Where did I leave you last time? Ah yes, the horrible cliché of a tearful airport farewell. I have heard it said many times that all good things must come to an end although that motto does seem rather defeatist if you ask me. Can’t we find a way to keep a good thing going forever? Guess not. Although if I had to bet money I’d say the preservative saturated deliciousness of Twinkies will probably last close to forever. Those things just never go bad. Anyway, after two weeks of Madagascar vacation epicness with my dear friend Pasha it was understandably a little difficult to climb on that taxi brousse heading back to my site. It was even harder to sit at my site with basically nothing to do but count passing zebu since school hadn’t started yet and Andramasina was basically a ghost town with all the kids wrapping up summer vacation elsewhere. The truth is I think those lonesome moments when the boredom reaches a point where you almost gouge your eyes out with a fork are a part of almost every Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience –and those moments can be more trying than anything else. When you are busy you don’t have time to think about the people and things you miss the most (cheddar cheese…sigh), but when you find yourself literally watching paint dry you can quite easily drown in your own thoughts and emotions. Those moments test you in many ways – your level of independence, your optimism, your commitment to the Peace Corps, and your ability to appreciate delayed satisfaction. Or maybe it only tests your ability to find innovative ways to amuse yourself. Either way, when you are in Peace Corps it’s a challenge you accept.
I decided that rather than sitting around cursing my ridiculous amounts of free time I should embrace it. After all, most of you reading this are probably thinking, “God, what I wouldn’t do for some free time.” You know I’m right. So I started doing things that I would really like to do but normally can’t find time for. In true Peace Corps style I spent several days just reading books (I would highly recommend the Women’s Murder Club series by James Patterson). I also filled some time by studying for the GRE (you mean I actually have to remember the arithmetic I learned in 8th grade!? That’s what a calculator is for) and expanding my French vocabulary which sadly is still minuscule. I enjoyed my leisurely lifestyle for about two weeks before the real world found me and I had to start doing productive things again.
I received a text message from Tovo, the supervisor of the health volunteers in Madagascar, inviting me to attend a meeting in Tana. The text specified the date, time, and location of the meeting but strangely enough offered no explanation as to the topic or nature of the meeting. It simply said it was a “PAC meeting”. So I texted Tovo back inquiring as to what exactly we would be discussing at the meeting. I believe I wrote something like, “I would be happy to attend the meeting but what exactly is it about?” To which he replied, “Program Advisory Committee.” Huh. Well, I knew what PAC stood for then but what the heck did that even mean? We were going to be a committee of unspecified people advising an unspecified program? Tovo is a good guy and a great supervisor so no offense to him, but the failure to elaborate was a little funny. One of the many reasons Peace Corps recruiters will tell you volunteers must be nothing if not flexible. I made the trek to Tana for the meeting in spite of the slight gap in details (I had finished all my books – what else was I gonna do?). Once there and able to use the internet at the transit house I discovered that I had received an email providing the details of the meeting. All of the current health volunteers (there are about 14 of us, all from the July 2011 stage) had been invited to attend the meeting in order to discuss the future of the Peace Corps health program in Madagascar. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Washington gave the Madagascar team two options – either discontinue the health program entirely or dramatically restructure it. Since Madagascar is still lagging far behind most other countries in terms of health indicators like infant and maternal mortality, I am relieved to say that they chose to restructure. Counterparts and representatives from various health NGOs working in Madagascar were also invited to this meeting, and although a great many failed to show (hopefully they were busy saving small children and bunnies from a burning house or something) it was very interesting to get a glimpse of what the new health program will look like. In accordance with Washington’s shiny new Focus In Train Up (FITU) framework, the health program will be much more…well…focused. We will be welcoming brand new health volunteers in February 2013 and their training will be completely different from what me and the other “old” volunteers received. For one thing, they will be directly following FITU training packets sent from Washington. They will be focusing on Maternal, Neonatal, and Child Health (breastfeeding, nutrition, malaria control, etc.) and Environmental Health (improved cookstoves, water and sanitation, hygiene). It seems that Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, and HIV/AIDS prevention/education have been thrown to the wayside. I am not particularly happy about this exclusion, but I am just one of the little people and the decision has already been made. So the training of the new volunteers will reflect these changes – and as for the rest of us health volunteers who will soon become outdated? The answer seems to be evolve and cope as best we can. There’s that flexibility thing again.
Enough bureaucratic talk – let’s move on to the excitement of Mid-Service Conference (MSC). What is that you ask? Precisely what it sounds like – the conference volunteers attend mid-way through their service. Since Peace Corps service is two years long (excluding training) and my fellow stagemates and I have been in Madagascar for a little over a year it was time for the much anticipated MSC. Of course, by far the most exciting aspect of MSC was simply being reunited with my stagemates – seeing the same 27 lovely faces that I arrived in this country with back in July 2011. Sure we’ve change a little bit – some of us are a few pounds lighter, some of us are a little tanner, some of us are a little hairier, and all of us are quite a bit dirtier – but once we gathered together it was just like old times. We had some interesting sessions (I am now knowledgeable on raising chickens for profit), ate our weight in popcorn, threw some water balloons, and got our dance on. It was a good week.
Oh, but the excitement didn’t end there! Immediately after MSC I had the honor, privilege, and awesome good luck to work once again with Habitat for Humanity. The destination this time around? None other than Ranomafana National Park. You might recall that location from my last blog entry – it was the first park that Pasha and I visited on our Madagascar adventures, the home of numerous lemurs, chameleons, and natural hot springs. I had a great time working with the previous Habitat group in Moramanga back in July so the bar was set rather high but this new group didn’t disappoint. Once again, the group was primarily composed of Americans although there were a few Canadians and a Croatian thrown into the mix. To put it simply they were the shiz, the bee’s knee’s, the cat’s meow, the best thing since sliced bread and all that and a bag of chips. They were that awesome. As we worked together building houses in Ranomafana I had the pleasure of hearing their various life stories and experiences – and how fascinating they were! In the group there was a pediatrician, a former makeup artist turned movie producer turned professional artist, a math teacher from Hawaii, someone who works for Penguin publishing, a health equity consultant, someone who retired in their 30’s – and trust me, that’s just naming a few! In addition to being surrounded by a great group of volunteers (including the four other Peace Corps volunteers and the Malagasy Habitat personnel of course) the work itself was extremely satisfying. The type of work I do with the Peace Corps is great in many ways but rarely do I get to see tangible results of my labor. For instance, when I am doing health education/sensitization in my community I often can’t see any concrete outcomes. Since I am focusing on encouraging behavior change for health improvement the only way I could actually witness any direct change would be by following people home and creepily stalking them to observe if their behavior had indeed been altered by my message. The great thing about working with Habitat for Humanity is that you are building something with your hands – something that you can sit back and admire after you’re done. That’s not to say that having a physical product of your labor is always important, not at all. But I’m not gonna lie…it’s nice sometimes.
After working hard on the houses all week we had a little reward come Sunday – a hike through the park. Recalling all too well the six hour hike that Pasha and I so unwisely chose to do the last time around, I opted for the shorter three hour hike. The park was just as splendid as I remembered and we got to see some Sifaka at very close range as well as giraffe beetles which I had never seen before. The beetles are much smaller than they appear on National Geographic – I don’t know why that surprised me. We also did a night hike which excited me because I thought I might finally get a better glimpse of the shy and incredibly fast mouse lemur. As it turns out, I got to see plenty of mouse lemurs very close up. Not because our guide was particularly skilled at finding mouse lemurs or the alignment of the planets was just right for mouse lemur viewing, but rather because the guides had baited the trees near the road by rubbing bananas on them. So come nightfall, all the mouse lemurs within a mile were irresistibly drawn to the banana smeared branches like a Kentuckian is drawn to a KFC basket. The whole scene did feel quite artificial, especially since there was a shuffling herd of about thirty tourists standing around snapping pictures. But for me, the mouse lemurs were just adorable enough to make up for it. I don’t care how they got them there, that’s still pretty much the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. We also saw frogs, chameleons, and moths but those animals are significantly less cuddly than mouse lemurs so my interest in them was not as great.
As was true in Moramanga, we weren’t able to actually finish any of the houses but we got quite far along in the construction by the end of the ten days and the Malagasy carpenters would finish the houses after the Habitat team departed. When all is said and done there will be four happy families in Ranomafana receiving four brand new houses. In the end I left the build feeling satisfied that we had done good work and very grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of it. I will certainly look for more opportunities to work with Habitat in the future and I encourage my Peace Corps brethren to do the same.
And now I am back in Andramasina. When I arrived, I was greeted by my Malagasy “family” who thought I had been gone far too long in Ranomafana and they feared I had become settled there and would never return to Andramasina. Happily, I was able to put those fears to rest. I was also greeted of course by my dog Lolo who managed to make every inch of her eight pound body wiggle with joy upon my arrival. School has started up once again so it is considerably less quiet in town and I have much more to do with my time. I teach English on occasion, have a health stand at the market every Thursday, and I have my girl’s group Tovovavy Tena Mendrika (Exemplary Young Women). I’ll elaborate more on those projects next time. Plus, the weather has warmed as it gears up for summer in the southern hemisphere. That also means it is now mango season – and there was much rejoicing. Veloma.