Eto Madigasikara…

Manahoana! Inona no vaovao? I am writing this entry while sitting in a chair by the lake which surrounds the Peace Corps Training Center in Mantasoa, Madagascar. So much has happened since we arrived here that I honestly am struggling with where to start. After a day of staging in Philadelphia, several hours of driving to New York, sleeping on the floor of JFK airport waiting for our flight, a grueling 15 hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, running through the airport to catch our connection, a two hour flight to Antananarivo, Madagascar, and a three hour drive to the training center, we all pretty much collapsed from exhaustion. We had a few days to recover from our travels before facing the first major Peace Corps challenge: homestay.

After being jammed into the back of a four wheel drive and being jostled around on roads that resembled the surface of an uninhabited planet, we were dropped off in front of a gathering of Malagasy families waiting with eager faces. When my name was called, the woman who was assigned to be my host mom stepped forward. She didn’t say anything but she smiled calmly and took my hand to lead me to the home that I would be sharing with her family for the next four weeks. On the walk to their town all of the moms excitedly pointed to anything and everything in an effort to teach us the Malagasy names. “Laaaaalana…gaaaana…vaaary,” they exaggerated the words as they gestured emphatically. A little shell-shocked and with absolutely no understanding of Malagasy at that point, we all just nodded like a mob of smiling bobble heads. After arriving at “tranoko” (my house) Mama Rasoa introduced me to the rest of the family. However, getting to really know my host family was a process that took the entire four weeks.

Mama Rasoa is pretty much always in motion – making a fire, sifting rice, peeling vegetables, washing clothes, sweeping the house, and a million other things. In addition to all that, she also runs a little “epicerie” (store) on the first floor of the house where she sells some food and other miscellaneous items. Dada is a farmer so he is gone from sunrise to sunset taking care of the family’s animals (there are pigs, cows, chickens, and ducks) and crops. I had four host siblings – Liva (15 years), Naval (13 years), Fi (9 years), and Heri (4 years). The two eldest boys didn’t hang around the house too much because they were off helping Dada in the fields or picking up things at the market. Fi, the only girl in the family, was my constant shadow. She found anything I did inherently fascinating. She would even stand right behind me and peer over my shoulder as I wrote in my journal. I will never understand what could be so interesting about watching me write in English for an hour or so, but I always appreciated her company. She was also extremely helpful with language learning. She never got aggravated with my painful struggles at saying anything more complicated than “eny” (yes) or “tsia” (no) in Malagasy. Fi was also the one who taught me the most about daily life in a Malagasy household without the luxuries of running water or electricity. During my time there I learned how to wash my clothes in a creek running along the rice fields, roast and pound peanuts to make peanut butter, peel vegetables to make the “laoka” (side-dish), start a fire for the cook-stove, and use a rice shaker to prepare rice for cooking. Speaking of rice, the Malagasy eat more white rice with every meal than you would think is humanly possible. The youngest member of my host family, Heri, was a little booger but absolutely adorable (which is probably how he got away with so much). He had the habit of putting absolutely everything in his mouth including chewing on the pews in church. I was never really sure whether I was more amused or disgusted. For awhile he cried every evening before dinner because he didn’t want to crouch by the bucket of water and wash his hands like the rest of the family. I discovered during the last week however that if I sang a little song in Malagasy I had learned during technical sessions while we washed our hands he sang along and didn’t have a fit. The song goes like this (to the tune of The Wheels on the Bus):

Zaza manasa tanana, tanana, tanana
Zaza manasa tanana
Jereo ny tananay
Madio ny tananay

And in English:
The kids wash their hands, hands, hands
The kids wash their hands
We take care of our hands
Our hands are clean

Of course we haven’t just been staying with host families and learning about Malagasy daily life. Oh no…the Peace Corps has us pretty busy during the ten weeks of training. A normal weekday goes something like this: get up at six, make your bed, sweep your room, eat breakfast with your family, go to Malagasy language class for four hours, return home for lunch, attend technical sessions on health in Madagascar, have language tutoring sessions, go home, help prepare dinner, eat dinner, study a bit on your own or read by candlelight, and go to bed. It can be rather exhausting, especially when you take into consideration that we are all already a bit strained by the newness of our environment.

We left our host families this past Thursday to return to the Peace Corps Training Center for the remaining five weeks of training before the swearing in ceremony on September 16. It was sad to say goodbye to our families since many of us had grown rather close to our “mamas” and “dadas”. We promised that we would return to visit on August 28 though. Also, I am not gonna lie…it is really nice being able to enjoy the simple luxuries at the training center like running water, western style flushable toilets, electricity, and plenty of delicious food prepared for us by the staff. This is like the Hilton in comparison to what most Malagasy families have so we are very fortunate.

I almost forgot the most important thing! We got our site assignments at the beginning of week three – so I now know where I will be living during my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I have been assigned to a town called Andramasina. It is about 40 km south of Antananarivo (the capital). It is in the highlands so it is hot and humid from September to May and cool (about 65 degrees) from June to September. The rainy season is around November and December. The population of Andramasina is about 14,000 so it is much larger than many people’s sites. Market day is on Thursday and there are lots of epiceries around town where I will be able to buy the necessities. A taxi-brusse ride to the capital only costs about 2,500 Ariary (the equivalent of a like $1.25) so I should be able to go there to get internet access at least once a month. My counterpart (a person in the community who I will be working closely with) is a Malagasy doctor. I will actually be living on the government hospital compound along with the doctor so I will have electricity but no running water. My job description says that I will be focusing on diarrheal disease, malaria, and upper respiratory infections. I will work with health educators in the area and likely teach health in the local schools (I am super excited for that). So overall I am very pleased and excited about my site assignment.

Well, I knew this entry would be long but it is getting a little excessive so I best end it here. I will continue to update this blog whenever I have internet access. The five weeks of training that remain will be filled with language lessons, technical presentations, cross-cultural sessions, languages tests, and technical trips. Speaking of trips, the health volunteers will be taking a trip to the east coast soon so hopefully we will be able to enjoy the beach and see some lemurs. I am pumped. Veloma vetivety! 

Me, Fi, and Heri (my host siblings) in Lohomby, Madagascar!

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