When we believe we are doing something that is inherently good, something altruistic for the betterment of mankind, opposition to that belief can be a hard slap in the face. I received such a blow very recently and I’ll admit it still stings. In my last blog entry I discussed my perspective on the reality facing women in Madagascar and also the group of young women that I lead in Andramasina to help address the problem. When discussing the creation of this group with American friends in particular, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. I suppose that is to be expected since our nation prides itself on equality. I have received almost as many positive responses from Malagasy friends concerning my girl’s group. Peace Corps certainly seemed to think it was a good idea since they fully funded the project. But the lesson I recently learned is that in anything – whether it be a fully formed project or simply an idea you dare to say aloud – there will be someone who opposes it. And the opposition can come from unexpected sources. Here’s what happened.
I had just finished leading my girl’s group, TOTEM, in their weekly basketball practice so I was tired, sweaty, covered in red dirt, and not particularly in a conversational mood. As I climbed the stairs leading up to the hospital where I live I saw that two hospital employees were sitting at the top of the stairs – a male nurse and a female secretary. As I muttered the usual greetings and replied that yes, I had indeed just finished teaching basketball, the nurse asked when I was going to teach him and his friends to play basketball. I had heard similar requests many times before and I gave my usual two second response – that this project and thus the basketball equipment is specifically for young women in Andramasina – sorry. Generally, that brief explanation is enough, but not this time. The nurse started to debate with me whether it is good or bad to have a group specifically for women. “Okay,” I thought, “it might be nice to delve into this a little further with someone.” So I began by explaining that the young men in Andramasina already have organized sports and activities but often the girls are excluded. I want the girls to have something that will make them and everyone else see how strong and capable they are. Also, we don’t only play basketball, we also discuss women’s health issues and life skills like setting goals and avoiding peer pressure. To my surprise, the nurse continued the debate. I should mention that this nurse is someone who I see almost every day since I live at the hospital. I wouldn’t say we are friends but we are more than mere acquaintances. Being an educated man working in the realm of healthcare I simply assumed he would see the merits of a group meant to empower young women and encourage them to set goals in life. I assumed wrong. I won’t recount every detail of the conversation but suffice to say he does not see what I am doing as even close to a social good. At one point he even informed me that I have a “ratsy saina” – a bad mind. I tried everything I could think of to convince him otherwise although the necessity of having this conversation in Malagasy put me at a distinct disadvantage. I explained that I’m not against organized groups for men at all but I want to focus on young women because I feel like often they don’t have much power or say in Malagasy society. The positions of power in Madagascar such as the military police and politicians are overwhelmingly male. And even at the family level women are often forced into traditional gender roles where they care for the children and home while the men work. If the woman chooses this, then so be it. That’s fine and dandy. But the whole point is that they should have a real choice; there should be opportunities for women outside of those traditional roles. Girls should think about these opportunities while they are in school and imagine a bright and beautiful future for themselves. No, I do not hate men. I don’t even think men need to be taken down a notch but rather women need a boost upwards. Of course, I’m sure this was all much less eloquently expressed in my broken Malagasy. After all that, he still had not swayed. I was still an American with a bad mind. Perhaps the most shocking statement came from the female secretary who was listening to this whole exchange. At one point she said, “why don’t you teach the girls how to cook?” These words came from a woman who probably had to work very hard in school to gain her position at the hospital. A woman who probably saw many of her female classmates get pregnant and drop out or get married with no plans for continuing their studies. And she wants me to teach the girls how to cook –something which they already learn at home from a very young age by watching their mothers and grandmothers. In essence, perpetuate the gender roles I’m attempting to eliminate. I’ll admit that by this point, I was no longer emotionally neutral. I was getting ticked off. In the end we all had to agree to disagree as they say.
In retrospect, it would have been better to keep a level head. After all, everyone is entitled to an opinion and as native Malagasy, their opinion perhaps counts for more than mine. But as I stated in the opening paragraph – unexpected opposition to what we view as a truly altruistic effort is a hard pill to swallow. I still believe that what I am doing with my girl’s group is beneficial and important. I guess you can’t really know the strength of a belief until you’ve had to defend it. Now excuse me while I jot down some notes and prepare my next defense.
The Land of Milk and Honey
I know what you’re thinking. “Wait just a minute here. It looks like she’s starting another blog entry under the same date heading.” Congratulations, Sherlock…that is precisely what I’m doing. I got myself so worked up about the little transgression with the nurse that I completely forgot to mention something rather significant: I was in the good ol’ US of A for Christmas and ringing in the New Year. It seemed too disjointed to include this with the previous discussion so here we are – two blog entries in one! Yesssss. So was Miley Cyrus correct? Was there really a party in the USA? You betcha. That is, if by party you mean amazing calorie laden delicious food, marvelous brain rotting television, and mind boggling shiny new technological innovations. Of course the best thing was being with family and friends for the first time in a year and a half.
Seriously though, do you want to know the most common response a PCV has when asked how a trip to the US went? “Everything was so…clean.” I kid you not. That’s the very first thing that strikes us. When you’ve been dirty for an extended period of time to the point that when you wash off one layer of dirt there is another layer lurking below it, you realize that clean isn’t just something perceived by the eyes. Clean isn’t only a sight – it’s a feeling, a smell, a taste. It’s flippin’ fabulous. Never take your cleanliness for granted. In fact, don’t take most of the things in your life for granted because odds are there are millions or even billions of people in the world that must do without whatever that thing is you’re currently complaining about. I know I have ventured into the potentially dangerous realm of advice giving but my message is simple: don’t complain so much and you’ll be happier for it. Most of what we (yes, I am including myself in this as an American) complain about would fall under what is referred to as “first world problems”. That is, problems that aren’t really problems when you consider the big picture. In calling attention to these first world problems I don’t mean to make anyone feel guilty. My goal is not to prompt you to carry around a leather whip and flog yourself every time you dare complain about something that doesn’t really warrant complaint (although the mental image is indeed amusing). I actually hope to make you realize that you have so much to be grateful for, so much to be happy about. So for the sake of your happiness (you’re welcome), here are some examples of the oft uttered first world problems complete with my own snarky comments in response.
First World Problems:
– “The water pressure in this shower really sucks!” **Okay, not only do you have access to clean water, but you also have indoor plumbing. And not only indoor plumbing but a hot water heater! Would you rather fetch cold, dirty water from the river in buckets? Thought not.
– “This road has so many potholes!” **But there’s a road! And it’s PAVED!
– “Uuugh…the internet connection is soooo slow right now.” **No comment
– “Cell phone service is so spotty here. It’s ridiculous.” **Is it ridiculous? Is it though?
– “Man I really hate doing laundry.” **And by doing laundry you mean tossing your clothes in a MACHINE that does the washing for you? And then you throw it in another machine to dry it? Yeah, that’s tough.
– “I wish I had a nicer car – it’s embarrassing being seen in this old junker.” **Would you be more embarrassed to have to walk everywhere? Or instead of an old, beat up Mustang to actually have an old, beat up mustang of the hay eating variety?
– “All these fast food options are so fattening.” **You mean you’re problem is that you’re OVERnourished? Huh.
– “Flu season is the worst!” **Is it the worst? Worse than dengue fever, malaria, typhoid, and the plague?
– “A gazillion channels and there’s nothing on TV. Lame.” **Once again, no comment.
– “I have absolutely nothing to wear.” **Do you have a shirt? Pants? Shoes? And your problem is…?
Feeling happier yet? Okay, so maybe I was a little overly snarky in my commentary but I couldn’t help myself. And I’ll be the first to admit that I complain about all of these things myself when in the States – sometimes all of them in the same day. I’m a whiner, what can I say? But I really hope that even after returning to the US I’ll be able to recognize the absurdity of an ad like the one I saw recently in Time magazine for AT&T. It read, “Only AT&T’s network lets you talk and surf on iPhone 5. It’s not complicated. Doing two things at once is better.” You find that funny too, right? Okay, good.