and jungles it talks about.

Mostly, I’m curious to see how different a country can appear to someone who is flying directly from America or Europe (such as a good friend from D.C. who will be arriving two weeks after me!) versus a scruffy PCV living in Africa whose reality for the past year has been incredibly un-modern.

“Don’t worry,” another Peace Corps friend told me, “I still think there will be an element of third-world there that will make you feel more comfortable,”

“You mean like open-air markets and people shitting in the road?”

“Yeah, maybe…”

I was being facetious, but the friend had a point. While some things may be overwhelming, others may be strikingly familiar. I doubt I’ll be able to resist a constant comparison between Madagascar and Thailand, but we will see. Either way, it’s great to “get the fuck outta Dodge” for a few weeks.

Photo: (1) The view from Morarano

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

My Peace Corps House is a Middle School

neighbor

In the late night cover of darkness, I wander out to the naked goal post in the school’s field. The gates are locked up, the lights turned off, and blissfully, all the schoolchildren have gone home. The grounds have become nothing more than a cluster of sealed off, dark and empty buildings. I jump up to hang from the goal post, emulating the teenage boys that monkey around on it between classes. I try to do a pull-up, and fail. Suddenly the thought occurs to me: I’m the odd, unmarried schoolteacher from out-of-town living in a little house on the school compound; the teacher I read about in historical fiction novels about small towns with one-room schoolhouses in pre-industrialized America. The thought depresses me as I retreat to the pink doll-house I call home, and read myself to sleep.

Among Madagascar’s education PCVs, living on the school compound, often in an old classroom, isn’t all that unusual. I feel lucky to have a house separate from the building itself, but for whatever other problems it saves me, I still wake up to the sound of hundreds of screaming, laughing children, boys banging coins on the metal goal post, and the obnoxious drumming out of beats on wooden desks. I forever remain both impressed and horrified that these kids can make their voices sound so ugly, with a guttural shout I lack sufficient words to describe. In these moments, at precisely 7:00am, 9:00am, and 3:30pm each day, the nightmares of being trapped in a room with my overly-energetic little brother, age 11, come rushing back. Sitting though these breaks make me feel as though I’m living with 200 duplicates of his 11-year-old self, only this time I can’t shout “seriously, would you STOP that?!?”

To add to the terror, every once in awhile a stampede of children storm through my front gate on the pretext of cleaning the school compound. My first warning arrives in a deadly silence broken by a roar of shouts as assembly disperses. It is quickly followed by the pattering of kids running to fetch brooms, flip-flops slapping against their feet. I know what’s coming and rush to close up my doors and windows before I hear the ubiquitous slap-slap of my wooden gate. “My god, I’m under attack! Quick, get out of here!” I think. I know cleaning my backyard area is a part of cleaning the school – and we all know I’m not going to sweep up a yard full of dirt – but I hate being the subject of my students’ curiosity, hate that if I leave a door or window open they seize the opportunity to peer in (once while I was changing), and hate that they steal the unripe peaches off my tree in peach season. In this arrangement, the idea of keeping professional and personal lives separate falls apart. Or maybe, it never existed?

Living on a school compound is stressful at breaks, eerily quiet on Sundays and at night (although the architecture of Malagasy schools thankfully lack the quintessentially creepy high-school hallway popular in 80s slasher films), yet convenient on the odd morning I oversleep before class. I don’t think I’ll ever quite be used to the constant chatter of children, the bats that live in our rafters, or half a dozen students saying “hello teacher!” while I make my way across the yard from front door to “toilet” (it hardly deserves the title), but such are the challenges Peace Corps throws at us.

Photo: My neighbor’s son; the school is his playground.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Volunteering in the Shadow of Madagascar’s 2009 Political Coup

Diego Taxi Sequence

Since the beginning of May, protests have been held the capitol. Several minor incidents of violence were reported on the embassy’s website. Some public school teachers began striking for better pay early in the year, and many have since joined. They continue to strike. (In response, at least one of my friends has been stealth-teaching English to high school students; a gesture I can only describe as “bad-ass”.) More recently, there’s been talk of health workers and other government employees joining them. Whether it’s a genuine threat or nothing more than a rumor, I won’t pretend like I know. In fact, I won’t pretend like I know any more than what has been texted to us by Peace Corps, posted on the Embassy’s website, or mentioned to me in passing by a friend who works in Antananarivo and weekends in my town.

Yet, Madagascar hasn’t had a lot of time to bounce back from the coup of 2009.It seems like old news to me, but I forget that probably none of my friends or family back home ever knew of it.The coup of 2009 acted as the catalyst for a lot of foreign aid (including Peace Corps) to pull out of Madagascar and although some have returned, things aren’t totally sorted. But some people think it’s high time they were. According to a co-worker, the protests are nothing in comparison to those leading up to the 2009 coup, but they’re happening nonetheless. I have no personal opinions towards the matter, but have seen some of its effects on my work with my local English Center. One English teacher mentioned that “before the 2009 coup, the government was going to pay for someone to work there at all times. But then the coup happened, and the government stopped talking to us.” And of course, the second volunteer to work at my site was evacuated after four months of work, leaving behind little more than a legacy of her love for iced-tea and a cooking class. In our personal situation, it seems more stable to find help in the private sector, like the English Center of Antsirabe (ECA) has with the local cigarette factory. Unfortunately, I am absolutely ignorant in how to turn our ambitious educational establishment into a sustainable, business with paid employees.

I am also getting a bit off topic. I merely mean to express that after all these months of blogging about such-and-such beautiful spot of Madagascar, I never bothered to mention that even though Peace Corps has been back in Madagascar long enough to see the first of the non-reinstatee volunteers through an entire service (yay!), we’ve been serving under questionable political circumstances and without an official ambassador to the American Embassy here. I suppose I never mentioned it before because I don’t want to worry friends and family back home, and also because I’ve grown used to it. It doesn’t seem unusual enough to mention anymore. But somewhere between an increase in incidents in May and listening to Doom Tree’s song “Bangerang” on repeat, it suddenly seemed worth telling home about. It hit me that the students in my town are incredibly fortunate that we’re not striking, that their education isn’t interrupted, andto consider how important it is that Peace Corps be, and stay, in Madagascar as long as circumstances will allow. I hope for the sake of Madagascar, we do stay because sadly, if we leave again, we’re gone for good.

Also, let me repeat that none of this reflects the opinions of Peace Corps but are wholly my understanding of the situation in Madagascar.

Also, also, enjoy the non-riotous photo of a taxi sequence in Antsiranana (Diego), Madagascar and my current musical addiction. The secret’s out: I like hip-hop.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Getting Books For Madagascar

It’s been awhile.

The introduction of any guilty blogger who has gone off and done something other than tinker with the internet for a too-long period of time. For the past month or so I’ve been teaching, biking, and taking the occasional day trip to Antsirabe for a decent cup of coffee or beer and getting into the groove of a more settled daily-weekly routine.

And then, the other day, something snapped. Maybe it’s the explosion of endorphins thanks to a huge file of workout videos a friend gave me, or maybe I’ve just hit that mythical point in a Peace Corps Volunteer’s service where we start to feel less confused and more confident in our places in our communities. A point where you ramble off a string of curses in your 2nd, 3rd, or 4th language at the local bus driver for trying to charge you 50 cents more than he should without batting an eye. A point where stuff is happening. A point where I find myself craving rice, beans, and tangerines… not bagels and coffee. Out of seemingly nowhere, I feel settled.

To add on to this confidence that “stuff is happening,” 17 fellow PCVs and I finally got approval from Peace Corps Washington about a project to bring in a whole shipping container (that’s literally, TONS) of books and 16 computers. The crate sits in the states waiting for us to raise enough funds (roughly $20,000, of which $4,000 has been raised in the past week) to cover the international and domestic shipping and customs fees. Some of us are building libraries and instating librarians for the occasion. The books that end up in my town will go to the already running English Center, which presently has one bookshelf full of the novels left behind by previous PCVs and an OK collection of textbooks. The hole I’m trying to fill is our lack of childrens books like Dr.Seuss, Where The Wild Things Are, or even an English version of the simple but captivating The Little Prince. What I hope is that once the donations arrive we can have story time or run a competition to see who can read the most books; essentially to create a love of literature so rarely cultivated and in existence in the developing world.

I adore books and if you do too, why don’t you throw a couple dollars our way, pass the word to friends, or take a few seconds to tweet about it? Donate Here.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

How Peace Corps Volunteers and Celebrities Are Pretty Much the Same

Peace Corps Volunteers may have slightly dinkier houses, and the small animals that share our living space are probably not cute chihuahuas, but in so many ways, Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and celebrities are pretty much same same.

12 Ways Peace Corps Volunteers are Like Celebrities

1. People stare at us no matter what we are doing and are far too interested in mundane things like what we ate for breakfast, who we were spotted walking around town with, and how many rolls of toilet paper we happened to use this week.

2. We both have entourages. Crowds of scruffy, unbathed children totally count, right?

3. African KidIn the words of James Tanner, “we both like African babies“. And apparently the wordpress community can’t resist their cuteness either.

4. We can trash a hotel room and get away with it. Our status often gets us a “get out of jail free” card. Or in the case of PCVs, a “they’re foreign and don’t get it” card.

5. Inviting us to a party means preparing for a whirlwind of craziness and drunken debauchery. Oh sure, we’re fun, but be prepared…

6. Everyone knows our name but we usually don’t know theirs. Who are you again?

7. We’re both millionaires. Okay, so we’re talking two different currencies, but still…

8. People will sneakily take photos of us… paparazzi style.Paparazzi

9. People care about us far more than their political leaders, according to Evan Morier.

10. We take vacations in exotic locations and can be seen lounging on the beach in the middle of January, working on our tans while the rest of America is bundled in sweaters.

11. It’s always questionable as to whether what we’re doing could be considered work or not. Really, watching 5 episodes of Mad Men in a row is hard work.. we swear!

12. And finally, we set the trends with our ever evolving wardrobe and impeccable sense of fashion.

Stylin with a frip find

Photos: (1) Chip + Peace Corps Bob mocking Titanic in Ankarana National Park (2) One of our entourage in Mahajunga cheesing out in front of the camera (3) Our paparazzi in Mahajunga (4) Chip showing off one of our stranger used clothes finds in Ambanja

Did I miss any?

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

I Have a Lemur for a Neighbor

Lemur in Ankarana by Sally Bull

As soon as I received the mislabeled FedEx envelope telling me I was about to spend two years in Madagascar, I braced myself for the onslaught of comments about lemurs.

“Who are you going to teach English to? Lemurs? Hahaha,”
“Ooo, that’s great! You’re going to see so many cute little lemurs!”
“Lucky you! You get to live near lemurs!”

“Um, you know people live there too…” was the best response I could conjure to counter friends’ envy of the iconic creatures I’d undoubtedly be living amongst. Thanks to pop culture and some admittedly well done wildlife documentaries, Madagascar inevitably evokes romantic images of lush, tropical rainforest, massive baobabs, and otherworldly animals. This is a fantastical daydream compared to the Madagascar I’ve become familiar with and at my fourth month here I admitted to a Malagasy friend that I still had never seen a lemur.

“What?” she said, “but there’s one right by my house!”

I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. Our town, Antanifotsy, is a major highland town near a heavily trafficked highway (by Gasy standards), and the surrounding hillsides have been largely stripped of animal or plant life by traditional slash and burn practices. Fewer trees have also had the consequence of lose topsoil, a dusty town, and a lot of people complaining about living in a dusty town. Unfortunately this is a common circumstance, especially where farming is a main source of income, long held tradition, and even white collar workers own fields. From my untrained perspective, it appeared there was no environment left for any creature to live in.

“You’re lying!” I teased.

“Oh yeah?” she said leading me through a tall, wooden gate into a neighbor’s yard. Linking her arm with mine, she tilted her head and pointed to the second-story balcony of the house. “Look up there,” she said, “you see him?” Squinting at the shadowy, brick, terrace I saw a bushy tail dart out from behind a pillar. Its owner stopped in full view and stared back at us through wide, dark eyes while munching on a banana.

 “There he is!” she exclaimed.

His face looked eerily human and while locked in a staring contest with him, I thought of one of many Malagasy fady, or taboos. In some areas it is considered fady to eat or kill lemurs because they closely resemble humans in appearance. Some towns even have myths about the spirits of dead ancestors manifesting as lemurs or lost children long ago changing into them. While a recent National Geographic article on rosewood harvesting cited that some of the harvesters hunt lemurs for food, Malagasy generally believe this to be a last resort and not a common practice at all. Humans are more of a threat to Madagascar wildlife through their destruction of habitat for farmland.

“Damn, that lemur has a nicer house than me,” I thought to myself.

“Now you’ve seen a lemur,” she said proudly, before I thanked her and headed home.

Finally, after months of building up my own cache of “really Malagasy things” – taxi-brousses, rice, chickens, spaghetti sandwiches, windy roads, the pale blue smocks worn by students, tall spindly trees – I caught a brief, domesticated glimpse of what foreigners most frequently associate with the island. All too often, that first thing we associate with a place isn’t as omnipresent as the more mundane, commonplace (and therefore less marketable) scenes that build the particular ambiance and memories we associate with travel.

/ Photo of lemur in Ankarana most likely taken by miss Sally Bull. She has more wonderful photos of Madagascar here. /

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps Teaching Abroad The Nomadic Life

Madagascar: Life as an Education Volunteer for the Peace Corps

"Lets Learn English" Coloring Page

In the midst of a looming thunderstorm I discovered the pink and purple postcard of a sunset in Seattle. Once the initial excitement of receiving mail (real, actual, physical mail!!) from a friend subsided, I read it.

“How do you fill your days?” she asked.

Although I joke about the endless hours spent eating peanuts and watching the chickens in my backyard, I insist that I do work as well. Sometimes this means chasing chickens out of the English Center (although my students are far better at it than me), and sometimes this means actually standing in front of a classroom and getting my hands dirty — with chalk, of course.

I teach 7th graders
Most of the volunteers here are assigned to teaching at the Middle and High school levels. I teach the baby 7th graders who are in their second year of English. But raging in age from 9 to 15, not all of them are that “baby”.

I’m developing resources & filling up the bookshelves of our English Center (ECANT)
The first volunteer at my site (I’m number 4) set up an English Center that’s modeled after one in a nearby city, called Antsirabe. However, it’s seriously lacking in easy English readers (Where’s the Dr.Seuss!?!) and some of the other teachers I work with have expressed a need for new English learning games. Fortunately, there’s tons of organizations willing to donate books.

Creating fun events at the English Center
Already I’ve hosted a conversation club, which was intended for adults but ended up being a group of fantastic and motivated high school students. Also, we show kids films every Saturday with our wonky, sort of broken DVD player, and I’m working on burning a few new ones they haven’t seen before. The other week, we watched Madagascar… with the chicken.

But there’s still room for more! Starting in January and February I hope to get story time and games nights going. We also begin our Adult English course.

I teach a monthly cooking class…
And then of course there’s cooking classes with the teachers! So far, we’ve only had one, but we made some delicious chocolate pudding in spirit of the holiday season. I count it as an accomplishment that it’s now made its way to one of my students’ Christmas menus.

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Living With a Malagasy Family

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“Why were your host brothers playing with a plate?” Another trainee asked me.

“Because it was a steering wheel, duh,” I said.

After a full day of intensive Malagasy immersion, I always feel relieved to understand something as universally obvious as a kid pretending to drive a car. So much about our homestays make us feel like toddlers relearning how to take care of ourselves, but when I see my host brothers spinning a round, straw place mat in front of them and making wrrr-ing noises, I get it. Language barriers gone, I fake shift into second gear and smile as if to say “wanna race?”