This past weekend we went on our last excursion to Ampefy. It was really beautiful – we stayed in bungalows with an amazing view over a huge lake surrounded by rice paddies and hills that used to be volcanoes way back when. We had a number of opportunities to go hiking in the countryside, and it was a really nice peaceful way to end what has been a truly incredible 3 and ½ months in Madagascar.
I feel so blessed by this whole semester – the caring staff, the unbelievably good group dynamics between all us students, three amazing host families, and the million unique opportunities I had to see and learn things. Looking back, I’m realizing that there’s no way I could have experienced this country in the same way, and in as much depth, if I had come for any reason but this study abroad program. Not in such a short amount of time, in any case. In a way I feel ready to go, but only because we’ve been talking about leaving and saying our goodbyes to various people and places in stages for a while now. Two weeks ago was the last time I saw my Betafo host family. Last week I moved out of my Tana host family’s house. Last night we took the staff of our program out to dinner to say thank you and farewell. Today I waved goodbye as 3 of the students in our group took a taxi to the airport. The end is imminent, and everyone can feel it. I imagine this is kind of what graduating feels like, but it’s different in that it seems more permanent, more final. When I leave Madagascar, I’m not just leaving a country, but I’m leaving a way of life, a language, and all the people I’ve met here, potentially forever. I really want to come back, and if it’s in my power I will. I won’t deny I’m already thinking of ways I might be able to spend a gap year here after I graduate. Of course, regardless of whether I come back or not, next week at this time I’ll be the US. I’m sad to leave my new family and friends, but excited to see old my family and friends back in the states.Veloma, Madagasikara. Amin’ny manaraka indray.
It’s been a month since my last update, and there is so much I could tell you about, it’s difficult to decide what to write about. I spent 3 weeks back in Betafo (the rural area I stayed in for a week in March) doing field work for my independent study project, and then this last week I spent back in Tana (the capital) writing up my findings. Although I presented my project last Friday, the paper is still on my mind since I still have some editing to do, so I think I’ll use this blog post to give you an overview of what doing the project was actually like.
In the beginning it was difficult to explain to my host family that I was there to do an academic project, not just on vacation. The previous time I stayed with them I had absolutely nothing I needed to get done, and never went anywhere alone, so this time, when I told my host dad, in broken Malagasy, that I wanted to go into town by myself to talk to doctors, it caused much confusion. None the less, he did let me go, and after a few days my family got used to my new schedule. Most mornings I would walk into town and spend a few hours at the CSB (Centre de Santé de Base, i.e. basic medical clinic) or district hospital, observing and chatting with the doctors and midwives. When consultations ended around noon, I’d head home for lunch, and spend the afternoons writing down what I’d learned and interviewing residents and local government officials. My time in the clinic/hospital was pretty much the same as shadowing doctors the way I’ve done in the US and South Africa in preparation for med school, except that in Madagascar gaining access to do so was much easier. I could literally just walk into the dentistry, or maternity, or laboratory, or any other section of the hospital, explain to the person working in that department that I was a student doing a project related to public health, and be allowed to stay and watch everything going on. The staff was really friendly and helpful, and in fact, the doctors at the clinic were quite ready to let me take part in examinations and even administer injections. Although I was tempted to try, you’ll be relieved to hear that I refrained! In the US it’s very much taboo to perform procedures like injections without training.
The project culminated in a 40 page paper, so I couldn’t possibly share with you everything I learned in this post, but I will say it was fascinating to see how the practice of medicine changes based on the resources available and the local context in general. For example, in Betafo there is a program for malnourished children. Community agents identify at risk children (0-5yrs) on a neighborhood level, and send them to the CSB on Tuesday morning. At the clinic they measure the height, weight, and circumference of the arm of the child, and based on these measurements determine if the child is undernourished or not. If he/she is, the parent is given enough “plumpy nut” specially formulated food to supplement the child’s food for a week, and told to return every Tuesday for a check up until the child is better. All this is completely free, and for this reason the parents have to bring back the empty plumpy nut packages each week to prove that the food wasn’t sold but rather consumed by the child. What an interesting contrast with the US, where the focus is on preventing obesity, not undernourishment!
Tomorrow (Friday) is the start of phase two of the program. At 7am I’ll be at the taxi-brousse station, waiting to board the taxi-brousse for the 4hour bus ride to Betafo. Once that bus leaves the station, I’ll be on my own for the next 4 weeks. On my own schedule, that is. That’s because tomorrow is the start of the Independent Study Project (ISP). Basically, we’re given 4 weeks to go anywhere in Madagascar we choose and do a field based study on any topic we topic we like. We’re given a stipend for room and board, and the program staff help us with organizing transport and accommodation, and then we’re left to our own devices to do the project. I’m definitely excited 🙂
The ISP is a qualitative research project, based almost entirely on interviews and observation. The SIT staff like to call the project a “field based academic training,” and they keep stressing that the process of doing the project is almost more important that the results, so the challenge for me is trying to temporarily leave behind the quantitative scientific approach I’m used to as a Bio major. I’ve chosen to do my project on public health in rural Madagascar, specifically the Betafo area. Basically, the project is going to be an overview of medical resources, health conditions, common health problems, and possible solutions in the area. I’m an aspiring med student, so this project will hopefully be informative of my future career goals. As part of my research I plan on interviewing the staff at the local clinic and hospital, the local government officials, the local traditional healer, and the residents themselves. My ISP academic advisor helped me come up with a lot of interview questions, and one of my language teachers corrected my French grammar and helped me translate the questions into Malagasy, so I’m feeling ready, and I’m excited to get started. Although I’m really hoping to improve my Malagasy during this project, at this point I really can’t conduct interviews in Malagasy (I might be able to practice the questions beforehand but that doesn’t mean I can understand the responses I get!) so one hurdle will be finding someone to translate for me. Since the program has contacts in one of the local schools, though, I should be able to find someone through them.
While in Betafo I’ll be staying with same host family as I did a few weeks ago, which I am very much looking forward to. That means I won’t have internet access for the next 4 weeks, because there is no internet in the village (not surprising since most people don’t even have electricity!), so don’t expect the next update until May.
PS. I realized I haven’t share any pictures of my Tana host family yet, so here they are!
I just got back yesterday from an SIT excursion to Tamatave (aka Toamasina), a city on the East coast of Madagascar. It was kind of like an unofficial Spring Break, since we had very few organized visits and activities, and we stayed in bungalows right on the beach. I don’t think I could ever get tired of swimming in the ocean (at least, if there are waves in the ocean, which there were in Tamatave 🙂 ), so I had a ball. The only downside was how much conditioner I used up washing and untangling my hair! We spent our time watching the sunrise, running on the beach before breakfast, exploring the city, swimming in the ocean, playing cards in the evening… this trip was perhaps the least “Malagasy” part of my semester so far, since we didn’t have much interaction with the local people, but it was still a really nice vacation.
On Sunday while in Tamatave Anna and I went to Church with Hanta, the assistant director of program. Her husband is the head pastor of one section of the Jesosy Mamonjy denomination (a Pentecostal denomination) in Madagascar, so whenever she travels she visits the local Jesosy Mamonjy church, and at least on this occasion she preached the sermon too. It was all in Malagasy, but she explained to us what she was going to preach about in French beforehand, and gave us copies of the hymnal so we could sing along, so it was nice to know what was going on. The biggest difference between this and other churches I’ve visited in Madagascar was that the pastor never prayed alone – everyone prayed out loud simultaneously, which I thought was pretty cool.
Another great part of our time in Tamatave was getting to know some of the SIT staff members and drivers better. We found out that both our drivers, Nara and Tovo, and our logistics coordinator, Rivo, are part of the same professional petanque (aka botchy ball) club, so a couple of afternoons we played petanque with them on the dirt road in front of the hotel. One might think that petanque is not the most exciting game, but actually it was really fun, especially since the guys are really funny, and obviously way superior in skill compared to us, but at the same time not in the least condescending. I played on a team with Rivo, and I later found out that he and his professional petanque partner were the second best petanque team in Madagascar last year (i.e. if they had won their last match instead of losing they would have gone to China to compete)!
It was especially fun staying together with the other SIT students again during the excursion (most of our time in Madagascar we’ve been staying separately with different host families), as by this point in the semester we know each other pretty well. One evening after dinner we planned a series of “pranks” that we put into action on April 1st (Poison de Avril, the French version of April fool’s day – it’s meant to be a day you tell lies but we opted for doing bizarre things instead), which happened to be a day we were on the road driving back to Tana. The pranks included everyone freezing simultaneously, all 9 of us crowding into the front seat when it was time to get into the bus, pretending to be mad and not speaking during lunch, and taking all our belongings and setting off on foot “for Tana” during one of our roadside stops en route. I can’t say they were all awfully convincing, since of course collectively we weren’t able to keep a straight face, but we had a lot of fun doing it.
Life in the village is the most sustainable I’ve ever seen: there’s no running water, so buckets are used for showers and washing; most people don’t have electricity, but those who do have solar panels which they use minimally; there is absolutely zero food waste, because even fruit and vegetable peels or rice husks are consumed by the cow or the chickens, and almost nothing comes in disposable packaging, so there’s almost zero waste production. In the village there is a primary school, a Lutheran church, and three mini grocery stores, one of which was in my host family’s house. For anything else one has to walk 5km through the rice fields into town. I never saw a single car enter the village except the one that picked me up at the end of the stay. Everyone in the village knows each other, and a lot of them are related to each other too.
My host dad was 35 (although I would have pegged him at 25 based on appearance), and my mom was 28, so I couldn’t really imagine them as my parents, but they were truly wonderful hosts. I also had 2 host brothers who were 10 and 6. None of them spoke more than a few words of French, so it was an intensive week of learning Malagasy. There were some moments when I was really excited about how much I could communicate and understand with the small amount of Malagasy I’ve learned, and there were other moments when I felt quite downhearted about how little I could understand or communicate. Through challenge of language coupled with the constant of uncertainty of what was expected and what was normal in this new setting, God’s provision for me was very apparent. There were times when my host mom somehow knew exactly what I needed without me even trying to ask – such as when I really didn’t want to sit still in the house anymore and she announced that we were going for a walk, or when I was unsure when the appropriate time to ask to take a shower was, and she announced that the bucket of water was already sitting waiting for me. There was also the Sunday when I was feeling especially frustrated about my inability to communicate when one of the pastors in training’s wife came to find me to practice speaking English, which she had learned at University. She even invited me to visit her and her family at seminary the next day, and later to spend a few days with them in their hometown over Easter. Despite communication difficulties, so many locals were such a blessing to me – it’s amazing how even in the absence of words people can come to understand each other. I am really excited to go back 🙂
Wow. How to convey the experience of the last week in a blog post of a few hundred words? I don’t think it’s possible, even for the most gifted writer. So you’ll have to come to Madagascar and experience it for yourself 😉
Well ok, I’ll try to at least give you a glimpse.
I spent the last week staying with a host family in the village of Ampilanonana, about 5km outside of the small town of Betafo. The countryside was absolutely beautiful, and the village lifestyle is something I miss already. The pace of life was very peaceful – moramora, as they say here in Madagascar – for example, the only clock in the house was half an hour fast and I don’t think my family was even aware of it. Just sitting and watching the sky for sometimes hours was not considered strange. Men would work in the fields all morning until about 2pm, and then come hang out at my host family’s store front playing dominoes till the sun set. Women spent a lot of the day cooking and washing laundry, but also participated in watering the crops and some of the steps in harvesting rice. No one ever seemed stressed, although granted I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying so I don’t know for sure. On Sunday the tiny church in the centre of the village was filled to capacity – mostly with women, for some reason, although most of the men weren’t working. The church service was 4 hours long – because no one has anywhere else to be, I guess.
While staying with my family I got to milk the cow, wash the dishes, peel vegetables, play soccer with my brothers (to the amusement of all passersby – if being vazaha wasn’t enough, girls don’t generally play soccer here). I also learned to make mofogasy (literally translated “Malagasy bread”), a type of slightly sweet rice flour doughnut made on the fire – I was quite proud the first time when my mom had to go down and attend to the store and I managed to flip all the mofogasy and save them from burning myself. My family also showed me around a bit, introduced me to some of the family, and took me to the market. There was still a lot of down time, though. It got me thinking about my lifestyle in the US – the mindset that everything needs to be done as efficiently as possible, and that one always needs to be doing something productive. On one had one could view life in the countryside as purposeless, but on the other hand, how many of the thing we occupy ourselves with, how many of the “purposes” we create for ourselves in the US, have any real inherent value? Is the calm life or the busy life better, or are they just two different but equally good approaches? I’m planning on going back to the village for the last month of my program to do my independent study project, so I’m sure I’ll have more time to ponder it :).
Transportation: I recently discovered that from my house it takes just as long to walk to the SIT program center as is does to go by taxi-be – about 40min. My host mom showed me the quickest way to walk home the other day, using passageways and stairways between houses that I never would have found by myself. Walking this route makes me feel like a local 🙂
Le Marché: It is possible to buy just about anything from a vendor on the sidewalk – prepared food, tv antennas, undergarments, car parts, raw meat, jewelery, live poultry… I’ve even seen a man sitting on the sidewalk with a bathroom scale offering to weigh people for a small fee!
Fresh food: Because most people don’t have refrigerators, food here is really fresh. For example, many people, including my host mom, buy live chickens and slaughter them themselves! My previous host family lived near a house that raised crabs, which they only sold live, so any dead crabs were thrown out in the unofficial garbage dump next to the road leading to my house. Sometimes they weren’t as dead as the crab vendors must have assumed, so we’d find one crawling around in our driveway! Fish are sold completely unprocessed (although dead) too, and on Sunday I learned how to gut one. Useful life skills 🙂 Plus it was pretty much an unofficial dissection – who says I’m not doing Biology during my study abroad semester?!
Condensed milk: Also because of the lack of refrigeration, sweetened condensed milk (“lait concentre et sucre” in French, or “ronono mandry” in Malagasy) is very popular here. People put it in their coffee or tea, or on their bread, or pretty much anything else (although I haven’t seen it on rice yet!). I have a definite sweet tooth and have always been a fan of condensed milk, so this works for me! I still remember a time when I was on vacation with a friend and her family when I was 10 years old, and between my friend and I we consumed an entire tin of condensed milk in one sitting. No, I didn’t even feel sick afterwards 🙂
Special relativity: There is a unique kind of special relativity observable in Madagascar. Due to its effects things can fit into spaces which under ordinary conditions they would not fit into. This applies to passengers in vehicles, vehicles on roads, and vazaha (foreigner) length femurs in the “legroom” of a taxi-be. Unlike Einstein’s relativity, however, the slower the speed, the greater its effects.
Cake for breakfast: As I mentioned in a previous post, rice is the staple food in Madagascar, and it is eaten for almost every meal. Both host families I have stayed with so far didn’t consistently eat rice for breakfast though – instead, we had bread with off-brand Nutella, or cake, or my personal favourite, pain-au-choco (a type of bread like pastry with chocolate chunks in it). Certainly a different approach than I expected. On the other hand, fruit is considered desert!
For the South Africans reading this: Shoprite (a chain of grocery stores) exists in Madagascar! It came here via South Africa so it still labels almost everything in English, and is popular among the Malagasy.
Also for the South Africans: I have noticed many SA Rugby shirts here, especially in Tana. The first few times I thought it might just be a random shirt that the person unwittingly got hold of, but by now I’ve seen so many, often still in good condition, that the number is statistically significant. As one of my fellow SIT students pointed out, the Springboks are the only decent rugby team in this region of the world 😛
Today is my first day back in Tana (Antananarivo) after a two week stay in the coastal town of Mahajanga and a visit to the farming town of Marovoay and the Ankaranfantsika national park on the route back. I have many fond memories of my stay in Mahajanga, some of which relate to my adventures with the public transportation system getting lost.
There are five methods of public transportation in Mahajanga: Taxi-be, taxis, badajaja, posi-posy, and my personal favourite, mandeha tongotra.
Posi-posy are like rickshaws – colourful wooden carts pulled by men. In Mahajanga they’re used to transport people or goods. Taxis in Madagascar the same as one might think of in the US, except they have no problem with filling their car beyond official capacity – the first time I took a taxi there were 7 of us in the car! Badajaja are three wheel bright yellow little vehicles with roofs but no walls. Like taxis, they will drive you wherever you ask in the city, but are cheaper and smaller than normal taxis.
Taxi-be (“be” means “big” in Malagasy; some people also call them buses) are mini buses that do continuous circuits of the city, and the main type of transportation I use. They are colour coded and numbered based on the route they follow, and cost only 300Ar (about 10 US cents) per ride. Each Taxi-be has a driver and someone at the back door who collects the fares from passengers and uses a system of whistling to let the driver know when and where to stop to let off passengers. I haven’t completely figured out all the whistling patterns it yet!
One thing that is impossible not to notice about Taxi-be is the incredible amount people they can hold. Once all the “actual” seats are taken, the man at door hands out wooden planks to balance between benches, creating new temporary seats in the aisle. If after that there were still passengers who want to board, they just cram into the “space” at the back of the bus or even stand on the bumper, hanging onto the back of the bus. Whenever the bus passes gendarmes or policemen the extra passengers duck so that the officials won’t see that the bus is exceeding its capacity!
The particular taxi-be I was supposed to take to class was always bursting at the seams by the time it got to my stop, so after a couple of days I resorted to taking a different one and just walking the last few blocks to the program centre. I didn’t always manage to navigate the system so well though. Once on the way home I boarded the taxi-be at a different location than usual. I had never taken this particular one before, so I wasn’t familiar with the route it took, but I knew it ended in the neighbourhood where I lived. As the ride went on the roads got smaller and smaller and bumpier and bumpier, and none of them looked familiar, but I kept hoping that any moment the bus would turn and end up back on the main road. Of course, it didn’t, and it turned out I had taken the bus in the wrong direction! Luckily the driver was friendly and noticed me looking lost, so I got right back on the taxi-be and rode all the way back to my neighbourhood. And so what would have been a 30 minute walk turned into a 1h30min bus ride – but on the bright side I wasn’t late for anything, and I did get to see more of the city!
The last form of transportation is, of course, walking – mandeha tongotra in Malagasy. I walked to and from the program center on a few occasions when I wasn’t pressed for time – and only got lost once! 😉 That time I asked a girl I saw on the street for directions, and she ended up walking all the way home with me – a 45 min walk! It turned out she was a first year university student at the school of tourism, so it was fun chatting with her.
Now I’m in Tana, and I have to get to know my way around a new city, and quite likely I will get lost again… but I’m kind of looking forward to it – who knows who I’ll meet in the process?!
Last weekend I moved in with my host family in Mahajanga, a coastal town where I’ll be staying for two weeks. This is the first of 3 homestays I’ll be doing as part of the SIT program. My host family is great. They all speak excellent French (as well as Malagasy), and they’ve hosted 6 SIT students (one at a time) in the past, so they are familiar with the peculiarities and cluelessness of study abroad students. My mom is a housewife, has a great big compassionate heart, and is always looking out for everyone. She rode the taxi-be (bus) with me to class the first day to make sure I got off at the right spot, comes into my room to close the windows when it starts storming in the middle of the night (which happens frequently – it’s the rainy season!), and dries off the baby puppies when they get drenched by the rain. She’s been a great help with my homework too, as we have many interactive assignments that often involve interviewing people.
The older of my two sisters is Tsiky, whose name means “smile” in Malagasy. She is 15, loves to sing (it’s impressive how well people who only speak Malagasy and French know lyrics to American pop songs!) and is very patient in answering all my many questions. In church she explained to me what was going on and helped me follow the lyrics to the songs. At least in return I can help her with her English homework!
My youngest sister is 10 years old, and her name is Haingu. Having grown up with study abroad students intermittently at her house since she was 6, she is skilled at playing tour guide and impressively mature and independent for her age. She’s the one who helped me use the public transportation system for the first time! Sometimes when we got off the bus onto the road she grabbed my hand – I couldn’t decide if it was for her own safety or to make sure I didn’t get lost – but either way I appreciated it. Holding hands with a small Malagasy girl was somehow reassuring , plus her presence did significantly reduce the catcalls that follow me wherever I go by virtue of being a white female. A few days ago I taught Haingu how to knit, and although the coordination was difficult for her, she kept coming back to it and trying again. Later she taught me how to play some of their games – a complicated version of marbles and a game that involves throwing, catching and picking up stones in a certain sequence. She had the cutest way of saying, “Tu comprends?” (you understand?) every time I looked perplexed as she explained to me – and the answer was often no! I was quite clumsy at both games, while Haingu is very adept and seriously skilled, so I need to practice!
Besides my mom and sisters, at my house there’s also the lady who helps with the house work, her adorable baby, and an entourage of dogs– including 5 puppies who are only 4 days old and still have their eyes closed! Unfortunately I’m having trouble uploading photos at this internet cafe, but hopefully next post I will have a picture of the entire family to show you!
Today is my third day in Tana, and it is absolutely beautiful. The first time I saw Madagascar out the plane window I couldn’t stop a smile from spreading across my face. The first thing that struck me was the intensity of the colours: the soil here is reddish brown (in fact for that reason Madagascar is called L’île Rouge – the red island) and it makes an impressive contrast with the lush green vegetation next to the trails that wind between the numerous rice paddies.
Rice is a major part of Malagasy life, as I have already learned in my short time here. Most people eat rice 3 meals a day, and in fact Madagascar consumes more rice per capita than any other country in the world. Today we walked along la digue (the “dike” between rice paddies), which was a really fascinating experience. As a group of 10 white foreigners we immediately stood out – almost everyone within a 10 meter radius turned to watch us with amused expressions, and little children laughed at us and yelled “vazaha!” (which means “[white] foreigner” in Malagasy) excitedly. It was all good natured though, and people greeted and smiled at us as we walked past.
The rice paddies have a lot more uses that simply growing rice. We saw a few boys fishing, and many ducks (destined for human consumption) swimming around on the water. We also walked past multiple women and children doing laundry in the canal water, which they spread across the grassy bank or bushes to dry.( I found it hard to believe that their clothes could be any dirtier than the water they were using to wash them – but somehow it worked because the clothes did look clean afterward!)
Harvesting the rice itself appeared to be an imprecise science. On the digue men beat the rice stalks against a rock or barrel placed on a tarp, separating the grains from the stalks. Once the grains are separated, the men spread them out to dry in the sun, so that later the husks could be removed. What puzzled me was that harvesters didn’t seem very concerned about getting all the grains off before tossing a bundle of stalks aside, nor did they mind if we walked over their tarp of rice kernels with our very muddy shoes. The whole rice plant is used, though. The stalks are used as feed for “omby” (i.e. cattle), and the chaff is used as fuel for the fires used to bake the red clay bricks made of soil obtained from the rice paddies during the dry season.
All things considered, I’m glad I like rice! I imagine I’ll be coming home with a number of new recipes for it 🙂