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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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

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.

Words with weight

Bonjour, I am not
Feeble, I am not
Tired, I am not
Tourist, I am not

You say these things to me
Every day or maybe not
It’s easy for me to stay quiet
Instead of speaking my mind
Afraid my words would be mistaken
Or might they fall on deaf ears

I am a man of culture
As you are, although different
I am a man of strength
Possessing powers often hidden
I am a man who rests my head
And works the day alongside you
I am a man in foreign lands
To bathe in their traditions

I left my world to be with you
To know you and to love you
I use your words to make a bond
Sometimes words are too much
I share my hand and my heart
To bring our worlds together
Our work is never done

Inaugural SAVA English Teacher Training

As an Education Volunteer in Madagascar, my primary assignment is teaching English to secondary school students. Another aspect of my assignment is to help improve the quality of English language instruction overall by working with and training other Malagasy English teachers. During the two years that I will serve in my community, I can personally impact only a small number of people, and then I will leave. But by helping Malagasy teachers improve their own teaching methods, the hope is that they will continue to inspire and teach exponentially more students for many years.

In the spirit of cooperation and professional development, the 4 other Education Volunteers in the SAVA region and myself recently organized a 3-day English teacher training workshop. We recruited 64 English teachers from across the entire region, brought them together in the regional capital city, Sambava, and then worked with them on a variety of education topics. This event was especially significant because we believe it was the first time that only English teachers from the whole region had come together to meet in a professional setting. Usually, English teachers are not singled out as a group and they rarely get to interact with other English teachers from other towns. Needless to say, we were very excited for this opportunity to bring the teachers together.

Teachers listening to a lecture by our Malagasy counterpart, Guyot

Teachers listening to a lecture by our Malagasy counterpart, Guyot

Before the SAVA Teacher Training had begun, I worked for many months with the other Education PCVs to develop, coordinate, and prepare. The long process started last year when another PCV from our area wrote a grant proposal to get funding for the training. When the grant was approved, we could really start working to recruit teachers by making announcements on local radio stations, posting informational flyers, and visiting schools to encourage English teachers to apply. At first, it was challenging to get enough teachers to apply so that we could meet the minimum number of teachers needed according to the grant proposal. After a few weeks of relentless encouragement and advertising, we actually received more applications than anticipated. For example, I got 28 applications from teachers in Andapa and I had a budget that could only accommodate 18 teachers.

Some of the teachers arrive to the training

Some of the teachers arrive to the training

Then, just a few weeks before the event, we coordinated the logistics needed to bring all these teachers together in one place and host them for three days. The workshop took place at the Teacher’s College in Sambava. We facilitated our sessions in the main auditorium and the participants could eat and sleep in a few of the other classrooms. It was our responsibility to coordinate transportation for the teachers to get to Sambava and then return to their respective districts after the training was finished. We also provided all meals during the training, which meant buying food and delegating cooking duties to a team of insanely helpful local university students who are studying English. This entire training event was a massive group effort that was beautifully executed with the help of all the PCVs in the region and one of our Malagasy counterparts, Guyot.

All the Education PCVs of the SAVA region with Guyot

All the Education PCVs of the SAVA region with Guyot

By the time the training was scheduled to begin, we were ready to make the most of our time together and share the experience with our Malagasy colleagues. During the 3-day event, each training session was facilitated by a different Volunteer. The topics were selected based on their relevance to teaching English as a foreign language and also to address a few issues that are affecting the Malagasy education system. We covered topics such as motivating students, classroom management strategies, activities for teaching the four main language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), and lesson planning.

Leading a discussion about lesson planning strategies

Leading a discussion about lesson planning strategies

Our goal was to open a discussion about these topics and talk about new methods that could be used to better support a student-centered approach to learning. All too often in this country, teachers of all subjects will simply write information on the blackboard, make the students copy it down, and then leave. Especially in terms of teaching a foreign language, this method is practically useless because the students get little to no opportunity for using the language skills. We also wanted to emphasize the ideas that a motivated student will retain more information, language teachers should serve as guides during the learning process, and sharing knowledge with other professionals is essential to improving the quality of teaching in this country. During all the sessions, the teachers seemed to be very engaged, curious, and willing to share their experiences. In my opinion, this was the best way to highlight positive behaviors and learn ways to improve existing approaches.

Teachers working together on a small group activity

Teachers working together on a small group activity

One of my favorite parts about the training was the opportunity to meet other English teachers from my own area and also from other parts of the region. During the recruitment phase, I was able to introduce myself to almost all the other English teachers in Andapa and some teachers from surrounding villages. When we all arrived in Sambava, it was a networking goldmine of teachers. I feel more connected to the community of teachers in SAVA than I ever have before. Building on those connections, I’m excited about future opportunities to collaborate with and support other English teachers.

Playing a game of "telephone" to practice listening and speaking

Playing a game of “telephone” to practice listening and speaking

When it was all over, I think the general consensus among the PCVs involved was that the program was a huge success. We all worked our tails off before and during the training, so we were relieved to finish up and celebrate our job well done. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of our group effort by combining American and Malagasy ambition to organize this training. Moving forward, we hope to offer another training workshop again next year and invite other English teachers to help spread the knowledge.

All the participants proudly showing their certificates of completion

All the participants proudly showing their certificates of completion

A smattering of stories

In light of the fact that it feels like I haven’t written anything new in quite some time, I thought I’d share some anecdotes from the last month. There are really no connections between these stories. Just a few snapshots of what I’ve been up to lately.

Battle of the Bats

In previous posts, I’ve written about the family of bats that lives in my house. Or am I living in their house? I’m starting to think the latter is true. Until recently, the bats and I were living together in relative harmony. Then our relations took a very sour turn and the bats have been less afraid to mix into my affairs.

First off, they seem to be louder than when I first arrived in Andapa. I don’t know if they are mating, fighting, or doing something else entirely, but the noise has really been stepped up a few notches. Mostly during dusk and night, I can hear them chatting, squeaking, and clawing at the tin roof. Certainly not the most relaxing or calming thing to hear as I try to sleep.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a bat on two consecutive nights. In both cases, I was woken up around 3 o’clock in the morning by the loud giggling of the bats and I could also hear the faint noises of wings flapping in the air. Alarmed and nervous, I became fully awake when the bat flew into the mosquito net covering my bed, crawled around a bit as I was yelling and pounding on my mattress, and then flew off again. On the second night in a row when this happened, the bat ended up in my bathroom and I was able to corner it and kill it with my broom. It’s a terrible way to start a day. Needless to say, I wasn’t getting too much sleep and it started to show as I became more irritable in the classroom.

Alas, I am confident that a solution has finally arrived. After voicing my concerns to my counterpart, other school staff, and my supervisor at Peace Corps, we were able to make some great progress in the Battle of the Bats. Just the other day, with the help of my counterpart, Derio, my close friend, Johnny, and the local mason, we worked to patch up almost all of the exterior holes in my house with cement. The idea is simple: don’t let the bats get inside and nest. Once we started to work on the inside of the house, that’s when things started to get interesting. We identified what was likely the main nest of the bats and began to dismantle the brick wall that they were hiding in. One by one, bats began to fly out of the wall to escape the destruction of the nest. Some flew away outside, hopefully never to return. Some made the mistake of flying inside, and this is when the guys used their expert hunting skills to capture most of the foul beasts. They picked the bats up by the back of their necks and posed for photos like they had just won a fishing tournament. Some of the bats were already dead, or in their final hours of life, and they just sort of fell from the roof onto my floor like a wet noodle. In total, we evicted 12 bats from my house. Twelve. I was shocked to actually see how many bats had been living with me. After the dramatic exodus from the house, we cleaned out the nest and continued to patch up holes. We also used some expanding foam to fill in the small cracks and crevices where the bats could wiggle through. It seems to be a good temporary solution as we wait for more funding so that the entire brick wall can be cleaned, rebuilt, and made impenetrable.

I am extremely grateful for the bravery shown by these guys and for the hard work they put in for my wellbeing. Most of this work happened very quickly, as in we had the conversation at 9am and by 10:30am the mason was at my house patching holes. This type of prompt movement is sometimes rare in Madagascar, so I am grateful that my concerns were understood and that the right people were willing to drop everything to help me. It definitely says something when a community mobilizes to help one person, let alone a foreigner living among them. Maybe in their eyes, I’m not very foreign anymore.

 

Derio (left) and Johnny (right) showing off the bats that the caught

Derio (left) and Johnny (right) showing off the live bats that they caught

Thanksgiving in Sambava

This year, I was lucky enough to spend Thanksgiving with some very special people. Thanksgiving seems to be one of the more popular holidays for Peace Corps Volunteers because it’s a good excuse to get together with other Americans and share some delicious food. Our celebration was no exception. I travelled to Sambava, the regional capital of SAVA, to spend the holiday with the six other Volunteers in our region. Plus, Sambava was the only place that we could find an oven to use.

We planned for a pot-luck style meal and even purchased a turkey to cook. The day before the meal, a few of us went shopping for ingredients and began preparing some of the dishes. The turkey came to us already butchered and unfeathered, so I helped clean up the bird and get it ready for the oven. Throughout this chore, a few Malagasy people had wandered over to us and were very curious about what we were doing. I’m not sure if they had never seen a turkey before or if they never expected to see a few vazaha (“foreign person”) handling a bird of that size with such determination. We managed to get the bird in the oven at a decent time and then the rest of the dishes needed to be prepared. Our group spent most of the day cooking and the house smelled wonderful. One of the Volunteers had recently returned from vacation in America and she brought back some ingredients such as brown sugar, marshmallows, and cranberries, which are all things that are very hard to find in Madagascar.

Having an oven was really helpful, but the challenge was in cooking a turkey and then having enough time to cook most of the other dishes in the oven as well. In the late afternoon, when we realized that the turkey was taking longer to cook than anticipated, we had to initiate Plan B to cook the other dishes. This meant a few of us got the food into cooking dishes and then hopped into a taxi going to one of the hotels in Sambava. Luckily, one of our Volunteers lives and works at the hotel and he convinced the owner to let us use their ovens for a while. So I volunteered to transport the dishes to and from the ovens. I can now add the skill of “balancing hot ceramic dishes in my arms while riding in an open taxi on an unpaved road” to my resume.

After we returned from the hotel, everyone was ready to start the meal. In addition to the 6 Volunteers, we were joined by 7 Malagasy friends who wanted to share the holiday with us. Before we ate, we went around the table and each person talked about the things they were thankful for. Our feast was a traditional eating frenzy. In addition to the turkey, we had mashed potatoes, pasta salad, stuffing, cranberry sauce (from the can-my favorite!), sweet potato casserole, eggplant and zucchini casserole, and pumpkin pie. We knew that we had succeeded with the food because everyone was full and none of the Malagasy people ate rice! Being able to eat leftovers the next day was also a pat on the back to our awesome cooking skills.

My Peace Corps extended family enjoying the Thanksgiving feast

My Peace Corps extended family enjoying the Thanksgiving feast

Sex Ed for the PCV

During one of my classes at the lycée (high school) last week, I learned a very valuable lesson about mixing English and Malagasy vocabulary. The following story actually happened and it might be every TEFL teacher’s nightmare.

I was teaching a lesson about imperatives (commands) and I was explaining the difference between when to use “stop + verb-ing” and “don’t + verb”. To put it simply, you use the first formula during the action and the second formula before the action occurs. I noticed that each time I said the word “before”, the students would giggle and snicker. At first, I played it cool and assumed they thought there was something funny about my accent. But the laughter continued. Finally, I asked them what was so funny. They knew I was on to them and that made them laugh even more. So through the laughter, one student at the front of the class whispers to me and says, “vagina”. I quickly made sense of that and realized that the English word “before” sounds an awful lot like the Malagasy slang term for “vagina”. I had just stood in front of about 50 students between 18-20 years old and repeated the slang term for vagina over and over again.

Naturally, this made me laugh as well.

So amidst my embarrassment, we all shared a good hearty giggle together and then sobered up and continued with the lesson. Except this time I wrote the word “before” on the chalkboard and just pointed to it every time I wanted to say it out loud.

Later that day, I retold the story to my counterpart hoping that he could understand my blunder. Before I could even get to the punch line, he knew where the story was headed and laughed harder than I’ve ever heard him laugh before. So much for positive support.

What I learned in PST (and other cultural notes)

“Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us” -Parker J. Palmer

 

Eleven weeks ago, I stepped off an airplane in a place that I knew very little about. I was quickly greeted by some other Americans that I immediately trusted with my life, stuffed into a car, and hauled off for a few hours through twisting and unfamiliar country roads. I was disoriented, to say the least. But these were only the very first moments in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging, awkward, rewarding, and memorable experience. Also known as PST.

Today, I write as a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer. By assuming this new title, I claim to have no new special powers, knowledge, or insight compared to my former Trainee self 24 hours ago. But what I can share are my observations and lessons learned after living in Madagascar for 3 months. Throughout the whirlwind and often mind-numbing life of a Trainee, I’ve managed to keep my eyes and ears open just enough to take in the delights of life in Madagascar. In my own words…

Spoons are very underutilized in America. At the Malagasy dining table, the spoon tends to be the main utensil. It’s effectiveness is remarkable. Especially with a rice-based meal, using a spoon to pile food together for each bite is your best option. A fork can help collect different pieces of the meal from your plate, but the spoon is the real superstar.

Convenience is relative. What’s easy for you in America can sometimes be impossible or extremely difficult in Madagascar. Things that many of us take for granted in America, such as clean drinking water coming from multiple faucets in homes, are far from the reality for the majority of Malagasy people. I’m learning to appreciate and be mindful of these differences.

Peace Corps Trainees love snacks. From the first full day of training, we had 3 square meals each day and both a morning and afternoon snack. It was a nice perk at first, until we got accustomed to it and became unknowingly distraught when snacks were not provided. The joke started by our group getting a laugh anytime snack was explicitly stated in the daily schedule, as if we were children being looked after because we couldn’t fend for ourselves, and then we became dependent on snack. It quickly turned into a major question of the day, we now each have our favorite types of snacks, and we would even get snacks packed for us to take if we were out on the road traveling during the normal snack time. It’s probably something I’ll go to therapy for many years from now.

Making plans in person is worth the effort. For the first few weeks of training, none of the trainees had cell phones that worked in Madagascar. So we had to make plans with each other in person, which probably sounds like a really simple thing to do. And it is, but I came to really appreciate the ability to look someone in the eye, set a time and place to meet again, and follow through on it. We had to trust each other just a little bit more, even after knowing each other for only a few weeks.

No matter how many teeth you’re missing, you should still smile. Be thankful and proud for what you have, and spread joy through your smile every single day.

Chickens. Everywhere in rural towns. Everywhere.

Every single butterfly is a work of art. The colors, the patterns, the grace. I have yet to see a boring butterfly in this country.

Washing your clothes by hand can destroy your knuckles. I still haven’t perfected the skill yet, maybe I never will, but inevitably I walk away from washing my clothes with one or two more wounds on my knuckles from rubbing the wet clothes together. I’ll either master the technique or form sizable calluses on my hands.

If you let one student go to the bathroom during class, pretty soon half the class will ask to go as well. In the first couple of days of our teaching practicum, some of us learned this lesson the hard way. Malagasy students are very formal about approaching the teacher to ask permission to go to the bathroom, but without proper regulation, it can quickly get out of hand and all of a sudden a class of 60 students dwindles down to 25.

I’m a white man, so I must be French. In the eyes of most Malagasy people I’ve encountered, Caucasian people are almost immediately seen as French. Until I open my mouth and dribble out a few rudimentary Malagasy words, I am almost always greeted with a “bonjour monsieur!” Madagascar has a long history of French colonization, many French people (and people from other nations) live here today, but this stereotype seems to be deeply rooted.

Malagasy people point with their lips. If a Malagasy person wants to draw your attention toward something in a fairly discreet way, most likely they will use their lips to point in the direction they want you to look. It’s similar to what many Americans do when they nod their head in a particular direction. Try it out next time you’re sharing a meal with someone and you ask them to pass the salt, just point with your lips.

Despite the amount of rice in Madagascar, putting it in a salt shaker to prevent clumping is unheard of. I suggested this to my host mother one day and she looked at me like I had 7 heads. In most cases, the salt shakers are so clogged up because the moisture binds the salt together. But sacrificing a few dry pieces of rice is not an option.

Malagasy students are incredibly meticulous about copying things from the blackboard. Usually they have at least three different colored pens to write with, rulers to draw straight lines and make grids, and their handwriting is almost uniform. It’s amazing to see, but unfortunately it usually takes them much longer to write down simple information because they want it to look perfect. Due to lack of resources in many areas, typically there are no textbooks for students so the notebooks that they write information in become their textbook.

Clean is relative. Clothes, dishes, homes, bodies. They are usually free of obvious dirt and debris, but I’ve noticed that few things in this country are as clean as they are in America. I’ve quickly come to modify my standards of acceptable cleanliness and manage to maintain my health at the same time. Your clean is probably not my clean anymore.

Everything I come in contact with tends to have a light dusting of chalk. Teaching with a blackboard means tons of chalk dust everywhere. It starts on my hands, gets blown around the classroom and sticks to everything else, and it eventually ends up on my clothes and consequently everything else I touch until I get the chance to wash off.

Sometimes making a fool of yourself is the best way to get your point across. Whether I had to teach a new concept in class or pantomime an action to overcome a language barrier, sometimes I have to swallow my pride and get laughed at because I’m being perceived as ridiculous. I believe that it can show some compassion and humility.

I hope that through sharing these experiences, I have been able to shed a little bit more light on the truth that is my life.

Welcome to the other side of the world

pebI’m pretty sure it’s official now: I’ve never been this far away from home.

In many ways, the distance is massive. Geographic, cultural, and emotional. But in some other ways, being in Madagascar and participating in Peace Corps training is not so drastically different from life in America. Sure, the infrastructure and public services are greatly different in Madagascar, the urban development is different here, the pace of life is much slower as well. But I’ve already seen first hand that many Malagasy people have similar hopes and goals for themselves and their families compared to those in the US. But I’ll leave those heavy topics for another time. I’ve only been in country for 3 weeks, I know it’s not much to base some of these opinions on yet.

Allow me to catch you up a bit on what I’ve been doing so far and what my days typically consist of.

After arriving in country, our Stage (pronounced as the French word; meaning the group of 32 Education trainees in our group) was put up for a few nights at the Peace Corps Training Center in the highland village of Mantasoa. The PCTC is basically a mini “Camp America” with a dining hall, sleeping quarters, basketball and volleyball courts, well-fed dogs, and meeting rooms that make me sometimes question if I’m in a developing country or just spending a summer at sleep away camp. During the first days in country, we had a few introductory language lessons but mostly orientation type sessions to familiarize us with Peace Corps Madagascar and the upcoming training process. And before we could really get used to the place, about 4 days into this whole experience we were all launched into the cultural abyss and sent to meet our new local Malagasy host families where we were told we’d be spending the next 6 weeks living. Imagine 32 jet-lagged Americans in a completely foreign environment with language skills equivalent to “hello”, “goodbye”, and “what is your name?” moving into separate local homes and essentially winging it. Yeah, nothing could go wrong here.

Here’s a bit about my host family. And I’ll say right away, I’ve been having a truly positive experience despite all the cultural, language, and familial road blocks. So I have a mom and dad, which I call Neny and Dada. My Neny is basically a housewife and my Dada is a professor at the local technical school. I have 4 host siblings. 3 girls and one boy, age range from 30-7. My eldest sister, Noro, has a 2-year
-old daughter named Sufa who also lives with us. Noro is a hairdresser. The next sibling down is Tsangy, who just celebrated his 24th birthday last week. Last but not least are the youngest sisters, ages 8 and 7, one of which is named Lundi. I still haven’t figured out the other sister’s name and I think it’s pretty late in the game for me to ask now. We don’t talk much anyway. We also have a cousin, about 20ish, who is “visiting” from out of town. He’s been here about 2 weeks now, no sign of him going anywhere anytime soon, but I get along with him great so I really don’t mind at all. Dad, Noro, and the cousin all speak a tiny bit of English which is enough to help the conversation flow sometimes. So now that I’m in the mix, we have a very busy house of 8-9 people. Big adjustment for me as an only child from a relatively small family, but it’s been working out nicely so far. You may also be wondering, “how do all those people fit in one house?!” Well, we actually have a very comfortable 4 bedroom house with a living room and indoor toilet/shower spaces. A quick word about the indoor toilet situation: it’s a porcelain toilet like we’re probably all used to but without the flushing capabilities. At one point in this home’s history, it probably flushed. But now, you flush the toilet by pouring in pitchers of water to even out the water level in the bowl. THAT took some brain power for me to figure out on day one. Compared to other Trainees, I have it extremely easy when it comes to toilet and shower setups. Most other host families have an outdoor pit latrine (called a kabone) and an outdoor bathing space (called a ladosy). In the kabone, you’re squatting over a hole. Enough said. And in the ladosy, you’re probably taking a bucket bath with cold water in an already 50 degree environment. Weather aside, that setup seems to be standard across the entire country. Back to the house, the bedrooms are basically spilt up into parents, boys, girls, and me. Part of the agreement these host families have with Peace Corps during the hosting process is that they will provide the Trainee with their own private room. I have a twin bed, mosquito bed net, small table and chair, and a stool to put my water filter on. And I really couldn’t need much more. The house is surrounded by local vegetation, a small vegetable garden, and lots of fruit trees. There’s a particular fruit that was new to me and apparently only grows in the highlands of Madagascar, called pibasy, and it is absolutely phenomenal. We have about 6 pibasy trees on our property. Neny makes a delicious pibasy jam that we get to have at breakfast. The kitchen is a little smaller than my bedroom and because it’s usually the warmest place in the house, it’s also where the chickens sleep at night. There’s a pantry sized “closet” in the kitchen that has a couple shelves and plywood sheets to close it up, and this is the chicken coop. Yup, this is totally normal in my head now. There is one spot in the kitchen for a charcoal cooking fire with chimney and a couple other smaller charcoal portable cookers. It’s pretty much one or two pots at a time, but Neny has this down to an art.

Speaking of cooking, let me tell you a bit about the food here so far. Rice. By American standards, incredibly obscene amounts of rice are consumed by the Malagasy people. This is not an exaggeration, but I have had rice as the main staple in every single meal since arriving in country, except for about 4-5 meals. Breakfast: rice and maybe some fried omelette. Lunch: rice with a meat protein and some shredded vegetables tossed in oil and salt. Dinner: more rice with another meat protein or maybe fried potatoes and more veggies. Dessert is usually a banana or an orange. The times I haven’t had rice in a meal it’s been either spaghetti as a substitution or a couple times we had pretty much friend doughnuts for breakfast. Not complaining about those doughnuts, though. Aside from rice, almost everything else is cooked in copious amounts of oil. Fried, sauté, sear, whatever else, it’s usually cooked at a high temperature (it’s hard to be in control of a charcoal fire) with lots of oil. The few meals that we have at the PCTC seem to be a bit more Americanized for us, but I’m also not watching the food being prepared like I do when my Neny is teaching me how to cook. My sister Noro also likes to cook and she’s been excited to cook a couple “American” dishes since I’ve been here. We had spaghetti and meatballs one night and she’s made her take on pizza a few times and that’s actually pretty good. I was so happy when we had spaghetti and meatballs, not sure if it was because we didn’t have rice for once or if the spaghetti and meatballs were really that tasty. In return, I’ve promised to cook a few of my favorite American foods for them. I’ll let you know how that goes after it happens. But I really haven’t eaten much outside of the home or PCTC, mainly because the Peace Corps doctors have been educating us on safe food preparation and doing a good job at making it seem like everything in this country wants to either kill me or at least give me severe diarrhea.

Now that we are in the full swing of training, my days are very structured and predictable. Breakfast is usually at about 7am every single day. I have language class from 8am-noon. This is one native Malagasy language instructor and about 3 students per group. Then it’s back home for lunch with the family. In the afternoon, our whole Stage meets up at 2pm for group training sessions that last until about 5pm. These sessions are either technical sessions about teacher training, cross cultural sessions, or global training sessions from Peace Corps headquarters that every Trainee in the world goes through. After that, I head back home and dinner is served around 6:30ish. I’m usually so exhausted after dinner that I’m in bed by about 8:30pm. Wake up at 6am the next morning to do it all over again. This is my schedule Monday through Friday. On Saturdays, we have only language class from 8am-noon, then we’re free for the rest of the afternoon. Sundays are completely free as well. Weekend activities include walking around town and saying hello to everyone (very common in this culture to greet everyone you see, even if you don’t know them), watching soccer games, doing laundry, going to church on Sunday mornings (I’ve only been once with my host family so far), and hanging out with the other Trainees in my group. Being in training is sort of like being in high school again. We are told what to do, where to be, at what time, and there’s a few tests here and there. But it’s keeping us busy and I’m really enjoying spending time with everyone in our Stage. It’s also a really cool feeling when the language classes pay off and I have even the slightest resemblance of a successful conversation with a Malagasy person. Some things I’m looking forward to in the next few weeks: celebrating Fourth of July, technical training trip to different Volunteer sites, finding out what village I will be assigned to, and starting our practicum teaching experiences. Each day we build on prior knowledge, so it’s hard to fall behind in any aspect because the training is intense.

But overall I am very happy and satisfied with my first few weeks spent in Madagascar. This country is absolutely beautiful, the locals have been extremely friendly so far, I haven’t been ill yet, and I have been kept very busy with training. I also realize that I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my cultural adjustment and Peace Corps has basically been taking care of our every need so far. But despite that, I’ve had a very good transition into Malagasy life. We’re not even halfway done with the 11-week training program, but I’m confident that I’ll be a competent and capable Volunteer after this process. I definitely miss my friends and family back home very much and replaying the wonderful memories I have of us in my head is helpful. I haven’t had any super intense food cravings yet either, although I’ve been occasionally treating myself to some peanut M&Ms that I brought with me and that’s been very nice. Other than that, I’m chugging along quite nicely I think. I’ll work on perfecting my communication outlets now that I have cellular and internet connections (spotty service, at best), but for now email and Facebook are probably the most reliable for me. I’ll update the “How to Contact Me” page soon with my local phone number, in case you want to text or call me. But for now, I’ll leave you with this post and a big hug from me!