Monday, January 25, 2010

More Pictures

The Lake
Lemur and Baby
New Years


view from my window

Finishing Training!

Community Based Training/Family/Food:

In both Niger and Madagascar, Peace Corps has been using Community Based Training. This means that trainees live with a host family to better incorporate into the community and understand the culture and family life. The last 3 weeks have been spent with my host family which consisted of a pre-school teacher woman, her son and niece. We lived in a well kept home with a great kitchen (the fireplace had a chimney so the smoke could leave, not as common as you’d think) and well made walls and concrete floors. The roof didn’t leak when it rained and occasionally when it rained hard enough the noise of the tin roof would be deafening.

Every morning the family would wake up between 4 and 5 am and I would wake up “late” at 6 or so. Breakfast was usually either some egg sandwich fixin’s or a variation of peanut butter banana pancakes. I would then do a crossword while sitting in my window overlooking the rice fields. After class I’d come back for lunch and eat a Malagasy lunch. This usually contains a lot of rice, some vegetables, and maybe bread or fruit. After lunch was more class after which I’d return home to start dinner preparations with the family. Dinner was then always the funniest part of the day and almost always ended in fits of laughter.

A lot of times for me, dinner preparations involved chopping and peeling since I’m not yet mahay (skilled, good at, smart) at using an open flame as a stove. During the first week they asked me if I was a skilled chef and I told them that I know how to cook at home but there we use different instruments. This led to a lesson on how to make and stoke a flame and then how to cook using it. By the first weekend I was able to make dinner: spaghetti with marinara, garlic bread, and salad. After an epic search for tomato paste ending in failure I made dinner which was alright. I realized I have a need for familiar spices in order to make familiar foods. After hearing about my failed search for tomato paste my host mom brought home a can and started to open it then handed it to me. After finishing opening it (not easy without a can opener) it was realized that my family didn’t use tomato paste normally and asked me how to use it. They asked if it was suitable to be spread on bread and after I said no it was promptly dumped into a frying pan and partially fried. When I suggested they put it into a sauce they agreed and it seemed to be okay. When we sat down to eat our pasta with green beans and “sauce” we discovered that the paste was very sour and since there wasn’t much else in the sauce other than cooked vegetables it made the dish nearly inedible. The following weekend I showed them how to make marinara with tomato paste and it turned out very well. Cheesy garlic bread also went over very well.

Dinner is a sort of hierarchy of who eats first. As a guest I usually served myself first and then the mother got food, then she scooped food into her son’s bowl (he’s young) and then the niece served herself. This is repeated for seconds and later courses. In my house we ate the rice/pasta dish first with a topping and bread, next is salad, and last is fruit for desert. Unless there is rice water on the table, most people don’t have a drink with their meal.

Funny Dinner Occurances:

More than the sour tomato paste/bean sauce we laughed about almost everything. Several times we discovered that the humor came from interesting translations, other times we used my limited vocabulary or situational humor. One night after asking what the different items on the table were I inquired as to what candle wax was called. My host mother replied that it was something of the candle. After asking what the first word meant she explained that it was a word also used for something relating to cows and chickens. After looking it up in the dictionary it was revealed that candle wax is called excrement of the candle. Other words which use this are cow manure and bird poop.

The following night there was copious amounts of candle wax because the candle wick was not properly burning. We ended up playing with the wax and when “candle excrement” was repeated to me I said it was the only excrement I would play with. To this my host mom reminded me that as an environment volunteer I played with manure the day before while making a compost pile. We then made figures out of wax which were sometimes in stretched out proportions or bent oddly. With legs and arms constantly falling off it was hard to stop laughing.

Other nights we would end up acting out words with hilarious results. After mentioning that in Niger most people eat with their right hand they asked me if Nigeriens don’t use any tools to eat. We then encountered another word that I got stuck on which in Malagasy means small trees. After I acted out “small trees” in confusion over what utensil that could mean they then acted out chopsticks, the alternate meaning of small trees.

A confusing word that most people ran into is that when you reverse the order of words when saying very full it changes the meaning to be pregnant. Several trainees at the end of one of our first few dinners proudly announced that we were pregnant to our host families. For the most part this was understood though very comical.

Finishing Training:

FINALLY!!! After more than 3 months of being a trainee I will finally become a volunteer. Most trainings are finished within 10 weeks and are spent primarily at community based training. 12 ½ weeks spent mostly together can get frustrating at times yet has brought our training group pretty close. In a few days we’ll set out on our own and are required to stay there and integrate. The first month is rumored to be the hardest yet we are all looking forward to the challenge and the space. I’m finally going to get the chance to rely on what I’ve learned so far and hopefully while the next month will be challenging it will also be fun. I have passed my final language test and am waiting to be sworn in.

Installation at post will take a few days, both because my post is rather far and because we are helping to install people on the way down. In about a week I should be at post with a new number and eventually a new address. I have a currently unfurnished place, I’m still not sure of the size, structure or exact location of my house but I am hoping to make it a little home. I’m going to paint and get some furniture (most importantly a bed).


In the short term I am planning on improving my language and making Malagasy friends. I also hope to find out my communities needs and work towards helping them meet their needs in a sustainable manner. There is a botanical garden and a community group who wants help with protecting their local littoral forest and reforesting where possible. There also is potential to meet a lemur specialist and work with him. I also hope to start a community and personal garden and have talks on nutrition. As a few secondary projects I want to see if it is possible to set up a science camps for girls. There are so many diverse national parks to explore and learn about that it would be a great way to allow interested students to see a part of their own country and relate the lessons back to things in their own community. There are a few other side projects that I have in mind but I have to see what my community is like first to see if they are practical. I may end up helping the community group learn how to write grants so that they can get funding to continue their work.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Life in Madagascar

A week before I left for Niger I cut off about 8 inches of hair to have a nice, short, and maintainable style. After a few weeks of constantly sweating I decided to cut off my “only beauty” nearly completely. With my new short Mohawk I was quickly informed that in Nigerien culture that Mohawks specifically are not culturally appropriate and given the option to “cover it up or cut it off.” I of course chose the former option and have maintained a Mohawk for the last month and a half until it grew out to a length that was beginning to make me look like an anime character. For the new year, new country idea I had the sides of the Mohawk shaved into a tri-hawk, also known as a Rufio cut. Again I was pulled aside and informed that in Malagasy culture, Mohawks are also inappropriate and even considered militant or commando. Apparently Mohicans have gained fame across the globe and the aerodynamics of their hair styles are universally
unappreciated. As I continue to cover my hair when not in privacy I am beginning to compare the benefits of maintaining an inappropriate hairstyle versus looking like GI Jane. I have since shaved the sides to have a neatly trimmed Mohawk and can’t decide if women other than Demi Moore can manage not to look like a recovering cancer patient.
Words of advice to future Peace Corps Volunteers: Cutting your hair off is fun and you will have time to grow it out in your 2 year service. Mohawks will probably not be allowed in your country of service, particularly during training. Dreadlocks are variable but generally imply a Rastafarian lifestyle and are discouraged. Mullets are surprisingly acceptable in most places, as are rat-tails. Very short hair on women is generally uncommon in most cultures although it is sometimes acceptable or easily covered until it is of acceptable length. On that note if you plan on cutting your hair during your service its nice to have clippers or haircutting scissors and some gel/pomade. You’ll never realize how much you can trust your stagemates until you hand them scissors and watch the hair fall.

In our first trip into the rainforests of Madagascar we ventured into Andasibe where the last of the Indri live. Indri are the largest surviving Lemurs and are mostly white with black on their underside and face. There are approximately 120 left in existence and cannot survive captivity as their diet is too complex to be successfully replicated. I saw two groups of two Indri each. They like to eat the new leaves of trees so they were rather high above head, giving us all a nice view of their bottoms. On the second hike into the forest, as well as seeing the second group of Indri we saw some gold colored lemurs and a baby lemur. They cling to their mothers back for the first months of life and are completely adorable. The mother in this instance was particularly photogenic and came down to pose several times. In a bush there were a few small brown lemurs but they hopped off before we got to see more than the odd hand and dark blur of motion. In
many parts of Madagascar Eucalyptus was regrettably introduced. It has now replaced many of the endemic tree species and now maintaining old forests and their ratios of species is increasingly difficult.

Got rice man? Got rice? All I can say is yes. Malagasy culture largely revolves around rice. Eating and producing rice is life here. It is often said that if you do not eat rice at a meal then you haven’t eaten. Most of the country is able to produce rice and uses farms and techniques passed down from their ancestors. With the ever increasing human population, rice production using ancestral techniques is becoming insufficient and thus SRI has been introduced. Part of my job will be to encourage my neighbors to slowly understand and utilize SRI when it is feasible to get a higher yield with less water usage. Most Malagasy meals consist of a HUGE pile of rice and something to go with it. This is served with a side cup of rice water. Breakfast is often a rice mush akin to oatmeal. Increasing the production of other foods other than rice is difficult to encourage as rice yield is also a status symbol. Few people will refocus their efforts
into producing vegetables instead of rice, even when they would be able to have a more balanced diet and possibly earn more money than if they produced rice. Saying that you don’t like eating vary (rice) can be very insulting to both the people and the culture.

Land Ownership:
A tree grows in Brooklyn and with some digging I’m pretty sure we could discover who that tree belongs to. In Madagascar, the concept of land ownership is very different and while farmers use the land passed on through their family, they don’t actually own their field. Same with the mango trees outside their window or the vegetable garden they maintain. While it is generally acknowledged whose space is whose it isn’t privately owned. While this mostly means less paperwork, I think it also says a lot about a culture that is not as worried about drawing lines in the dirt, building brick walls to maintain those lines, and recognizing that if somebody wants to plant a garden then they should be able to build it where its feasible and not inconveniencing anybody, whether or not they have a deed to the land under it. This is also how all Peace Corps Volunteers have housing. Each town that requests a volunteer must be able to provide a suitable
space for a volunteer to live and work. This is made much easier when land ownership laws are different than most countries.

To understand better my email situation I provide the following explanation. I get to internet about once a month. When I do I am in a line of 36 people, all of which have their own needs and want to go online. There is generally a 30 minute time limit and it is 30 minutes of the slowest internet imaginable. I have waited 5 minutes for a single page to load before. I will only upload pictures if they are handy and the internet is good. I will barely do more than to check my email (on whichever server happens to load first: Google, Yahoo, or UCLA) and then copy them to a hard drive to be read later before my time is up. This means that emailing me is a very slow process as I may not respond until the next time I get to internet. While this may become faster once I move to post depending on whether or not there is internet in my banking town, I probably wont be doing anything very quickly on the internet.

I LOVE getting mail! Really all of us trainees do. It’s almost as slow as me getting to internet but if you write me a letter you are guaranteed to get one back. I can also include fun things in the mail like labels in Malagasy, Madagascar beer labels, or other small things you request. Mail is also how I’ve been getting some of my news. I am working on getting a radio but until then all the news I get is from other people, mainly through phone calls. Among things that I recently found out about are: Tiger Woods incident, Brittany Murphy dying, and Nigerian bomb scare. News that seems over played and old to you is new and exciting to me. We find out a lot of our news from magazines dated months ago. If you get bored of writing to me then clip out an article or tear one out of a magazine in your doctor’s office because I would love to hear about things at home. If you want to read something really interesting, look up politics in
Madagascar starting a year or two ago. I am not supposed to give any details so let me just promise you that they are fascinating.

It’s amazing how quickly Americans can go from being afraid of insects to being fairly tolerant within a few short weeks. Bugs are not only much more common but also much bigger here. Now instead of killing/removing all bugs that are found inside it is often qualified “it’s not THAT big” and left alone. The corners of most rooms have a spider web which we rely on to catch some of the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes here are out both during the day and at night carrying different diseases at different times. This means bug spray is worn all the time and you still wake up with more bites. A few of us are also discovering that while a mosquito net protects against mosquitoes, it is ineffective once your mattress has bugs living inside of it. This presents about the same amount of problems as trying to get clothes to dry outside when it rains every day.

Host Family:
There are many times of awkwardness guaranteed when you live with another family in a foreign land with a foreign culture and very little language knowledge. In the span of a day I was able to start discussing family with the sister of the woman hosting me. She told me that her second husband is Maty. I asked about the first husband and she said he was also Maty. The confusion starts when I assume that Maty is a name much as it is in Niger. Here when she says that all of her husbands were Maty its not that she has a funny "I am Henry the 8th" situation, its that her husbands are both deceased. Thank you language barrier. Maty=Dead. =/