Friday, August 19, 2011

READ IT WHILE IT'S HOT: First Madagascar Post!

Akory ra from Madagascar! Six weeks into training, and I am alive and well! I miss my friends and family a lot, but I am so busy and life is so different, it makes the whole transition a lot easier. There’s so much to say, so I decided to split this entry up into small chunks with easy headings. I’ve been working on this post over the past couple weeks so I’m sorry if the chronology seems off or if something doesn’t make sense. There’s about a million more things I could say on every subject, but I wanted to keep this post at least semi-readable for all of my 13 followers! If you have any questions, email me or comment on the post! I will have internet for the next few days woohoo!!! So here goes...

First Days and Homestay
I am starting to write this during my third week in Madagascar. I hit one month away from home last Sunday! I haven’t had internet since I arrived here, but I thought I should start recording what’s been going on so when I do finally get internet, I’ll be able to update my blog straight away. I would like to start off by saying I miss everyone SO MUCH! But with that out of the way, Madagascar is great so far. I arrived at the Peace Corps Training Center in Mantasoa on a Wednesday evening, the 13th of July. The Training Center is beautiful. It’s set right on a lake; it’s a lot like being at summer camp. We started language training right away, but by the time I moved into my homestay, I had only mastered how to say “My name is Monica. I am from California.” Not very effective for communicating, but it was something!
Moving into homestay was super overwhelming right off the bat, but I’m glad they planned training this way because it has really forced me to integrate myself into the language and culture pretty quickly. I like my host family a lot. I live in a small village called Lohomby with my host parents and 2 younger host sisters, Koloina and Kiady, and one baby host brother, Mikajy. My host mom and dad are farmers, but right now my host mom just stays home with the baby. They have a modest, neat one-story host and no running water or electricity. (A quick note on that subject: of all the amenities I no longer have, I miss running water and electricity the least! Without a doubt, I miss internet the most, which is unexpected.) My host sisters are 5 and 8 years old, and while they are sweet and often very cute, it’s been interesting moving back into a house full of little kids. My 8-year-old host sister is a little mischievous and will do pretty much anything to get my attention, whether it’s negative or positive. There have been times of cross-cultural connection, like dancing to Shakira, or laughing til we cry when my 5-year-old sister falls asleep at the dinner table for the third night in a row. There have also been times where I miss my own space, and when I’ve felt isolated even though there’s people all around me. Without a doubt, it’s been challenging to learn as I go, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Each day, I wake up at around 6:30am, clean my room, eat breakfast, and head out to school. Breakfast is usually vary-sosoa, or what I call rice porridge, or katsaka, which is pretty much corn porridge. Lucky for me, my host family caught on pretty quickly that I wasn’t a huge fan, and now we usually just have bread and peanut butter or honey. We also have dite every morning, which translates to tea, but is nothing like what I consider tea. The dite that my host family makes is hot water + condensed milk + sugar. It’s actually pretty delicious. I come home for lunch around 12 noon. Lunch is usually rice with beans or cooked vegetables and a salad. I go back to training at 2pm, where we have an afternoon session usually covering either specific health topics or a cross-culture topic. We finish for the day usually around 4:30pm, and then I go home and usually help prepare dinner! Dinner at my house is usually rice, vegetables, and meat. In case you have not caught on to the pattern, Malagasy people eat rice 3 times a day, every day. Since I’ve moved here, there has not been one meal served without rice. This was a challenge for me at first, because who really like just plain white rice, and my host family was always trying to get me to eat more. But as my language skills improved and I was actually able to explain what I like, eating is a lot easier. For example, when my host mom noticed I was consistently not eating a lot of rice, she asked me what I liked to eat at home. That led to a discussion on what I usually cook in the US, and the end result was that my host mom cooks pasta a few nights a week instead of just rice every day! So I have a pretty balanced and normal diet here, which is really nice. My host mom is a great cook.
My host mom cooks all our meals over a wood fire. I’m very lucky, because at my house, we have a little outdoor kitchen area where the fire is, but a lot of the other volunteers live in houses where they cook inside, and where there’s fire there’s smoke (or whatever that saying is.) Upper respiratory infections are a huge medical problem in children under the age of 5 years, and wood burning fires inside is a direct cause. We have a well in our front yard, about 10 meters from the house. Again, this is the exception, as many of the local families here have to walk pretty far for their water, and a lot of them just get water from the rice patties, which is pretty dirty. All the families hosting Peace Corps volunteers have been trained on water sanitation, and I haven’t had any problems with my family not properly purifying our water.

Although it was pretty slow at first, my Malagasy is finally starting to improve more rapidly. It’s definitely a challenge to try and learn a totally new language, and it was very frustrating at first. The whole grammatical structure of Malagasy is different than English. For example, the basic sentence structure of Malagasy is [Predicate + Object + Subject] as opposed to the English Subject first sentence. But with four hours of language instruction per day I’m improving pretty quickly so there’s hope! We had a language assessment interview about a week ago and the PST goal was for all trainees to have achieved the level Novice High and I received a score of intermediate low! I’m learning a dialect now called Antanosy that is spoken at my site in the south of Madagascar so that adds in a whole new challenge. At first I was pretty frustrated with learning dialect, because I essentially have to relearn a lot of the vocabulary and verb conjugation, but after a week its starting to come more naturally.
I moved out of homestay and back to the Peace Corps Training Center at the end of week four, and will be spending the rest of my training living here. It’s a very fun environment living with all the other Peace Corps trainees, and very different from homestay. I’m happy for the change of pace and routine. Peace Corps Madagascar uses the full immersion method of training though, which means we’re not allowed to speak English during the day. From 7am to 7:30pm, it’s all Malagasy all the time. If you get caught speaking English, you get issued a red card and 5 red cards leads to a monetary fine! But you can also get green cards for having conversations in Malagasy and green cards can cancel out red cards or lead to a reward. Right now, the prize of American food is everyone’s main motivator.

Permanent Site
We found out our permanent sites finally…drumroll! I will be spending my two years in a town called Mahatalaky, located about 30 kilometers outside of Fort Dauphin on the southeast coast of Madagascar. Getting my site placement was much more emotional than I anticipated it to be. It’s hard to decide what your preference on placement is without knowing much about the country, but still you go into it with some sort of subconscious expectation. On top of that, there’s the year-long build up of anticipation that goes into the announcement. Initially I had very mixed emotions about my site placement. I’ll be very near the coast and a major city, which is ideal, but I’m pretty far from a lot of the friends that I’ve made so far, which is less ideal. But my viewpoint is that it’s all just a part of the Peace Corps process and experience. I didn’t sign up for Peace Corps expecting to be near friends, and to have internet every day or anything like that. Another good things happened since I first started writing this part of the post. I met someone from near my site! Part of the training staff here is a rotating group of current Peace Corps volunteers serving in the different sectors here in Madagascar. One of our trainers last week was a volunteer in the Education sector from the South, who lives about half a day from where my permanent site is. He told me so many great things about where I’ll be living and what life is like down there, I have a much more tangible idea of what my own life will be like as a volunteer there. Mahatalaky is located right on the edge of the rain forest, across from the coast of the Indian Ocean. It’s hot, but not as unbearable as some other parts of southern Madagascar because there’s the coastal wind. Apparently there’s also a British NGO that operates in the area so the people there are familiar with foreign volunteers, and there’s also a lot of volunteers that are cycling through. Even just learning this tiny bit more of information about my site makes me feel so much better and more excited. A huge part of being a Peace Corps volunteer is flexibility and patience, and that’s something that is the most challenging for me, since I really prefer to have a plan and know exactly what’s going on all the time! As the weeks have gone on, I become more and more excited to move to my site and start my work and life there! I have a lot to look forward to.

Malagasy Culture
            To start with, all Malagasy people are teeny tiny. As an average sized human, I literally tower over everyone, men and women. The culture here is very unique because it is such a hybrid of African, French, and Indo-asian. Depending on where in the country you are, people may look more Asian or African, more light skinned or dark skinned. The culture itself is also pretty laidback. Everyone is always late, not just Monica-style late, but consistently late all the time. No one really follows a specific schedule or adheres to any set plans. Sometimes we’ll play a group game before class that will end up going on for an hour! It’s a nice change of pace to be the early one here. J Also, there is no such thing as “sleeping in” in Madagascar, which is great for me! I wake up every day at 6:30am, regardless of the day of the week, which is another cultural aspect that I can really get behind!
            Saying I attract attention as a vazaha (foreigner) in Madagascar is a huge understatement. Since government instability has devastated what little tourism industry they had, white foreigners are few and far between here, and even then, really only in the cities. Walking down the street even in a town like Mantasoa that is pretty familiar with foreigners because of Peace Corps, people call out “Vazaha, vazaha!” and will just stare at you in astonishment while you walk back. It’s definitely something I’m still working on getting used to, but mostly people are just curious and not hostile or aggressive. When I was living with a host family, people I had never met from my village would know my name and call out to me like old friends. The Malagasy people are extremely open, friendly, and hospitable. Every person I come into contact with wants to quiz me on my Malagasy vocabulary or have a conversation with me about my family at home in the US. They are patient and kind about my more than limited language abilities. It is a very positive and warm culture, which makes me tasks of integrating much easier!

Peace Corps Namanas!
            Namana means friend in Malagasy, and it’s pretty much my favorite word. There are a totally of 27 Peace Corps trainees in my stage, 14 health volunteers and 13 education volunteers. It’s a small enough group that I actually have the opportunity to get to know everyone, and we all have a lot of fun together. But beyond my stage, its been really nice to meet some current volunteers who provide a lot of insight into the life of an actual volunteer in Madagscar. Peace Corps Madagascar really promotes the “one family” idea, and the past month has shown me that no matter where I go in Madagascar, there will be a Peace Corps volunteer there that I can count on for whatever I need. I was a little bummed at first to not be placed super near to any of my new Peace Corps friends, but then I realized that not only will I see everyone from my stage during In-Service Training in December, but that there’s tons more PC Volunteers from other stages who have sites all around me.

Funny Stories
            I have to do all my laundry here by hand, and if that isn’t hard enough, I also had to do laundry during homestay in a river. By no means am I a naturally good river washer. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I am worse than the average person. Every Saturday afternoon, I would head down to the river with my host mom and my dirty laundry from the week. Usually my host mom would laugh at me so hard she cried since my skills at laundry washing were so obviously lacking. Finally, after some big laughs on her part, she would sigh and take my laundry from me, and just finish the rest herself. This end result made the whole embarrassing routine worth it since I didn’t end up having to do it myself! Ha!
            My other most memorable ridiculousness from homestay happened on my last night, when my host family killed a chicken for dinner. I have never seen an animal killed right before my eyes and then been expected to eat it for dinner, so I was unprepared for the experience. While I did not have to do the actual killing, I was unfortunate enough to witness it. Rather than breaking the neck of the chicken like I assumed usually happened, my host dad basically just sawed off its head. It was so gory I had to cover my eyes. [Disclaimer: I don’t have a very high tolerance for gore, so this is subjective to me.] Then, my host parents plucked all the feathers off the now dead chicken. This step of the process was actually more disgusting than the chicken’s death. But I forced myself to watch the whole process so I would know how it happened and could be prepared for it in the future. My host parents got a big kick out of all my reactions to the various steps between live chicken and dead chicken dinner, and I had to explain to them how in the US I buy pre-killed chicken, and had never actually seen the whole process before. The idea of buying a dead chicken flabbergasted them. I asked one of my teachers if you could buy already killed chicken in Madagascar, and he said “Oh, vazaha chicken? Yeah, only in the big cities.” I take a solemn vow that I will never personally kill a chicken while I am here, but check back on this blog in a couple years and see if I change my mind.

I’m going to end this post here for now, but will update again in a couple days with details from my past week of travels on my Technical Training Trip! Please send me some snail mail, I’m practically the only person who hasn’t got any yet!! :) I love you all bisou biosou

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