Coconuts and Babies (But Not Necessarily in that Order)

There isn’t a whole lot to report this time around but I guess I should start with the biggest news first – my Malagasy family has grown in number by one. In my last entry, I talked about the wedding of my Malagasy “big brother” Vatsy and his lovely wife Clementine. What I apparently forgot to mention was the fact that she was about seven months pregnant when they tied the knot. Scandalicious, I know. Also, I would recommend scanning back to the last blog and taking a gander at the picture I posted of the happy couple. I bet you a bowl of rice you can’t even tell she is pregnant. Anyway, I have a story to tell.

I have no idea what this is…but I never want to touch it

There I was, sound asleep in my somewhat less than comfortable bed when suddenly I heard an urgent tapping at my window. I assumed that it was yet another drunk out to pester the “vazaha” or someone who had mistaken my room for that of the doctor’s so I merely grumbled softly to myself and rolled over. However, upon hearing someone stage whisper, “Kim! Kim! Akaiky miteraka i Clementine!” (Clementine is going to give birth soon!) I began to suspect that this was something that actually might concern me. I believe it is safe to say that I moved faster in the next five minutes than I have moved in my entire life or will likely ever move again. In what seemed like one motion I flung off my covers, scrambled out of bed, grabbed a jacket and my camera, and jammed shoes on my feet. With my puny cellphone light as my guide, I sprinted over to the hospital maternity ward. I assumed it would be easy to locate Clementine, just follow the screams of pain. But no, this is Madagascar and they go about birth in a completely different manner. Instead of following the telltale sounds of labor pains I followed the trail of blood leading to the “delivery room”. The scene that greeted me was (unsurprisingly) rather different from what one encounters in the US where the norm is to have half a dozen nurses, doctors, and attendants ducking and weaving between a spiderweb of IV tubes and monitors all while the expectant mother screams, cries, and crushes her husband’s hand to a pulp. The only people in the room were Vatsy’s grandmother, his mother, Clementine (obviously), a single doctor who had been woken up, and me. Instead of a comfortable, adjustable bed the likes of which can be found in most American maternity wards, Clementine was lying flat on her back on an uncovered metal table with not even a pillow under her head. There were absolutely no IV fluids, pain killers, or monitors. And as I have alluded to previously, something else was suspiciously lacking – noise. Poor Clementine who was having a little person pulled out of her while lying on a metal table with no pain killers whatsoever was absolutely silent. I mean, not even a whimper escaped this girl. It was mad impressive. I had heard it said before that Malagasy women don’t make noise during childbirth because it is “fady” (taboo) – apparently, due to the belief that bad spirits might hear the screams and enter the woman or child. In some parts of Madagascar, when a woman is giving birth a goat is tied up outside. If the woman starts to make noise during childbirth the men outside beat the goat so that the bad spirits will hear and be attracted to the goat rather than the woman. Poor goat…and poor woman. I had heard all of this before, but never really imagined the strangeness of seeing a soundless birth in person. Not long after I arrived, the little bundle of joy made his appearance and was quickly cleaned and wrapped in about a gazillion blankets until all that was visible was his tiny little face peeking out. That’s about when the doctor called for the mother and grandmother and I found the tiny newborn baby thrust in my arms. There was some difficulty with delivering the placenta and the doctor needed extra hands. And that is how I got to hold little Tiako (as he was later named) for about a solid hour and a half while everyone else was busy keeping Clementine from bleeding to death. After the first thirty minutes I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t going to drop him and my breathing resumed a normal rate. It all turned out just fine in the end with mother and baby snuggled in a bed together (in case you were getting nervous) and I wearily returned to my own bed at around three in the morning.

Me holding the newborn baby!

Ironically, not long after witnessing the birth of Tiako I read an article in Newsweek (one that I snagged from the PC office) entitled “Super Luxe Maternity – The rise of birthing suites and newborn couture”. I could summarize, but I think this juicy quote will make my point much more powerfully, “When Jessica Simpson, nine months pregnant with a 10-pound baby, headed to the hospital to give birth last week, she was not just any mother-to-be, and she didn’t just roll into any ordinary birthing room.  Simpson delivered her daughter, Maxwell Drew Johnson, in a three bedroom, two bathroom, deluxe birthing suite at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, which featured manicures, pedicures, chilled juice, and a gourmet, post-birth dinner for two, all for $3,784 a night.” – Newsweek, May 14 2012. The same article also contained lovely little tidbits like “In 2008 Jennifer Lopez reportedly wore a couture hospital gown to deliver her twins.” I could go on, but the nausea the article induces might cause me to vomit on my laptop. Just about now is when I should probably launch into a long rant about the absurdity and excess of those who have money to spend on frivolous things while millions of pregnant women are dying in childbirth elsewhere in the world but I suspect the people who really need to hear it are not avid readers of this blog. So instead, I’ll keep it brief since I’m probably preaching to the choir here. First of all, don’t you feel just a little ridiculous and shameful while you are sipping your chilled pomegranate juice infused with natural antiradicals and receiving your post-birth mani-pedi? Don’t you pause for even the briefest of seconds and think what else you could have done with that money? Like, I don’t know…say, give a few hundred women in sub-saharan Africa basic pre-natal care? Guess not, because you just participated in the miracle of birth so you deserve to be pampered, right (I hope my sarcasm is clear)? Well forgive me but I feel that the right of a pregnant woman in Southeast Asia who is dying from hemorrhaging and untreated anemia to simply live sort of trumps your right to be preened and pampered after delivery. Secondly, I’m not saying that the standard of care in the US or other developed countries should be lowered just because it is a standard not available in impoverished developing countries. If you are lucky enough to be born somewhere like the US than I say you should absolutely get the best care possible to ensure the health of you and your bouncing babe. Help yourself to all the monitors, medications, and physicians at your disposal – you’ll get no harsh judgment from me. But there has to be a point where we recognize overindulgence and our own self-worship and step back. I would say that the line definitely lies somewhere before the three bedroom birthing suite.

This kid was totally schooling me in pounding peanut butter

Aaaaaanyway…in other news, two of my friends have left Andramasina permanently. The first to leave was Dr. Ninah, my Malagasy counterpart and the (former) head doctor at the clinic. It is a little inconvenient for me to lose my counterpart halfway through my service but I could tell that she was unhappy here. Her discontent was actually obvious enough for me to work up the nerve to make a comment to her. I was afraid that her curt answers to my questions and suspicious lack of smiling were indicative of me having done something to tick her off without realizing it (I generally have no idea when I have ticked someone off so this wouldn’t be unusual). But when I finally asked her she admitted that she missed her family who lives in Antananarivo which added to her stress from being overworked and underpaid. When I found her looking uncharacteristically chipper the following week I asked what had put her in such a good mood. Apparently, she had approached the Medicin Inspecteur with her grievances and he had transferred her to a clinic in Antananarivo so she could live and work close to her family – mighty nice of him. She was obviously ecstatic; I was a little bit less so. Dr. Tahiry has filled the position of Chef CSBII at the clinic. I am pretty optimistic about working with him. He smiles easily, loves to ask me about the US, and dances like there’s no tomorrow if you give him a little bit of booze. So here’s hoping my new counterpart and I will work well together. And I always know that if he seems to be in an exceptionally bad mood, all I have to do is spike his drink.

My little baby sound asleep in my shirt

The second friend to leave was Kyoko, the Japanese JICA (equivalent of Peace Corps) volunteer. She and I hadn’t spent an extraordinary amount of time together and our conversations were frustratingly limited due to the fact that we had to speak in Malagasy since she knows very little English and I know zero Japanese. However, I was sad to see her leave because that means that I am now Andramasina’s token “vazaha”. When Kyoko was still here the obsessive, stalker-ish manner in which the entire town follows my every move down to how many cups of rice I buy at the market was slightly more bearable because I knew she shared my place under the social microscope. Now I have the distinction of basically being the sole source of gossip in Andramasina. Thrilling. If nothing else, Peace Corps has taught me that I never, ever, EVER want to be a celebrity. Before departing Andramasina, Kyoko organized a small party for her friends and co-workers. It was a little eerie to get a glimpse into my own future – I am sure I will put together something similar before I say goodbye to Madagascar next year. My Malagasy friends also were not shy in letting me know that I should have an even bigger farewell party than Kyoko – Malagasy can be rather competitive.

My new buddy who comes to my house and begs for food

And a final bit of “vaovao” (news) – last week I managed to stick a kitchen knife through my finger. Yes, you read that correctly and I typed it correctly – through my finger – as in, the knife went in one side and poked out the other side. Don’t pretend like you aren’t impressed. The injury itself was so much more epic than the manner in which it was achieved. As most of you know, I live in the highlands of Madagascar which can have great weather but also means that I don’t get to enjoy many of the exciting tropical fruits that grow on the coastal regions. That explains why I nearly jumped a woman who was selling coconuts – I love coconut but sadly it hardly ever manages to make its way up to the highlands. After purchasing my prize from the slightly startled woman I greedily carried the loot back to my house. That’s when I realized that I had never actually had to crack open a whole coconut before. In the States I had always consumed coconut in the much more convenient already shredded or covered with delicious dark chocolate form. I tried delicately using a pair of pliers to make a hole or crack that I could then carefully make larger until I managed to break off a piece. But either I haven’t been eating nearly enough protein (very likely) or that coconut was secretly made of diamonds – I swear it sneered at me. So what was a dumb “vazaha” to do? Clearly, the answer was for me to grab the huge knife I use for chopping vegetables and furiously hack away at the coconut like something from a Psycho film. Unsurprisingly, that course of action ended rather unfortunately for me and my finger. The knife slipped and sunk into my unsuspecting digit which offered very little resistance. Also unsurprisingly, this slip was immediately followed by me uttering a rapid-fire stream of words unfit for civilized conversation as I rushed around trying to find something to stop the bleeding. Half a roll of toilet paper, a handful of gauze, and more cursing later, I decided a band-aid was probably not going to cut it this time so I followed PC protocol and gave the on-call physician a ring. Luckily for me, Dr. Chad was on call – he is basically the nicest, most understanding person in the universe (he sends us inspirational texts on a regular basis) so I felt a little less ashamed admitting to him that I had my ass kicked by a coconut. He confirmed my growing suspicion that I would need stitches. The next thirty minutes I spent running around town with my bloody hand trying to find a doctor who hadn’t already left for Tana (most doctors leave on the weekends). With the help of my “sister” Iaina, I finally located somebody to sew up my poor, impaled finger. Although I was determined not to let it show, getting the stitches with absolutely no local anesthetic actually hurt more than the initial injury in my opinion. But I am obviously grateful to not have gaping holes in my finger anymore. Now the challenge is coming up with an epic story to explain the stitches. After consulting with my PC friend James, we decided that the best story to give curious peeps is that my finger was tragically injured while I was saving a bunch of baby lemurs from a rabid fossa (look it up or watch the lovely animated film Madagascar). I am satisfied with that explanation. So yeah, we should all be grateful that those poor baby lemurs are safe now. And I may never eat coconut again.

The finger, the knife, and the coconut…or more appropriately – the victim, the weapon, and the perpetrator


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Sarah
    Aug 21, 2012 @ 03:51:42

    Just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading your blog and I will keep checking it! Thank you for sharing 🙂 Take care!


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