Time to Say Goodbye

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.

While at ampefy we convinced our program director Roland to take a selfie with us!
While at ampefy we convinced our program director Roland to take a selfie with us!

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.

Shadowing Doctors in Madagascar

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!

The road to town I walked everyday
The road to town I walked everyday
My 20 yr old host aunt and I  - she was a great friend and very helpful in my endeavour to learn Malagasy
My 20 yr old host aunt and I – she is a great friend and very helpful in my endeavour to learn Malagasy

Up next: the ISP

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.

Amin’ny Manaraka!

PS. I realized I haven’t share any pictures of my Tana host family yet, so here they are!

My Tana host mom Bakoly and host brother Aina :)
My Tana host mom Bakoly and host brother Aina 🙂

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Tamatave – The Indian Ocean, Petanque, and Poisson d’Avril

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.

Nara getting ready to throw - intense concentration!
Nara getting ready to throw – intense concentration!

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)!

Petanque - Rivo and I
Rivo and I celebrating a win

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.


What I have learned so far: 8 fun “facts” about Madagascar

  1. Driving home in the taxi-be - Tana is in a 24/7 traffic jam!
    Driving home in the taxi-be – Tana is in a 24/7 traffic jam!

    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 🙂

  2. 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!
  3. 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?!
  4. 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 🙂
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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.
  8. 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 😛

Unrelated to all that, here are a few photos!

  1. View from the SIT program center in Antananarivo
    View from the SIT program center in Antananarivo

    My host mom has been introducing me to new fruit - such as these spiny litchis and yellow star shaped karambola :)
    My host mom has been introducing me to new fruit – such as these spiny litchis and yellow star shaped karambola 🙂

Getting around (and getting lost!)

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.

The streets of Mahajunga - see the yellow badajaja in the center and the posiposy parked on the right of the photo (Photo credit Anna Dieter)
The streets of Mahajunga – see the yellow badajaja in the center and the posiposy parked on the right of the photo (Photo credit Anna Dieter)

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?!

The group of SIT students from my program during a visit to the port (minus Anna - she's taking the picture!)
The group of SIT students from my program during a visit to the port (minus Anna – she’s taking the picture!)
My host mom in Mahajunga!
My host mom in Mahajunga!
My sisters in Mahajanga :)
My sisters in Mahajanga 🙂

Madagascar Runs on Rice

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 🙂

Half way there!


When I found I hadn't used up all weight in my baggage allowance I couldn't resist bringing my backpacking gear - just in case I get the chance to use it!
When I found I hadn’t used up all weight in my baggage allowance I couldn’t resist bringing my backpacking gear – just in case I get the chance to use it!

On Saturday evening, my plane took off from the Detroit airport. After a layover in Amsterdam, my dad, my sister Melinda, and I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa without any complications. The flight itself was quite pleasant – we watched an absolutely ridiculous but very funny French movie, listened to some Dutch pop music, and actually managed sleep for about half of one the flights. By far my favourite part of the trip was seeing the sunrise over the English Channel just before landing in Amsterdam. The colours were brilliant and of course from our elevation there was nothing to impede the view. As we neared the airport, the plane circled and descended, turning away from the sun, and once my side of the plane was facing East again, the sunrise had disappeared behind the clouds and the curvature of the earth.  If the plane had not turned, I might have watched the sunrise “unrise”!

Sunrise as viewed from the plane - although my cellphone pic doesn't do it justice. The blue cylinder at the bottom is the jet engine sticking out beneath the wing.
Sunrise as viewed from the plane – although my cellphone pic doesn’t do it justice. The blue cylinder at the bottom is the jet engine sticking out beneath the wing.

Right now I’m in Stellenbosch (about 45min from Cape Town), where my dad and I are staying with one of my mom’s friends from her university days while my sister moves in and get’s registered at the University of Stellenbosch. My mom’s friend’s house is awesome – it’s right on one of the main roads in Stellenbosch, only a few minutes walk from campus, but it makes a stark contrast with everything around it. If the city is the picture of nature tamed and under control, her yard is the picture of nature allowed to run wild. Wild yes, but without taking over.While in the city humans control nature, here nature and humans live side by side without one controlling the other. Vines and trees line the driveway, but leave just enough space for a car of modest size to fit through.  Bushes, ferns, and grapevines surround the house, but leave room for one to see out the window and get in the door.

Melinda standing in the driveway
Here nature is free!










The inside of the house has a similar feel – everything has a place, the place just isn’t necessarily on a shelf or in a cupboard. And I’ve never seen so many chemistry books in one person’s possession in my life!

Nature may be more controlled, but Stellenbosch itself is beautiful too – it’s primarily a university town, and there are a lot of historic buildings in the Cape Dutch style. It is surrounded by mountains (my sister jokes that if you go running you can’t run more than 10 minutes before you find yourself going up!) and flowers, trees, and vegetation abound.  It’s also the winemaking capital of the country, so vineyards cover the rolling hills that lead up to the mountains.

On Thursday morning I’ll be flying to Madagascar, while my dad stays in SA for business and Melinda starts her studies. Until then, I’m running errands, visiting family, loving the sun, and finding that I haven’t completely forgotten how to drive a manual (ie stick shift) car!

Predeparture: Enjoying the Snow and learning Malagasy

It’s finally starting to sink in: in two weeks time I’ll be in the air, on my way to Madagascar! My program only starts on the 30th of January, so I’m fortunate to have an extra 3 weeks of vacation to spend with my family. My sister Melinda attends the University of Stellenbosh in South Africa, and conveniently her semester starts around the same time as mine, so we’ll be able to fly as far as South Africa together. This flight plan also means I’ll be able to visit her in SA on my way back to the USA in May 🙂

Can you tell I love snow?!

Meanwhile, while I’m still here in Michigan, I’ve been relishing the wonder of winter and spending as much time as I can enjoying the marvelous amount of snow that fell to earth last weekend – by building “bobsled” runs down the porch stairs, sliding down the banks of frozen waterfalls, constructing igloos, blowing bubbles outside and watching them freeze, and playing broomball 🙂

Frozen waterfalls are pretty cool, eh? Last week I explored Hungarian falls, located near Houghton in the UP. There are some great things to see even without leaving the state!

Now I feel like I can go to Madagascar in a couple weeks without feeling like I missed out on this beautiful season. In fact, the prospect of bare feet and not having to bundle up every time I leave the house is starting to sound quite appealing!

When I’m not playing in the snow, I’ve been trying to learn Malagasy, the native language of Madagascar. It’s been fascinating – the language has Malay origins, but has a definite African feel; the grammar and sentence structure is totally different to any other language I’m familiar with, and although words contains many vowels you rarely pronounce half of them! I’m excited to get to Madagascar and see what the ideal of “picking up” a language that’s around you actually looks like. I’m guessing it involves a lot of frustration! Oh the other hand, I’m feeling more optimistic about French, the other language spoken in Madagascar. I’ve being listening to French radio stations from Madagascar and other French African countries – and so far I’ve been finding the African-French accent easier to understand than the Parisian accent I’ve been taught in French classes! I’m hoping that’s the case when I’m actually in Madagascar too.