Perspective is something that I think comes up often in Peace Corps. Our outlooks on work, relationships, family, behavior, and comfort are all developing through the experiences that we have as Volunteers. When the things that were once new and unique become routine and common, having an opportunity to reflect on our frame of reference can be refreshing and illuminating.
Recently, I was afforded an opportunity to re-examine my own perspectives when my cousin came to visit Madagascar. I was beyond thrilled that he was willing and interested in making the long journey to such a different place. I was also a little nervous about how he would adapt to the realities of the country and how I would handle the responsibilities of sharing my second home with him. In the end, I was impressed with both of our attitudes and experiences.
During some of our conversations and daily activities, our individual views of Madagascar were cast in somewhat new light. Old habits were questioned. New assumptions were disproved. Sharing some of our ideas and conversations might be helpful in creating a more complete picture of this challenging, beautiful, diverse, and fascinating country.
American and Malagasy manifestations of cleanliness are often quite different. One such area that we discussed was food. Safe food preparation is something that I take for granted now, having practiced it in my own Malagasy kitchen for the last three years. But it was a skill that my cousin wasn’t used to applying and he made some valid comments about what he observed during his travels.
The amount of flies buzzing around our meals and landing on the raw meats in the butchers’ stalls seemed to be something that he noticed often, whereas I was mostly oblivious to them. I’ve become used to those sights over the years, accepting them as a natural part of life.
Another sight that I’ve become almost numb to is the amount of trash piled up throughout the country, but my cousin was acutely aware of this. Without the infrastructure of trash collection as we know it in America, most Malagasy people discard of trash on their own, either in pits where the trash is burned or it accumulates on along the roads or in side alleys.
It’s no secret that the infrastructure of roads, cities, and transportation in Madagascar leaves a lot to be desired by Western standards. It works just fine for Malagasy people, which is something I’ve had three years to learn about and adapt to, whereas my cousin was quickly introduced to the idea of a “good” Malagasy road. If the road is lucky enough to be paved, it also comes with numerous potholes and deviations, which makes for a rather bumpy and jolting car ride. Unpaved roads are a whole other story. While I don’t particularly enjoy this aspect of traveling in Madagascar, I’ve accepted it as the reality.
So when my cousin spent a few days on the road with me, we had plenty of time to talk about the nature of infrastructure, it’s relationship to the overall development of the country, and comparisons between his commute in Los Angeles and my typical 10 hour route in Madagascar.
Effectiveness of Peace Corps
Throughout my service, I’ve grappled with the perceived lasting impacts of my work in Madagascar and thought a lot about how effective I can be and how to even measure success as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Is it the number of students who can pass an exam in my English class or the quality of the routine conversations that I have with community members? Have I achieved my goals when I can produce tangible evidence or when I well up with pride thinking about the people I’ve come to know during my service?
When my cousin asked me if I thought the Peace Corps is a worthwhile investment of American time and money, I confidently affirmed that it is and supported that with a more qualitative response. In addition to the outcomes of collaborating with communities who request help from Peace Corps, I see immense value in the amount of people Peace Corps Volunteers interact with and exchange culture with. Then he asked me how I would answer the same question if a member of Congress had asked me during a review of the Peace Corps budget, and I realized that it was more difficult to frame my thoughts in terms of data and line items in a budget. Both sides of the question are valid and our organization needs to be able to justify itself to different stakeholders.
Having my cousin there to see the country firsthand, meet some of the people, and get a small glimpse into the work that we do as Volunteers was a great opportunity to spark that conversation and take another look at how we evaluate our successes and failures.
Expectations and Assumptions
If you come to a place like Madagascar and stay for even a couple of weeks without being frustrated, emotionally assaulted, or severely confused…I desperately want to know your secret. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, this country has bent and broken me into the person I am today. From those experiences, I have learned to abandon almost all expectations and assumptions about how things should or will happen. My cousin, on the other hand, has not been as twisted by Madagascar as I have.
Things such as a “free WiFi” sign in a shop mean nothing to me anymore, because I have learned from the disappointment that 9.5 times out of 10 there is no WiFi, but they seemed to hold a fair amount of hope in the eyes of my cousin. I don’t expect these things anymore, that way I am happily surprised when they are available.
Similarly, just because something is printed on the restaurant menu doesn’t mean it actually exists in the restaurant. I don’t assume this anymore, because I have again been disappointed too many times before. My cousin, however, encountered a few situations where he learned this lesson the hard way and had his dreams of pizza or parmesan cheese squashed by the reality of Madagascar.
I also don’t assume that just because something worked once before that it will work again with any consistency. This only brings me more frustration when things happen differently every time I try to do them. Again, I think my cousin’s assumptions of consistency were challenged on multiple occasions during his visit and this gave way to some insightful conversations.
The Big Takeaway
Looking back at the overall experience, I am very proud and satisfied by how both my cousin and I handled our shared adventures in Madagascar. He impressed me with his patience and willingness to be put in unfamiliar situations. He respectfully shared his opinions when they arose and asked questions to better understand some situations. I was relieved that I didn’t expose him to anything that made him sick and I was honest about my opinions and experiences. Seeing Madagascar through my cousin’s eyes has been a truly memorable experience.
We laughed (a lot), we tackled some complex discussions, we learned from each other, and we created more memories together. I’m grateful that he had the means and time to visit Madagascar and that he can help me share the country with others.