Wet hot American autumn

Sometimes they say, “no news is good news.”

In this case, the long delay in posting new blog material can be attributed to my recent visit back home. For the past 6 weeks, I have been reconnecting with my family, my friends, and eating my way through the beautiful areas of California that mean so much to me. This time back home is built into my third year extension and it has come at such a welcomed stage of my service. If you’ve been following my journey from the beginning, you’ll know that I have not returned to the U.S. at all during the last 2 and a half years. So this homecoming was an extra special treat for me and a very valuable chance to see this pocket of the world through a new lens.

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

Digging my toes into the ocean in San Diego

As you can imagine, many things in America have changed during my time abroad and I came back to a country with some exciting new developments. I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to things such as chip readers at cash registers, the expansion and prevalence of sharing services such as Uber and Airbnb, and delicious poke bowls. Technology has continued to advance exponentially and it seems that all our devices are even more connected than before. Driving on the freeway was exhilarating, and then there was traffic and I remembered why I didn’t miss driving. In the weeks before my return, I had imagined an America with an all-encompassing national WiFi bubble, but I instead had to settle for lightning fast WiFi in almost every establishment and home. Bummer, right?

Being in America after spending so much time abroad gave me a new perspective on many aspects of life there. The way we manage our time, use our food and water resources, interact with each other, and entertain ourselves were just some of the things that stood out to me. I was expecting to feel more like a foreigner in America, but I quickly slipped back into some of the same habits and mindsets of my previous life. Being placed back into American culture was much easier and far less shocking than I thought it would be. Conveniences were abounding and I tried not to take a paved highway or an In-N-Out hamburger for granted.

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

First taste of In-N-Out since leaving the US in 2014

Leading up to my return to America, I was at times apprehensive about the thought of impending reunions with friends and family. Being isolated in Madagascar and undertaking this strange journey practically on my own, I would often think about life back home as being on pause. I kept telling myself that I’d be away for a couple of years, come back, and pick up these relationships right where I left off. However self-centered and illogical that was, the reality of people growing and continuing to develop was beautiful to see in person. Friends getting married, moving into tasteful living arrangements (read: not a dingy cheap college apartment), and building lives around great careers. Family members continuing to travel and share moments together. I felt an elevated sense of pride in sharing these new lives with my loved ones, even for a brief time, and a renewed optimism for the direction of all of our life paths.

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State's homecoming football game

With old friends, and some new ones, at a tailgate for San Diego State’s homecoming football game

So being back in America was great and I’m happy to report that I saw all the people I wanted to see, went to all the places that I wanted to go to, and ate all the food that I had been missing for the last few years. I even had some experiences above and far beyond what I originally anticipated. For anyone who indulged me by sitting through my rambling stories about Madagascar, thank you for listening. While I learned a lot about myself and my own culture, I hope I was able to share even a small part of my experience in Madagascar with others.

As I return to working on the big red island for another 10 months, I’ll hold these new memories and laughs of the past 6 weeks in America very close to me. Until we meet again…

Family brunch

Family brunch

Breakfast selfie with my dad

Breakfast selfie with my dad

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

My dog, Buster, is still fumbling through the world at 15 years old!

Advertisements

First impressions of a new life

Driving south from Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, you twist and wind through the sprawling highland landscapes. Rice paddies seem to stretch for miles. Small clusters of narrow two-story mud and brick homes occasionally dot the hillsides and valleys. The quality of the road is pretty good, by Malagasy standards, so the trip is mostly bearable. Stopping at roadside diners is an easy way to break up the journey and a chance to refuel with a heaping portion of rice and a smaller portion of pork and vegetables. Passing through the villages along the main road is like watching the local cultures transform in small incremental steps, from the predominantly Merina areas around the capital to the hearty Betsileo villages. And finally, about nine hours from Antananarivo and in the heart of Betsileo country, you arrive in Fianarantsoa.

A statue of "Masina Maria" (Holy Mary) overlooking the city of Fianarantsoa

A statue of “Masina Maria” (Holy Mary) overlooking the city of Fianarantsoa

Recently, I made that journey and began the next chapter of my Peace Corps service in Fianarantsoa (Fianar, for short). After living and working in Andapa for the past two years, I have decided to leverage my experiences and continue exploring the development world for one more year. My new assignment does not include teaching English, instead I’ll be co-managing the regional Peace Corps office in Fianar and supporting other PCVs in a variety of capacities. This is a big change for me, in a lot of ways, and even being in Fianar for this short amount of time has afforded me the opportunity to explore a new city and to think critically about my service in Madagascar up to this point.

One week isn’t enough time to form a strong opinion of Fianar, and I don’t plan on doing that quite yet, but I do want to share some of my initial observations and thoughts so far.

My newly developed Peace Corps instincts, which I didn’t appreciate until this relocation, kicked in almost immediately. It was late in the afternoon on a Friday when I arrived in a new city. I walked into my new house and office and it was completely empty and silent. A bit disorienting, at first. I looked around, started taking a mental inventory of everything, and then I began thinking about the basics. Where am I in this city? Where do I find food? How can I cook? Where can I buy basic supplies for the short term? Who can I contact if I need help? These were similar questions that I learned to answer after being dropped off in Andapa for the very first time almost two years ago. I felt proud of myself for calmly and confidently jumping into this new city within an hour of arriving. I remember working up the courage to find dinner that first night by thinking to myself “just get yourself out the front door, and everything else will happen on its own.”

A look at one of the neighborhoods of Fianar

A look at one of the neighborhoods of Fianarantsoa

One of the first major differences I encountered was the fact that people in Fianar speak a dialect of Malagasy that I’m not familiar with. I can still communicate on a basic level, but I know that studying and practicing the local dialect will be a priority for me. With the exception of some local vocabulary and pronunciation, most of the Malagasy dialects are similar enough that getting around the country is manageable.

Living in a larger city is another thing I’ve been getting used to. Compared to cozy Andapa, Fianar is a very big Malagasy city with more shops, hotels, restaurants, offices, churches, and markets. There are portions of the city that bustle with vehicles, street vendors, and pedestrians. Seemingly just around the corner from these areas, there are some streets that are more peaceful and offer beautiful views of the city. Fianar is built on a series of hills and the relaxed energy is refreshing for the size of the city.

The view from the balcony at my new house

The view from the balcony at my new house

The food of Fianar, and the highlands in general, is a bit different. The most noticeable difference is the availability of pork in the highlands. In Andapa, and most of northern Madagascar, many people do not eat pork for religious or cultural reasons. Fianar also has a huge variety of fresh vegetables in the markets. Items such as cauliflower, sweet potatoes, peas, and pumpkin are things that are new for me to see in the market. There’s even a small corner of the market with fresh cut flowers, which is something I had never seen in Madagascar previously. The street food and fried snacks are also a little different in Fianar. Some of my favorite snacks during PST, such as mofo anana (fried dough with chopped greens) and mofo akondro (battered and deep fried banana), are now available to me again. While I am leaving behind access to fresh coastal seafood, meals with coconut, and many seasonal tropical fruits that I was used to in the SAVA region, I am still in the honeymoon phase of enjoying other foods that are more typical of the highlands cuisine.

I’ve noticed that even the people look different in Fianar. Compared to the Tsimihety people of Andapa, the Betsileo people in Fianar tend to have a darker complexion and many of them are tall, thin, lanky individuals. Obviously, I’m not making a blanket statement about all Betsileo people, but these are some of the features that have stood out to me as I’ve been walking around the city.

A section in the Old Town of Fianar with strong French colonial influences on architecture and city planning

A section in the Old Town of Fianarantsoa with strong French colonial influences on architecture and city planning

Considering all the changes I’ve experienced in the past month, including leaving Andapa, saying goodbye to some of my closest friends as they finish their service in Madagascar, and transitioning into a new home and job, my spirits are still high and I am eager to move forward. I’ve been enjoying my time spent exploring in Fianar. Inside the regional Peace Corps office, there is a small note attached to the communal refrigerator that reads “Peace Corps by choice, Betsileo by the grace of God.” I’m choosing to embrace this outlook as a guiding principle in my integration. I may not have specifically chosen to live in this region, but I will do my best to fall in love with it.

Onward

I’m sitting in my house on my final night in Andapa. I’m at the table, where for the last 2 years, I have enjoyed many meals, written many lesson plans, hosted many guests, and composed many of the stories you have read on this blog. The electricity is cut, again, like it occasionally has been this time of the evening. I can faintly hear the conversations of people passing outside my house. I’ve paused from packing up my belongings to collect my thoughts and share them here.

During the past few weeks, leading up to this pivotal time, I haven’t really felt any different. I logically understand that I must leave Andapa, but the days still felt very routine and “normal”. It doesn’t feel real. When I explained this to a friend, she suggested that I was in shock. “In a non-dramatic way,” as she put it. Maybe that’s true. Maybe I’ve been unconsciously pushing away some of my feelings in order to focus on what needs to be done to prepare for my departure. I also think this move hasn’t really sunk in because I know that while I’m leaving Andapa in the morning, I will still be living and working in Madagascar for another year (spoiler alert). I don’t have to say goodbye right now to Madagascar and Peace Corps and everything that has been a part of my life for the last 2 years, rather, I’m just wrapping up this chapter in Andapa and moving on. So I’ve been having some conflicting emotions between sadness for leaving the familiarity of Andapa and excitement for starting the next part of my service.

Tonight, I went back and read the blog post I wrote on the eve of leaving America. In that, I saw a different version of myself. One filled with so many questions and the courage to fling myself directly into that ambiguity. I was reminded of the immense support of my friends and family at that time and how they have continued to support me throughout my adventure. I also recognized that many of the rituals performed at that time (saying goodbye to people, packing my luggage, changing routines) are ones that I am again performing. Earlier today, I visited a few people to say goodbye and I found myself enjoying the chance to walk around town one last time and soak it all in. Taking the long way home. With a newly developed appreciation, I was looking at things, smelling scents, hearing noises that have become familiar.

When thinking about what I’ll miss most about my time here, I kept coming back to “my” things. My house, my garden, my view from the house, my cooking area, my squeaky old bed. Maybe this is the only child in me taking over, but I didn’t quite realize the extent to which I cast a blanket of possession over so many things. I’ve found a lot of comfort in the routines and safe spaces that I’ve set up for my self here, and I’m anxious about leaving those behind. Of course, the memories and images will stay with me for a long time. But tonight, just before I pick up and leave, it’s hard for me to trust those memories and to feel confident about walking into another unknown chapter of this adventure.

Alas, the time has arrived whether I like it or not. Tomorrow morning, I will leave Andapa and, with it, a part of my soul. I am comforted by something a friend told me just before my departure from America a couple of years ago…

“Onward”

Behind my smile

One day will come, maybe soon
And this day will be new and unfamiliar,
At least parts of it will be,
And maybe this day will happen over again
And at different times and places

I recall the clanking of the metal latch
On the bottom of my window
Like a forgotten treasure chest
That hasn’t been disturbed for generations
The window swings open and the day begins

I recall walking into the market
To join the bustling commerce of the morning
There’s something happening here
Maybe it’s not always significant, but maybe it is
A jarring embrace from the community
As I stand, I am connected to it

I recall the rain drops slipping off the roof
A free fall of a few meters
Into the uniquely shaped puddles
Carved out by a barrage of Nature’s purest love
The splashes echo in just the right way
To calm even the most ambitious of intentions

I recall the peculiarity of my dearest friend
Clearing his throat intentionally to announce himself
My response is to clear my own throat
And we engage in this dance for a few moments
To let each other know it’s safe to talk

I recall the security of my house
A physical extension of myself
A place to return to and seek refuge, to feel sane
To shut out the world, when needed
And to welcome it in, when warranted
To work, to play, to eat, to share, to learn

I recall the grand views of this corner of the world
The proud and solitary hill framed by my window
The daunting and strong mountains hugging our town
The lush forest, once far thicker and healthier
The vast fields where joyful families toil for a living

I recall the man I was
Unsure of what to do or what to say
Uneasy about navigating the new realities
Curious about strange, yet still familiar, surroundings
Ready, but nothing could prepare for a transformation

When this day comes, and surely it will
Reflections from the past will comfort me
Wisdom will guide me forward
Understanding will motivate me
I smile because I have lived here

IMG_2029

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