Up with the roosters

Day in and day out. Many of us settle into a routine and flow that takes us through the day. In Madagascar, I have developed new routines and schedules that get me through my days. Most days are never quite the same, this country has a funny habit of continuing to surprise me and alter plans, but here is a glimpse into a “typical” day for me:

5:43am – Wake up to the sound of roosters, pigs, and the rumbling diesel tractors full of cheering men and freshly butchered beef as they drive from the butchering fields, past my house, to the market

6:09am – Get out of bed, push open my wooden window, and boil water for coffee and breakfast

7:00am – Walk about 50 feet into bazary ambanivolo (countryside market), leisurely stroll past the piles of fresh produce laid out on tarps along the dirt road, select my food for the day, and say hello to the vendors that I usually buy from

7:45am – Commute to work by riding my bicycle through the market and center of town, usually attracting stares from people moving about town to start their day. I end up at either the public middle school (CEG) or the public high school (Lycée Mixte) to teach for a few hours

11:18am – Return home from teaching, either frustrated from a class that misbehaved or proud from a lesson that actually went well. Start to prepare lunch, which is usually a large portion of rice with a small portion of beans, vegetables, or eggs

12:26pm – Enjoy lunch during the momentary silence of midday. The area around my house is void of children playing or people passing through on the their way to the market

1:40pm – Wake up from a short afternoon nap in my hammock, some days I teach another class in the afternoon and other days I write lesson plans or prepare materials for future classes

4:07pm – On my way back home after class, I sometimes stop for a snack of min-sao (noodles with ginger and curry powder) or dite cola (spiced tea). Drive-thru’s don’t exist in Madagascar, so half the experience of eating a snack is sitting with the vendor and catching up on gossip

4:49pm – Check in with my pal and colleague, Johnny, to see how things are going at the English library

5:00pm – Evening yoga at home to unwind and reflect on the day

5:50pm – Use the last minutes of sunlight to sweep my house, making sure I can see all the bits of dried rice, various insect limbs, and general dirt that accumulates daily

6:20pm – Prepare dinner, usually reheating leftovers from lunch on my small gas stove

7:30pm – Wash the dishes in a small plastic basin, take a cold shower, and brush my teeth

7:55pm – Crawl into bed, under the seemingly impenetrable forcefield of my lay ody moka (mosquito bed net), and enjoy a book or watch an episode of television on my computer. Take joy in knowing that I was successful this day or that at least the day is over

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

A mission to serve

Exploring the sounds of a seashell in Cap Est

Exploring the sounds of a seashell in Cap Est

To offer myself in the service of others, be a curious participant in new cultures, and build relationships that bring out the best in people

This is my “why.” My personal mission statement that has guided me to where I am today. As I reflect on my Peace Corps service in Madagascar and the decisions that led up to this point, I can simplify my reasons for pursuing this opportunity into the statement above. Even looking forward, this is the guiding principle for how I want to continue living my life.

One of the three goals of Peace Corps is “to help people of interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women.” Going through the Peace Corps application process, I knew this goal ensured my experience would be much more than simply traveling abroad. At that time, I couldn’t really pinpoint any specific training that I possessed that would be extremely sought after by foreign governments. I didn’t know how to farm or build bridges or improve water sanitation, and I still don’t know how to do those things. These were things that I assumed would be expected of me as a Volunteer. Instead, I prepared myself to arrive in my new host country and basically wing it. I wanted to first become part of the community and from there, find work that served the collective good. In this way, I hoped to invest myself in my community as a motivation for improving our shared experience. I quickly learned what I could do to help and how I could adapt my skills. Over time, I have learned to work in a fairly ambiguous and ever-changing environment, which has allowed me to confront complex, sometimes initially undefined, issues that are often very different from my experiences in America. Serving my community in Madagascar is about more than what I can do with my hands, but also what I can do with my mind and my heart.

I feel very fortunate to come from a family that values travel. Growing up, I often took vacations with my parents and we occasionally traveled with other family friends or relatives. One of my first international trips was with my mother and our close family friend. The three of us went to London and Paris during the summer after I graduated form high school. And this is when I was truly captivated by foreign travel and cultural immersion. The architecture, the history, the scenery, the people, the food, the chance to see and experience these places that I had only heard about from others. I loved it all, and I was never satisfied. That experience led to me pursuing an opportunity to study abroad in Italy during college, later exploring Israel through a group excursion, then returning to Europe for a 3 month backpacking trip after graduating from college, and more recently visiting Vietnam and Cambodia before ending up in Madagascar. Throughout all of these episodes abroad, I couldn’t get enough of the culture and I loved learning about a place through the eyes of the locals. It is this passionate curiosity that has kept me always thinking of the next destination. For me, combining this powerful force with the desire to share my skills was an obvious motivation for pursuing my current Peace Corps service. By traveling abroad, I learned to sit back and listen, create a deeper understanding of a place, and consider the hopes of someone else. These are all skills that have served me well as a Volunteer.

Building supportive relationships is not something that I consciously set out to achieve when I began preparing for my Peace Corps service. It is something that has developed and become more apparent to me since living and working in Madagascar. I’ve met some outstanding people on this island and I find myself wanting to support them in ways that encourage our mutual personal growth. I learn from them and I hope they can learn from me. I have been humbled and inspired by the hospitality that has been shown to me and I strive to replicate that in my actions. When I see the potential in someone, I find joy in helping them fulfill that potential. I believe that part of my purpose here is to help others be the truest and best version of themselves.

While I freely admit my reflections are presented with romantic and idealistic tones, they are grounded in my experiences up to this point. Like everything in life, there are good days and bad days. There are days when I can have rewarding conversations in Malagasy and days when my students get on my last nerve and then proceed to obliterate that nerve. Looking at the big picture of how and why I am here is what consistently brings me back to my personal mission statement. It is the small light on my darkest days and the reassuring maxim that pushes me to the next level.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

This post was inspired by BloggingAbroad.org. Click the image to learn more.

2nd Annual SAVA English Teacher Training

It’s that time of year again. The avocados are ripening on the trees, the daily rains are drying up, and the English teachers of the SAVA region are meeting once again for an annual training workshop.

Based on the success of last year’s training in Sambava, the Education Volunteers of the SAVA region were happy to organize and present a similar pedagogy training workshop. Our goal was to share new teaching methods with English teachers and encourage a professional exchange of ideas. We recruited new teachers that did not attend the training last year, but also invited some alumni teachers to further enhance their skills. All together, there were 50 local English teachers in attendance during the 4-day training workshop held in Andapa.

Two teachers getting to know each other during a group activity

Two teachers getting to know each other during a group activity

Prior to this year’s event, I worked very closely with two of my Malagasy counterparts in Andapa and I also collaborated with the other PCVs in the region. Johnny and Deriot, my Malagasy colleagues, were absolutely essential in making this training happen. Johnny has a knack for translating English to Malagasy, so he helped me a lot when we needed to translate radio advertisements and recruitment posters. Deriot is the kind of guy that knows everyone and has connections and solutions all over town. Need 30 mattresses for teachers to sleep on during the training? Deriot can get them. Need to collect cooking materials like pots, plates, spoons, and forks? Deriot’s got your back. Within each of the four Districts in SAVA, the Peace Corps Volunteers living there played an essential role in recruiting teachers, organizing local travel to Andapa, and preparing to facilitate training sessions. This project was truly a team effort.

Me with Johnny (left) and Deriot (right)

Me with Johnny (left) and Deriot (right)

On the first day of the training, the teachers arrived in Andapa throughout the morning and got settled in. The training was held at a local elementary school and we utilized the classrooms for meeting space, a dining room for meals, and sleeping areas. We had a group lunch together and then kicked off the program with a welcome message from the Chef CISCO (superintendent of the school district). After a couple of icebreaker activities to get to know the teachers, our first real session was “The Role of the Teacher and Motivating Students.” This session was facilitated by a Volunteer and his Malagasy counterpart, which is something we encouraged this year in order to give more responsibility to the Malagasy teachers and slowly show them that they are able to organize similar trainings on their own. Some of the teachers told me that they appreciated this first session because it set the tone for why they were attending. Before you can perfect your teaching skills, you have to take a step back and consider what a teacher should be doing and how a teacher can support student growth.

PCV (right at the chalkboard) and English teacher Arnaud (standing left) give a presentation on motivating students

PCV (right at the chalkboard) and English teacher Arnaud (standing left) give a presentation on motivating students

The second day stated off with a session about learning styles and lesson planning techniques, facilitated by Deriot. This session helped teachers prepare for their lessons and introduced the idea that students learn in different ways (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc) and the activities that a teacher uses in a lesson should appeal to these different learning styles. The rest of the sessions that day were new topics that were not covered in last year’s schedule. One session was about giving feedback to students and correcting their errors. The next session, facilitated by another Malagasy teacher, was about gender equitability in the classroom. This is a priority issue for Peace Corps Madagascar across all the different types of work that we do, so it felt right to include some information during our teacher training. I think a handful of the teachers didn’t even realize how they previously treated boys and girls differently in their class, but hopefully now they have a fresh perspective and can make some actionable changes. We wrapped up the day with a session about organizing English clubs and other extracurricular activities. Many of the teachers also take time out of their busy schedule to help with local English clubs, so we shared some new ideas and activities that they could use in that setting. We emphasized the idea that learning a language is something you need to practice and use frequently, so having a vibrant extracurricular program where students can explore English and have fun is very beneficial.

PCV Jade talks about English clubs and extracurricular activities

PCV Jade talks about English clubs and extracurricular activities

The sessions on the third day were facilitated by different PCVs. We started the morning off with two sessions that together covered the basics of how to teach reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities. Some teachers don’t feel confident in their own English abilities, whether it’s speaking or writing or whatever, so maybe they don’t give much attention to one or more of these essential language skills in their classroom. We wanted to show them how they could bring these skills back into their classroom. In the afternoon, we offered a session about incorporating malaria education into the English curriculum. Malaria is something that impacts our local community a great deal every year. Students get sick and miss school, teachers get sick, family members get sick and sometimes die from malaria complications. So we wanted to give our English teachers the power to talk about malaria in their classrooms and give students at least one more point of exposure to prevention and treatment information. The final session of the day was about teaching with limited resources, something that every Malagasy teacher is used to. In most cases, teachers in this country get nothing more than a blackboard and chalk to teach with. In this session, we listened to the experience of the teachers more than teaching them from our comparatively minimal experience. It was a great exchange of ideas and I think everyone learned new ways to incorporate inexpensive or free resources. Sometimes we have to be creative and design our own teaching resources.

PCVs Crystal and Trevor lead an exercise to model good listening activities

PCVs Crystal and Trevor lead an exercise to model good listening activities

The fourth and final day of training was about bringing all the new information together and making a plan to move forward. The first morning session was led by a Malagasy teacher and he talked about creating a professional network of teachers to continue sharing experiences and exchanging teaching methods. This is essential if we hope to spread the lessons learned during the training and continue improving the quality of instruction in our region. At one point, teachers from each District met together and discussed the specifics of when they would meet again to share ideas. To wrap up the training, we asked the teachers to recite and sign a pledge that described how they would share the knowledge they gained during the training and reaffirming that they have the ability to enact change without the supervision of a foreigner. Then we gave a certificate of completion to each teacher, posed for many photos with the teachers, and shared one last meal together before teachers started to make their way back to their homes. It was a really great ending to a phenomenal training program. Overall, based on feedback from the teachers and the PCVs involved, it was a successful event and everyone can’t wait to do it again next year!

Teachers work together to create a lesson plan that incorporates malaria education

Teachers work together to create a lesson plan that incorporates malaria education

Throughout this process, and having participated in the first training program last year, I learned so much. I learned about myself and my work ethic, my ability to share a vision with people, and my ability to stay calm and focused in the face of ambiguity and other challenges. I got quite the education in the whole grant process including writing, budgeting, evaluating goals, and reporting results. Maybe most importantly, I learned about finding joy and purpose in my work here. All the stress and frustration and confusion of the past 6 months melted away when I saw how proud and excited these teachers were to hold up their certificate of completion. I knew it was worth it when I heard the teachers reciting their pledge and saw the look on their faces like they deeply believed what they were saying.

Participants recite the "Teacher's Pledge"

Participants recite the “Teacher’s Pledge”

I owe a lot of thanks to many, many people. More than I could properly put down in words here. But I’ll try. A tremendous amount of thanks goes to the generous Americans who donated to our grant and basically funded the entire program. I also worked closely with local school officials and teachers to help spread the word about the training and secure some of the logistics during the event. This project would have also been nothing without the interest, dedication, and participation of the 50 Malagasy teachers that took it upon themselves to improve their careers. As I mentioned before, a huge amount of thanks goes to Johnny and Deriot and the other Malagasy teachers that worked with us. And I really owe a lot to the amazing Peace Corps family that supported us throughout this endeavor. The PCVs in the SAVA region were instrumental in so many ways and it was such a pleasure to work with them. They willingly took on responsibilities to help share the workload. Other PCVs shared ideas for sessions and gave unwavering support throughout the whole process. And finally, thanks to the Peace Corps staff that helped us work through the grant process and helped us realize the full potential of this project. To all, I offer my sincere gratitude and appreciation.

Having a good time with the team of English students that cooked every meal for the training and made sure we were well fed!

Having a good time with the team of English students that cooked every meal for the training and made sure we were well fed!

Me with most of the participants from Andapa. Look at all those big Malagasy smiles!

Me with most of the participants from Andapa. Look at all those big Malagasy smiles!

Most of the SAVA PCVs pose for one of many photos with a proud participant

Most of the SAVA PCVs pose for one of many photos with a proud participant

Seasonal produce: voazato

Still life with voazato, zavoka (avocado), and fontsy (banana)

Still life with voazato, zavoka (avocado), and fontsy (banana)

Although it is avocado season again in Madagascar (thank the heavens), there is another seasonal treat making a reappearance in the market these days. What I would have once classified as another “bizarre tropical mystery food” is now a welcomed addition to my diet. Allow me to share the wonders of the voazato. The direct translation of this name is “100 seeds” and it comes from two Malagasy words: voa meaning “seed” and zato meaning “100”. I’ve never seen this fruit before coming to Madagascar, but I’ve been told the most common English names for this fruit can be either custard apple or sugar-apple. Whatever you want to call it, the voazato can be a delicious addition to any breakfast or a midday snack.

The voazato

The voazato

The jagged exterior and strange shape of the voazato might be a little intimidating at first, but the taste buds are quickly rewarded for exploring their curiosity. The outside of the fruit should be a nice golden yellow with no major bruising. Much like an avocado, a good voazato is neither completely firm or too soft.

The edible flesh of the voazato has a smooth viscous texture. It tastes similar to custard (probably where one of the English names is derived from) or plain yogurt. This is why I prefer to eat this fruit in the mornings as part of breakfast.

The edible part of the voazato

The edible part of the voazato

Eating a voazato is fairly simple. First, cut the fruit into quarters to reveal the delicious milky white flesh. Next, use a spoon to scoop out bite sized portions and enjoy. The fruit does live up to it’s name and every bite includes a few inedible brown seeds that should be discarded.

The aftermath of a delicious voazato (but this one only had 43 seeds)

The aftermath of a delicious voazato (but this one only had 43 seeds)

The voazato season is just starting here in Madagascar, so hopefully we can enjoy this special fruit for a while longer. This season, potentially my last in this beautiful country, will be particularly special. Mazotoa mihinana! (Enjoy eating!)

Men as partners

A primary focus of many development projects is empowering women and girls, which is a very important issue to address. One example is the Peace Corps’ initiative, called Let Girls Learn, that focuses on increasing access to education for young girls around the world. Another popular program that Peace Corps Volunteers in various countries organize, called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp, is designed to develop the leadership skills of girls and give them the opportunity to explore a variety of relevant health, environmental, and educational topics.

In addition to educating and encouraging women, it is also important to share these ideas with men in the spirit of cooperation. Men and women should work together to accomplish any community development goal. To address this need in Madagascar, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer recently organized a training for young men in the SAVA region. The MAP (Men As Partners) Camp was designed to “explore community development through a feminist lens,” according to the lead Volunteer of the project. The training was held in Antalaha and brought together 60 men, their ages ranging from 16 to 35, for a 4-day workshop. I was lucky enough to participate in this project and bring some men from my own community. During the course of the training, the men engaged in thoughtful discussions on a variety of topics including gender roles, sexuality, men’s health, community development, HIV and AIDS, and healthy relationships. Each session was led by a different local leader who brought his own perspective and style to the discussions.

All the participants on Day 1 of the MAP Camp

All the participants on Day 1 of the MAP Camp

The men who participated in the MAP Camp come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are students, others are tour guides, and a few work for other NGOs in Madagascar. Some of the men live in the larger regional cities while others come from smaller villages. Some have wives and children. Despite what they do or where they come from, these men came together and quickly bonded over a shared desire to improve their communities and help the women in their lives.

The men sign a banner with a pledge that reads “Every woman is a daughter or mother or wife to a man. To respect all women is to respect the women that you know. Today we pledge to end violence against women”

The men sign a banner with a pledge that reads “Every woman is a daughter or mother or wife to a man. To respect all women is to respect the women that you know. Today we pledge to end violence against women”

The first day of the camp began with a welcome from the Mayor of Antalaha and an introduction to the purpose of the program by the organizers of the MAP Camp. One of the first activities was a chance for the men to express their opinions on a variety of topics. To do this, we created four lines that corresponded to the opinions “strongly agree”, “agree”, “disagree”, and “strongly disagree”. Next, the facilitator read statements out loud (for example, “men are smarter than women” and “homosexuality is natural and acceptable”) and directed participants to stand in the line that was closest to their personal opinion. Each line of men had an opportunity to explain themselves, listen to others, and then they could change their position before moving on to the next statement. I was impressed by how the men respected each other when they had a difference of opinions and they were willing to listen to what others had to say. It was a powerful way to begin the program and set the stage for some meaningful discussions.

The men standing in four lines according to their opinion on a given statement

The men standing in four lines according to their opinion on a given statement

The second day of the camp had a more informational approach. One session explored the influence that different forms of media have on the messages about gender and sexuality in Madagascar. I even learned a lot about what men in the local communities hear and see from radio, television, film, religious groups, and schools that effect their understanding on gender. Next, the men had a candid and transparent discussion about the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. Most of them had very relevant and mature questions that showed a true desire to understand the complex ideas. I was, again, pleasantly surprised to see this kind of participation coming from men that live in such a heteronormative and traditional society.

A discussion facilitated by the local Imam

A discussion facilitated by the local Imam

On the third day, the participants addressed the issue of men’s health and sexual health. Activities began with a game to test the knowledge of participants on the subject of HIV and AIDS. The men knew many of the basic facts, but they also learned a few new things to help them make healthy life choices. Next, the group headed to the beach and played a few games. The first game divided the men into two groups and they stood shoulder to shoulder in a line facing each other with arms and hands behind their backs. Then, a soccer ball was put in the hands of one of the men and the team had to shuffle the ball up and down the line without the other team being able to see the ball. Each team took turns doing this while the other team watched closely and attempted to guess where the ball was after one minute of being passed behind the backs of their rivals. The symbolism behind this game was that the soccer ball in the hands of a man represented a person with HIV or AIDS and the other team couldn’t always accurately guess the person with the “ball” just by looking at them. It was a fun, yet important, lesson in equality and awareness of those around you. The next game had men dribbling the soccer ball through a series of obstacles that represented choices and consequences in life. The first set of choices, such as “having unprotected sex” or “having sex with multiple partners”, was spaced out enough that it was fairly easy to dribble the ball through the line. If a man kicked the ball into any of the obstacles, it represented him making that particular bad choice. Next, the obstacles got closer together and each one represented either contracting HIV or an STI. The final line, with the obstacles placed even closer together, represented either developing AIDS, having an early death, or not being able to work. As the men dribbled the ball through the lines, they realized that it’s easy to make one poor decision but it can lead to a much more difficult consequence later on. Everyone enjoyed a few hours on the beach, especially those men who had never seen the ocean before!

Playing a game at the beach about knowing a person's HIV/AIDS status

Playing a game at the beach about knowing a person’s HIV/AIDS status

Dribbling the soccer ball through the "obstacle course of life"

Dribbling the soccer ball through the “obstacle course of life”

The program finished on the fourth day with a discussion of things that the men could do after the training to continue spreading these ideas and helping their communities. They divided into 4 groups, based on the District where they live, and worked together to develop a work plan. Each group made a presentation and shared what next steps would be taken after the training. This is a crucial step in making the information relevant and useful to the men. It was great to see them feel empowered and realize that they have the ability to help others in their communities. Not only did they make some new friends during the course of the program, but they learned so much.

A few participants presenting their work plan to the group

A few participants presenting their work plan to the group

This was an extremely well-organized event and I feel grateful to have participated and shared this opportunity with some great men in my community. The main theme of the project was to encourage men and women to work together, and I think we got a great start on that. I look forward to working with these men and helping coordinate other resources so they can make a difference in our local community.

Group photo in front of the Antalaha Mayor's Office at the end of MAP Camp

Group photo in front of the Antalaha Mayor’s Office at the end of MAP Camp

My mind stepped out

Some days, my mind, it wanders
Carries me away, just briefly
Times of past and familiar places
Come rushing back to greet me

I’m in the streets of Florence now
Making my way to Franco’s place
The Duomo cleans up nicely
I drink coffee at the local pace

Tormented by thoughts of pizza
I can taste the tomatoes and cheese
Nights on the bridge with wine and friends
The guitarist’s tune picked up in the breeze

Another thought, I’m in the future
White noise and a beer in my hand
I lean in to answer your question
Which version of my story can you stand?

Do you want the whole thing?
Or are you asking to be nice?
What justice is served to shorten it to
“I taught English and I ate rice”?

Some days, my mind, it wanders
And I float away without remorse
A distraction from the here and now
Bittersweet to be caught in that force

Support education improvements in Madagascar

Ask any American and they can probably tell you about a teacher that had a lasting impact on them. A teacher who challenged students, inspired them, and encouraged intellectual growth during such a formative time in a young person’s life.

In Madagascar, it is more difficult to find such a relationship between teachers and students. Part of the difference is certainly cultural and that won’t change very easily. All too often in this country, teachers are viewed as the infallible keepers of knowledge and they pass on this knowledge through dictation and rote memorization. But part of the difference is also due to a lack of quality training for teachers. Unlike in America, formal education or training for a teacher is not always required in Madagascar. This reality is often the root of many issues in the Malagasy educational system. Students aren’t engaged. Some teachers, who never wanted to be teachers in the first place, get stuck in the classroom because it can be a reliable job.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of my job assignments is to help improve the quality of English instruction in my community. During the last year, I have collaborated with local teachers, shared experiences, listened to them more than I have talked, and offered suggestions based on my limited training. But there is more that can be done.

With the help of 5 other Peace Corps Volunteers in the SAVA Region of Madagascar (the region where we live), we are organizing a 4-day regional teacher training workshop to address the issue of instructional quality. If a person lives relatively close to one of the few major urban centers in Madagascar, they might have greater access to government teacher training programs, but such training is rarely ever a requirement to be a working teacher and thus it is not always encouraged. But with the added incentive of working with “foreign” teachers, especially Americans, we hope to attract 60 teachers from all around the region to attend out workshop. It’s important to us that we reach not only teachers in the urban centers, but also those in the more remote countryside villages with even fewer resources. To read about the success of the inaugural teacher training that we put on last year, you can read my blog post about it here.

To fund our ambitious program, I have applied for a grant through the Peace Corps. This particular type of grant is part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program, which means that the grant is funded by private donations rather than a government budget. With this type of grant, the community must contribute at least 25% of the total cost of the program, either through donated materials or in-kind donations like time and meeting space. The rest is up to us to fundraise! The grant also has to be completely funded before a single penny (or Ariary, in this case) gets to the community. When that happens, the funds will come to me and I will purchase all the needed materials. When we finish the program, I have to provide receipts for all costs and that prevents me from running away with all the money you have so graciously donated to help my community. The grant is structured in such a way that I cannot segment any of the costs during the fundraising phase, so all donations go into the general budget.

If you’d like to make a donation or read more about the project, please visit our fundraising page here.

I, and the team of Volunteers working on this project with me, would greatly appreciate any support you can give us. Whether that is making a donation of any amount or helping to spread news of our project by sharing the fundraising page with others. Every little bit of effort adds up and it can help bring some much needed resources to a great community of educators.

The loyal customer

I consider myself to be a loyal customer. I like consistency. I appreciate the opportunity to buy a reliable and affordable product. I also enjoy the ability to interact with people who work hard and provide great customer service. If you can give me what I need, advise me when I need help, and make me feel good about spending my time and money at your establishment, I’ll keep coming back.

In Madagascar, the concept of customer service is a little different from what I’m used to in America. Most transactions are pretty black and white here. Either you buy the product or you don’t. So in my experience, there’s not a big attempt to lure in customers and try to up sell them. There’s usually a dozen places that sell the exact same products, so most stores don’t have the benefit of being particularly unique. What you see on display in a store is what you get to pick from. Good customer service, in the eyes of most Malagasy people, means being able to skillfully haggle when appropriate and giving a desirable mix of small bills as change.

In my community, there are a handful of people who I am fiercely loyal to. Most of these loyalties were formed very shortly after I arrived in Andapa. During my long and awkward transition into my new life (possibly even still working out a few kinks), these people helped me and I never forgot that. In other situations, I’ve discovered people along the way and developed a consistent routine of buying things from them. But with each situation, I enjoy the relationship that I have with these people and the way they make me feel. Maybe it’s an aspect of small town living that I never experienced in America, but it’s huge part of why I enjoy living and working in my community.

I’d like to share my thoughts on some of these special people:

The Onion Sellers

During my first few trips through the market, the large piles of onions and garlic in this small shack at the end of the market road caught my eye. It’s a husband and wife team and they sell onions, garlic, beans, and sometimes coffee. The woman is very friendly and she speaks Malagasy in a simple and clear way, much easier for me to understand and reply to. The man is also very cheerful and he likes to show off the handful of English phrases he knows. They quickly learned that I prefer the big onions, so now they help me dig through the piles and pick out the best onions they can find.

The Tomato Lady

Although our conversations almost never branch out beyond “Hello, how are you?”, I can’t imagine buying tomatoes from any other person. And there’s probably at least 20 other people in the market with tomatoes. I primarily keep coming back to her because she likes to pick out the better tomatoes for me. Maybe she does that for everyone that she likes, but it really makes me feel taken care of and I like that.

The Barber

A couple of months ago, I stopped cutting my own hair at home and I went looking for a barber in town. There are probably 100 barbers in my town, all with the same clippers and scissors, so for me, going to get a haircut was about the interaction. With the guidance of a friend, I found a barber who was welcoming and receptive to my requests. He wasn’t shy around me and even started some small talk. He was quick, skilled, and a nice guy. Plus, the name of his barber shop is “Scorpion” and my astrological sign is Scorpio, so clearly he is my star-crossed barber.

The Butcher

I rarely buy meat, mainly because it’s relatively expensive and the sanitary conditions are…well…different than they are in America. A couple of the butchers at the market are loud and friendly characters. They were happy when I would buy meat from them, but then they would make me feel guilty when I didn’t buy meat. So recently, I found a new butcher. He’s a quiet older man, works by himself, and he sets up in the back of the market away from the other butchers. When I buy meat from him, he is extremely courteous and he usually gives me an extra spoonful of ground beef as a kadoa (small gift). He always asks how I’m doing and even asks about the other Volunteers who have come to the market with me when they visit. There’s no hassle when I do buy from him and he doesn’t make me feel guilty if I don’t buy from him.

The Post Office

I don’t really have a choice here, because there’s only one post office in town. But when I do visit to send letters or check if any new mail has arrived, the men working there are always predictable. One of them likes to practice English, so we chat a little bit. The Director of the post office must live near me because I frequently see him in my neighborhood. And if something has arrived in the mail for me, he doesn’t hesitate to stop me in the middle of the street and remind me to come by the post office and pick it up.

The Bread Lady

In another situation where I could buy bread from any of the dozen vendors all next to each other on the same corner, I began getting bread from one woman consistently. After I explained who I am and why I am here, she was very appreciative and asked if her young daughter could study English at our library. Without hesitation, I encouraged her to send her daughter and now the young girl is a regular student at the weekly English club.

The Coffee Lady

During my first year of teaching, I was scheduled to start class every morning at 6am. I’m not what you would call a morning person, so finding a place to get coffee and a pastry for breakfast before class was very important to me. On the road going to the lycée (high school), crouched behind a small bamboo table about 2 feet off the ground, was a thin older woman with a warm smile and a pot of hot coffee. Behind her were a couple of long benches where patrons could sit, sip their coffee, and gossip. The woman was very welcoming and I think she could tell that pre-coffee morning conversations were not my goal. After a week or so, she stopped asking me what I wanted and instead started to pour a cup of coffee as soon as I sat down. It was that feeling of familiarity and routine that I came to appreciate. I knew my day could start with her and soon I couldn’t start my day without her.

I realize that most of my favorite people in town revolve around food, but that’s because it’s an important thing to me and it’s something that I do almost every single day. When I make these everyday purchases, it’s nice to feel comfortable with these people and to have a friendly rapport with them. I’ve noticed that since I arrived in Andapa, much of my community building has been around these people. It’s something that I treasure and I hope to continue building my community in this way when I return to America in the future.

Ode to the taxi-brousse

Just the mention of the word stirs up a mixture of emotions in every Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteer. Everyone’s got a story, or 20, about traveling around this beautiful island in a taxi-brousse, known as a “bush taxi” in other countries. It is the primary form of land travel in Madagascar. Most Volunteers see it as a necessary evil. Traveling by “brousse”, as we sometimes call it, is a skill that has to be honed and adjusted. It takes months to perfect your approach and style. At first, we were all afraid. But now, we are mahay taxi-brousse (knowledgeable about how to ride in and live in a world with the taxi-brousse).

In an attempt to describe and pay tribute to the taxi-brousse, I’d like to share a collection of observations and experiences that have happened to me since I arrived in Andapa in September 2014. Everything you are about to read is true and has happened to me, but you could easily imagine that taxi-brousses are generally the same all across Madagascar.

For starters, you might be wondering what a taxi-brousse looks like. That’s a little like asking what a lemur looks like. They all have a few commonly defining characteristics, but every one you see is a little bit different than the next. A taxi-brousse is basically a vehicle intended to move large numbers of people from one place to another. It’s usually a mini-van type vehicle. A little bigger than the average soccer mom’s mini-van, but smaller than a military transport truck. Usually. Brousses are also almost always customized. Not like “Pimp My Ride” customized. More like electrical wires hanging from the roof, religious stickers on the windows, door hinges obviously joined together with solder, and tacky pleather upholstering. The engines have been tinkered with by the local mechanic. The entire vehicle roars like a wild beast and rumbles like an electronic massage chair. Being in a taxi-brousse is truly an experience unlike any other.

A typical taxi-brousse

A typical taxi-brousse

The Good

I’ll admit that is has taken me a while to see the good things about broussing. Yes, one of them is the fact that “brousse” can be a noun or a verb. Once I got over the initial shock of the process, I began to appreciate the brousse for a few simple reasons. For starters, there’s no weight limit on luggage. Whatever bags you bring can be tied down on the roof of the car. And it’s not just limited to bags, my friends. I’ve seen entire living room furniture sets, bicycles, giant bushels of produce, wooden cages filled with chickens, geese, or ducks, and even mattresses on top of a brousse. If it can be tied down, it can go on top of a brousse. Smaller, more delicate bags can be placed on your lap or under your seat.

The driver's assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

The driver’s assistant ties down the various pieces of luggage on the roof of the car

Also, there is a wonderful seat in the brousse called place d’avant (French for “front place”). It is the front bench row next to the driver. Usually, it is reserved for two people. This is by far the most luxurious and comfortable part of the brousse because the other rows get filled to the brim, and then some, with passengers. A bit more on that later. But the place d’avant is typically reserved for special passengers. For example, a pretty girl that the driver might want to hit on during the ride, a traveling police officer or other local official, a foreign tourist, or in my case an obviously tall white dude who can speak a little bit of Malagasy. After riding in the huddle of passengers for a few months, I’ll never forget my first experience sitting in the place d’avant and feeling like royalty. I will admit that now I insist on sitting in this space, something that most of the local drivers already know about me and are happy to oblige.

On longer, overnight journeys (there are some routes that take more than 30 hours to travel and drivers always drive through the night when necessary) it is common for the vehicle to stop at “rest stops” along the main road to pause for a meal. At these rest stops, there are usually 5 or 6 small restaurants that all serve a heaping plate of rice with very similar side dishes of meat or beans. These places specifically service the taxi-brousse community and although the food is prepared on an almost industrial scale, it is still usually delicious and filling for a long night of driving through the pitch-black countryside. The service is quick and straight forward, enabling passengers to sit down, eat, and leave within 20 minutes.

For shorter, usually regional trips, the common practice for food is to stop in a town and food vendors will sell things to passengers through the car window. When the brousse stops, a group of vendors will run toward the car and start shoving large platters of fried breads, deep fried meats, hard-boiled eggs, coconuts, and the occasional fresh fish. The snacks are usually cheap and easy to eat in a vehicle. One of my favorite parts about broussing in different parts of the country is sampling the local cuisine in the form of brousse snacks.

Women selling various snacks to passengers

Women selling various snacks to passengers

The Bad

As I have eluded to earlier, riding in a taxi-brousse isn’t all sunshine and delicious brousse foods. There are some bad things that deserve to be mentioned. While some of these things might sound terrible to the reader, I will admit that to another Volunteer they might only seem trivial or annoying at best. One of these issues is known as “taxi-brousse time.” It’s related to a larger cultural phenomenon known as fotoana gasy (Malagasy time), where the concept of time is interpreted in a much broader sense. Things do not work on a precise schedule in this country, and the taxi-brousse is no exception. That being said, there are no hard scheduled departure and arrival times for a taxi-brousse. It leaves when it is ready and it gets there when it gets there.

The departure can sometimes be the most painful part of the whole experience because the brousse will generally leave only when it is full of passengers. If there aren’t 15-20 people ready to go at the same time, there are basically two courses of action. First, the brousse will just wait at the station until the desired number of passengers trickles in. Often times with the engine running, the combination of the day’s heat and the exhaust fumes enveloping the car can make for an extremely uncomfortable waiting experience. The second option is to put whatever passengers you do have into the car and drive around town trying to pick up more people off the street. This tactic can take 10 minutes or and hour and a half. In my opinion, the goal here is to show off how many people are already in the car in the hopes of attracting more passengers to join your downtown loop tour for the next 45 minutes.

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

A glimpse at part of the crowded taxi-brousse station in Sambava. Photo was taken as I waited inside a hot brousse

Once the taxi-brousse is full and ready to depart town, at least you know the journey will get underway. This also means that the seating arrangement, if you can call it that, has been established and the discomfort of being crammed into a row of seats build to seat 3-4 people comfortably, but now has 5-6 people jammed in, slowly grows into a stinging and sometimes unbearable pain. Most taxi-brousses are build to seat about 15 people by American standards. This, my friends, is only the starting point in Madagascar. Brousses are routinely packed with 26-30 people and nobody puts up a fight about it. It’s just the way it is. It’s common to sit on someone’s lap, sometimes for hours at a time. Infants get passed around to strangers just to make the puzzle pieces of humans fit together better. Most of the time your knees are jammed up against the hard wood or plastic seat back in front of you. In the region where I live and travel, most taxi-brousse drivers seem to live by the philosophy that a brousse is never full and there’s always room for one more person. Only in the most extreme attempt to overpack a brousse will a person verbally protest the driver. The common expression to voice your disapproval of the situation is translated into English as “Hey! We’re not cows!”

If the seating isn’t enough to push you into a quiet rage, the music certainly will. This is another regional difference, but the taxi-brousse drivers in my region tend to show off their stereo systems by playing the loudest, fastest, and most disorienting music I’ve ever heard. The style of music is known as salegy and a brief internet search might be more helpful in explaining the truly aurally oppressive nature of this music than my words here could. An experienced Volunteer will tell you that one of the keys to surviving a brousse ride is an iPod and a good pair of headphones. In the central highlands of Madagascar, it’s more common to hear gospel church music in the taxi-brousses. This can sometimes be more pleasant to listen to, but it also gets tiring after many hours on the road.

The Ugly

This last category of taxi-brousse experiences describes what I consider to be the universally terrible things about this particular form of travel. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you’ve traveled before, these next few observations are unmistakably shitty.

To start off, I’ve been a witness to taxi-brousses running over animals way more times that I’d like to admit. Much of this country is rural and many of the towns and villages along the roads are basically next to the road. Unlike in America where people tend to have good strong fences around their homes and properties, Malagasy villages are not built like that. This means that animals of all varieties, domestic and wild, can get on the road and get themselves into trouble. I have been in brousses that have run over pigs, geese, frogs, snakes, dogs, and chameleons. It’s always alarming and most passengers, if they notice it, gasp in distress and shake their heads in disapproval of the driver. Then life quickly goes on and the brousse keeps going.

Then there’s always the carsick passenger. Usually it’s a child, which makes the whole situation a little more pathetic. But inevitably someone will puke during the ride and you’d better hope they’re nowhere near you. In my experience, it seems to be a pretty sudden occurrence. All of a sudden, someone is covering their mouth and the people sitting next to them are shouting and trying to distance themselves. In this case, the person usually vomits into a shirt, jacket, backpack, or other piece of cloth that they have with them. Other times, if there is enough warning, they can ask for a plastic bag from the driver. Then the next trick is getting the bag safely out of the moving vehicle through the window without spilling on other passengers or having the contents of the bag blow back through other windows as it is released into the wind. Believe me, this is easier said than done.

At some point along the road, there is almost always a police checkpoint. For the most part, the police want to check that drivers have the proper license, registration, and car insurance and that they’re not transporting anything blatantly illegal (for example, a couple of rosewood trees strapped to the roof). With “minor” paperwork infractions, the police can always be paid off by drivers to overlook the issue. This is just one part of the culture of corruption that exists in Madagascar. Drivers will routinely pay about 2,000 ariary (about $0.60 USD) each time that they come to a checkpoint and the handoff isn’t always subtle. It’s usually done with a handshake, like at fancy restaurants when someone wants the maître d’ to give an extra nice table. Or often the cash will be slipped in with the pile of paperwork handed to the police officer. In other not so subtle attempts, I’ve seen drivers openly ask police officers if they have change for large bills. This is something that most people agree is bad but nothing substantial is being done to correct the behavior.

And finally, one of the absolute worst things that can happen during a taxi-brousse ride is the dreaded vehicle breakdown. Let me remind the reader, roadside assistance does not exist in Madagascar. When a brousse breaks down, it pulls over to the side of the road and the real fun begins. The driver and assistant get out and survey the vehicle. If you’re lucky and it’s only a flat tire, that’s a relatively easy fix and you’ll be back on the road shortly. Consider it a nice break to get out, stretch your legs, and pee in the bushes if you need to. But if the damage is under the hood, it could take a while. Most of the time the driver will just pour water over the engine and see if that does anything. Maybe it’s overheated? Maybe it’s thirsty? No one really knows. If the engine bath doesn’t work, the tinkering begins. The driver usually barks orders at his assistant and every other man gathers around to stare and offer their opinion. This could take minutes, or hours, which is the truly scary part about the breakdown. You never know when it will really end and usually the passengers are forced to just wait on the side of the road in the heat until the problem is fixed. Daytime breakdowns are a little better because there’s a better chance of other motorists driving by and offering help. But I was in a brousse once that broke down at night in the middle of nowhere, which was terrifying for many reasons. Luckily most of the taxi-brousse drivers and assistants are the same people that build and “customize” the vehicle, so they are pretty capable when it comes to repairs. But the uncertainty and the inconvenience of a breakdown can be one of the worst things to happen on the road.

Giving the engine a bath, because that'll definitely work

Giving the engine a bath, because that’ll definitely work

When you consider it all, it’s clear that the taxi-brousse is an imperfect reality of life in Madagascar. It’s something that we rely on here and a way of traveling that we just have to accept. I like to remind myself that broussing builds character and adds to the charm of traveling in the developing world. If I didn’t think this way, I’d actually go crazy and never leave my town.

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse

A bunch of fabulous Peace Corps Madagascar Volunteers shoved into a taxi-brousse