Friday, October 28, 2011

Monitalaky: MY NEW LIFE

Once again for your ease and enjoyment, I have broken up this marathon post into smaller chunks so you can read them at your leisure. 

Background Details
I arrived in Mahatalaky finally after four really long days in the car and then three days shopping for home goods in Fort Dauphin. Even though I didn’t really have any specific expectations, the town was different than I thought it would be. Mahatalaky is the biggest town on the road to Fort Dauphin, so there are a lot of trucks and taxi brousses that pass through, so it’s actually a pretty bustling place. The health center is also really busy, with people coming from little villages up to 15 kilometers away to get health care. It’s not nearly as small as I had expected it to be, which I was really happy about. I live right next to the town hall, on the mayor’s compound. My house is a little two-story bungalow with a table and chairs on the bottom floor and my bed on the top floor. It’s small, but sturdy and comfortable, so I like it a lot. I also feel very safe where I live, because I am so centrally located and live directly next to the mayor, which really helped me feel settled in Mahatalaky more quickly. Mahatalaky has a big market every Monday and there are always all kinds of fruit and meat. There’s also a couple little restaurants to eat, and places to get coffee and bread in the morning. It’s a fun little place.

A Typical Week
            After six weeks here, I’m starting to settle into a routine, but what I do on the day-to-day really depends on whether or not I have work at the health center. For the purposes of this little narrative, I’m going to talk about a workweek. Monday is Market Day in Mahatalaky, so starting at about 4:30am; people are setting up stalls and staking out their places to sell their goods. I usually get up on Mondays at around 5:30am because by that time, the roosters have been crowing for over an hour and a half and people are selling things right outside my house so it’s impossible to sleep! After I get up, I head across the street to the place where I have my coffee every day, and sit and watch all the action going on around me, and chat with my friends. At around 8:30am (yes, I’ve already been awake for three hours) they start blaring music videos, so I’ll go watch that a lot. Then I do a little shopping in the market, and head off to the health center at around 9am. Mondays are busy there because so many people come in for the market. Also on Mondays the nurse does all her family planning counseling with young women and mothers. As I’m getting better at Malagasy, I participate more actively in the counseling, but in the beginning I just did a lot of observing. We also administer free STD testing. I finish work usually by noon, and then I head home for lunch. Then in the afternoon, I pretty much just hang out, go for walks, read, write letters, etc.
            On Tuesdays, we do prenatal consultations at the health center. The youngest pregnant woman I’ve seen was 14, and she weighed about 95 pounds four months pregnant. Most women have had at least one child by the time they are 20 years old, and then keep having babies into their 30s. All the pregnant women get free prenatal vitamins, tetanus shots, and malaria prophylaxis. The nurse at my health center is very smart and hard working, and does very thorough check-ups. Wednesdays at the health center are family planning days again, so we do STD testing and birth control. Thursdays are prenatal consultations again. How busy I am at the health center really depends, but when it is busy, it is really busy with sometimes over 40 women waiting for a consultation.
            Every night in Mahatalaky, they have a movie in the town hall, which people can pay 100 ariary to get into. Starting at about 6:30pm, once it gets dark, they play Malagasy music videos until the movie starts at 7:30pm. The music here is great, it really cracks me up. Malagasy people LOVE Akon, so they play a lot of his songs. Akon is playing in the background right now as I write this! But actual traditional Malagasy music has an island vibe and is very danceable, since everyone here loves to dance. The traditional dance of the region here is the mangaliba, and I’m starting to get pretty good at it. Everyone gets a kick out of me when I imitate any of the traditional dances, but they say I’m actually pretty good! The movie ends at around 9pm, and then I go to bed. On the weekends a lot of times I’ll go to a big market 5 kilometers away, or will go on a little excursion somewhere, it just depends. Mostly what I do is “mitsangasangana…”

            In Malagasy, “mitsangasangana” means to hang out, and that is what I spend a lot of my time doing. The first couple weeks here, I really struggled with the fact that sometimes I would just have absolutely nothing to do, because American culture values productivity and always doing something. I read A LOT. My second week living in Mahatalaky, the nurse was sick and had to go to Fort Dauphin and the health center was closed, so I had no work. After a few days of sitting around by myself, I realized that if I didn’t become more comfortable with just hanging out and talking to people, I was going to have a really hard time assimilating into the culture and community. So after that, instead of sitting in my house reading or staring off into space, I would go and sit across the street at the place where I would get coffee in the morning, and there was always people around there. A 12-year-old kid named Erika, who took me under his wing, also befriended me. At first, he was one of the only people who could ever understand anything I was trying to say, and he would just sit with me quietly in the afternoons when I had nothing to do, not even talking because I was so horrible at Malagasy. Little by little, he started taking me around town and getting me to talk to people and helping me get comfortable in Mahatalaky. When he went back to school a few weeks after I arrived, I would just sit and wait for him to come back because he was my only friend, and everyone would tease me saying I was so lonely without my 12-year-old sidekick! It was then that I realized I needed to make more friends.
            It’s hard to be brave and confident and talk to people in a language you don’t really know, but that’s exactly what I had to do in order to settle myself here. I am so lucky because everyone here is so kind and friendly, so it’s not so hard to talk to people, as long as you have the courage. Once I started being more comfortable just sitting around with people, I realized that they were really eager to get to know me. They ask about all my friends and family at home, and are shocked when I tell them I am not married, nor do I have any children, and I also don’t have a fiancée or a boyfriend. A lot of people think that Andy is my boyfriend, no matter how much I say he’s not, because there are pictures in my photo album of us HA! People just can’t accept that a young woman like me is completely unattached; even though I point out I came here to Madagascar all by myself. I try to explain that it’s normal for me to not be married yet at 22 years old, but they can’t really wrap their heads around that. :)

Friends & Family
            I am probably the luckiest volunteer in the Peace Corps, because a huge family here has adopted me as their daughter. Like I said, I live right next to the mayor, and he and his family realized pretty quickly that I was bad at cooking, washing clothes, etc, and they took pity on me. I eat all my meals with them, go on excursions with them, and always have someone to hang out with. I miss my family and friends at home a lot, so I honestly don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have this family to take care of me. They tell me all the time, ‘we know if you’re not smiling, then it means you’ll want to go home, so we will do whatever you need to make you happy.’ The mayor and his wife have one son, and they tell me they are so happy that they now also have a daughter. My ‘brother,’ Fafa, is married with two kids, a six-year-old boy named Christian, and a new baby girl born on September 30 called Christiana. My best friend Erika is the mayor’s nephew, and he has an older sister named Cicia who I am good friends with, and a younger sister named Olivia. The family who I buy my coffee and bread from in the morning is also related somehow, and they have a son, Berthin, and three daughters, Sylvianne, Charlaine, and Nicole. The mayor’s youngest niece is named Elena and she is three years old and very precocious. She calls me “Mama Vazaha” now. I feel so lucky to have been welcomed so warmly into this vivacious and kind family, and I really feel at home with them. I am never alone unless I want to be, and I honestly couldn’t ask for more. Having an understanding and patient support group of people has really made the difference for me in getting better and more confident at Malagasy and settling in to my life here in Madagascar. Now when I come into Fort Dauphin, I stay at Cicia’s house and hang out with my young friends from Mahatalaky who go to school here. But I am so settled in my little routine and life in Mahatalaky that when I’m in Fort Dauphin, I miss my little town, my little house, and my not so little Malagasy family, and really just want to go back!
Having people who care about me and my success and happiness as a Peace Corps volunteer really makes the whole thing more worthwhile and manageable. Any time someone notices that I seem unhappy or like something is bothering me, they immediately ask what’s wrong, and they won’t take ‘nothing’ for an answer! Then they will start playing American music (Shania Twain and Celine Dion are all the rage here), or they will play English music videos that night during the film time. Madagascar is slightly behind the times here, Vengaboys and Aqua are still experiencing momentous popularity, but it always makes me laugh. I also feel a lot more confident speaking to people I am comfortable with and people who reinforce what I’m learning and doing. I’m finally starting to feel more confident about my speaking abilities, and recently people have even been telling me I actually speak Malagasy very well! 
The family takes me on lots of little excursions to see and learn about the place I’m living for the next two years. There are two big rivers within a five-kilometer vicinity that I’ve been to a number of times and gone swimming. I’ve also been to the mayor’s little village waaay out in the country and to his wife’s village waaay out in the mountains. They have a 4x4 truck, so they always take me along too, if I can go, when the mayor goes hunting, or to Fort Dauphin to visit the little baby. [Side note: Malagasy culture dictates that if a woman has a baby girl, she has to go back to her parent’s house, and stay in bed for three months, so Patricia won’t be back with us in Mahatalaky until December 30.] It is so ridiculously beautiful here, with huge mountains on one side, and a plateau on the other. The rivers keep everything lush and green. I try and explore as much as I can, but there’s still so much for me to see.

Funny Stories
            After the first week when I had absolutely nothing to do and Erika went back to school, I was feeling really lonely. I would sit all day and wait for him to be done with class at 5, and then we would go on a walk and I would practice speaking and tell him about my day. This particular week has been really difficult since I hadn’t really figured out the whole “mitsangasangana” concept yet, and I was feeling a little homesick and frustrated. We went on a walk with some other kids, and Erika led us all up into the mountains behind Mahatalaky, and I was getting more and more pissed off since I was wearing cheap Madagascar flip flops trying to climb up a mountain. Then we had a cross a rice paddy, which is essentially just a giant mud puddle with a skinny little path that crosses it. Christian was with us, and he had already had his bath that evening, and I knew that his grandma would be mad if he got all dirty again, so I was carrying him across the rice paddy so he would stay clean, when my foot slipped of the little foot path and I fell in. I held Christian up in my right arm while my left leg sunk thigh deep into the nasty mucky mud. Falling in was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me on a tough week and I just started screaming out “I HATE YOU ERIKA WHY DID YOU BRING ME ON THIS WALK I HATE YOU ERIKA I HATE YOU I AM STUCK IN THE MUD I HATE YOU!” all in English of course. The kids were all rolling on the ground laughing so hard and imitating me screaming “IIIIHATECHUUUU ERIKAAAA!” I finally extracted myself from the muck, but I lost a flip flop in the process. Now, all the kids in town will just yell out at me “IIIIHATEEECHUUUU” whenever they see me because the story of me failing in the rice paddy has gone all through the grapevine, and it never ceases to amuse people.
            Laundry is a consistent foe of mine, I already wrote about it during my time in home stay in July, and unfortunately I haven’t gotten any better at successfully washing my clothes by hand. It’s hard! So any time I do laundry, I always attract a crowd of onlookers who come for the show. Now that I am better at speaking, if anyone laughs at me, I just retort back “If you think you’re so good at washing, why don’t you do it!” And thus, I get other people to do my laundry for me!
            Everyone here is always really interested in my long hair, since all the women braid their hair back and have curly hair. I found out that a good way for me to pass time and also talk to people was to let them braid my hair in the traditional style! At first I just let them do it because I had nothing else to do, but now I really see the benefit to having all your hair braided back because it’s so hot here! So pretty much every other week, I have one of my friends do my hair. Right now it’s in a bunch of tiny little braids, and I’ve been told that I blend right in, and am “tena ampela gasy” which means like I’m really a Malagasy woman. HA!

My time here at my site has shown me that Peace Corps is about a lot more than just the work that you do as a volunteer, but also about the relationships you form and the presence you have in your community. All the people of Mahatalaky are so happy and excited to have me there with them, speaking Malagasy and living and working. They are so kind and welcoming, and everyday something or someone makes me laugh or smile. Already they have given me so much more than I could ever give to them, and I feel so lucky to be having this experience. 

Me and the family! Erika is standing next to me, my constant companion. This photo was taken when we went to my surrogate dad's little village.


  1. I dont know Monica, it seems like you can't escape the mud!
    But, it seems like you are having a great time and I love reading your updates.


  2. Great picture, and I loved the story. I can't wait to visit you!

  3. Hey Monica, love reading about your life in Madagascar. What an experience. We miss snowed yesterday--just for a few minutes! Does it ever get cold where you are?? Thinking of you, Aunt Sue