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. =/

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