As Visions of Chicken Nugget Trees Danced in My Head

Happy New Year!! I considered writing a blog entry right after the New Year began here in Madagascar. Due to the considerable time difference, I could have said that I was writing that entry from the year 2012 while everyone back home was still in 2011 (I’m from the future, Charlie). This thought amused me for a bit until I realized the effect would probably be lost by the time I had internet access and could post the blog entry several weeks later. Ah, well.

This is a big year for me and the rest of the Peace Corps Volunteers in the July 2011 stage; this will be the only full calendar year we will spend in Madagascar (unless some of us extend for a third year). Thus far, everyone in my stage has made it past the hurdle of the first three months at site which are often said to be the hardest. Not a single volunteer has “ET”ed yet (Early Termination – when you choose to pack up and go home for whatever personal reasons you may have – and yes, it is also funny due to the whole “ET phone home” reference). Our successful completion of those first three months was marked by our ecstatic reuniting at In-Service Training (IST) from the 12th to the 16th of December. As each volunteer in my stage slowly trickled into the transit house in Antananarivo the level of shrieks, hugs, manly one handed back slaps, and jumping up and down increased significantly. It was soooooo nice to see everyone after three months apart. I don’t think I realized quite how much I missed everyone until I spotted one of my stagemates sitting on the couch at the transit house and ran at her like an angry bear ready to maul someone in order to hug her for what (in retrospect) might have actually been an uncomfortable amount of time. There is just nothing quite like the bond that is formed between a group of people who first spend two months together at every waking second during training and then are basically dropped off at various locations in a foreign land when it is still a struggle to say phrases such as “Where is the toilet?” in the native tongue (of course that particular phrase is also complicated by the fact that there aren’t toilets in many parts of Madagascar). Anyway, I won’t bore you by going into detail about the sessions we had during the week because although the information was very useful, being together was by and large the very best part (at least in my opinion).

One particularly interesting thing the health volunteers did though was build a cook-stove using wood ash, corn hulls, and red dirt/clay. It was rather fun digging around in the dirt and using my hands to pat out little bricks. It was all the enjoyment of being a little kid having a blast getting filthy in the yard but without the looming threat of parental reprimand. Knowing how to make these stoves is very useful for health volunteers because not only are the materials very cheap for Malagasy to acquire, but they also use less firewood and produce less smoke which in turn can reduce the amount of upper respiratory infections from smoke inhalation. Which is a very good thing indeed since upper respiratory infection is one of the leading causes of death in children under five years old here in Madagascar.

Of course, true to the spirit of the Peace Corps even building a small cook-stove wasn’t without its own unforeseen challenges. We had already sifted the dirt and ash, mixed them with the hulls, added water and mixed again, made small bricks out of the resulting muck, and formed the bricks in to the shape of our final stove. It was as we were proudly gazing upon our creation that we realized there was a rather significant problem – it was melting. Literally before our eyes the stove was drooping, the bricks mushing together and failing to maintain their intended shape. Apparently, we had added too much water. For a few minutes we all sort of stared at the slowly melting stove. A few tried in vain to prop it up or reform it. The supervisor of the health volunteers Tovo (you might remember him from previous blog entries) told us what we all probably knew already but didn’t want to admit – we needed to tear down the stove and remix the bricks with more ash, so basically start from scratch. Well, we all stood there kind of shuffling our feet out of a mixture of laziness, frustration, and hunger (it was nearing snack time and we are like three year olds when we don’t get our snack at the center). Finally, Tovo said in his fabulously monotone and halting English, “Are you guys giving up? Where are my peeps?” I have no idea who taught him that phrase but bless them. No better rallying speech has ever been given. The stove was torn down, remixed, and rebuilt in record time.

Let’s see, after IST was over I once again said goodbye to my lovely stagemates. Seven other volunteers and I remained at the center in Mantasoa for an additional week of training called the Project Design and Management Workshop (PDM). In order to attend this workshop you were required to invite and bring a Malagasy counterpart (someone you work closely with in the community) so that both the volunteer and their counterpart can partner in future projects at site. Several difficulties arose with this stipulation however. First of all, we were not allowed to invite anyone who is directly employed by the government. That is because things are still rather sticky between the US and Madagascar government – particularly the fact that the US does not officially recognize the current President of Madagascar (long story, I suggest you Wikipedia it) and this workshop was funded by USAID. Fair enough I suppose, but it is a little difficult to find someone that we work closely with who is not government employed. That rules out the mayor, the president fokontany, the chef district, doctors, nurses, teachers, etc. At first, I planned to bring a “mpanentana” (health educator) from my town but she fell ill so I ended up bringing Monsieur Philibert who teaches at the private LYCEE (high school). He is a very nice guy who also helped me find a room and set up my weekly English Club so it all turned out okay in the end. I walked away from the workshop with a lot of big ideas for projects at my site. Hopefully, I will be able to act on at least one of them during my time here. Of course, the two main challenges here always seem to be money and motivation. Time will tell.

Alright, so that takes us to the end of the two weeks of training in Mantasoa. After that, I returned to Antananarivo to stay at the transit house with a few fellow volunteers until Christmas. The vast majority of our stage chose to take some vacation days and travel up north to places like Diego and Nosy Be (beautiful beaches, delicious tropical fruit…I can’t blame them). But I have been trying to save my vacation days for when I really need them (perhaps I’ll take a little break around my birthday) and I also thought I might enjoy some relaxing days squatting in Tana before heading back to site. I don’t regret the decision at all. We made a tasty Christmas Eve dinner which the girls in the group dressed up for (the two boys were far too comfortable in their ball shorts to be motivated to change) we watched some movies (I downloaded the new Sherlock Holmes movie which I may or may not have watched about 6 times at this point) and we played some cards (a few in the group are kind of obsessed with Hearts).

Oh yes. I seem to have forgotten to mention an incident that occurred while I was still in Tana right before leaving for the training in Mantasoa. Those who know me well will not be the least bit surprised that I am branching off in my dialogue to add something that is completely out of chronological or any sort of logical order. So…four other volunteers and I decided to check out the market in Analakely (a part of Tana). Officially, I believe this is a “red zone” for volunteers which means you aren’t supposed to spend a lot of time there. But we were in a big group and we were only going there to check things out quickly and leave (Harry has been searching for a pair of jeans that do not have rhinestones or strange designs or are a size 00 for ages now). If you haven’t been to a big marketplace before a holiday in a developing country then I cannot possibly hope to describe the scene to you properly. Just imagine unimaginable (see what I did there?) chaos. That’s it. Anyway, we were on high alert for pickpockets and such but we managed to leave the main market area without losing any possessions or group members. But as we were walking back to a street where we could catch a taxi-brousse two guys ran up quick as snot behind me, one grabbed my purse (actually one of those long wallet things, but whatever), and took off around the corner. By the time I let out a little half squeal/half shout (which made everyone think I had just tripped) they were basically gone. The thing that gets me is that I wasn’t even in the back of our group – one of the guys was walking behind me and they ran right past him to grab my purse. Anyway, that is the slightly tragic and less than thrilling tale of how I was robbed in Tana. I only lost money, which made me madder than a wet hen (as they say back home in Kentucky), but money can always be replaced.

Okay, I think the only thing left is the New Year’s celebration. I always imagine these blog entries will be shorter than they actually turn out. It appears I am reliably long-winded. At my site there is one family in particular that I spend a lot of time with so of course that is who I wanted surrounding me when the time came to ring in the New Year. Some of the family members live in Tana but (with a little coaxing by telephone from me) they all arrived in Andramasina. Malagasy families are invariably rather large (due to the fact that people have LOTS of children) and I was fortunate enough to be a part of this family’s festivities during the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, we all sat together, ate lots of rice, and sang karaoke songs. What is better than people singing karaoke you ask? People singing karaoke who are a little tipsy (Malagasy beer is pretty strong and comes in bottles the size of a Jack Russell Terrier). But wait, it can get even better. Malagasy people singing the Celine Dion song My Heart Will Go On (yup, the one from Titanic) in English (which none of them know) while a little tipsy. If that doesn’t say New Year’s than I don’t know what does. I only wish I had videotaped some of that. As the night went on there was more rice, some dancing, and more beer. I, having officially turned into a grandmother, went home at around eleven thirty and had a quiet New Year’s moment with Indiana (my puppy). Oh, but it doesn’t end there. The next day music was playing rather loudly and insistently throughout the town, people had come from the outlying villages to browse the market, and I joined in a huge and absolutely fabulous feast with my “Malagasy family”. My contribution to the feast was the purchase of a rather fat and rather ugly turkey who turned out to also be rather delicious. Yes, animal lover that I am, Madagascar still has made me face the fact that those chicken nuggets that I find so tasty in the States (although processed within an inch of their lives) did indeed come from what was once a living animal. Although I still have not reached the point where I could slaughter the intended meal myself, all illusions of a mythical chicken nugget tree are shattered. Personally, I think the slaughtering practices here in Madagascar are much more humane than what is practiced on such a large, industrial scale in the US…but I digress. In addition to the unfortunate turkey we also had some pork, pasta with sardines, cucumber salad, various Malagasy “laoka” (side-dishes), and fresh pineapple. Oh, and of course we had enough rice to feed the US Army. The feeling of everyone gathered together, enjoying the food and the company of family and friends was such a great way to start the New Year. At the end of the meal they all thanked me and clapped for me since I had bought the turkey myself (meat is too expensive for many Malagasy families) but at that moment I only wished I had the language ability to tell them all how much it meant to me to share in their meal and their happiness. I settled on simply saying, “Misaotra anareo” (thank you all).

HAPPY 2012!!

Njaria and his daughter - Although I cannot comment upon the safety of this, it makes a pretty cute pic


Cool moth I befriended during IST


Malagasy chickens plotting how to take over first my room and then the world


Peanut Butter I pounded myself! It only took half an hour to produce about 1/4 cup...


Indiana, growing like a weed



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sara Halligan
    Jan 14, 2012 @ 23:35:43

    I love when you write. It always evokes so many emotions, yet always leaves me confident that you are ok, which is good because I always worry about you. Especially when it’s been a while since hearing from you. I can picture your Malagasy friends singing drunk the words to My Heart Will Go On. I’m sure it was quite the sight. A birthday vacay trip sounds really nice. You deserve to bask in the white sands while lemurs play and jump from tree to tree. I’m so glad so far this has been a positive experience for you. God has truly made an awesome plan for your life. We love you and miss you and pray each day brings you new adventure and continued safety and renewed hope that you are doing great things and making a lasting impact in Madagascar. ❤


  2. Janice Hughes
    Jan 19, 2012 @ 18:36:35

    Enjoyed your post and everyone in our class enjoyed the photos that your mom brough to Bible study for us to see. We like knowing ablout your work and the place where you live. We appreciate the blog and being able to see the photos.
    We also remember you in our prayers. Love, Janice


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