Yup, I’m still here. Hurricane Giovanna did not sweep me and my house into the Mozambique Channel, although she gave it her best shot (if you have no idea what I am talking about just hang on and I’ll elaborate later). After eight months of being in country and six months of being at site in Andramasina life has finally started to settle into a rhythm. Sort of. This is going to be a long blog entry (yes, they are all pretty lengthy but this one might take the cake). In order to save your straining eyes and (hopefully) keep you entertained I will be placing pictures randomly throughout the blog entry rather than saving them all for the end. You’re welcome.
After completing In-Service Training and the Project Design Workshop back in December I decided (along with many other health volunteers) that giving “kabary” (brief health talks) at the local health clinic simply is not an effective way to inspire real behavior change. I could go every morning bright and early to the clinic and preach about the methods of cleaning water to prevent diarrheal disease until I’m blue in the face but that doesn’t mean that when the people return home they will actually use the methods I described to them. Once people get into the habit of doing things a certain way, it is extremely difficult to alter that behavior, even for something as important as health. I think it’s just human nature. With that in mind, I decided that with the start of the new year I am going to focus my efforts on the local schools. Why? 1) Kids haven’t settled into certain behaviors yet so it is much easier to convince them to make changes 2) It gives me an excuse to sing, dance, and play games on a regular basis 3) It doesn’t matter that I am different and kind of weird because according to kids, all adults are different and kind of weird 4) Kids smile and laugh much more often than adults (people have actually researched this, as in real research money was spent…I’m not kidding, look it up) and finally 5) That old line about kids being our future is undeniably cheesy but also true.
So what exactly have I been doing in the schools, you ask? Well, after enduring six months of people asking me repeatedly if I am going to teach English here and trying in vain to explain to them that I am a health volunteer not an education volunteer I finally decided I could address some of that by starting an English Club. All PCVs are allowed to have secondary projects outside of their given sector as long as they are also fulfilling their primary project requirements (in my case, Community Health Educator). The CEG and LYCEE (middle and high school) here in Andramasina already have at least one English teacher (although it is alarming how little English the teachers themselves actually know). However, there is no English teacher at the local EPP (elementary school) so I figured that would be a good place to start. Plus there is the added bonus that the itty bitty kids are still under the (incredibly false) impression that adults have all the answers and never make mistakes. So when I say something incorrectly in Malagasy or have a funny American accent when I talk they just assume I am doing it on purpose for whatever strange, adult reasons I might have. So after discussing it with the Director of the EPP we decided that I could teach English Club twice a week in the afternoon after regular school hours have ended. I made a big sign advertising the English Club on “ambalazy” (basically a giant sheet of paper) and hung it up outside of the school building. When I arrived on the very first day of English Club, armed with multi-colored chalk, a sponge eraser, and only the vaguest idea of a lesson plan, I expected perhaps twenty or thirty kids to have actually stayed after school to attend. Maybe forty if you counted the ones who just wanted an excuse to gawk at the “vazaha” trying to teach. Although I am (almost) certain I managed to keep a neutral expression on the outside, you can just imagine what went on internally when I climbed the dirt stairs and gazed upon the entire schoolyard packed with over-excited, elementary school kids basically clawing at one another to get a better look at me. When the classroom door was opened and they flooded in like a plague of locusts (really cute locusts) there was not a single nook or cranny in that room not occupied by a little Malagasy face turned expectantly toward me. No pressure. I will be the first to admit that initial lesson was sort of a hot mess. I was all over the place trying to gauge if they had any prior exposure to English whatsoever, teach a simple lesson about greetings, keep the chit-chatters quiet in the back, and entertain the masses all at the same time. When it was over, the Director thanked me (she watched the whole lesson…don’t you hate it when that happens?) and we mutually decided that it would be best to split the class into two and have one group attend on Tuesday and the other attend on Thursday. Since then, things have gone much more smoothly. I teach the “kely indrindra” (really little) kids on Tuesdays and the “lehibe be” (bigger) kids on Thursdays. Although as a health volunteer I didn’t receive training on teaching English, I am slowly but surely figuring out what works and what fails epically. Example, the “Good Morning” song is a big hit. Even the tiniest of the itty bitty kiddies can sing along and do the hand motions. I have an excellent video of this. I really wish the internet was fast enough for me to upload it. There is one little girl who gets super excited and claps for herself when they finish singing. In contrast, trying to do the whole “One, Two, Buckle my Shoe” rhyme thingy when teaching numbers was a huge flop. Too many new words, no entertaining hand motions, and not really culturally appropriate (as I was explaining “buckle my shoe” in Malagasy I realized that most of the kids weren’t wearing shoes at all). Generally speaking with elementary school kids you can’t go wrong if there is a song, dance, game, or some other activity which requires the teacher to jump around the room and act ridiculous. And if you can do funny voices you are basically the coolest person in the world. So in conclusion I am rather enjoying myself at the elementary school. Mind you, it is quite difficult to teach little kids a foreign language. I have spent more time than I care to admit bouncing around the room repeating in an absurdly slow manner, “MY NAME IS MISS KIM. MY NAME IS MISS KIM. MIIIIIIISS KIIIIIIIM.” But when I walk down the road to fetch water or visit my Malagasy friends and I hear little voices chiming “Miss Kim! Miss Kim!” (which they still pronounce as Meess Keem, but whatever), I get the warm fuzzies all over.
As I mentioned earlier, it is all fine and dandy for me to have an English Club as a secondary project as long as I fulfill my primary project as a Health Educator very well. I don’t know if I would exactly say I am fulfilling it well just yet, but I have started a pretty successful Health Club at the LYCEE (high school). My junior year of college I was a Peer Health Educator (shout out to all the PHEs <3) and I thought that same basic idea could be applied here in Madagascar. Every Friday I have a two hour session with the kids (there are about 35 that regularly attend) during which I teach them about various public health topics including diarrheal disease, malaria, reproductive health, environmental health, nutrition, etc. Never fear, I don’t just stand up there and talk to them in my broken Malagasy about health; that would get old really quickly for everyone involved. Instead, every week there is either a guest speaker or some sort of activity that goes along with that day’s lesson. This allows me to both keep the kids interested and give them valuable skills they can use to improve their health. The first week I taught them about diarrheal disease but they also learned and practiced how to mix SRO (water, salt, and sugar in proper proportions) which can keep someone (especially a small child) from dying of dehydration when they are suffering from severe diarrhea. The next week I had Dr. Ninah (the Chef CSB) talk about upper respiratory infections and Tuberculosis then the kids built a “fatana mitsitsy” (improved cookstove) which has a number of benefits including producing less smoke which in turn cuts down on the number of upper respiratory infections (luckily, this one didn’t melt). Then the kids learned about malaria which isn’t a major problem here in the highlands but is a huge health threat along the coast. The activity that went along with it was making something called Neem Cream. The Stomp Out Malaria initiative has been educating people about this cream in mainland Africa because it is a natural and easy to make mosquito repellant. Luckily, we have the primary ingredient (leaves from a tree called “voandelaka”) right here in Madagascar. According to Dr. Ninah, voandelaka also repels parasy (those nasty little fleas that burrow into your feet) so I am obviously a huge fan and have stockpiled it in my room like someone on that show about hoarders. That brings us to the most recent lesson which was about nutrition. I had a guest speaker come (a friend who works at the Bureau of Agriculture) and talk about “ananambo” (it has many names but Americans might know it as moringa). For those who don’t know, moringa is pretty much the tree equivalent of Superman (or Batman, whoever your superhero of choice might be). It is crazy nutritious, can be used to filter water, is a natural antibiotic, grows unbelievably fast, and best of all it thrives in the most inhospitable environments. Pretty much the less conducive to growing normal plants a given location is, the more the moringa tree will like it. My friend has already started growing a few moringa trees near his home and hopefully I will be able to work with him on some planting projects in the future. So that’s what I have done with my Health Club thus far. The idea is that after all of my sessions with them are complete, the students themselves will go with me to the other schools and teach everyone else what they have learned. It will be a much more sustainable project if the Malagasy students themselves become the teachers for the other kids. That’s the idea anyway. Then again, I have been accused of being blindly optimistic before.
So that basically wraps up the work part of my life right now. I have some other projects that I am currently working on besides teaching my English and Health Clubs but I’ll talk about those another time if they actually pan out. But I haven’t even begun to fill you in on the random things that have gone on in the time that has elapsed since my last entry (I warned you this would be a long one). Let’s see…where did I leave you last time? Ah yes, Indiana. Okay, well after that event I was a little bummed out (understandably so). I thought that I was hiding it pretty well but apparently I was doing no such thing. A week or so after it happened, my Malagasy family basically staged an intervention and took me to Tana (the capital) for the weekend to stay with their extended family. My Malagasy mom was convinced that I was so sad I was going to go home to the States and no amount of assurances from me would placate her. Once there, we partied the Malagasy way by eating lots of rice, drinking vanilla rum, singing really bad karaoke, and dancing until we fell down (literally…Lolona fell right on top of her sister). Since I was already in Tana I went to the PC transit house for a bit to use the internet and visit with other volunteers. When I reunited with my Malagasy peeps the next day Vatsy greeted me by saying, “We have a surprise for you.” By default, I kind of assumed the surprise might be even more rice. Happily for me, I was incorrect. Long story short, Vatsy presented me with an adorable little fuzzball “vazaha” puppy. A “vazaha” dog is any dog here in Madagascar that very clearly does not have Malagasy origins. Indiana, for example, was a proper Malagasy dog. He was a mix of every breed imaginable with possibly a little lemur thrown in, destined to be a big lumbering thing when full grown, and had a bit of a wild look about him. However, sometimes there are little fluffy dogs here in the bigger cities like Tana that make you wonder, “How in the world did that end up here and how has it managed not to be eaten by something?” My best guess is that these dogs are remnants of the French colonization of Madagascar. But that (again) is beside the point. The point is that I am now the proud owner of a ridiculously prissy little “vazaha” dog who I named Lolo. Lolo (pronounced looloo) means butterfly in Malagasy but it also sounds suitably pretentious in English. She looks like a long-haired Jack Russell and is pretty much the polar opposite of Indiana in every way imaginable, but obviously I have already fallen in love with her (it’s what I do). After what happened to Indiana I am super protective of her to the point of carrying her with me in a little basket when I go to the market (yup…I’m that girl). Hanta, my Malagasy mom, puppysits her when I am teaching. She also sleeps with me every night and I can’t describe how comforting it is to have that little ball of fur that yips in her sleep snuggled against my back. I could never replace Indiana (and I wouldn’t want to) but Lolo already has a piece of my heart too.
Okay, enough of the sentimental stuff. I am such a sap. What else has gone on…oh yes, I went to Antsirabe for the first time to attend a VAC meeting. Antsirabe is a bigger city about three and a half hours south of my site. According to Lonely Planet, it has an excellent artisan market and is filled to the brim with rickshaws. Well, they were half right. The artisan market is there all right but the prices of all the enticing wares have been adjusted for the French tourists who often visit the area. Perhaps they have all read Lonely Planet as well. Unfortunately, those tourist prices are enough to give a humble Peace Corps volunteer a coronary. The price of one little painting is equivalent to a quarter of my monthly living allowance. So yeah…no artisan shopping for me. However, I did get to experience my very first rickshaw ride, or pousse-pousse as they are referred to here. The pronunciation of pousse-pousse has elicited many a giggle from immature volunteers, myself included, since it is similar to a word for cat not often uttered in polite society. Think about it. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed the whole rickshaw scene. I felt sort of bizarre being carted around by another human being, and one who was about half my size and weight at that. I did let my mind wander for a brief moment and imagined I was like Cleopatra being carried through the city to the royal palace. But then we hit a giant pothole and I almost fell out of the rickshaw as mud splattered everywhere. Fantasy abruptly ended.
The VAC meeting itself was pretty uneventful. These meetings happen once every three months and all of the volunteers who live in a particular region get together to discuss large, PC wide issues and talk about anything that might need to be brought to the attention of the higher ups. I suppose the topic which applied to me the most this time around was the fact that the Health Program here in Madagascar has been suspended, most likely indefinitely. That doesn’t make much of a difference for health volunteers in my stage, but it does mean that come July there will be no new health volunteers arriving here in Madagascar. I’m not going to launch into the whole explanation of why the program has been suspended because it is a little convoluted and frankly all the health volunteers have talked ourselves in circles about it already. It’s a major bummer and I think it was a poor choice on the part of PC Washington. The end. On a superficial but more positive note, the VAC meeting took place at a hotel in Antsirabe called Chez Billy which is where most of us stayed and it was pretty darn nice. Granted, my standards for accommodations have lowered a bit since leaving the States but hot, running water, electricity, wireless internet access, and excellent food were enough to sell me. Also, the staff tolerated a large group of rowdy Americans amazingly well. The icing on the cake was the fact that Chez Billy is conveniently located close to a restaurant with absolutely delicious (in other words outrageously expensive) cheeseburgers. Yes, you read that correctly…cheeseburgers. It is called the Pousse-Pousse restaurant because the seats inside are actually old rickshaws with tables in front of them. A lovely French lady with two gigantic dogs owns it and in spite of the ridiculous price I had a cheeseburger every day I was in Antsirabe. Eating meat in general is a treat here but getting a juicy, delicious, actually-resembling-American-food burger is basically nirvana. Excuse me while I wipe the saliva off of my keyboard.
And then came Hurricane Giovanna (cue the dramatic music). While I was in Antsirabe for VAC we all got one of those mass text messages from the PC Madagascar security officer warning us about an incoming cyclone. Our security officer (bless his heart) has the rather alarming habit of starting mass security texts with phrases such as “don’t panic” and “remain calm but…” Of course, upon reading such phrases one immediately begins to panic. A cyclone in itself is not a rare occurrence here by any means. In fact, we are in the middle of cyclone season right now. However, this one was supposed to hit the east coast of Madagascar as either a strong category three or weak category four hurricane (FYI the scale only goes to five). Volunteers living on the east coast and my pal who lives out on the little island Sainte Marie had to evacuate to Tana while everyone else was ordered to seek refuge and alert PC of their whereabouts. Carolyn (my roomie from way back in training) and I almost stayed in Antsirabe because 1) Chez Billy was a sturdy building 2) we looked up satellite images of the storm online and it looked like it was literally going to eat Madagascar and 3) Carolyn was rather ill and thus wasn’t sure how well she could handle a taxi-brousse. At the last minute we mutually decided that we would head back to our sites and weather the storm out there. My house at the hospital compound is concrete so I was fairly certain I would be alright. The tin roof worried me a little bit and when Hurricane Giovanna arrived she really did try her best to wrench my roof off but luckily by the time she reached the highlands she was only a category one storm and thus had lost most of her muscle. The only real damage sustained was my poor kabone (outhouse) which had the wooden door yanked clean off. So much for privacy. Overall, damage in the highlands was pretty minimal from what I could gather. The east coast was a different story entirely. A fellow volunteer who lives on the coast told me that she cried when she saw her village after the storm because there was basically nothing left of it. Various NGOs have already swept into the worst hit regions to offer aid but I am guessing it will be quite awhile before the families and communities fully recover.
Okay, this entry is so long that I am actually beginning to bore myself so I am gonna breeze through the other events. Let’s see…a few weeks ago there was a sort of “tree planting day” here in Andramasina and apparently it is also a nation-wide thing although it isn’t clear if everyone plants on the same day or if each community chooses. Being a big fan of saving the environment, I was happy to participate. However, it was never explained to my satisfaction why in the world we had to climb a mountain (I exaggerate, but only a little) to plant the trees. But climb the mountain we did and I learned a valuable lesson: climbing up a steep incline is tiring, but climbing down the same incline is downright terrifying. I could just imagine myself tripping just a tiny bit and then tumbling the three kilometers down the hill back into town. That would be a faster but definitely more painful way to get home. That day left me with two things 1) the pleasant feeling of a good deed accomplished and 2) the absolute worst sunburn of my life. Those of you who know me are aware that I am as white as Wonder Bread. I am keenly aware of this fact as well and thus I slathered on ridiculous amounts of sunscreen throughout the day. However, the combination of being closer to the equator and the high altitude of the highlands was too much for my pasty self to handle. The horrible sunburn quickly turned into horrible blisters which then turned into horrible oozing (yuck, right?) which finally concluded with horrible peeling. It didn’t help matters that my Malagasy friends were fascinated by my sunburn and kept wanting to poke it. Glad I could entertain, I guess.
Moving right along. I have started to attend church (Assembly of God) on Sunday mornings with my Malagasy family. I had considered going in the past but previously my language skills weren’t at the level where I could get anything out of the sermon. When I told my Malagasy mom I wanted to go with them she almost started crying which slightly alarmed me until I realized she was just really happy. She told me I was “tena akaiky ny fo” (really close to her heart). It has been a great experience so far. I meet my family in the morning and we walk together to church then afterwards I follow them home and we all have a big lunch together. When I see my Malagasy family all freshly washed and wearing their nicest church clothes it always makes me smile. The church itself is very humble, concrete walls, hard wooden pews, and a tin roof with holes. But man do these people know how to worship. They sing, they dance, they yell “Hallelujah”, and they smile the whole time – all two to three hours of it. I have attended several different churches in the States in years past and I think they could all learn something from this little Malagasy congregation. I saw more sincerity and conviction in that first Sunday at church here than I did in all the time I attended church in the States. And all while sitting under a leaky tin roof.
Last but not least, I learned a bit about Malagasy black magic. They didn’t use the words black magic of course but that is the best way I can describe it. It was my friend Iaina’s 20thbirthday and after dinner we were all sitting around chatting about random stuff when someone brought up a particular region in Madagascar that is said to have people who can do black magic like cursing people. They told me all kinds of crazy stories about some pretty nasty, graphic curses. For example, supposedly there are people who have been cursed and have their head turned all the way around so that their body faces one way and their head faces another. They also said there are people who can command a person who has recently died to walk to the tomb and lay down unaided. When I asked how they learn how to do these things my friends all replied that these are very old customs that go back before the French colonization. My favorite story was actually about when the Malagasy were fighting the French. The French brought all sorts of guns and big weapons and the Malagasy didn’t have anything like that. But when the French fired on a group of Malagasy men they simply lifted their hands and said “rano” (water) and the bullets turned to water droplets. Of course, all of this sounds so much cooler when you are sitting in a circle with Malagasy people at night and hearing them tell it in their own words. I’m not saying I believe it, but I’m gonna try really hard not to give anyone a reason to curse me. Just in case.
Whew! You made it to the end! Congrats! I will reward you with a funny anecdote. You may remember the fripperies from my last blog entry where you can find secondhand clothes. Well, a few weeks ago I was browsing the frip and a guy tried to sell me what he called a dress. It was actually an old hospital gown complete with tie-back which would show your rear end to the whole world. In his defense, it was very reasonably priced. Veloma!