Don’t Say Anything Unless It’s Worth Taking a Long Time to Say

A Few Updates:

Lolo – Rest assured, Lolo is still alive and thriving here in the land of red dirt and rice. In fact, she seems to manage to get me into some sort of minor trouble almost on a daily basis. I am convinced she does it for her own personal amusement. A prime example is her obsession with chasing chickens. Now to western ears this may not sound like a big deal. She chases chickens…so what? Well, you need to bear in mind that chickens are a valuable commodity here. They grow quickly, have lots of offspring on a regular basis, are fairly hardy animals, and both their meat and eggs provide a source of protein for people who are largely protein deficient. For all of these reasons, chickens are kind of a big deal here in Madagascar. Dogs, in contrast, are seen as very low, dirty animals usually not worth more than a kick in the gut (I’ll elaborate more on this later). So you can imagine everyone’s reaction when I stroll through town with Lolo by my side and she suddenly catches sight of a chicken which immediately sparks a transformation in her from a prissy “vazaha” dog who refuses to eat rice to a scrappy Malagasy mutt hell-bent on catching her squawking adversary. Actually, I think you should take a moment to visualize this scene properly because when I reflect on it I recognize how hilarious and ridiculous it is. Imagine a tiny little fluffball of a dog yapping hysterically and running in circles chasing an extremely distressed chicken making a noise that could wake the dead. Okay, now imagine me running after Lolo who is running after the chicken yelling, “LOLO, STOP! LOLO STOP RIGHT NOW! BAD DOG! BAD!” Got that? Now to finish it off imagine about half the population of my town have stopped whatever they were doing previously and are watching wide-eyed as this whole scene occurs. Both hilarious and ridiculous, right? I told you so. Another, although slightly less amusing example of Lolo getting me into trouble happened just a few days ago as I was taking a leisurely walk through the countryside. Work has been rather slow lately for a number of reasons and I was feeling antsy so I decided to do a little exploring and follow one of the many random dirt roads that lead outside of my town. Lolo came with me because 1) I felt like she probably needed to stretch her legs as well 2) what dog in the universe doesn’t love to go on a walk? and 3) she has the most intense case of doggy separation anxiety I have ever seen. So there we were, happily strolling in the warm sunshine of late afternoon when up ahead I saw something very common here in Madagascar – a group of zebu (large, African type of cattle) being guided along the road by a Malagasy man using a small handmade whip. I have passed by so many zebu during my time here that their presence and approach barely registered in my mind. But Lolo, who also has seen tons of zebu in her life I might add, decided that the proper response at that moment to a group of very large, horned animals approaching was to begin growling and yapping as ferociously as her five pounds of body weight would allow. I, of course, was horrified and was already imagining her being trampled to death. Was she being dangerously stupid? Yes. Did she deserve to be trampled by zebu for her stupidity? Maybe. But I love her too much to let that happen. So I immediately tried to catch up with her, hoping that I could scoop her up in my arms and silence her before the zebu got spooked. Unfortunately, Lolo is much faster than me and has some impressive evasive maneuvers when she doesn’t want to be caught. She glanced back and saw me and started zigzagging back and forth all the while still growling and yapping. After a few seconds of this I started to realize this was a futile effort and I happened to look up at the zebu. What I saw was not encouraging. The largest bull zebu with horns as long as my arm had broken off from the group and was accelerating from a walk to a trot. Even more alarmingly, he was not focused on Lolo who was still yapping up a storm but rather had his eyes fixed straight on me. At first I was confused as to why he seemed to be coming after me; Malagasy zebu are generally very docile animals and do nothing more threatening than stare mournfully at you as they chew their cud. However, I suddenly had a moment of clarity – this zebu had assessed the situation and identified what he perceived to be a threat. What is more threatening to you – a tiny yappy dog barely more than a glorified lint ball? Or a strange looking human who appears to run erratically toward you flapping her arms and screeching at the lint ball? I would have been threatened by me too. I had just enough time to contemplate how distinctly uncomfortable and unfortunate it would be to be impaled by a zebu horn before the herder caught up with the bull, gave a sharp crack of the whip, and led the lumbering beast back to where his zebu buddies were waiting. Lolo is not invited on walks in the future.

Lolo – so cute but so naughty

English Club – There really isn’t much to report about English Club at the elementary school at this point. The kids had a few weeks of vacation around Easter and they have been taking exams since they returned which means there is no time for my little English Club. In theory, I will be able to resume teaching very soon but Madagascar seems to have an uncanny ability to throw off even the best laid plans so I’m not gonna put the cart before the zebu. I do definitely miss singing and dancing with my “itty bitties”.

Playtime with the kiddos

Health Club – Health Club has gone very well, I think. The students actually just finished all of the health lessons I had planned. They also completed a brief and (what I considered to be) very simple exam on all the health topics we discussed. Although I am not an education volunteer, I have learned that when grading papers in Madagascar, 20 is the magic number. You never give a grade out of 100 here – it is always out of 20. I had five students receive 20/20 and the lowest grade in the whole group (about 31 students) was a 16/20 (unfortunately the slacker was my Malagasy “little brother” Bido who seemed to think attendance was optional). I gave all of the students who completed the course and the exam a certificate with their name that was signed by myself and Dr. Ninah (the head of the health clinic). I probably spent more money printing those certificates than was wise for a PC volunteer on a budget, but their excitement at receiving that little piece of paper was absolutely priceless. The next challenge will be getting at least some of the students who completed the course to help me teach health at the other schools, beginning at the elementary school. We already came up with a program for the elementary level kids – we will be teaching them about personal hygiene (hand washing and brushing your teeth), healthy diet, and clean water. I hope the little ones are as keen on learning about health as the high school kids were.

Certificate I made for my Health Club graduates

My Birthday:

That’s right, folks – I celebrated my first birthday spent here in Madagascar back in April. I suppose you could say it was extra special because I turned 23 on the 23rd day. There isn’t a whole lot to tell but I did have a very pleasant birthday. In fact, I think it was the biggest birthday party I have had in my entire life. Of course, my Malagasy family was in charge of the whole shindig. Hanta and Bebe cooked, Lolona and Rivo provided the beverages, Njaria was the DJ, and everyone else made their contribution by dancing like it was going out of style. I even got to teach everyone the macarena – for about the gazillionth time. Even better, they played the song “Waka Waka” for me several times because they know how much I love screaming the line, “Cause this is Africa!” Hanta and Iaina gave me a wonderful birthday present as well – a hand embroidered handkerchief that has pictures of rice growing, a person riding in a rickshaw, people dancing, someone pounding cassava leaves, and the words “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU” (in English!). It is now hanging over the back of my chair so I can see it every day.

Birthday gift from my Malagasy family

Vatsy’s Wedding:

The Saturday following my birthday, my Malagasy “big brother” Vatsy got married to Clementine (I invariably think of the song when I say her name). This was the first Malagasy wedding I had the chance to partake in so it was quite exciting for me. As I describe the ceremony however, keep in mind that I live in the highlands and the customs in other parts of Madagascar might differ greatly. The coastal culture in general is very different from the highlands based on what I have gleaned off other volunteers who live there. A few days before the wedding, Clementine returned to her village to stay with her family. Here in Andramasina, the family of the groom (my Malagasy family) made most of the arrangements for the ceremony in terms of purchasing food, preparing the food, getting musicians set up, etc. On the morning of the wedding Vatsy and his mom got up ridiculously early and went to Clementine’s village to fetch her. Meanwhile, every man, woman, and child even vaguely related to Vatsy feverishly made final preparations for the wedding in Andramasina. The happy couple finally arrived at around 2:30pm and everyone (dressed in their finest) headed to what is the equivalent of Andramasina’s city hall. There were speeches made by respected community members and Vatsy and Clementine signed some papers. After that, we all headed to the church and there was a full ceremony led by the pastor complete with singing and kneeling to get God’s blessing. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the entirety of the church service because Lolo (the separation anxiety queen) had followed me in spite of my best efforts to lock her in Hanta’s little market house. She nearly gave me a stroke when she ran into the church and started to wander toward the pastor. I managed to grab her and sprint outside before too many people noticed and hissed in disapproval. Once the church service was over it was time for the “reception”. Vatsy’s family had rather resourcefully hung large white sheets up outside his house which formed a huge makeshift tent under which eating and dancing and cutting the cake took place. I thought the wedding was very nice although I could see the relief on his mom’s face when the whole thing was over with. I guess that’s one thing that stays the same regardless of where you live in the world.

Vatsy and Clementine looking lovely on their wedding day

Taxi-Brousse Ride from Hell:

The week after Vatsy and Clementine’s wedding, I met up with a fellow volunteer in Antsirabe. I have mentioned Antsirabe before but in case your memory needs a little assistance it is a large town to the south of my site known for its large number of rickshaws. In theory it should take about three and a half hours to get there from Antananarivo (the capital) but I have never made it in less than five. Invariably something always delays us such as the taxi-brousse breaking down, waiting for a herd of zebu to cross the road, stopping to eat rice several times, and so on. Our stay in Antsirabe was pleasant, but rather uneventful (which actually contributed to the pleasantness of it). The truly eventful part was the journey home. I suppose I should start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). When I arrived by way of rickshaw at the place where taxi-brousses were waiting to head north towards Antananarivo I specifically requested that I be taken to a brousse that was “tsy ampy iray na roa olona” (only lacking about one or two people). Instead, I was taken to a brousse that was clearly full. I mean, even for Malagasy standards this sucker was at maximum capacity. People were already sitting halfway on other people’s laps with their faces smashed into the window. That is generally what I would consider a sign that you shouldn’t take on any more passengers. When I skeptically asked where my supposed seat was the driver pointed to the very back where five children and their mother who was holding a baby in her lap were already jammed. Although I was reluctant to squeeze myself and my bags into the tangle of children already there I really didn’t want to have to wait for another brousse to fill up which could take hours. So I somehow managed to contort my body and suck in my gut just enough to fit into the tiny space in the back. As you can imagine, I wasn’t all too comfortable. Little did I know, I was about to become significantly less comfortable. First of all, it started pouring down rain and the back door which I was seated directly in front of apparently didn’t close properly because icy cold rainwater trickled down my back. I got an extra big splash of it every time we hit a bump (which was often). Then approximately fifteen minutes into our five hour drive all five of the children requested that their mother hand them one of the small plastic bags she was carrying and then they all proceeded to rather violently vomit into the tiny plastic bags. The sound of five children simultaneously vomiting right next to me was bad. The smell of five bags of vomit right next to me was worse. But the fact that almost all of their little bags started to leak vomit which dribbled on me was the worst. One little girl (bless her heart) even passed her full and leaking vomit bag over to her mother which meant it had to cross in front of me, leaking half digested rice and stomach juices along the way. I have never so earnestly wanted to slap a small child in my life. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, a little white car that was right in front of our brousse suddenly fish-tailed on the wet roadway, lost control, and ended up flipped upside down in a flooded rice field which meant a large portion of the car was under water and mud. Everyone in our brousse began shouting “Jesosy! Andriamanitra!” (Oh Jesus, Oh God). But rather than stop and check on the people who just flipped into a rice field our driver seemed to completely ignore what had taken place and kept going. The idiot (and that’s being kind) didn’t even slow down. Needless to say, I was quite over that taxi-brousse ride. I told the driver to stop at a town that is about 20km away from my site, I extricated myself from the mass of children and vomit, and waved goodbye to the worst road trip of my life. I realized that I could have ended up stranded in Ambatofotsy (the town where I asked him to stop) but I actually preferred being stranded in a random town to continuing on that brousse a second longer. Eventually, I was able to get one of my Malagasy friends who had a car to come and get me and take me home. It took longer than I care to mention to wash the vomit smell off.

Teaching the macarena at my birthday party

A Few Cultural Notes:

  • It took me longer than it should have to realize this, but it is absolutely pointless to ask a Malagasy person how far away a given location is. Why is it pointless, you ask? Because regardless of how many kilometers away the place actually is if you ask “lavitra ve?” (is it far?) Malagasy people will respond “tsy lavitra” (not far). I kid you not; the response will be the same if you ask about a town that is 3 km away as one that is 30 km away. It is precisely this cultural quirk that once lured me into riding my bike 20 km on a blazing hot day. Every time I considered stopping and turning around I asked someone along the road how far the next town was. Of course, the response was always “tsy lavitra”. By the time I finally reached the town my bike was filthy, I was a sweat beast, and I was convinced that Malagasy people were fundamentally confused about distances. It is equally futile to ask how soon something will happen. For example, when I first arrived at my site Andramasina I had an extremely crappy little cellphone the Peace Corps had given me during training (for the record, I still use that same phone). Although it was the worst excuse for a phone I had ever seen I decided I would keep it and postpone getting a new one if I could get reception in my town (volunteers save money whenever and however they can). I soon discovered that I could get one or two bars if I sat in one particular spot in my room at the hospital and didn’t move at all (I had a call dropped once because I coughed). Not ideal obviously, but the townspeople assured me that a new tower was being built nearby. When I asked when the tower would be finished everyone replied “kely sisa” (very soon). Well, for those of you who are keeping track I have been in Andramasina for eight full months now and that darn cell phone tower was just finished last week. Not exactly my definition of “very soon”. That is just one example but trust me when I say that a Malagasy person saying “kely sisa” (very soon) basically means the same thing as “ela be” (a long time). I have often asked my Malagasy friends why this is so and the most coherent answer I have received was something along the lines of “they don’t want to be discouraging”. Which I interpret as meaning that they just tell you what they think you want to hear. If you are asking how far a given town is then obviously you want to go there so they tell you it isn’t far regardless of the distance. If you are asking how soon something will happen you probably are waiting for it so they tell you it will happen very soon. It actually makes sense in a convoluted sort of way – but the next time I want to bike to a neighboring town I’m going to check a map.
  • Malagasy don’t like dogs. This is a generalization of course but in my experience the exceptions to this rule are few and far between. Being the animal lover that I am, it took me a very, very long time to come to terms with this. I just could not fathom why Malagasy people considered dogs to be such undesirable animals. I have seen people kick dogs, throw stones at dogs, and deliberately try to swerve their vehicle to hit a dog. At first, I thought that maybe they have a good reason to dislike dogs here in Madagascar. Malagasy dogs are usually very large, very hungry, and have the rather unnerving habit of roaming in packs when it gets dark. So I reasoned that perhaps this deep seated loathing stems from the fact that the average Malagasy dog is a tad more dangerous than your granny’s Pomeranian back in the States – people don’t like them because they are actually afraid of them. My assumption may very well be true, but regardless of its validity I think the whole fear of dogs thing has gone a little far in Madagascar. A bit of fear is healthy, but there is a point where it just gets ridiculous. Allow me to provide an example. If you are reading this blog then you have already seen a picture of my dog, Lolo. Lolo is not really a true Malagasy dog – she is a “vazaha” dog that just happens to be living in Madagascar at the moment. I have honestly seen rats in this country that are bigger than her (that is sooo not an exaggeration). So on a scale of one to scary she registers about a negative five. However, most people in my town are absolutely terrified of her. As in small children will run away crying and screaming in fear. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t usually go well for the children because what is a dog’s favorite thing to do when they see something running? Chase it, of course. So away go the children running down the road screaming bloody murder and away goes Lolo with her tail wagging and nipping at their heels. I have witnessed this scene many times but it still amazes me sometimes how different this little aspect of Malagasy culture is from American culture. Most Americans adore dogs and many a stateside dog lover has spent thousands of dollars on vet bills to save their ailing Fido. Most American children have an equally strong reaction when they see a cute, fluffy dog but it is more along the lines of frantically yanking at mom’s skirt and yelling, “MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY! I WANT TO PET THE PUPPY! I WANT TO PET THE PUPPY! PLEEEEEEAAASE??” And just in case you were wondering, adults are not immune. I have seen full grown adults stop dead in their tracks because Lolo is in their path yapping at them (I think she can feel their dislike). I have literally had to leave my house and go and pick up my little fluffball dog before the person will continue on their way, such is the extent of their fear. One of these days I am just not going to go out and fetch her and I’ll see how long the person stands there petrified of five pounds of barking fuzz.
  • Madagascar most definitely has a “speech giving” culture. Anytime a group of people get together, for any reason whatsoever, there are sure to be multiple speeches given. Elders are always given a chance to speak as well as important people in the community. Not only are there numerous speeches given, but each one tends to be painfully long. Part of this is a result of the fact that the Malagasy custom is to spend about a solid five minutes just apologizing for taking the floor. Malagasy people apologize for all sorts of things when they make speeches – they apologize for not being the oldest in the room, they apologize for taking up you time, they apologize for not being good at making speeches and so on. Then once they get to the actual speech, the message always seems to be delivered in the most round-about, laborious manner possible. They remind me of the Ents from The Lord of the Rings (I resent your judgement). I recall a time shortly after I was installed in Andramasina when I was listening to a speech being given by the Mayor. At the time, I still couldn’t understand very much Malagasy so after what I guessed was around twenty minutes I leaned over to my friend and asked, “What has he been talking about so far?” To which my friend responded, “Well, he has just finished thanking everyone for coming and for allowing him to speak.”

I picked these “saosety” outside my house – no idea if we have this vegetable in the US

Some Tidbits:

  • I am now able to gut and clean a fish before cooking it. Slap that one on the ol’ resume.
  • One should always make sure that the spigot to the water filter is closed before pouring water into the top. If not, you will soon find that your floor is enjoying your precious filtered water instead of you.
  • After handing out lollipops my mom sent me to my Health Club students there were a few left. After a few days of having them on my table I could resist no longer and unwrapped a lollipop. Somehow, ants had found their way into the wrapper and gotten stuck to the lollipop. Did I still eat the lollipop? You betcha. Just a little added protein.
  • A few of the high school students came to my house awhile back and I let them listen to American music on my laptop. When they all left for home one girl paused for a second, turned around, and said, “tsara fanahy ny American” – meaning “Americans are good-spirited”. Score one for the USA.

Nothing like an afternoon spent drawing with my little buddies


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sheila Robinson
    May 27, 2012 @ 02:22:00

    Girl! What are you going to do with Lolo when you actually come home? Can you bring her home with you?


    • khconner
      Jun 09, 2012 @ 10:40:26

      Oh, I am definitely going to bring her with me! If she can manage not to be hit by a brousse or eaten by a large Malagasy dog in the meantime I am going to make sure she has a place on that long-awaited flight home.


  2. ROBIN I
    May 30, 2012 @ 10:54:12



  3. Janice Hughes
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 14:51:22

    Very entertaining~ You are a wonderful, expressive writer. I enjoy keeping up with you on your blog and think of you often.


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