One of the two types of permanent markers I used to letter the country names on the World Map Project wasn’t weathering well, so I went over them with a better marker—I had apparently used the poor marker to do the smaller countries in most of Europe and Central Asia, and in some cases the lettering was so faint I couldn’t read the names—I had already given away my list of country names in French so I had to turn to my French-English thrift store dictionary (which has been serving me well) but was startled to discover it was from 1977, when most of Eastern Europe and Central Asia was still part of the USSR and therefore not listed. Sooo…I was as accurate as I could be, but I’m pretty sure I just made up a couple of the French spellings in Eastern Europe! It might be time to get a new dictionary.
The NGO construction team I’m working with has started building the first well with a daily rotation of community members to help with the heavy lifting and see how the wells get built. I haven’t been out to the construction site yet myself (round trip, it’s a 12 mile bike ride and a 9 mile walk and I can’t go unaccompanied because the path is largely unpopulated), but I get almost-daily reports passed down the long grapevine in between towns.
My fishing co-op has grown to 16 members and is in the process of requesting a $3500 grant from the government’s Rural Development Support program—I’m guessing they’re going to get a fraction of what they’re requesting but if they can justify the budget, I told them they can request the full amount and see what happens. I’ve heard a rumor that they’re carving me a wooden fish for my birthday in November; hopefully the rumor’s true, that would be sweet!
One of the fishing co-op boys has taken to being my ‘gofer’ on multiple projects for the very practical reason that we work well together and he’s one of the few Malagasies I’ve met who take pride in getting projects done and done well—I hope he runs for mayor someday. Until then, we have a system where he visits a few times a week and I give him a rundown of where I am with projects and he does what he can to move them along from the Gasy end—if I’m the person who can walk into the mayor’s office and get them to listen to me immediately, he’s the one who knows which rice field the middle school director’s nephew is working in on a given Wednesday and can go talk to him and get reasonable answers. When I try to do that, I receive a blank stare of terror (OMG THE WHITE GIRL IS TALKING TO ME) followed by immediate and unthinking agreement with whatever I’m saying, regardless of the actual question or answer. So having an 'assistant' works pretty well. In return, I’m letting him borrow library books before the library opens, and have been tutoring him on what I remember of U.S. history, which he’s fascinated by. Last week, at his request, I wrote down the names and office dates of all the U.S. presidents. It’s fun having a history conversation with someone.
The library had a librarian, then lost her (but I think it’s because she decided to go back to school, so it’s OK). The parent’s association has appointed a new librarian, who I can barely understand because at 23 he’s missing half his teeth, but he seems eager, has finished middle school, and speaks French and a tiny bit of English, so that qualifies him. Once the shelves are installed (which is taking forever but WILL be next week if I have to nail them in myself, for Pete’s sake), the Sambava Alliance Francaise librarian is going to visit and give him a one-day crash course on how to run a library and I’ve requested Sambava’s English Center librarian to do the same later in the year. I still have requests in with a few organizations for more books, but I’m pretty happy with the 200 or so I’ve collected so far…the American Embassy in particular, as I mentioned, gave me some gems. I have books in English, French, and Malagasy (mostly French) on subjects such as: how to grow peppers, organic pesticides, French grammar, English idioms, kids’ astronomy, what teens should know about AIDS, high school biology, university economics, National Geographic Africa, the biography of MLK Jr, human rights in democracies, raising pigs, women in forestry projects, and so on. I also have about two dozen illustrated kids books on science and American history, like “Scary Venomous Creatures of the World” and “How Did You Invent the Airplane, Wright Brothers?” Also lots of magazines, mostly in English and mostly courtesy of other volunteers (we often end up contributing our own resources and sometimes our own money to projects, as do workers in service jobs everywhere—I’m looking at you, teachers…) I’ve discovered that Gasies are often confused by the picture content of magazines like Entertainment Weekly (especially by the ads), but they love Sunset magazines (because it focuses on food and farming).
It was pretty funny to watch the different reactions as visitors to my house looked over the magazines—most of the magazines they briefly flipped through and shook their heads in confusion (example: an ad for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups doesn’t look like food to them, it looks like a brown and orange lump). But once they got to the Sunsets, they would spend a half hour fascinated by the pictures (“See guys? THIS is American food. No, we don’t eat rice every meal, but I promise you, we do eat.”)
The last work update is that one of the English Education volunteers in my region, Felicia, visited my town to give a three day workshop to the English teachers, with me as nominal assistant. We scared a few off the first day by forcing them to speak English in the classroom, but the 5 teachers that remained for the full three days got a full verb tenses review, tips on adjectives, classroom management, and making classes interactive. Felicia also went over lesson planning with everyone, and on the last day the teachers gave 45-minute lessons to each other using the new techniques (like pairing a basic dialogue with a vocabulary list, grammar, and review exercises, and having multiple student pairs reading the dialogues aloud). We’ll see what they end up using in the classroom, but I’m thrilled with the amount of information we got across.
As I’ve mentioned before, teaching in Madagascar is very difficult—teachers have to deal with classes that average 60 or 70 students and sometimes have over 100; classrooms are often poorly constructed and often dark; in order to make maximum use of the facilities classes are held from 7 am to 6 pm, when it’s too dark to see in the non-electrified buildings; there are no textbooks. Most of classroom time is spent with the teacher silently copying material from his or her textbook onto the board, and the students silently copying what’s on the board into their notebooks. Since they don’t have electricity in their homes and even candles are expensive, many rural houses are lit only by the cookfire at night, and students work in the rice fields on their days off, so they rarely get chunks of time to study. Additionally, school costs $13/$16/$32 per year at the elementary/middle/high school levels, in an area where farmers often make under $200 per year and have 6 or 7 kids. $200 might be a high estimate for a lot of families; I’m not sure of the exact yearly income, but the going rate for a field day laborer (who works 4 days per week max) is 80 cents per day. Rice is sold for about 15 cents per kapoaka (1.5 cups). Green vanilla beans are being sold for $1.50/kilo, even though the official regional sell price is supposedly $3.50/kilo (poor farmers often don’t have the expertise, materials, or room to cure the beans themselves, so they sell the uncured green vanilla beans to wealthier farmers). These are the beans that require weeks of 5 am hand pollination to grow and are often the target of thieving. Anyway, that’s a big tangent, but basically: it’s a wonder anyone gets through school at all. And: hopefully some of the English classes are a little less boring this year, and hopefully kids can go study in the library between classes.
Once we put up the shelves.