What I learned from zoky be

In the Malagasy language, zoky be is a term used to describe the eldest sibling in a family. Among Peace Corps Volunteers in Madagascar, we sometimes bestow this title upon those who have been in our country for the longest period of time. It’s a term of endearment.

In the SAVA region, our one and only zoky be has recently finished her contract as a Volunteer and she left our region a couple of weeks ago. Her two years of service are complete and I know that she will be moving on to bigger and better things. While we are collectively saying goodbye to a good friend and a very well-integrated Volunteer, I will reflect on some of the lessons that my zoky be has taught me.

  1. How to work with Air Madagascar: Air Madagascar is the only domestic airline company in Madagascar. Because the SAVA region is considered a “fly site,” we almost always have to travel by airplane to get outside of the region. Unfortunately, the airline company is extremely frustrating to work with and is often unreliable. From the first days that I arrived in SAVA, zoky be told me cautionary tales of traveling with Air Madagascar and how she dealt with their incompetence. Thanks to her, I now make sure to check the flight schedules often, confirm departure times, and always fly with a bit of cautious suspicion.
  2. How to hail a taxi-brousse on the side of the road: Traveling by car in Madagascar is almost exclusively done via taxi-brousse (bush taxi). It’s basically a large mini-bus that they cram full of people to shuttle back and forth between major cities. In these major cities, there is usually a station where a taxi-brousse will depart from. But in the small villages along the main road, there is no station and a taxi-brousse must be hailed from the side of the road. According to zoky be, there is a commonly accepted method of flagging down a car and any other attempt to do so might not be effective. She made sure to pass on the intricacies of hailing a taxi-brousse so that if I were to be in a small village in the countryside, I could get a ride out when I needed to.
  3. Where to eat in Sambava: Sambava is the regional capital of SAVA and the largest town in the area. There are many shops and restaurants in town and zoky be graciously shepherded me to her favorite eateries during my first few visits to the big city. Some places specialized in particular foods, some were more welcoming to Peace Corps Volunteers, and some were to be avoided altogether. Thanks to her experiences, there are now a handful of restaurants that I frequent when I visit Sambava.
  4. Where to find free wifi in Sambava: Seeing as Sambava is the central business hub of the SAVA region, the PCVs in the area tend to treat it as such and take advantage of the available amenities. Wifi internet access is a highly sought after resource. Much like how zoky be explored the city to find good restaurants, she also sniffed out a great place to get free wifi access. Seeing as how she didn’t have electricity or running water at home in her small village, she was determined to find some of the creature comforts when she came to Sambava. Without her recommendation, I might still be wandering Sambava looking for a good restaurant or a reliable internet connection.
  5. How to build a community: When I first arrived at my site, the idea of integrating into my new community and making friends seemed pretty overwhelming. Language and cultural barriers were my primary concerns. But luckily zoky be had some good suggestions. She shared how when she first got to her village, she would just walk outside and try to talk to anyone that would talk back. Soon enough, she got to know her neighbors and they got to know her as well. She kept a small notebook with new vocabulary words that she learned so that she could constantly improve her language skills. Pretty soon, she felt more at home in her village than she did anywhere else in Madagascar. So I tried to follow in the footsteps of zoky be and I learned a great deal about my community as a result.
  6. How to eat for free in the countryside: Building off her conversational success in her new village, zoky be also developed a network of families that she would eat with on a rotating schedule. Malagasy people are generally very welcoming and hospitable toward guests, and these courtesies are also extended to new Peace Corps Volunteers. A full stomach is only a short conversation away in the countryside. By her own calculations, zoky be claimed that she didn’t have to cook for herself for the first 4 months of living in her village.
  7. How to face the challenges of life: When I first visited zoky be at her house, it was only days after I first arrived in SAVA and I had not even been to my own site yet. The whole “Peace Corps experience” was still a fairly new and vague idea to me. I anticipated that there would be ups and downs along the way and I understood that how a Volunteer reacted to those changes would define their character. So after meeting the bubbly and upbeat zoky be, I was a little taken back when I saw a quote, written on a cross beam in her modest palm and bamboo hut, that read, “I push myself to laugh about everything for fear of crying about it.” When I asked her about the quote, she smiled and simply said, “I went through a bit of a rough time last year.” I didn’t need to know any other details because that was enough to remind me that this experience isn’t always a walk in the park. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I face some unique challenges but I also think they can be simplified and applied to lots of other challenges in Madagascar and in the developing world. And in my current cultural context, usually it’s easier to laugh when things go wrong instead of getting too upset and letting that anger or frustration weigh me down. I think we’re all a little crazy to sign up for this job, but I really came to appreciate the way zoky be embraced her challenges and the dose of humor she used as momentum to keep herself moving forward.
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