If You’re Happy and You Know It Read This Blog

Manahoana daholo! Hey everybody – or more accurately hey family and friends and random college student who stumbled on this blog while dredging the bottom of the barrel for ways to procrastinate and not write that essay due in three hours. It’s okay, I was you once. As I settled down to type this blog entry I realized that this one might end up being even more random and scattered than usual. It’s not my fault, my life just tends toward the random and scattered side of things. Therefore, it seemed only logical to figure out some sort of organizational method (I occasionally have moments of logical thinking). That’s when I remembered that I have been teaching my itty bitty students in my English Club how to say different emotions in English. If I have to sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” one more time I might stick a fork in my eye, but that is beside the point. The point is that I can organize this blog by the emotional impact of the events. Everything I choose to write about obviously made me feel one way or another. Nobody writes about things they are completely apathetic about. Okay, maybe that poor soul stuck in a back room writing obituaries, but you know what I mean. So, following that train of thought…

Things That Made Me Happy:

  • International Women’s Day – What’s that? You didn’t know there was an International Women’s Day? Oh my, how terribly uninformed you are. Seriously, read a newspaper. Just kidding…I had no clue such a thing existed until I was invited to a planning meeting for it in my town. I have no idea what sort of events go on in the US for International Women’s Day since I was unaware of its existence previously but here in Madagascar it is a pretty big deal. Since my town is the commune head people come from all of the outlying fokontany (little villages) to observe and participate in the festivities. At one point during the planning meeting, the committee leader turned to me and asked what I was going to do for the celebration. I wracked my brain for something health related I could demonstrate to the masses as I simultaneously fought my desire to sink into the floor and disappear. I am not totally a stranger to public speaking but I knew International Women’s Day would draw an impressive and therefore intimidating crowd. I once heard someone say (or did I read it somewhere? Or was it a Facebook status? No matter) that people generally rank public speaking as a greater fear than dying. That seems a little misguided to me, but if you have ever found yourself center stage with hundreds of eyes glued on your every move, noting your every mistake then you might see how that statement could be true. However, since I was not, as it turns out, able to make myself disappear from the meeting, I said that I could do an improved cookstove demonstration. My reasoning was this: 1) I had already built two cookstoves so I had a bit of practice under my belt 2) As I have said before, the cookstoves are a great thing to implement for public health 3) Since I would be building a cookstove during the demonstration perhaps people would be focused on what I was doing with my hands rather than critiquing my errors in verb tenses while speaking Malagasy 4) I panicked and it was the first thing to pop into my head. So when March 8, International Women’s Day, rolled around I was armed and pseudo ready with my tanimena (red dirt), tanimanga (clay), lavenona (ash), and mololo (dried grass). As I began my demonstration in the middle of the market area about a hundred people gathered around and I found a microphone thrust into my face. I quickly discovered that it is quite difficult to speak into a microphone (in a foreign language no less) and focus on mixing bricks and assembling a cookstove at the same time. In fact, I might have found the task altogether impossible if Kyoko, a Japanese JICA volunteer (the Japanese equivalent of Peace Corps) who also lives in Andramasina, hadn’t shown up and graciously offered to help. So while I uttered semi-comprehensive sentences into the microphone she helped build the stove. Since it was a demonstration and we were obviously pressed for time, the cookstove itself ended up being a little…challenged. Okay fine, it was downright ugly. But I stressed to everyone that this was just an example to take them through the steps of building one. An actual stove should take twice as long to build, have higher sides, more even bricks, and be much less (for lack of a better word) melty. When the demonstration ended I handed out sheets of paper with the instructions for building the stove in Malagasy that I had made (which caused temporary chaos in the marketplace as Malagasy apparently have no concept of forming an orderly line and anything being given out for free is reason enough to basically murder the man, woman, or child in front of you). Afterwards, I found a bucket of water to wash off the bits of cookstove which were stuck to my hands. Imagine my surprise upon my return to the demonstration area when something was mysteriously missing – the ugly little cookstove we had made! To this day, I have no idea how someone managed to make off with a very cumbersome, very melty cookstove that was sitting in the middle of the marketplace with a gazillion people milling about. It’s quite impressive, really. But I also laugh a little inside every time I think about the poor sap who took the stove arriving home and finding that no cooking pot in the world would sit evenly on that poorly constructed thing. All his efforts only managed to win him the ugliest lawn decoration of all time. However, in spite of the challenges faced and the minor theft involved I felt rather good about how many people were reached that day. So this was a happy event. And also I danced ridiculously with the kids at the party afterwards which understandably amplified the feel-goodness (if Ms. Gillum’s class is reading, I made that word up so don’t use it in her class or she’ll make that displeased face – also Benny Tucker, I have some pretty intense ninja skills of my own so no worries, I will be prepared when I return to the US).

Cookstove demonstration with the help of Kyoko

  • Cute little birds – Cute little bird number one was Frank the Finch. Frank and I had a very brief relationship, but a rewarding one nonetheless. I was walking home on a particularly sweltering day when the sheer amount of moisture streaming from my pores persuaded me to stop at a little stand that has a fridge and buy a cold Coke. As I was waiting for my change, I noticed a very realistic looking fake bird sitting on top of the dusty fridge. A half second later, the fake bird did something quite unorthodox and blinked. Obviously, I then realized that it was a real bird but I was amazed at how close to us it was sitting without moving. I asked the man selling me the Coke if the bird belonged to him and he explained that he had found it earlier that day sitting in the road struggling to fly but not succeeding. He said he figured it was just hot and thirsty because it didn’t appear to be injured at all. He had taken it out of the road and sat it on the fridge and there it had remained, unmoving all day. Before I knew it, the 8 year old in me who wanted desperately to be a veterinarian asked the man if I could take the bird home and care for it. The man had no qualms with handing it over and so the little bird (who I promptly christened Frank the Finch) came home with me. I set Frank up in a little woven basket with a washcloth to sit on, a bottlecap of clean water, and a handful of rice (everything in this country eats rice, even dogs…except Lolo because she thinks she is French, not Malagasy). I was terrified Frank was going to kick the bucket during the night and I covered his basket really well to keep him warm. Much to my relief, Frank was practically a new bird in the morning. He was bright eyed, hopping around, and chirping excitedly. I carried him in my hand just outside my house and as soon as he caught sight of blue sky he took off. And thus ended my brief time with Frank. Cute little bird number two is Val the baby duck. About two weeks ago I went to the neighboring town of Sabotsy with some of my Malagasy friends to browse the market (the same market where I found Kennedy the cat). Iaina told me she really wanted to buy two baby ducks (a male and a female) so that she could eventually start raising ducks for some additional income. I never turn down an opportunity to gawk at baby animals so we went together to the section of the market where live animals are sold. As we walked merchants squatting by the roadside opened their baskets to reveal the animals they were selling. From all sides we were met by the faces of animals peeking anxiously out of their basket prisons – baby pigs, kittens, chickens, geese, guinea pigs, rabbits, and finally baby ducks. I have long held the opinion that puppies and baby otters are the cutest things in the universe, but I am now inclined to place baby ducks at the top of the list along with them. As Iaina selected her two baby ducks (I suppose I should say ducklings but I am too lazy to go back and change it now) I oohed and awwed at the horde of tiny, cheeping babies. Suddenly, I noticed one little yellow and brown duck had a perfect brown heart shape on the top of his head. And it wasn’t one of those Virgin Mary’s face in the burned toast sort of things – it was a perfect heart shape and even Iaina saw it. I have what I call selective belief in signs. Meaning I only claim to believe in signs when it would support something I already want to do. So in that moment I decided it was a sign and I believed it and it meant I needed to buy that baby duck. And that is how I ended up with the newest member of my dysfunctional family – Val (short for Valentine because of the heart). Things are getting quite cozy in my little room at the hospital with me, Val my Love Duck, and Lolo my Little Bearded Lady. But cozy is nice.

I give you Frank the Finch

Val my Love Duck

Things That Made Me Sad:

  • When you want to leave Tana (the capital) you have to go to one of several large taxi-brousse stations where you can buy a space (if you can call it that) on a vehicle going to your town. Fasankarana is the name of the taxi-brousse station where you catch vehicles heading south so that is where I have to go when I return to my site from Tana. Ask any Madagascar PCV and they will tell you that Fasankarana is basically the seventh circle of hell. No joke. I’m pretty sure if you read Dante’s Inferno carefully you will find it is mentioned somewhere in there. It is full of vehicles, mud, urine, starving dogs and starving people. The smell is enough to give you a migraine in about ten minutes. The last time I had the unfortunate experience of sitting and waiting for a taxi-brousse to take me back to Andramasina I was met with a sight that made me want to cry. And I hate crying in public. There were two little kids walking slowly among the layer of filth that covers the ground at Fasankarana. I would guess the little girl was three and the little boy was two based on their size but it is quite possible they were older and simply had stunted growth from malnourishment. The little boy’s arms were stick thin but his belly was pouched and swollen – telltale sign of intestinal worms and poor nutrition. Neither of them had shoes and their tiny little feet shuffled in the grime dangerously close to broken glass and shards of metal from disintegrating taxi-brousses. The boy was only wearing a shirt and underwear while the girl had a shirt and threadbare shorts. All their clothing put together couldn’t mop up a glass of water. As I watched their slow progress I realized that they were searching in the muck for discarded plastic bags. When they found one, they would weakly shake the dirt from it and stuff it under their arm with the dirty bundle of bags already there. At the time I thought they were just amusing themselves in any way they could in such a place, but I later found out that they were probably collecting them at their parents’ behest so that the bags could be rinsed and resold. Sitting there and watching them, it would take a cold heart not to feel anything. I did the only thing I could think of at the time – I rushed to the nearest bread merchant and bought a big round loaf and handed it to them. They didn’t utter a word in response, didn’t smile, didn’t laugh. Just looked at me with hollow, scared eyes and slowly walked away with their bread and their dirty bags. I was a tangle of emotions – sad at the tragedy of it and angry that such a harsh reality exists. These two little souls exist in the same world where people own multiple vacation homes, the same world where you can get your genome mapped just to satisfy your curiosity, the same world where people buy laptops and cellphones for their small children. I know these things all exist in the same world as those two children, but as I watched their backs retreating, barely covered by their ragged clothing, it didn’t seem possible.

The daughter of the lady I buy coffee from every day

Things That Made Me Want to Find the Nearest Kabone and Vomit:

  • Another important health/cooking tip: If you plan to go away for a few days and you find yourself in a home which is open to the elements and thus host to many creepy crawlies, do not – I repeat, DO NOT – leave a single dish unwashed. I mean it. What will happen if you don’t? Remember that dish you left with a tiny bit of cooking oil on the bottom? It’ll be fine, right? WRONG! Upon your return you will find that the yellow oil has turned into a writhing whitish mass. That’s right…maggots. Feel my pain and then learn from my mistakes, kids.
  • A Truly Horrifying True Horror Story: It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was. The light in my room has been broken for quite awhile so when it gets dark I rely on the flickering light of candles and the pitiful beam of light from my cellphone. Even with the combined forces of cellphone and candlelight my room isn’t bright at night…it’s just less dark. As I sat on my bed admiring how good David Duchoveney looks in black (I was watching Californication on my laptop) I heard a faint noise coming from the hallway outside my door. Assuming it was Lolo up to her usual small-yappy-type-dog antics I slowly opened the door and took one step into the dark of the hallway. “Loooooloooo,” I called and a moment later out of the murky darkness emerged…(dramatic pause)…Lolo. Obviously, that’s not the horrifying part. As she happily scampered into my room I turned to follow her wagging tail. But just before reaching the warmth and safety of my dimly lit room, my right foot came down on something cold, vaguely wet, and alarmingly squishy. I immediately lifted my foot with a sharp intake of breath assuming that my foot had just been met with some disgusting Lolo poopoo pile (I almost wrote “excrement” but it sounded too technical and I liked how Lolo and poopoo rhyme). Back into my room I hopped like a pirate missing his peg leg, carefully keeping the right foot raised for fear of contaminating my floor. I picked up a small flashlight from the table and shone it on the underside of my foot, fully expecting to see poopoo pieces (I’m really enjoying that word) as evidence of the encounter. But much to my surprise, my foot appeared to have escaped unscathed. “Well then,” I asked myself, “what in the world did I step on?” So my flashlight and I ventured back out into the hallway to confront the mystery squishy thing. When the light first fell upon the offending object I had no idea what it was. I just knew it was something I never, ever wanted to touch. It was ridiculously long and fairly thin and snaked almost halfway down the length of the hallway. I drew closer but immediately regretted the decision since it smelled worse than it looked. And that’s when I realized what it was, what I had stepped on, what I was looking at. Pig intestine. The family who lives next to me raises pigs and there had been the telltale sounds of pig slaughter that very morning. Lolo must have wandered over there, found the remnants of the unfortunate swine victim, and brought it back home with her as a prize. A sick, sick, stomach turning, foot contaminating prize. I won’t elaborate on the cleanup of the hallway and my foot that took place afterwards but suffice to say a person is never quite the same after cleaning several meters of pig intestine from their floor. I told you…truly horrifying.

I will never look at Kentucky Fried Chicken the same way again

Well, I guess I can’t just leave you with those disturbing visions in your head. Let’s see…what else? Oh! So I learned that Malagasy people believe in mermaids. But we aren’t talking about the cute red-haired, sickly sweet Disney mermaids. This is Madagascar after all. Apparantly many Malagasy people are afraid to swim in any body of fresh water because horrible, ugly mermaids might be lurking beneath the surface waiting to devour an unsuspecting swimmer. What do they look like? When my friend Vatsy described them the vision that popped into my mind was the lower half of a barracuda and the upper half of Dick Cheney. Not pleasant. They are also more likely to snatch you up if you have recently eaten something they find appetizing like pork. Now you know why Madagascar has no synchronized swimming…well, one of the reasons.

Veloma daholo! 🙂

Lolo (aka Bearded Lady) looking deceptively innocent. I know better.

My Malagasy mom Hanta making lunch after church


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. carabrook
    Apr 11, 2012 @ 17:31:16

    Have you used the public restrooms in Fasankarana yet? That might convince you it’s actually in the ninth–not seventh–circle of hell…

    Great to hear more updates, Kim!


  2. carabrook
    Apr 11, 2012 @ 17:32:23

    Have you had to use the public restrooms in Fasankarana yet? That might convince you it’s actually in the ninth–not seventh–circle of hell…

    Great to hear more updates, Kim!


    • khconner
      Apr 11, 2012 @ 19:23:54

      Omg…there are public restrooms there? I would rather just pop a squat behind a taxi. The urine is everywhere anyway so it’s not like it would make a huge difference. Hope you are well! ❤


  3. madalife
    Apr 11, 2012 @ 21:30:03

    According to Wikipedia (the most trusted source??), Women’s day originated in U.S. by the Socialist Party of America on February 28,1909.
    It’s still unsolved mystery (or superstitution) in many lakes in Madagascar(Lake Mantasoa is one of them): people who eat pork and then swim in those lakes are highly likely to get drowned and their dead bodies are unfound for few days. But once their bodies are found floating after few days, they miss either an eye or tongue.
    Nearly 2,000 years ago in Israel and its neighbors, some people were demon-possessed. It’s kind of ridiculous right now if you still believe that but I do but I believe the evil spirits are manifesting in different form nowadays in developed countries through seduction: it’s closer than ever, it’s in our living room, just turn on theTV, movies (Disney-made included), video clips.


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