The three wells funded through PCPP are basically done thanks to the fantastically hardworking construction team that the French NGO ARES hooked me up with--and by construction team, I mean two energetic guys and a continuously rotating stream of villagers who are doing a large chunk of the manual labor as part of the community contribution. But the project's not over yet, and this time it's good news: We're building three more wells, for six total! The NGO ARES came up with money for two more, and between the five wells we'll have enough material to build a sixth. My community partner, the Missouri Botanical Garden, is helping with the construction workers' salary for the sixth well. Three of the wells will be in Antanandava, the largest town; two in Anamboafo, and the original one in Moralamba. Two of the newer wells will be on school grounds. Here are some pictures of the building process:
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
I wish I could give you some fascinating and delicious recipes, but the fact is, despite the excellent diversity of food in country, Malagasy cuisine is generally really boring. It follows these basic rules:
1) That is not enough rice. Here, take some more.
2) Use the whole cow (or other animal). Brains, eyeballs, skin, feet, it’s all used.
3) Seasoning? I think you mean salt. Or, even better, MSG, just dump in a handful.
4) Sure you don’t want more rice? You’re going to get weak and skinny and die, only having three plates per day like that.
Most rural Malagasies work on their family’s rice fields, which means they plant, tend, harvest, thresh, mill, sift, and cook every bit of rice they eat, and they eat A LOT. It’s impossible to overstate how much Malagasies love their rice. In comparison, most Asian countries have a passive relationship with rice. Malagasies have the highest per-capita rice consumption in the world, at (I’ve heard) ½ a kilo per person, per day. When you ask a restaurant if they have food (you have to check these things) they will say no if they don’t have rice. There’s a “pizza” place in Sambava where volunteers asked hopefully several times if there was food today, and were rebuffed several times before they figured out they had to ask specifically if there was pizza, which isn’t food. Because it isn’t rice.
Moderately well-off rural families in my area have a giant heaping plate of rice at every meal, accompanied by a comparatively tiny amount of ro, or side dish. Often the ro is just boiled leaves that the family has harvested. For nicer meals, the ro might be boiled milk, pounded cassava leaves, a scrambled egg, or a small amount of meat or fish (including oil or tadpoles) in oily tomato or yummier coconut sauce. Dried fish often make an appearance since they’re fairly cheap—I’m not a huge fan but they have lots of nutrients, so it’s a good food. There are very few vegetables in my area. In the highlands, there is a bit more money and a lot more veggies, so meals tend to be slightly more balanced; in the south (and in my area, during the driest and poorest parts of the year) people eat cassava.
I really hate cassava. The idea of it more than the actual boring cassava root (cassava leaves are quite good). See, the root is flavorless and fibrous and has almost no nutrients and—here’s the kicker—has cyanide in it, so you have to cook it well or you risk poisoning yourself. Obviously people figured out a long time ago that this was the case and cook it adequately, but every once in awhile I read a story about kids who were accidentally paralyzed or someone who committed suicide with cassava and my dislike is renewed. Incidentally, Americans do eat cassava occasionally, in the form of tapioca pudding—did you know tapioca was made of cassava? I didn’t. Presumably it’s precooked in the factory.
I’ve already mentioned ranampango, which is boiled burnt rice water (better than it sounds, it tastes a bit like tea). The cook will intentionally leave a bit of rice at the bottom of the pot, generally fairly burnt from the fire, then will dump in a bunch of water and boil it, and drink the resulting beverage as a tea. Ranampango.
Madagascar does have some good fruit and street food. Obviously you can get bananas—many types, all year round. Papayas, mangoes, litchees, oranges, jackfruit, and other fruits turn up seasonally, and Malagasies eat whatever’s in season as a dessert or snack. Street food-wise, there’s mofo gasy (‘Malagasy bread’, a little rice flour cake that’s dry like an English muffin), fried bananas, roasted bananas, bananas dipped in batter then fried, a kind of banana bread (really, lots of bananas), samosas (beef or fish filling), a type of peanut brittle or roasted peanuts, fried or baked cassava (argh), kaka pigeon (yep, that’s the name—it’s a flavorless baked mini breadstick), and godjogodjo (spelling?), which is, let’s see, rice flour with a lot of sugar, baked? I think. One of the better non-rice dishes Malagasies make is a kind of soup called Soahaba (soh-ah-bah), which is essentially some starch (banana, cassava, corn) boiled in coconut milk with a little sugar til it’s a pretty uniform texture—not pretty to look at, but pretty tasty. PCV Felicia has a more complete recipe here.
My favorite breakfast is sabeda and brochettes—sabeda is wet rice (the water isn’t all cooked off) and brochettes are like basic kebabs, tiny little beef chunks on a skewer. Usually served with either grated green mango or grated cucumber in vinegar. Salt is the primary flavoring in most Gasy dishes, but most restaurants will have sakay, which is mashed hot pepper with a little vinegar. I’m not a fan (all heat, no flavor), but sometimes the cooks make it interesting with garlic or mango chunks in the hot sauce.
I cook for myself, and although selection is pretty limited in my town (rice, beans, tomatoes, bananas, often eggs and cucumbers) I do pretty well. Banana pancakes make a frequent appearance, and I can make a good tomato sauce for pasta. I often make kusherie (basically rice and lentils with garlic tomato sauce, subbing small beans for lentils). When I go to the city (Sambava) I buy veggies and ground beef and make a stew. A store in the Sambava started stocking oatmeal and peanut butter, which has made breakfast easier (I gave up on making my own peanut butter immediately, all natural does not make up for it being a pain in the butt). Leftover rice with mashed banana, peanut butter, and honey? Delicious.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
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.