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.

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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”

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.

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

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.

Mipetraka tsara

Directly translated, mipetraka tsara means “to sit well.” Other more common interpretations of the phrase can be understood as “to stay put” or “to remain steady.” When used to describe the actions of a person, this phrase expresses notions of settlement, calm, and consistency. In light of doing many different things, living a busy life, and frequently moving around, one is encouraged to slow down and mipetraka tsara.

For me, this idea has more relevance now than in any other time during my service. With the school term having ended in July, the past three months have been filled with frequent travel, sometimes for business and sometimes for pleasure, and a variety of different experiences. Between visiting other Volunteers in their communities, attending training workshops, running a half marathon, and managing a handful of other projects, there was hardly an extended period of time in the recent past where I truly felt settled. As soon as one thing was finished, it was on to the next one!

So after what feels like a very eventful and long Grandes Vacances (French term for the summer break from school), I have recently returned to my home in Andapa and I intend to stay put here for a while. My head has only recently stopped spinning after the come and go nature of the last three months. I have unpacked my bags and I’m ready to recommit myself to working in my community. It took a couple of days to deep-clean my house, reorganize some of my belongings, and mentally unwind from vacation. But now the fire in me has been rekindled and I’m looking ahead with determination and positive energy.

In Madagascar, October signals the start of a new academic year. This year, I will continue to teach at CEG Andapa Sud (middle school) and Lycée Mixte Andapa (high school). With classes starting next week, an “acceptable” one week delay from the official start date prescribed by the Ministry of Education, I am looking forward to getting back into a routine and to meeting my new students. New minds to mold! Or further confuse, depending on whom you ask. Nevertheless, having a year of teaching experience under my belt makes me much more confident going into this year. Activities at the Andapa Public Library, such as the student and adult English Clubs, will also begin again, which I enjoy because it means working with students who are generally more interested and serious about studying English.

The time I have spent moving around the country, seeing new places, and connecting with friends, has been thoroughly enjoyable. Coming back to Andapa and focusing on the year ahead does not put a damper on any of those experiences. It’s simply the next step forward. And part of that next step is settling in at home and working hard to help my community. I welcome the opportunity to mipetraka tsara and enjoy the future in Andapa.

Untitled, but not unedited

The words were glaring back at me from the computer screen. A new, blank, limitless digital canvas where my thoughts could be displayed pixel by pixel. A dramatic difference from the vibrant, noisy, confusing, heartwarming world around me.

I began writing tonight with the intention of capturing some of my feelings about living in Andapa for the last year. It’s been one year since I arrived in this new and different place that I can now proudly call my home. But tonight, I didn’t know quite where to start writing, how to best coagulate my thoughts, until I considered the words that I saw on the top of the screen. This document, without a title, became the metaphor that I was searching for. The idea that something can be changed, things added to it and just as easily taken away, while maintaining no user-generated title. It doesn’t have to be called anything, but it can be filled with rich experiences and interesting tales. A great thing doesn’t always have to have a name.

So it is within this framework that I feel most comfortable at the moment. That is to say I consider myself to be untitled, but not unedited. Before I go any further, let me assure you that in reality I do have a name, I have a job title, there are a multitude of words that other people use to refer to me. I don’t consider myself untitled to the point where I don’t respond to someone calling me from across the room. Rather, I look back on this past year and I can’t pick any particular “title” that I feel suits me best. I recognize that I play many roles, such as teacher, friend, cousin, son, Volunteer, and weird white guy. None of these seem to roll off the tongue easily when I ask myself, “Who am I?” I consider myself to be any combination of titles. These ideas of identity have been developed and shifted for many years, but probably more so in the last year because I have undergone a dramatic self-induced life change. I consciously stepped away from almost everything and everyone that I hold close in my heart, and now I feel as though I am less clear or less certain about my identity. Many wonderfully new aspects have been added to my life, some aspects were taken away, and now I am left with a new canvas with which I can continue expressing myself.

Even without a clear or comfortable title, I know that I am a changed person in more ways that I can understand or enumerate. During the past 12 months, my senses have been overwhelmed by the new, the exciting, the strange, and the inspirational. My worldview has changed and my perspective on humankind has been altered. I have developed new skills, some of them more practical than others. I’ve shared laughter, sorrow, disappointment, and elation with many people and I’ve created strong relationships with a handful of them. The version of myself who left California in June 2014 is not the same person who is writing this message now, and I am destined to be further changed before returning back to my loved ones in the future. It’s thrilling and terrifying to undergo this transformation. Yet, I take comfort in knowing that most of these edits to my character have made me more capable, more empathetic, and more devoted.

In light of everything the past year has brought me, I feel immensely different and also unable to title myself. I’ll leave that last part for the critics.

A proper school holiday

Each February, schools in Madagascar participate in a nationwide celebration of education. This celebration, called Journée des Écoles (French meaning “School Days”), is intended to recognize the hard work and dedication of students and teachers. Last month, I was lucky enough to be a part of this celebration in Andapa and participate in many events during the 3-day holiday. 

The main gate of the CEG where I teach



On the first day, students at the CEG where I teach worked together to clean the campus and replant some of the gardens. With everyone gathered around the flagpole in the morning, the older students were sent off into the forest to collect wood that would be used for cooking later in the week. The younger students, and I, stayed at the school to clean. Most of the boys brought machetes and sickles from home and they were told to cut the grass on the field across from the campus. At first, I was slightly uncomfortable to be around so many rowdy 6th graders wielding large sharp knives. As they chopped away at the thick grass and got increasingly tired, I felt more at ease. 

Boys cutting grass in front of the CEG



While the boys were cutting grass, some of the girls were cleaning out the classrooms, sweeping the floors, and washing the blackboards. I was impressed with how coordinated their efforts were and how quickly they worked to carry heavy wooden desks out of the classrooms before deep cleaning the inside. The other girls were working in the yard to clean up the existing gardens and also dig holes in places where new gardens were to be built. “Garden” is a very generous way to describe the small patches of dirt in front of the classrooms containing a few large rocks or feeble plants within a thin border of grass. At any rate, the students treated these areas like they were part of the Gardens of Versailles. 

A couple of girls tend to one of the gardens



The festivities continued the following day with athletic competitions between some of the schools. The boys played soccer, pitting the public school students against the private school students. The girls hosted a basketball tournament, also organized between public and private school teams. I attended one of the soccer matches and got to support my public school students as they beat the private school kids. It was really exciting, almost like a campy 90’s movie where the scrappy local team goes up against the fancy and well equipped jocks with nice uniforms. They fought hard and won an honest match, and the bragging rights that go along with it. 

The final day of the celebration included a large meal for all the teachers and school staff in Andapa. It was hosted by the World Wildlife Fund, which has a conservation office in Andapa. Because of their generosity, an entire zebu (a type of domesticated ox that is more tolerant of tropical heat and drought) was purchased and slaughtered to feed all the teachers. That’s how you know a Malagasy party is legitimate: if a whole zebu is sacrificed and butchered for the crowd. The party was a wonderful gesture of appreciation for all the hard work that the educators in my community do. Preparing the meal was also a community effort, which happened to take place in the compound where I live and just steps away from my front door. When I woke up that morning to the faint smell of burning wood, I opened my kitchen window to find about a dozen women already working to start fires and cook the meat in huge iron cauldrons. Some of them were teachers, others were the wives of teachers, but all of them worked together for many hours cooking everything for the meal. I really enjoyed watching them work and talking to a few of the women about what they were doing. All their hard work was not in vain because the food was delicious! 

Some of the women preoaring food on my porch and in my garden



I thoroughly enjoyed my first time participating in Journée des Écoles and celebrating with my school. It was inspiring to know that the entire country supports the idea that schools and teachers should be appreciated and cared for, so much so that they dedicate a specific time every year to do just those things. Sometimes as a foreigner, it’s difficult to feel comfortable and well-adjusted in a new community. But this experience made me proud to be a teacher in Andapa and I really felt like my colleagues consider me to be on equal footing with them.