Two Weeks Down…And A Lot To Go

I have successfully survived two weeks at site! I realize that in the grand scheme of things that is hardly a blip on the map but it feels pretty big in terms of my Peace Corps service. Of course, I am definitely still in the process of figuring things out and I have a strong inkling that this process will continue for the next two years.
As my friends know, I am generally a fairly calm and grounded person but I would be lying if I said that watching that Peace Corps van drive away, leaving me as the sole American in a town I had never seen before that day, didn’t shake me up considerably. As I walked back to my little cement room at the hospital compound where I had deposited all of my possessions earlier I thought to myself (not for the first time, mind you) “What the heck did I get myself into?” Blatant stares and shouts of “Vazaha! Vazaha!” (foreigner) followed my every footstep. I quickly realized why the current volunteers we had talked to during training had constantly warned us to make sure we leave our house every day; the urge to shut myself in my room and watch American movies on my laptop for 12 hours straight was almost overwhelming. But I knew that I had to face my fears and show my face around town as much as possible so I decided to go around and make a few purchases for my room. Unfortunately, I seem to lose all of my hard-earned Malagasy speaking skills when I am actually confronted with a real situation that calls for its use…rather inconvenient.

Being elevated to celebrity level in terms of the attention I receive in public and the very real language barrier are not the only challenges I became cognizant of during the first two weeks. Daily life in a developing country is hard. Simple tasks that would take little time and almost no forethought in the US can mean hours of labor here. A good example…washing clothes. If you have a washing machine I want you to take a moment and thank it properly for all the time and trouble it saves you. I mean it. When I need to wash clothes here (which is often because the red Madagascar dust gets absolutely everywhere) I need to 1) fetch water either from the public spigot in town or the river one small bucket at a time 2) buy the rock solid soap from the little stores in town 3) soak the clothes in soapy water 4) begin the extremely difficult to master task of scrubbing them by hand one by one 5) put the clothes in another bucket to rinse them 6) wring them out one by one 7) find a clothes line or some bushes to hang them up to dry in the sun which takes about two days when it is reasonably sunny out. Then there is cooking. Luckily, one of the things I bought during installation was a little gas stove so I don’t have to use a charcoal fire like most people here. However, I cannot get around the fact that food here is extremely limited in terms of variety and it is all raw when you buy it (ie raw meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc.). And you can forget about using a refrigerator to keep things fresh. That means that figuring out how to cook nutritious (I am a health volunteer after all) and delicious meals is rather hard to do. You can only handle eating vegetable soup a couple nights in a row before you have to get more inventive. Thus far, I have subsisted primarily on obscene amounts of pasta (yeah, not nutritious) and fresh fruit. I branched out a little today and cooked some ground beef I bought from the market with red beans and tomatoes. My attempt at making tortillas with flour, salt, and water failed a bit. They were more like lumps of tortilla than a proper shell. Ah well, trial and error is the name of the game. I have had some epic failures with cooking as well. I tried to make a soup using some dried shrimp I bought at the market the other night and it was so awful that even I couldn’t eat it. Also, just yesterday morning I was frying potatoes and green beans and I turned my back for a second and the frying pan slid off the burner and dumped its contents all over the floor. Not only did I not have breakfast after that, but my floor was dotted with little oil marks where the potatoes and green beans had landed.

Enough of my complaining about how tough things are, I think I am rather lucky in my assignment to Andramasina in many respects. Andramasina, how I love thee…let me count the ways: 1) I am one of only a few health volunteers in our stage to have the great luxury of electricity although I have heard it gets cut for months at a time and it goes in and out throughout the day 2) there have been PC Volunteers at my site in previous years so the people are used to having strange looking foreigners talk to them about washing their hands after they go to the bathroom 3) I have made a good friend already, Vatsy…it helps a lot that he speaks better English than I speak Malagasy 4) the town is small enough to feel quaint and cozy but big enough to keep me from going mad 5) the town has a EPP, CEG, and LYCEE (elementary, middle, and high school) which means I will (hopefully) be able to teach health classes at the schools and maybe even start some clubs as a secondary project 6) it gets hot in the highlands but not as hot as the coast where I would probably melt into a puddle of sweat and blonde hair within a day 7) the doctors and nurses I work with are all pretty awesome. So yeah, I am pretty happy with where I am overall.

Of course I have to mention the famadiana and the mpamosavy. Let’s start with the famadiana. A famadiana is the Malagasy custom of digging up the remains of “razana” (ancestors) and family members who have passed away and basically having a big party around the remains for two days. You may think I am exaggerating, but I am not (see the pictures below). This happens every five to seven years depending on the family and town. I was “lucky” enough to have my first week at site coincide with a famadiana. After the bones are taken from the tombs, they are paraded up and down the streets while music is played marching band style and people dance and sing. Then in the evening the remains sit on a sort of alter while everyone continues dancing, singing, and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Then these huge pots of rice are cooked (this is Madagascar after all) and two cows slaughtered and everyone feasts. It was really interesting to observe, and I like that they honor their ancestors and rejoice in the memory of loved ones who have passed away but I could do without carrying the remains around and drinking quite so much alcohol. I lost count of how many times a guy at the famadiana tried to drunkenly speak to me in a mixture of Malagasy and French…this was very confusing to me because I speak very little Malagasy and even less French. Generally, I got away by pulling the “azafady fa tsy azoko” card (I’m sorry but I don’t understand). Then there are the mpamosavy, or witches. It depends on the area of Madagascar you are in but generally speaking people throughout the country believe in mpamosavy. They are responsible for all kinds of mischief including the rather unnerving habit of knocking on people’s windows and doors in the dead of night trying to lure them out. I always laughed at the idea of this until the night of the famadiana when after I had tucked myself into bed I was jarred awake by a loud “knock, knock, knock” at my window. The same window which, much to my dislike at that moment, happens to be right at the foot of my bed. Although I knew the windows were barred and locked and the deadbolt on my door was secure, I had a bit of trouble sleeping that night. Then it happened again just last night while I was still awake but watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on my laptop in bed (it’s the little things that keep you sane). Of course, I know that it is probably either someone drunkenly wandering around town after the bar closes or someone looking to scare the “vazaha”. But when I told my friend Vatsy about it his response was something along the lines of, “those mpamosavy are very tricky”. Witch or drunken man…there is no way I am opening a window when I hear knocking on it at night. And I am kind of considering getting a dog. A big one.

That reminds me, I had a cat…for one day. I walked 6 km to the next town with Vatsy this past Saturday to shop at the market there (best strawberries of my life). The town is called Sabotsy, which means Saturday in Malagasy, and the market is on Saturday. Someone was not very imaginative in naming that town. After I had bought some things (strawberries, honeycomb, a shirt from the “frip”, and a tiny toy cow) we walked to the section of the market where people sell live animals. Vatsy is obsessed with owning as many chickens as he can. If there was a chicken addicts anonymous I think he would have to join. He has around forty at his house but he basically salivates when he sees a big, impressive (whatever that means) chicken at the market. I however, was focused on the man who had a mysteriously meowing bag. Long story short, the man was selling this poor orange and white kitty cat who was obviously frightened to death and nearly dying of heat stroke from being tied up in that bag all afternoon. So I did what any animal-loving American would do…I bought it immediately at the exorbitant price the man asked and brought it home with me. Well, the rest of the day consisted of me trying to coax Kennedy (I named him after the president who inspired the Peace Corps…what a nerd) out from under my couch with warm milk and dried shrimp. After hours of stubbornly hiding, I think he finally realized I wasn’t going to stuff him in a bag and drag him to a dusty market somewhere and he ate what I offered. But later that night my new friend started meowing and meowing like it was the end of the world and man did he have a loud, deep meow. I share the hospital compound with a doctor, a nurse, and a young student so I was frantically trying to hush him. Finally, I gave up and opened a window to see if he wanted to go out…the answer was a resounding yes. Unfortunately, he did not return after that. Way to eat and run, Kennedy. Vatsy says he will look for a kitten for me when he goes to the bigger town but I am kind of hesitant now. Maybe getting a Peace Corps pet straight away wasn’t such a great idea. Ah well, at least Kennedy isn’t in that tiny bag anymore. The cat’s out of the bag…ha. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

In other news, I began working at the CSBII (local health clinic) this week. I walk with the doctor who shares the hospital compound with me in the morning and while patients wait outside the clinic to see the doctor I give brief “kabary” (speeches/talks) about health topics, which is rather intimidating and difficult to do given my limited Malagasy language skills but I do my best. Thus far, I have given kabary on family planning, nutrition, safe motherhood, and vaccinations. The people are always very receptive and appreciative, but I wonder how much of the information I give is actually retained and, more importantly, put into practice by my audience. The only thing I can do is remain positive, keep trying, and learn as much as I can about the public health needs of my community. The clinic is open from 8:00AM to 12:00PM then there is a break for lunch and “miala sasatra” (resting) from 12-2:00PM. The clinic opens again from 2-4:00PM. I used to return to the clinic after the lunch/rest break but I quickly discovered that no one really shows up at that time and so I just sit there twiddling my thumbs or teaching the nurses who work at the clinic English (Marco is really keen to practice his English…he even asked me in English what I think about abortion one day). This past Thursday, I attended a session at the local commune about what the Malagasy kept referring to as “pesta”. I had no idea what that was but since the doctors and health workers were going I tagged along. Well, I now know that “pesta” is the Malagasy term for plague. Yup, the same plague you are thinking of. During the session I learned that there have been several cases of plague in my town in recent years and the training was about the symptoms, cause, diagnosis, and prophylaxis distribution in the event of an outbreak. Not the most comforting of talks, but informative nonetheless. That is one illness I could definitely do without catching.

So while I am desperately trying to figure out how I can be helpful in my community and put my knowledge to good use, I am also trying to integrate into the community. I took a step in the right direction a few nights ago when one of the doctors at the hospital knocked on my door and told me the Medicin Inspectuer wanted me to attend a “feti” (party) that was being thrown for a nurse who was leaving. I was hesitant at first (I, being the grandmother that I am, was already in my pajamas), but I am glad I went. There was something remarkably comforting about realizing that people everywhere enjoy drinking a little bit, singing really badly to karaoke, and dancing ridiculously. Also, being “vazaha” has its benefits. I can’t dance to save my life, but I was free to bust a move like there was no tomorrow because my Malagasy counterparts would just assume that was the way Americans dance. Sorry for that, everyone. That’s all I have to report for now. Mandrapiaona!

The "razana" at the famadiana

Andramasina - my new home

The CSBII (health clinic) where I work cat for one day, hiding under the couch


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ellen Morales
    Oct 04, 2011 @ 00:08:18

    Dear Kim,
    I can hear your voice as a I read your vivid and oh-so-interesting blogs. Thank you so much for filling all of us in on your daily life.

    Our new residents of Yost (called “Yosties,” “Yosters,” and “Yostafarians”) are a great bunch. But, I just have to say, that having 4 young men on staff is different! And not having you with us means there is a huge hole in our lives! We miss you a bunch, but are thinking of you often and wishing you well.

    Much love,


  2. Janice Hughes
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 17:03:45

    I enjoyed reading your latest blog entry! Your descriptions help those of us who read it to “walk” into your life and understand more clearly what you are experiencing. You seem like a brave gal to me and yes, I believe you have the right idea about not opening your window or door at night. I think about you often and pray that God will keep you safe and help you learn the language and trust of people very quickly.

    I love knowing your mom. She’s a sweet, gracious person.

    Blessings to you!


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