Monday, January 25, 2010

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.

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