Thursday, August 25, 2011
The money for my well building project was recently transferred, so on Tuesday I went out to the three towns where we’re building the wells to participate in community meetings and supervise well placement.
There’s no cell phone reception in my commune, which made communications difficult. The three towns where we’re building the wells are spaced out along a rural path in the south of my commune. The towns knew I was coming with the vice-mayor and my coworker at the MBG, but we were also supposed to meet up with the well builders at the trailhead at an unspecified time.
The vice-mayor, my coworker, and I took a taxi brousse to Ansampanamahazo, the town at the trailhead, and tried unsuccessfully to call the well builders to see when they were arriving. Eager to get a move on, and under the false impression that I was familiar enough with the path to be a guide, the other two struck out on the path and I waited behind with a woman I knew from the town to meet the well builders and secure a temporary storage space for the building materials. I hadn’t met the builders, so once we found a storage space, we waited along the road and yelled out at every unfamiliar male, “Hey! Are you a well builder?” Since this is Africa, this worked well, and half an hour later I was walking toward the towns with the two friendly builders and (since this is
The path out to the villages is narrow, muddy, and occasionally supplied with worrisome makeshift bridges over streams. The first bridge is a failed building project, a cement structure wide enough to hold a truck, but broken in the middle. To cross it, you jump over a narrow chasm and then clamber back up from the fallen half of the bridge on a felled tree trunk. The second bridge is just a felled tree trunk. The third is a precarious zigzag of two by fours. I told them that as an environment volunteer, I would condone the felling of a tree for a functional third bridge, but I don’t think they believed me. They were, however, very impressed that I could keep up with them, and kept commenting on the “one meter stride of Americans”.
For the village visits, we briefly visited the village presidents on the way out to alert them of out presence, and did community meetings and well placement and dowsing on the way back. Due to a combination of African and French cultural influences, formal introductions are very important when you go to new towns, and are very formalized. Unfortunately, it’s not a structure I fit easily into—on one hand I’m a white educated foreigner and I handle the money; on the other hand I’m young, female, and have a shaky grasp of formal language and cultural intricacies. Who starts speaking first and who introduces who is dependent on age, status, relationships, whether you’ve visited before, and a host of other factors.
In the first village, I was on solid footing since there were only the two builders, the president, and myself. After the basic greetings, I did the formal introduction of the interlopers, the president did the formal welcome, the builders did the formal statement of their intentions, and the president did the formal empty speech about the importance of development projects, and we were on out way. The second village was a little more awkward, since the first president had accompanied us and while I had been to the village before, I hadn’t met the president. We sat in the president’s house for a little while and stared at the walls for until the first president figured out I didn’t know who the second president WAS. So he introduced me, and I finally realized that I somehow “ranked” the first president in the second village for some unclear reason, and I started introductions, and we were off and rolling again. The third village happily presented no problems, since we finally caught up to the vice-mayor and my co-worker, both of whom “rank” me and could do the introductions. Whew.
The third village was interesting to visit since, while like the other two villages it has zero wells, it’s the closest to the forest reserve I work with and has benefited from more projects. One of the first people I saw was a little boy in a kid-sized wheelchair (extremely rare) with his feet wrapped in gauze from a recent surgery to repair severe clubbing (the surgery is also rare; most people just live with whichever disabilities they’re born with). We also stopped by the new school building, which was a sharp contrast to the “homemade” buildings still standing next to it, which strongly reminded me of pigpens—low, built with makeshift materials, and falling down.
Community meetings are an exhausting necessity. In the case of smaller towns, everyone gathers in an open space in the center of town, and after the empty rhetoric speeches about development by the VIPs, we get down to business: what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, why it’s important, and how they need to help. The well building requires significant community input, just not in the form of money. The town will gather sand and gravel for the cement mix, house and feed the two supervising builders for the duration of their time in the town, and transport the building materials (including sacks of cement) by a combination of human labor and dugout canoe from the main road to the building sites. More importantly, two people from the town will be required to work on the project everyday, helping with the manual labor and more importantly learning how to actually build the well, so they can do repairs and possibly even start a new project later on.
The villagers are excited about the well but their immediate question was—“ Why only one? There are almost 1000 people in this village, why do we only get one well?” I expected this, but it’s a little hard for me to explain, so I was happy that the “other VIPs” fielded the question. It’s because there are six towns in the area without wells, and we only have funding for three, so we’re spreading it out to do the most good. It’s because we need to make sure the villagers use and take care of the first well before we invest in more—future wells will be based on who takes the best care of and makes the best use of the one they’ll have soon. It’s because while there’s 1000 people in the area, not all of them are going to switch to a clean water source out of habit and convenience, and one well is enough (just enough, but still enough) to support the 500 or so who will make the switch immediately. And, most of all, it’s because we had to make a choice—no way do we have to resources or time to build the 12 wells needed before rainy season, so the choice was to build one each in the three towns closest to the forest reserve. Once this was clear (and in particular, once my co-worker made it clear there were other towns who would happily accept the wells if the villages in question didn’t have their contributions ready in a week), they were enthusiastic again.
I read an article somewhere that categorized aid workers as either cowboys or statisticians. Cowboys (and girls) see a single person or a small cause that needs help and throw themselves in to help, full commitment. Statisticians look at what will make the most sense and do the most good for the most people, and work on that. There’s value in both approaches, and people get motivated by both. Choosing the well sites? That’s statistics. The boy who received surgery and a wheelchair? Cowboy aid work. My desire, when I see a child with a cleft palate, to get the kid to a hospital and pay for the surgery myself if I have to? Cowgirl. They both make sense, but sometimes they feel mutually exclusive.
Anyway, back to actual work. After wrapping up the community meetings we chose the sites for the wells, and the builders were hugely amused when I wanted to help dowse for water—they have two L-shaped metal wands that they hold loosely by the short length and observe the movement and direction of the long end. I’m not sure how scientific it is, but it’s definitely fun.
After the villages gather together the materials they need, they’ll send a note to my co-worker, who will tell me, who will tell the builders to buy the materials, which will be picked up at the trailhead when we send out an announcement on the radio for “the villagers of Anamboafo, Marolamba, and Antanandava to come to the road on Thursday and pick up their well supplies”. No cell service, you know.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
You Know You're A Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar When..
People don’t believe you when you say that English and American are the same language and yes, you can understand Brits when they speak.
Your neighbors still don’t think you speak Malagasy despite the fact that you hold conversations with them in Gasy every day.
You don’t hear about important global events until a week after they happen.
An 8 hour hike though mud and up a mountain streambed is considered no big deal, but both you and the Gasies avoid walking to the other side of town because it’s “too far”.
Your knowledge of body scanners, 3-D movies, preteens with smartphones, a continuing recession, and Justin Bieber is purely theoretical and you don’t really think they exist.
You point someone out as “the fat one with light skin and a scar” and no one gets offended.
Someone calls you white and you still get offended.
Dining by candlelight with insects singing outside your house gets old pretty quickly, so you pull out your lantern and iPod.
You really wish you could ride a moped (PC regulations say no.)
You base your meals on what will save you from having to wash the dishes (maybe that’s just me).
You have taken up at least one really weird hobby.
You have to clarify with taxi brousse drivers that it’s NOT OK to have people sitting on your lap to save space.
The car you’re riding in has to go to 3 empty gas stations before finally finding gas sold in old Coke bottles by a 7-year-old at a small corner store.
You avoid wearing a watch because everyone will ask what time it is just to have an excuse to stare at it.
People at home think it’s strange that of all the things they sent you in a care package, you’re most excited about the parmesean cheese. “The book is supposed to be really good…” “Yes, but you sent me CHEESE!”
You throw out your trash and a little kid immediately runs over to dig through it and find a “game”—usually a bottle.
A guy walks by in a medieval-style walking stockade and you don’t even notice.
You can tell the difference between Goose, Duck, Gasy Chicken, and Foreign Chicken eggs, and have strong opinions about them, but you don’t really care if they’ve been sitting in the sun at the vendor’s stall for 2 days.
You consider English to be your secret language with other PCVs.
You know the level of cell phone reception for all three national carriers along every bit of the 150k road you live on.
You know hell has frozen over because your mother has a computer that’s nicer than yours.
Your TV and movie tastes are dictated by what shows other volunteers get from home.
Due to lack of Facebook time, you have difficulty keeping track which of your friends got married, had a baby, etc.
You have to pay for a $400 plane ticket in cash because the airline office doesn’t accept cards. You have to pay in a stack of what you refer to as “Monopoly money”—the largest bill in local currency is the equivalent of $5.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
You find it difficult to eat without a spoon.
Half your meals are cooked in one pot and all of them are eaten on one plate.
It is impossible to conceive of a restaurant in this country without rice.
You stare at white people you don’t know, but are afraid to talk to them because you don’t know what language to use.
The sight of a white male over the age of 60 causes a gag reflex because of the high numbers of French sex tourists.
You’re used to locals assuming all other volunteers are directly related to you.
You have no idea how your neighbors are related to each other. (Oh, cousin Windisca's mother's adopted son's girlfriend, right!)
You spend most of your spare time talking about food. You talk about food before, during, and after dinner, regardless of whether or not you’re full. You make shopping lists of what food you’re going to buy in the
Care packages are a source of delight (when they come) and anguish (when the post office loses them or opens them to steal the contents).
Crystal Light is the primary currency in a raging Peace Corps Volunteer Black Market.
Most of your clothes have holes in them from rats and mice.
You feel guilty wearing anything but flipflops in town. Sometimes, the flipflops are overkill.
Given a lack of landmarks, giving directions to other volunteers deteriorates into : “The restaurant is north of the Air Madagascar office, across the street from the epicerie with the mean lady and next to the epicerie where Jean’s counterpart bought credit that one time…no, you’re thinking of the place that always has those little waxy chocolates, I mean the one that always runs out of Skol.”
A kid asks you if it’s fady (taboo) for you to eat a lemur.
You prefer kabones to WCs and pos to kabones. (Translation: You prefer latrines to Western style toilets (they rarely work) and the covered bucket that serves as your chamberpot to your latrine.)
Everyone has a t least one embarrassing poop story that they’re not embarrassed to share.
It’s encouraged to be fat.
You’re short in
You're tired of the boring ol' lemurs and think chameleons are way cooler.
You like chameleons because you can use them to scare kids out of your yard.
You have learned how to herd cows.
You avoid learning swear words in the local language because you know how often you'd end up using them on the drunks.
You are well informed about the level of witch activity in your town.
Being outside after dark feels wrong…shouldn’t you be more worried about vampires and rabid dogs?
More to come…
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
I don’t have cell phone service near my house so pretty much every day I walk 1.5 kilometers (about a mile) along the paved road through town, up the dirt path past the hospital, and up a hill to a rock outcropping where I can get 0-2 fluctuating bars of service. On an average day it goes something like this:
I close up the green metal windows to my house with an unsubtle slam and screech—there’s no way to close them quietly and my neighbors always know when I’m on the move. After padlocking the green metal door I briefly survey my yard—a week ago it was completely overgrown because my machete had broken. I went to buy a new machete from the coworker of a nearby volunteer since there were none in my town. But they were horrified to hear that I planned to cut my lawn myself and the other volunteer’s coworker drove over to my town with four of his plantation workers and proceeded to machete my grass, weed my overgrown garden nursery, ruthlessly prune the bushes that fence my yard, and dig up a broad swath of bare dirt in front of my porch so I could have a “real yard”. I don’t really understand this last practice—it turns to mud every time it rains—but it’s no use dissuading them and I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
I walk off my porch and am promptly spotted by the easily excitable neighbor children, who start screaming “Roy-ANNE!! Roy-ANNE!!” MBOLATSARA!!!!!” (Hi.) I return the greeting once but they cheerfully keep up the chorus til I’m out of sight—there is, after all, not too much else going on, so I’m the entertainment.
It’s the cold season now, and drops to about 65 at night, but it’s still hot enough during the day that I regret not checking my messages earlier. It’s also the windy season, and the kids along the road are taking advantage of the breeze with surprisingly sturdy tiny kites made of discarded plastic bags and twigs. Some of these miracles of home construction get 40 feet in the air.
All along the road there is vanilla and rice drying in the sun. In the shade, women are oiling and braiding each others’ hair. One woman crouches on a straw mat and whacks what looks to be a pile of hay with a stick—she’s trying to get the last of the rice off the stalks. I occasionally greet some of the adults, who continue to stare at me despite the fact I’ve been living here for almost a year and a half. The screaming chorus of Roy-ANNE continues from the kids, sometimes from several rice paddies away. I greet the kids who properly greet me. Some still yell Bye BYE when I pass despite the fact that I’ve been correcting them to say Hello for a year. Bye Bye is more memorable and fun for them to say, though.
A drunk reels over to me as I pass the taxi brousse stop, wasted at 9 am from a local moonshine that occasionally puts people in the hospital. He insists on shaking my hand and doesn’t want to let go so I twist out of his grip and continue on to snorts of laughter from the men sitting at the taxi brousse stop. Thanks for the help, guys. Nearby, the local crazy lady (there really is one in every village) is picking at her shaved scalp and murmuring a sad little song about how she wants to go to the city. I say hello and she mutters hello back, staring over my shoulder. She continuously tries to stow away on taxi brousses, so one of the ‘jobs’ of the men at the stop is to hold her back while passengers get on and off. The drivers sometimes tip them for keeping her from breaking off their mirrors as she does sometimes—it’s their main source of income.
One of the shopkeepers yells hello and asks if she can braid my hair again and I say soon (probably on a day when I’m leaving town, so I can take them out without hurting her feelings—I can’t see how anyone sleeps with that many lumps on their head). The vice-mayor is sitting at a mini-café nearby and says the bookshelves for the library are almost ready. When can we see them? Soon. Has a librarian been chosen yet? Almost. When can I meet with the librarian? Oh, not long now. I nod and move on—it would have been rude of him to say no to any question that I asked, but I interpret his responses as such. But I’m holding the books hostage in my house until the librarian and I can organize things a bit, so there’s not a problem with the project languishing.
On the way to the cell service area, I check in on some houses to see if I can discuss projects with people—an English teachers’ workshop, a table for the library, a STI/AIDS presentation for a women’s group meeting. But everyone’s out—and since they don’t have phones, the only way to reach them is to keep passing by their houses.
One of the vanilla cooperative presidents runs up to me to say hi and I ask if there’s news on the harvest. He says no but he’ll send me a letter if there is. How shall I contact him? He lives in the forest and has no cell phone, so he scribbles down his address, something like: RAKOMATAMBANA Jean Pierre, President du Cooperative FiToNaTA, Morafeno. “Just give it to someone and ask them to get it to me, it will get there.”
I pass the hospital and wave to the friendly toothless guard, who has the only bicycle pump in town that can inflate my bike tires and is always willing to do so. One final climb and I’m on top of a rock outcropping where I can turn on my cell phone and survey the green valley and the mountains beyond as I wait for the text messages to register. Maybe I’ll buy some bananas on the way back home.