Thursday, July 11, 2013

TWO YEARS!...Maybe I'll Just Stay Forever?

On July 11, 2011 I stepped on a plane leaving SFO bound for Madagascar and began a pretty cool journey. Over the past two years, I’ve tried to use this blog as a forum to share my little piece of unique Madagascar. But the reality of living here isn’t always so simple to explain. Madagascar is arguably the poorest country in the world. It’s number four on the list of top ten countries to experience a coup in 2013. It’s challenging for Peace Corps and other aid organizations to work effectively with the Malagasy government because of Madagascar’s political situation. The past five months have personally been my most difficult as a Peace Corps volunteer. Every other week seemed to bring a new setback; it was like trying to swim upstream. After struggling for months to secure grant money to fund my malaria education project, I faced the hard truth that my project was just not going to happen how I dreamed it. That was really hard to let go. I felt frustrated as a volunteer. My community members and counterparts seemed unconcerned and uninterested in the project once the going got rough so I felt very much on my own, something I was not prepared to feel almost two years into my service. Ironically, it was at this most difficult point that I had to decide one way or the other if I wanted to extend my service for a third year.

I considered extension abstractly for the better part of my second year; it seemed like a good idea, and I liked it here enough. Why not? But my recent struggles really made me take a hard look at my motivations for staying in this country. I grappled with my decision and definitely got a little emo and cried about it and yelled a few times to some sympathetic if not exasperated listeners. But in the end, it was easy. Of course I would stay. Madagascar isn’t finished with me, and I’m not finished with Madagascar. There are still many more things for me to learn, and many more things I want to accomplish here. My difficulties over the past few months are just another example of learning to live what has become my Peace Corps Madagascar mantra: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” WORD. Ok, so it’s a cliché, but its true for me! So many things in my life are out of my control, and finally, FINALLY understanding that there are just some things I can’t change was a huge breakthrough for me. So I adjusted. I focused on little projects; mini-trainings of community health workers, a community mural, and small scale student-leadership trainings with a supportive organization, Pact. It was through this collaboration that I found the partner I have been looking for and the perfect fit for my third year extension. I am happy to share now that I will continue living in Madagascar for another year as a part of the Pact Madagascar team! A little background, Pact is an international NGO based out of the US that recently began an education and student leadership initiative in the Fort Dauphin/Anosy region. They are taking me on as a third year Peace Corps volunteer, and together we will focus on empowering local youths with the knowledge necessary to be leaders within their communities and to lead healthy and successful lives. Visit them at NICE.

Looking back on my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer is very enlightening. Even though there have been difficulties over the past months, there have also been really awesome experiences. I was able to transfer the grant money I received from Peace Corps to my site mate Sam, and she and I are going to continue working on malaria education over the next year in Commune Mahatalaky. Starting the student Peer Leadership trainings with Pact is really amazing. Seeing students learn and stretch their minds to understand completely new concepts of leadership is a privilege. I visited Reunion Island and climbed some mountains and scuba dived in some oceans. It’s not all hard work and frustration, but sometimes you have to remind yourself to remember the fun stuff more than the not-fun stuff :).

Has the Peace Corps always been easy? Definitely no. It’s sometimes an extremely isolating and lonely experience. Has the Peace Corps been rewarding? Immensely. When even getting a child to wash their hands can be a victory, you learn to celebrate every little thing. Would I commit to the Peace Corps all over again? Absolutely. I believe in the mission here and I believe in what I’m doing here, even when it’s hard and even when I cry and even when I’m so frustrated I have to go out to a rice field and scream. I think this country can continue to teach me humility, patience, and most of all, joy in even the smallest of things. I think I can continue to learn and grow with Pact as a partner in my third year. I am excited about what is still in store for me in Madagascar and I am thankful for the opportunity to finish what I started when I stepped off that plane two years ago. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

It's the little little things

The months go on, and I’m in the last part of my service. Where does the time go? Over the course of my stay here in Madagascar, I have mused more than once on the perception of time as a Peace Corps volunteer; there’s too much time, there’s not enough time, time goes so fast, time goes so slow…and so on. Even after all these months, those slow Peace Corps days still get to me. In order to combat that feeling of purposelessness that gets to you on your worst days, I started to compile a list of the little things and memories that I love so much here in Madagascar and that make my time and my work worthwhile and fulfilling. I realized pretty early on in this whole journey that my legacy would be measured by my relationships and experiences even more than my work and projects; this list is a reminder of that. I read back my own memories, and I can’t help but smile a little to remember all these little things that have shaped me over my time in Mahatalaky. How lucky am I.

·      The first time I ever floated on my back in the Indian Ocean in Ste Luce and that feeling of total weightlessness that you only get in super salty ocean water.

·      Watching Malagasy music videos with 6-year-old Christian every night for the first 4 months I lived in Mahatalaky and the way he would look at me with his big brown eyes and quiz me on who the best Malagasy singers were.

·      My first rainy season in Madagascar, watching Disney movies on the floor of my house with Erica, Christian, and Elena.

·      How obsessed every single person in my village was with this song back in October 2011: Benono! 

·      Four year-old Elena falling asleep in my lap every morning at 10am during my first 4 months at site. This little girl alone made me feel like I was finally a part of the community.

·      The classic Madagascar thunderstorm that rolls in so quickly you don’t even notice until you feel the thunder rumbling beneath your feet.

·      Watching the Mayor wade around in giant galoshes and a rain suit during said thunderstorms.

·      The joy written all over the kids’ faces when we’re doodling with chalk all over my house.

·      Christian’s bright pink snow pants that he wears on every single rainy day.

·      Blowing bubbles for the kids until I see stars from oxygen deprivation. The way they squeal with delight as they try and catch them, and the way they gaze with awe and wonder as they watch one float away on the breeze into the sky.

·      Sitting around the yard as the sun sets and the Mayor strums some songs on the guitar while the kids dance.

·      Washing my hair upside down with a bucket of water in the middle of the day, just because it was hot season and I needed to cool down.

·      The time Patricia rearranged my whole little house and I had no idea what was happening until it was nearly fully completed. Just goes to show that after a year and a half I still have no idea what’s going on most of the time.

Little things like this have made my time in Madagascar the most amazing and growing experience I have ever had. Just wanted to share! Bisou. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Defining "NORMAL" & 5 Reasons I Hate the Rain

A year and a half in, and things look pretty much the same. It’s been awhile since my last update, mostly just because things have been so NORMAL that I haven’t felt that I had anything compelling to write. But then I realize that my “normal” isn’t actually normal, so here I am again. In my last entry, I talked about attending a Malagasy savatra, or circumcision party. After that, I headed off to Tana for my Peace Corps Mid-Service Conference. It was a great time catching up with my old Peace Corps friends, and refocusing a bit on the Peace Corps goals. Then I rushed back down to the South for my second cultural education in as many weeks…a wedding! And who doesn’t love a wedding?!

In this case, the bride was my friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Jess, who married her longtime boyfriend Haja. We ventured out to a small village called Faux Cap, about 170km west of Fort Dauphin. Naturally, the drive took the better part of 10 hours. But it was worth it. Faux Cap is situated on the 2nd most southern tip of the island and is probably the most beautiful and isolated place I have ever been. Jess and Haja had a traditional Antandroy wedding that we all were honored to participate in. Probably the most unusual part of the whole ceremony, besides the fact that the bride is basically bargained off by her father to the groom’s family, was when the groom had to refuse each of the bride’s sisters. It reminded me of Goldilocks and the Three Bears…each of us “sisters” was presented, and Haja refused each of us in turn. “No, not her, she’s too tall.” “No, not her, she is far too short.” “No, not her, she talks to much.” (Guess which one was mine!) Finally, Jess came into the room, to which Haja exclaimed “Yes, that one, she’s the one!” This whole exchange kept the entire room in gales of laughter, and was only slightly demeaning to us lowly bridesmaids. The ceremony was complete when we carried all of the bride’s possessions to the groom’s house, where we had a big meal and a party to celebrate. I was struck by the simplicity of the ceremony and the joy with which each part of it is carried out. Haja’s family welcomed us Peace Corps volunteers like we were Jess’s actual family, and put so much care and happiness into even the smallest detail of the event. From our hair and makeup, to the way we carried Jess’s belongings back to Haja’s house (on our heads of course!), his family instructed us on it all. The wedding was so fun and I feel so special to have been a part of it.

After a week of hanging out on the beach post-wedding, I headed back to Mahatalaky. Things here were and still are very normal. So what’s this “normal”?? I get up every day to the sounds of kids playing and roosters crowing and go to sleep every night not too long after the sun goes down. I work a few days a week at the health clinic teaching women about prenatal care and malaria and helping the nurse in whatever ways I can. On my off days, I hang out. I read, I make collages, I go for bike rides, I paint my nails, and sometimes I just sit and think. I eat a lot of rice and speak a lot of Malagasy. I get excited about fruit seasons. I both plan ahead (in my brain its already February 2013) and look back at what’s already passed (how has it already been 16 months??). I still learn a lot almost every day. That’s what my normal is here. Sometimes it’s boring and I feel like there’s nothing to do, and then sometimes it’s crazy and I wish that it would just even out! Madagascar is constantly throwing me for a loop, and although I had hoped that after this long I would be better equipped to handle it, I’ve learned that sometimes things just are the way they are. I feel so content and settled here that my whole perception of “normal” changed. Someone crashed a moped into my hut? Normal. Five frogs are hopping around inside my house during a rainstorm? Normal. A woman gives birth across the hall from where I work at the health center and is so quiet I don’t even notice? Normal. I haven’t washed my hair in a week? Oops, normal. Even all the animals are normal now, but I still hate them. I’m not really sure when things stopped feeling new and just started feeling regular, but it happened, and I like it, although it does make me question my ability to ever assimilate back into the Western world. So that’s why, in a nutshell, I didn’t really feel like I had anything to blog about. I’m working on a new malaria education and prevention initiative in Mahatalaky that I’m really excited about, but the details are still a little in the works so I’ll hold off on introducing it. Let’s just say for now that PHELT has been reincarnated and my dream lives on! Now here’s to hoping that ‘STRIKES’ don’t become a “new normal” in 2013, haha!

One thing that is trying to become “normal,” but I refuse to allow to, is persistent rain. This time last year, I was sweating it out in the most tropical climate I had ever experienced. This year, I am still in leggings and most days the sun doesn’t even come out! It’s like an infinite rain cloud settled over Mahatalaky and refuses to go away. A month ago, a steady 3-day downpour washed out the road and almost prevented me from attending my good friend’s going away party. Yesterday, I soaked through my hand-me-down raincoat running the five-minute’s distance between my house and the church. You heard it here first, global warming is real and it is happening! So without further ado, here are my top five reasons why I hate the rain:

1.                    In America, when it rains you curl up with a cup of hot cocoa and your favorite movie, and relish the excuse to stay inside. In Madagascar, you actually can’t leave the house, even if you wanted to. The movie option is out too, due to lack of electricity. So basically a persistent rain leaves you with a couple options: the first, stay inside and read. I already do that all the time. The second, stay inside and stare outside wishing that the rain would stop. That’s usually what I do: sit in my doorway and stare forlornly outside and dream of last year when I spent every day wishing it would be just a little bit cooler. Remind me of this post in a few months when I write a “Top 5 Reasons I Hate the Sun” post.

2.                    Rain disrupts everything. School, work, transportation, cell phone service. The kids have nothing to do, so they come bother me. They just stand in the door and stare, or they try and scare me. The latter is the worst, because oftentimes they are successful and then I am really embarrassed.

3.                    The road gets washed out and then no one can come or go. Namely, me. I hate the feeling of being trapped somewhere and when the roads gets washed out I am reminded of how rurally I live. The worst part is when it stops raining because the bad weather has actually made a terrible road more terrible. Oh Mother Nature, you fickle being.

4.                    Persistent rain or drizzle means getting used to constantly feeling a bit damp. My clean clothes are damp, my dirty clothes are damp, my blankets are damp, even my hair is damp. You might as well just forget doing laundry, because it will never dry. So its just weeks of wearing semi-damp, semi-dirty clothes day in and day out.

5.                    When you move to an island, you have certain expectations. Those expectations usually include beaches, sun, ocean, and surfing. I am lucky enough to hit three out of four (I still haven’t miraculously developed an ability to surf), but I can’t enjoy any of them when it rains all day and I have to content myself with sitting inside. Rain, rain go away, come again some other day, little Moni wants to play!

And that just about wraps it up. I wish everyone in the U.S. a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. If all goes according to my plan, I will be baking my first ever turkey all on my own! That will probably deserve a blog post, let’s be real. Here’s to hoping I don’t burn anything down! Bisous from Madagascar. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Circumcising Things

Reflections: One Year Later…

After the craziness that was Operation Smile, I returned to Mahatalaky happy to get back to the quiet life. And oh what a quiet life it’s been! It’s my one-year anniversary of living in my happy little hut here in rural Madagascar. And what a year it’s been! To recap:
  • ·      I’ve fallen into a rice patty aka a giant mud puddle.
  • ·      I’ve fallen off a camion truck and injured myself.
  • ·      I successfully weaseled my way into being part of a family here.
  • ·      I completed a really awesome World Malaria Month project.
  • ·      I got good at Malagasy.
  • ·      I became an animal hater.
And that’s just a short list…its crazy to think how much time has passed. The past month in Mahatalaky has been very low-key. It’s still summer vacation here, so it’s kind of life a ghost town. Honestly sometimes I’m surprised I don’t see tumbleweeds blowing through the street in the wind its THAT empty here. The Health Center was also closed for a couple weeks and is only just opening back up. So I’ve really had time to just sit back and relax and remember what its like to live fulltime in rural Madagascar. But as always, I managed to find a way to occupy myself. I painted a giant mural on one of the walls of my hut slash bungalow, made some collages with the one-year of backlogged magazines I have in my possession, and visited my friend Sam, the volunteer (and Alpha Phi!) who lives 15km away from me. It seems like after one year, I’ve progressed in a cyclical manner and am once again just hanging out in Mahatalaky like I did in the first couple months after I got here! Not much has changed in 12 months. But look who’s also celebrating an anniversary! Happy 1st birthday to Christiana! 

1 week old! 

1 year old!

I still remember the night she was born, I had been living in Mahatalaky less than 2 weeks, and I heard all the commotion in the middle of the night, but was too scared to go out and investigate what was going on. I met the little baby when she was just 2 days old! I was still confused about 98% of the time and knew next to nothing about Malagasy culture. For example, no party is complete without consuming liter upon liter of soda or beer. For a girl who doesn’t like carbonation, I’ve come a long way and I can hold my own drinking soda with the best of them now!

A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get invited to a traditional Malagasy Savatra, or circumcision party. Circumcision is a major cultural event in Madagascar. Families will save for years to be able to throw a big savatra for their son. Typically, multiple boys and their families host an event together. In this case, around 10 boys ranging in ages from about five to twelve were celebrating. Some of the older boys were circumcised a few years ago and only just now had the money to celebrate a savatra. Hundreds of people are invited, and even more people just come to watch and celebrate. I had heard about these parties, but nothing could have prepared me for actually attending one. I went with Sam and a few Malagasy friends who work for the NGO Missouri Botanical Gardens. We drove out further into the countryside about an hour, and then forded two rivers in rickety canoes. The tiny village of Elodrato, situated right on the coast, hosted the Savatra. By the time we got there around 4pm, the party had already started; Loud music, lots of food, and even more alcohol. The village elders and male heads of family were holding court in one of the houses receiving all the partygoers. The women were preparing food and singing the traditional celebration songs. After we completed our requisite visit to the elders and family heads, we headed over the main area/dance floor/open field and staked out a spot on the grass. I perched myself there from about 5pm until I tried to go to sleep at 10:30pm. What a place for people watching! Pretty much everyone was completely drunk. Every single person, from littlest kid to oldest man, was dancing. Malagasy people really know how to party! Sam and I decided to turn in around 10:30pm, and the party was really only just beginning. I woke up periodically throughout the night, first around midnight, then 2am, then 4am, then 6am. At all these intervals, the music was still blaring, the people were still shouting, and the party was still raging.  When we finally got up the next morning at about 7am, there were still around 20 people on the dance floor. Commitment.

Day Two of the Savatra, think Picnic Day. You have all kinds of food ready to eat, the sun is out and shining, people are passed out on the grass, and yet the alcohol is still flowing. Someone cut these people off! By 10am the party was going full steam again. The boys were paraded in on the shoulders of their families and friends and marched all around displaying the money and alcohol they had received as gifts. The mothers and aunts and grandmothers of the boys wore special sarongs and money displayed on their hats or in their braids. Uncles shoot blanks out of a gun into the air. After the marching and parading, there was more drinking of the alcohol received as gifts, and lots of dancing. If you’re Malagasy, there can never be too much dancing, or too much drinking for that matter. Sam and I were pretty exhausted after 24 hours of the nonstop party, so when it came time to leave that afternoon, I was a little relieved. After one year here, I can definitely say that I CANNOT HANG with the Malagasy people when it comes to partying. I think it’s engrained in their genetic makeup to be able to consume insane amounts of moonshine without getting a hangover and dance all night without getting tired. I had never been so relieved to return back to my lonely little ghost-town village with all of its 21 inhabitants. Peace and quiet!


As I look back on my first year in Peace Corps, I am reminded how lucky I am to have such a caring support network back home. My friends and family are endlessly thoughtful and patient with me, from the packages and emails they send, to the crazy person phone calls that they field from me…Thank you Bonnie for not hanging up on me when I called you during your labor screaming about how I was FREAKING OUT about the new baby! It’s a crazy life, but even on the worst day, I can look around and remember right away why I want to be here. There’s still so much to do and so much to see, and I’m excited and ready for my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Operation Smile 2012

Every year, Operation Smile South Africa sponsors a mission to Madagascar, and lucky for us work-starved Peace Corps volunteers, we get to help out with the translating! Back in early June at the beginning of all the strikes, I heard that Op Smile was coming and I essentially harassed my Peace Corps boss until he relented and let me participate. Like I always say, demanding things always pays off! A little bit about Operation Smile, it’s an international NGO that sponsors missions in developing countries to operate on and fix cleft lips and cleft palates for free. Doctors, nurses, dentists, child life specialists, speech therapists and many others all donate their time, skills, and resources to give this really amazing gift to children and adults born with a cleft lip or cleft palate. Basically, it’s a really cool organization that is doing good in the world. Publicized through radio, television, posters, and word of mouth, over 260 families showed up for the first day of screening. That was a crazy day! I really didn’t know what to expect going into it, so day one was kind of madness. The Operation Smile Team consisted of around 60 people, plus 20 Peace Corps volunteers, and a number of other Malagasy translators. So a lot of people! The initial days consisted of screening kids and adults with cleft lips and cleft palates on their candidacy for surgery. Our job as translators involved working with the medical staff to communicate to the patients exactly what was going on and to get the proper medical history to assess the patient’s priority level for surgery. Each part of the medical team had to assess every patient, so it took a long time. The first two days were very long and very hectic, but still pretty awesome. Families has come from near and far and waited upwards of 12 hours, just for their chance to get a surgery for their child or brother or friend. Commitment.


Surgery week was one of the coolest and most magical things I’ve been privileged enough to be a part of, not only during my Peace Corps service, but also during my life. 136 patients were chosen from the 260 or so that were screened. The medical team operated on 30 patients a day for 4 days and finished up the week with 16 on the final day. I tried to do a little bit of everything, but spent the bulk of my time working in the Recovery Room and the Post-Operation wards. The Recovery Room was pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the place patients were brought to immediately post-surgery when they were coming out of the anesthesia. So it involved explaining to patients or parents what was happening: the surgery went well, there were no problems, you need to drink juice and hydrate, you can’t touch your mouth or the stitches, etc, etc. But the coolest part of that job was bringing in the parents from the waiting room to see their kids post-operation. Culturally, Malagasy people are not very expressive. They don’t hug, there are not public displays of affection, and they don’t get overly excited. But in the Recovery Rooms, moms cried with joy and cried with fear, some hugged every nurse, doctor, and volunteer they could get their hands on, and for the first time in the entire year that I’ve been here, they talked about their feelings. Moms no older than me tried to hold in all the emotion that comes with having to sit by and watch your baby get surgery, and watch him or her hurt, but not be able to comfort them, while at the same time knowing that this surgery will change their little life. Probably the most memorable conversation I had with a mother on this topic happened on day three of surgery. As she watched her child get led by the hand back to the Operating Room, she burst into tears. After a little coaxing by myself and another volunteer, she started talking. She told us how scared she was and how she can’t bear to watch her baby cry, but she knows that this surgery means everything for her child and how wonderful of an opportunity it is. She told us how the rest of her family disowned her and her child because of his severe cleft lip, and they’ve been on their own since. She said that they’ve been waiting for years for this chance, and even though she knew she shouldn’t cry, she couldn’t help it. I definitely got choked up listening to that story. But seeing that mother’s face when I brought her back to see her child post-surgery was magical. Joy mixed with confusion mixed with a desire to remain emotionless was splayed all across her tear-streaked face. BOOM. Life changed.

A happy mom

It was really cool to be that direct link between the medical team and patient, because a lot of the cases started to feel personal to me. Especially working in the Recovery Room and then the Post-Operation wards, I got to follow patients all the way through their experience with Operation Smile. From pre-surgery to recovery room to the post-operation wards and then patient discharge, I got to see it all! I even was able to observe a procedure! I followed this little guy all the way through, and look how beautiful he is!

The most amazing part of this experience was patient discharge, when everyone got to go home. What a lot of people don’t realize about cleft lips and cleft palates is that it’s not just cosmetic. Yes, there absolutely is a huge cultural stigma against cleft lips and palates all across the developing world. But, a patient with a cleft palate often can’t eat or speak properly. Imagine missing a part or most of the roof of your mouth…that’s a cleft palate. Now imagine trying to eat and talk and drink with that deformity. Food and water comes out of your nose. You can’t pronounce certain sounds and therefore words. Imagine trying to go to school and learn and socialize. Now think about how amazing and life changing it is to get that deformity fixed. BOOM. Operation Smile.

A patient with a cleft lip often can’t nurse properly. They have teeth that seem to come out of their nose because of their cleft. They can’t close their mouth. They can’t say certain sounds and therefore certain words. How would you communicate? How would you learn, or get a job, or find a husband or wife? Imagine a baby who gets his cleft lip fixed. He can nurse. He’ll be able to speak. Often, you won’t even be able to notice the scar. BOOM. Operation Smile. Now imagine an adult who has gone their entire life with a cleft lip. Now they can annunciate properly. Now they can socialize, and date, and get married without any cultural stigma. Now, when they look in the mirror, they don’t even recognize who is looking back at them. BOOM. Life changed. I assisted a nurse in discharging an adult patient on the last day of surgery. The woman was 30 years old, unmarried, and lived with a friend. She had spent the night in the hospital after her surgery, and was to be discharged the next morning. Part of the discharge process is cleaning of the wound where the lip was stitched up. A lot of times, blood and other dirty stuff collect on the incision area. This woman in particular had had a decent amount of residual bleeding that hadn’t been cleaned up yet. I explained to her what the nurse was doing, and she sat perfectly still and stoic while her lip was cleaned. And then we showed her a mirror. I couldn’t hold back my own tears watching this adult woman look with disbelief at her own reflection. Cleaned up of all the dried blood and such, there was a perfect little stitched up incision that was already healing nicely. She couldn’t even believe what she was saying and just kept repeating “Thank you, thank you, thank you” as she tried to control her tears. BOOM. Life changed.

Working with Operation Smile was a pretty awesome experience. The entire team is really committed and dedicated to what they’re doing and they all work very cohesively together, despite their different backgrounds. I feel very lucky to have been part of a project like this. I’m headed back south to Fort Dauphin today and am looking forward to returning to coastal life! Now that (hopefully) the strikes are over for good, my projects will be starting back up. PHELT lives on! And happy back to school week for everyone in the U.S., especially Ian who is starting his senior year. Wowzaaa.

Spreading positive vibes in the Post-Op Ward!

If you’re interested in the Operation Smile program I participated in, check out their website:

Monday, July 23, 2012

Wisdom Learned from Peace Corps Unemployment

In my last blog, I wrote about the countrywide teacher’s strike going on in Madagascar that was messing with my master plan that I meticulously laid out starting this past February. Then all the health centers and hospitals went on strike as well. Cool. I asked for good vibes for the strikes to end and I am happy to report that after 2 months, I am going back to work this week! I’m sure everyone is dying to know what I’ve been up to for the past interim months. Basically just a lot of adventuring, fun, and learning. I dislocated my elbow falling off a camion, celebrated Madagascar’s Independence Day and watched a house get set on fire during the fireworks show, got my purse stolen with everything I owned in it, but then had it miraculously returned. I camped out on the beach, swam in an infinity pool that overlooks the Indian Ocean, and even stayed up all night once! These past two months in Madagascar have been among some of my hardest because I really had to look at my reasons and motivations for being here, minus work and projects and all the other Western things that have kept me busy in the past. But Madagascar is always teaching me new things and making me grow and reevaluate. I have some interesting things going on in the next few months now that the strikes are over, starting with being a translator for Operation Smile this upcoming August. I’ll write more about that experience as it happens. But here are some pictures to illustrate what I can’t put into words about my last couple months here. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How Peace Corps Made Me Proud to be an American and Madagascar Surprises Me Once Again

My post-World Malaria Day life has continued on at a slower pace. A crippling countrywide teacher’s strike has shut down the entire education system here, and subsequently squashed my hopes to get my Peer Educator project (PHELT!!) off the ground any time soon. But after almost a year here, I’m no longer concerned with these Western notions of “time-frames” and “schedules.” So it is what it is. I’m working a few days a week at the health center, and spending a lot of time riding my bike around visiting the new Peace Corps volunteer and my old friends at Azafady. Also as anyone familiar with my Machu Picchu Peruvian trek would know, I can use all the extra bicycle-practice I can get. Jekka, I am happy to report that so far I have NOT crashed over any cliffs! Although I have found it very challenging to bike through sand, it’s literally not possible. And it’s very frustrating. But enough about that. 

Madagascar’s Quest to Always Defy My Expectations

Living every day in a Third World country really makes you thankful for what you have at home. I guess after so long here, I’ve developed certain desensitization to things, but I was really struck when I brought a group of 8 or so Azafady volunteers to see the health center. The health center of Commune Rurale Mahatalaky is very basic. It is made up of five cement rooms: an office where the nurse sees all sick patients, a maternity room/sick ward, a dispensary, a delivery room, and another office where the nurse does prenatal visits and family planning appointments. The maternity room/sick ward is made up of four metal beds. The dispensary has one fuel-powered refrigerator where we keep the vaccines on ice blocks. The delivery room has one bed with stirrups and a water bucket. The two offices have a desk and a few chairs. It’s very simple. I think it’s pretty nice! But taking these visitors there for whom this hasn’t become the norm was an eye re-opening experience. They were shocked at the lack of amenities.

“So what if something goes wrong during labor?” someone asked.

“Umm…then they get on the truck to go into Fort Dauphin, if they have enough money.” I replied.

The other day as the nurse and I were doing the standard 50 prenatal visits, a very extremely pregnant woman walked into the delivery room with her mom and grandma, her birthing team.

“She’s in labor!” exclaimed the mother.

My wonderful, hard-working, ever-patient nurse sighed and paused the prenatal visits and walked over to the delivery room to check on this mother-to-be.

“She’s not nearly dilated enough. Come back tomorrow” the nurse kindly informed the woman.

“But she’s in pain! She needs to push now!” the over-eager grandma-to-be said forcefully.

Throughout this whole exchange, the nurse had kept her cool, but after that comment, her cool slipped a little, and the animated and confident and adamant nurse I’ve come to know and love emerged:

            “Labor MUST hurt! It is painful work! COME BACK TOMORROW!”

I stifled a laugh, and the expectant mother and her team meekly headed out the door.
This is just a day in the life at the rural health center. One hard-working and committed nurse with her vazaha sidekick (me!) doing the work that an entire department would do at a Western hospital, with about 1/18th of the amenities available at one. When I stop to look around at what I’m doing and where I’m working, it really is a learning experience. Waiting 6 hours for a prenatal visit in the rain? Women here do that every single month. Walking 10km in the early stages of labor just to give birth in the hospital? Normal. How lucky are we to live in a place where it is culturally acceptable for a woman to scream obscenities at her husband during labor? How lucky are we to live in a place where people are impressed at a mother who chooses not to get an epidural? How lucky are we to never have to worry about malaria? And these are just off the top of my head. Madagascar never ceases to amaze me.

America the Beautiful

I spend a lot of time hanging out with Europeans. The Peace Corps community in Southern Madagascar is small, but luckily enough for my sanity and social life, Azafady is around to keep me company. Among fellow Peace Corps volunteers, being a Californian is reason enough for ridicule. (You all just WISH you were from the Golden State!) But among my Euro friends, hailing from the Land of the Free is all the ammunition needed to make an average joke an excellent one. I don’t get it, obviously. I mean they’re all just jealous right? So I’ve come to the conclusion that America is the place everyone else loves to hate, but secretly wishes they could be from. Take that, haters! Where else can I get away using vocabulary like “holla” and “bummer” and “haters” and spelling things with a “z.” Additionally, living outside of the US makes you appreciate all the mundane inside the US. Boy, do I appreciate a sandwich now! And all those other little things you never realize you’ll miss until you do. For example, cuddling up under the covers on a cold morning, eating popcorn in a movie theater, and running down to Walgreens to pick up some Scotch tape. But seriously, there really is something so sweet about the companionship of a fellow American when you’re far away from home. They just GET me. I would also like to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the disgraced former governor of California, is one of the few Americans that are also famous in Madagascar. This list consists of fellow superstars Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, and the one and only Barack Obama. You’re welcome World!

            I recently found myself sharing a Mexican dinner with a few of my awesome British friends on Cinco de Mayo. As we happily ate our bean burritos I commented on how glad I was to be doing something on Cinco de Mayo.

            “What’s Cinco de Mayo?” asked one ill-informed British person.

            “You know, Cinco de Mayo! Fifth of May! Mexican Independence Day? Cinco de            Drinko? NOTHING??”

I was flabbergasted. What kind of country doesn’t celebrate another country’s independence?? As it turns out, Cinco de Mayo isn’t even the real Mexican Independence Day, so that’s my bad. But I still caringly explained the joys of Cinco de Mayo to my poor, unknowing friends. To which they responded along the lines of “Oh how typical of Americans, any excuse for a party, celebrating a day that’s not even the real independence day of a country that’s not even them!” That comment was about the last I could take. I mustered all the patriotic fire I had and proudly declared:


             “Sooo…the same colors as the Union Jack then?” retorted my snappy British friend.

England: 1. Monica: 0.

But never fear, they may have won the Battle of Cinco de Mayo but I will win this war! AMURICAAAA!

In conclusion, please everyone send out good vibes that this strike ends soon so I can get back to work instead of sitting around all day musing about my love for America. God Bless the U.S.A.!