Thursday, November 11, 2010

One Year in the Peace Corps

November 7, 2010 - One Year in the Peace Corps - Food Security Survey and Trip to Mahajanga

Since I last wrote, I have passed the one year mark for being with the Peace Corps. I marked the occasion by climbing the hill behind the school, where I can get cell phone reception, and texting congratulations to several of my friends in my Peace Corps group. I also made banana chocolate chip pancakes, but that's more of a regular occurrence, not just for special anniversaries!

One year with the Peace Corps, 10 months at my site. It's something to wonder at, since I've been nomadic for so long, and also been struggling to figure out how to work with my village. But here I am, still working on it and haven't given up in frustration yet!

Also on the one-year anniversary of beginning this Peace Corps "experience," I presented the results of my food security and farming survey to my community. After visiting 38 households, I began compiling the answers to the survey, learning some interesting things along the way. For instance, while almost 70% of households make charcoal as their main source of income, only about 50% actually use charcoal for cooking, and half of that 50% purchase it. So making charcoal is often a "wage" activity--not something that everyone owns the rights to. I also learned that most people can only farm on one piece of land for a year before moving to a new spot and leaving the old land fallow, usually for 3-5 years.

Out of the 38 households that I interviewed, only 10 of them said that they have enough food for the year. I looked at those 10 households to see what the differences between them and the rest of the households were, and found that they farm more and different types of crops, most save their rice seed from year to year, and they have learned more about farming techniques (for instance, using manure on their field) than the rest of the population. The differences between their farming practices was striking, and I tried to convey that to those who attended the meeting, but I'm not sure if it got across.

The other interesting "finding" was that of all the "techniques" taught by the 10 (or more) non-profits who used to operate in the area only 20% are still in use. The reasons people gave for no longer using the skills taught by the non-profits were things like, "I'm too lazy," "It's too hard," "I learned about irrigated rice paddies but don't have one."

I spoke about how this was discouraging to me, and explained how the things that are important to me are children having enough to eat, and taking care of the land and soil. I read to them their responses to the questions about what they most like about their community and what they least like, and about what they have seen change over the years in the area. After I was done with my presentation, several people got up to speak and expressed agreement with everything that they saw in the presentation (not surprising, since it was their words simply written down by me!).

As I spoke, I tried to express that I am a resource for them, and am here to help explore ideas to address some of these problems related to food security and farming. About 35 people were at the meeting, and then more came the following Sunday, when I opened up the community room so that people coming home from church could see the big flip chart papers that I had written with all their responses. Later in the week, the doctor did his bi-annual trip to my village to vaccinate children, so we opened up the community room and some of the mothers read the papers as they waited for the doctor. So hopefully quite a few people got to see their ideas up on paper, and read the ideas of others, and hopefully someone is inspired to do something. I still haven't had anyone coming to my door interested in doing anything, but I'm trying not to be disappointed yet!

Right now I am in Mahajanga, a town on the north west coast. I just spent four days helping a fellow volunteer, Jennie, prepare a similar town meeting, and kind-of 'consulted' with her about her site, walking out to visit people in her area and see what things they are doing and what kind of potential exists at her site. Her town is in a dry area, beautiful red and pink rock formations and huge red sunsets and sunrises that reminded me of Niger. The area is severely deforested, yet beautiful, and the people friendly and already asking her to help with tree planting and other activities. Needless to say, I was envious from the moment I drove up to her house with the Peace Corps car. I walked around soaking it all up. Then we went and spent two days at another volunteer's site on the beach--she takes a boat to get to her site, runs on the beach every morning as the sun rises, and drinks coconuts!.

But in a few days I will be back home, and will have to make the best of my own place. No gorgeous vistas, no dramatic sunsets and sunrises, not much in the way of people interested in working with me, but hopefully I will find ways to stay positive and move forward.

What else have I done since I last wrote? Rice planting season has started, so I have been trying to learn all of the different steps to upland rice farming. I've gone out to the fields to help clear the fallow land, then watched as they burned it to get rid of all the branches, brambles, and field rats, and then returning to plant. The seeds that we planted have already sprouted, and the small rice leaves are poking up bright green from the charred ground, along with lots of weeds! I can imagine if I had three or four more seasons here, that I could find a few people to test out some improved planting methods for soil conservation especially, maybe ways to plant without burning (I'm still looking for ideas!) but unfortunately this is the only full season I will be here. Next year, our group completes our service (Dec.) before the harvest will be in (April). Still, perhaps someone can learn some ways to experiment with some ideas and carry on after I go.

So after this visit to Jennie, and seeing how quickly time goes by without still having identified a way to work at my site, I have been a bit discouraged. But I'm trying to remind myself that I'm doing the best I can, I hope, and I am learning a lot, and at the very least encouraging people to see the resources that they do have around them, whether they take that encouragement or not is up to them.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Operation Smile

I have spent the last week here in Antananarivo translating for Operation Smile, a medical NGO that does operations on people with cleft palate. Mostly babies, some older children, and a few adults had the surgery--a total of 179 patients had the surgery in the past week.

I am currently pretty exhausted and hard to imagine I am about to go from the busy fast-paced not-much-sleep week back to the village where I spend the days trying to figure out what to do with myself. I hope that my cat remembers me and that my garden isn't dead, but really I just feel somewhat anxious about the culture shock that will hit me this afternoon, going from here to there...hopefully that feeling will fade once I get back "home."

I think all the weight of the week is just hitting me--the part that was hard like all the needles (yes, I watched and assisted as IVs were taken out of small babies)and constantly having crying babies all around, to the part that was profound, like all of the children that were just so changed through this operation. Each day's activities kept me busy, translating for the doctors and nurses, forcing kids to drink juice, handing out antibiotics and searching for a way to explain everything in Malagasy, so busy that I would almost forget the significance of all that was happening in their lives. Then it would hit me and I couldn't let myself feel it too much or I'd be overwhelmed and just probably cry!

One mom with about a four year old boy did make me cry. I think I was storing up all my reaction to the needles, to the witnessing of kids' pain and tears, to the exhaustion of working 12 hours a day and sleeping in the noisy Peace Corps hostel... Then there was this mom who came upstairs from the operating room with her son, who was around 4 years old. Much of the time, the family members come from the surgery looking anxious, wondering if their kid is alright, or still in shock that this has all just happened. Add to that people who have come from far away in a village and are dealing with their own shock of being in the city, around all these white people with their fancy medical instruments, gauze, medicines, white coats. But this mom had no anxiety. She arrived in post-op with her face just beaming with joy. I turned around from helping the bed next to her son's and saw her smiling, and asked her "Faly be ve ianao?" (You're really happy, aren't you?!) And she nodded. I went to give her a hug, and she just grabbed me into such a strong, wonderful hug, tears were coming to our eyes.

Yesterday was the last day of surgery. Each patient has a chart with their picture in it, taken during the pre-screening days. One beautiful 12 year old girl was sitting in her bed recovering with her family. I opened up the folder and showed them the picture of her from before the surgery. They looked at it and at her with a kind of awe.

Everyone was so thankful, so grateful. Of course, because we Peace Corps volunteers were the translators, the ones who could actually talk to them, we got to hear all of these thanks. It felt good to do something so useful, so basic. It was also so good to work with such amazing people. The nurses were wonderful, I especially enjoyed working with two from Namibia, one from Virginia, and one from South Africa. The Namibian woman was so calm, kind, and good with the children. We became friends and shared bits and pieces of stories from our lives as we went together from bed to bed, her checking vitals and me translating.

It's been one of those weeks that will stay with me, that made me stronger and taught me about the strength that people have, mothers and fathers and their children. There is much more that I could write, but I must begin getting ready to go home. I have a bus ride and a bike ride ahead of me today, lots of time to think about it all on the ride home.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nature Camp - Vondron'Ankizy Tontolo Iainana!

Mila Mikarakara

When it comes to children, well, there are many.
The small ones sing out my name
when I enter the village, coming home--
the same song my neighbors sing to announce
their grandmother arriving from the fields.

Everything is a plaything.
The rocks that tell stories,
the old plastic that forms a kite,
the mud we are using to build a house.

Each child has a container--just their size--
for fetching water.
They watch me (an old woman!)
with some hilarity.

They are the first to befriend you
and the last ones you must push
out your door in the evening.
“It's getting dark,” you can say.
“Time to go home.
I need to prepare.”

Sept. 5, 2010

The first annual Nature Day Camp in my village is now completed—my first project! It went really well—though there were many things to learn from and improve on for next year. We had 32 kids between 8-12 years old, and four of the teachers from the school in my village taught the lessons I had translated from a bunch of environmental education materials and books I got from the Peace Corps office. Several Peace Corps volunteers came out to be “camp counselors” and I must say that without Sara T., I couldn't have done it. Thank you Sara!

The kids dissected a bean seed, played “Stop Erosion Tag,” learned about food chains, built a human tree, and played “circle sit” (or “circle-fall-over-laughing”) to learn about working together. They had binoculars made from my toilet paper tubes, “nature notebooks” to draw and write in, and I even found two magnifying glasses at the fancy store in the capital that we used to look at leaves, water, and everything else. Many of them said that their favorite activity was learning about the water cycle, where they tied a plastic bag over leaves of a tree to learn about evapotranspiration.

It was challenging, wonderful, and exhausting, and I am still working on it, typing up all the activities to make a book for other volunteers and teachers to use (and still waiting on the evaluations from three of the teachers). The one teacher who has given me her evaluation wrote that she wants to do it again every year, and wants to do environmental education during the school year as well, so if that's not a sign that the camp was at least a bit inspirational, then I don't know what is.

The last day we walked an hour and a half to the forest and the president of the VOI was our “guide”, telling the children about orchids, vines, and all the kinds of trees. Walking back to the village, a lot of kids ran on ahead, but a group of us planted six trees around the school with the teachers. Last time I checked, they were still alive and probably happy to be out of their little plastic bags.

We split the kids into three groups, each with a name. "Riana" (waterfall) was my group. As I was biking out of my village last week, one of the little girls from my group called out “Riana! Riana!” as I went by. And as I've been going house to house doing my farming and food survey, I've seen the nature notebooks hanging in special places in the houses, parents proudly showing me the drawings of the water cycle and insect habitats that their child did. Hopefully, as our six trees grow, they will be a reminder to the kids of the things we learned about together.

Antsy Be

September 1st 2010
When I first came to my village, I used to think about what would happen to me if I broke my leg, or was delirious with malaria or in some other situation when it would be difficult or impossible for me to walk or bike the 8 kilometers to the main road. A few weeks ago I was rinsing out my dish-washing basin and saw four men walking with a stretcher built of sticks hoisted on their shoulders, upon which lay a man who had cut his leg with an antsy be while chopping eucalyptus for charcoal. Ansty means knife and be means big. The antsy be is used for everything—making charcoal, clearing a field for planting, chopping firewood, peeling cassava root, cutting up vegetables.

The men were headed 10 kilometers down the road to the Centre de Sante de Base—the health clinic in my commune. I realized that if something ever happened to me, I would be carried out to the road like a wounded princess. Another method to transport the sick is on the rack on the back of a bike. One man who cut himself with an antsy be about two months ago was transported to the “good” road this way. When I went to visit his family later, he showed me his wound and how it was healing. He was lying in bed and still couldn't work.

Today I was biking home from a quick trip to the market, internet and post office. As I biked along, I began to notice bright red drops on the dirt road—lots of them. My first thought was that it looked like blood, but there were so many drops—too many. I was trying to think of other things it could be, when I saw some kids on the road and asked them about it. They told me that my friend Lala's husband had cut his arm with an antsy be while clearing his field.

As I kept going, following the fresh drops of blood the whole way back to the village, I felt sick thinking about whether he had made it to the clinic in time, thinking about the distance to the clinic and how people struggle to get there, thinking about his family and his field, still only partly cleared, and how this accident will affect their year—what they are able to plant, what work he is able to do. I thought about the antsy be and how important it is for everything in their daily lives, but how dangerous it is too. Sometimes it just strikes me how different things are difficult here. An infected wound, a few weeks delay on planting, the distance to the clinic, the tool you use every day slipping in your hand.

Friday, August 27, 2010

My Site

A guest post by Emily, the sister.

Sorry it took me so long to post these pictures! Even when Amanda has access to the internet, it's not usually fast enough to upload many pictures so these are all months old. I'll get some more recent pictures up soon!

First meal in the new home!

Table and map:

View out the back door:

The bathroom:

Kids visiting the first day - they look a little wary!

Making banana bread in leaves:

Fold them up:


Kids sent to plant flowers the second day:

Walking with Redi and Ernest by the forest:

Reading is fun!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Amanda has a Kitty!

The most recent addition to Amanda's little home, kitty helps keep the rats and mice away.
So cute!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Training Photos: Part II

View from the bedroom window at training

Host family, Roland and Fanja

Laundry with the host family

Awesome tree

Stuck in the mud

Training Photos

Guest post by Emily, Amanda's sister

These photos are long overdue - I should have uploaded them weeks ago. My apologies!
Amanda sends photos via email when she can get a solid enough internet connection and also sent us a small USB flash drive of photos when a volunteer was heading back to the States.
Here are a few highlights from her time in training:
Mom and Baby Lemurs

Studying Malagasy

Training Town

Family Amanda lived with during training

Amanda's bedroom window - she would climb in and out of the window to keep from disturbing her training family.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Six Months In (almost)

Last night my phone shown a pool of light at my feet,
walking through rainforest,
stopping to watch sleeping chameleons,
stars upside-down above me.

Today I push my gas tank
strapped awkwardly to my bike
slowly down a sandy road,
startling lizards at every step here,
a yellow crowd of butterflies there,
a red fody coming from the rice field, overhead.

So it's been a long time since I've written. I have a lot in my journal, but I didn't bring it with me to the capital, thinking I was only going to be here for two days. However, my toes have an unknown inflammation so I have to stay here for the weekend to wait for blood test results to come back. I've been thinking about how nice it is to have health care for the first time in about six years, and sitting in the Peace Corps clinic, I was grateful for a good doctor and all the treatment that I might need.

There are many things to be grateful for. In the last month, I have come to a new point in my thought process about being here. While I still think of Niger often, I am coming to accept where I am, and I want to make the two years work here, and I find myself overcome with gratefulness for the things that I have.

My village had a volunteer seven years ago, but since the Peace Corps program was different then and that was quite long ago, I am like a new volunteer, coming into a village where there is little understanding of what I should be doing. So my first six months have been, at times, quite difficult when it comes to having a good concept of “work” and what I can do in my community. While I enjoy living in the village and learning about life here, it has been hard to identify good work, and I've had moments of wondering whether I will actually be able to do anything meaningful where I am at.

But in the last month, as I've become more and more comfortable with language and with my life here, and as I've been thinking a lot about development work, and my place as an outsider, I've begun to have ideas about how I can start working with my community. I spent eight days at trainings for VOIs (the forest management groups) on project planning and design, led by a volunteer who had been here before and returned for a Peace Corps Response position with Conservation International. The trainings not only taught me more language, but I also learned a lot about working with the VOIs and with project development in general, and also saw how a volunteer can act as a facilitator, which gave me some idea of how to help VOIs and other groups with their projects.

When I returned from the trainings, I spent the next three weeks in my cold and rainy village. Sitting in my house trying to keep warm, I thought about how in the States it's summer time, and that means Summer Camps, so the idea came to me to have a kids' nature camp in my village. In a relatively quick period of time, I talked to the teachers and several people in the community, and they are all enthusiastic and want to do it! So I'm putting together lots of ideas and I came to the capital to look into a funding program that the embassy has for small projects. Unfortunately it sounds like it's not running until September and the camp is next month, so I may just fund the camp myself. I think it won't be much more than $15 to buy paper and pencils and some art supplies. Several other nearby volunteers want to come and help, too. Hopefully it will lead to the teachers wanting to do a year-long nature club or other environmental education projects with the kids.

I have also kept busy during the cold, wet days by putting together a survey on farming and household food security. Although people say there is plenty of land and things grow well where I live, they still talk about a “hungry season” during December, January, and February (at least), when they don't have enough rice to eat before the harvest comes in. So I put together a questionnaire asking about what they plant, what other income-generating activities they do, and questions about whether they have enough food for the year, and ideas they have for how to improve their food security. I'm also asking about what things they most like in the community and what things they would change if they could.

Starting next week, I will be going to each house to do the survey, then presenting their ideas to the community. At the very least, I will learn a lot about the community and about the hunger and farming issues that they face. I am hoping that it will lead to some projects to help address some of these issues.

What I have been realizing is that it is up to me to make something work with my community. They are happy to have me living there, but they don't understand what it is that I can do there, and even I don't really know either. But if anything is going to happen, I will need to take the first steps rather than sitting around thinking about how lazy and drunk people are and how no one wants to plant anything or use any cool soil conservation techniques! Thus, the survey. I am excited about it. I gave a little speech to the community to let them know about it, and people seem eager to participate, so already, I feel better about the potential within my community for doing something good.

So that's what I'm up to. That and taking care of my garden, learning Malagasy (always), and spending time with my friends in the village. One of my friends is planting a lot of Chinese cabbage to sell at her little store, and I went with her to clear out some of her fields and plant. It was really good to be “farming,” and to see how she goes about planting. We also dug up some mangahazo (cassava roots), and she gave me some cassava leaves to pound into a delicious loka (food you eat with rice).

June 26th was Independence Day here and my village was pretty much in party mode all week. The day before, in the evening, I heard people singing as they walked down the road. I looked out of my door and there was a group of people in a little procession. The kids were holding colorful paper lanterns with candles in them. I left my dinner behind and joined them on the road. Afterwords was a dance party at my friend's house, so I stayed up late (10:30!) dancing with my neighbor kids. In the afternoon the next day, the women did vakondrazana (folk dancing). I went to the commune-head village and watched more vakondrazana and a women's soccer match.

At one point last month, the poverty of my village suddenly struck me. Most of the time, I am just so used to my surroundings and although I know it's not the same as a “developed” country, I am so comfortable with living in a small village in Madagascar that it doesn't seem uncomfortably poor to me. However, one day last month when it was really cold, my neighbor kids came over, as they do pretty much everyday, and they didn't have long pants, shoes or socks, and weren't even wearing coats (which they have—old ones, discarded from the States, that lack zippers and have lots of holes). I felt so awful that they didn't have warm clothes to wear. On top of that, with the cold and wet weather none of them had bathed in a long time and their clothes were filthy and they smelled terrible. It is moments like that when I suddenly remember that I am in a poor country, in a small village, that has real needs.

It is also moments like that when what I want most is to focus on the children. I know partly that's my hormonal, motherly urge. But the kids here really work hard. They fetch the water, they pound rice (which tires ME out), they carry around the toddlers all day. Then I see them playing games made from all the trash and sticks and rocks around them, and having so much fun, and I remember that they are regular happy kids, too. They take care of each other, they share what they have with each other, they make something fun out of all the small things. I have a lot I can learn from them.

So that is my rather long update for the last few months. Hopefully I will be heading back to my village tomorrow with a pile of books on kids' activities and environmental education. If people have ideas, let me know! Thanks!

Friday, May 28, 2010


May 16th, 2010

I am at the training center right now, just arrived this evening and was served crème puffs for desert tonight. Crème puffs. Yes. I ate five. (they were small! [ish]). Where am I? The training center is so fancy, I am almost embarrassed. We have all brought our “counterparts” with us for the first 4 days of our training. Counterparts are people who work with us in our villages and towns, helping us with projects or “integration” and all that nice Peace Corps stuff... Some people have a very obvious person to call their counterpart. In my situation, it's not as clear. Maybe I'll end up working with one of the teachers a lot, with various farmers, and perhaps with some VOI in my area. There is not one particular person to call my counterpart, but I decided that the best person to bring is the President of the VOI who lives in my village. (A VOI is a protected area forest management group formed within communities living close to the forest.) He is the one who was most involved in getting a volunteer in the village, even if I don't end up working a lot with him. I think he's a bit overwhelmed by the fanciness of the training center. He said to me “this isn't like your house [in the village]!” I had to laugh. No, but I like my house more. I'm already a little homesick, and missing “my” kids...the neighbor children who are watering my garden while I'm gone.

Last month a Peace Corps Response volunteer came to my site and stayed with me for five days while she was meeting with various VOIs in my area. I went with her to a little community about five hours walk from my town—3 hours on the dirt road, and then off onto a trail for two hours, passing by some areas of Malagasy forest (not eucalyptus!), and lots of rice fields on the steep hillsides. The community consists of several families, the houses spread out along the hillsides where they grow rice, cassava, corn, and beans, and build their houses, raised from the ground a bit, from wood and reeds, right up the hillsides. There was a good-sized stream where the family we stayed with for the night gets their water. They cleared out a little hut for us to set our tent up in, and killed a chicken for us for dinner, serving us the biggest mounds of rice that I have ever seen. It was impossible to eat it all. People are so happy to have their rice harvest coming in, they are eating A LOT of rice.

We were staying with the President of another VOI, and in the morning about 20 men crowded into his house to meet with the volunteer and my “counterpart,” who was helping her with her presentation. The forest that this VOI is supposed to be protecting/managing is an hour walk from the community, and they don't actually have any projects going, and haven't finished their paperwork to get their actual VOI status, but they were very involved in the meeting and sharing their ideas, more so than other VOIs that she has met with.

The community had many children who didn't go to school (the closest primary school being 2 hours on that trail, and the secondary schools hours and hours away). They have no flat land in that area, so all their fields are on hillsides, where it's a slash-and-burn system and say they have to farm a new field almost every year—very labor-intensive and damaging. When I asked the VOI president whether he had ever seen farming on the contour (an erosion control technique for sloping land), he said that he had had no experience with it before, but had seen it in another part of the country. Honestly, I have no idea how interested he really is, but I detected more enthusiasm about things from that group of people than from others that we met with.

At the same time, like all the groups we met with, they had many issues and complaints, talking about how unfair the non-profit working with the VOIs is, giving money to other groups and not (yet) to them. From the other volunteer, I learned about what's going on with this situation, and it is really discouraging. Not just the isolation of the farmers who don't understand the non-profit's system, but also the non-profit itself, and how the goals and ideas don't always actually go in the intended direction.

I can't solve these huge issues, but sitting there listening to them talk about their poverty and their dissatisfaction with the non-profit, what I keep thinking is, why is it so much easier to see what we don't have than what we do have? So much easier to complain than to rejoice? And I can't judge anyone because I am exactly the same way, and I have much more resources than the people in this community have. My goal for my time here could be to develop my focus on the good things, the resources, the joy of using them well, and hope that some of that rubs off on others, too.

I feel like there is so much possibility here. I'm not in a desert where things struggle to grow—I'm in an area with rain, with sun, with streams and plants and trees. I don't know what is keeping the people from having nutritious food and enough for their children. I have a lot to learn, much still to come to understand.

I want to go there and start showing them a bunch of erosion-control things, all these books I have with ideas, and take my shovel and start digging...but I know I could just go in and mess things up! I have to sit with them and ask questions about why they plant the way they do, and understand what their reasons are, what their ideas are, and approach any sort of change slowly and carefully.

Honestly, I don't even know how to go there and start anything. Not only am I not an expert in development, in agroforestry, or in facilitating anything, I'm also not a non-profit with money to hand out, but, being a foreigner, that is what I will be seen as. Which is why what I need to keep in my mind as my first goal is to simply cultivate a thankfulness for the things I have, the things we have, the good things all around. Learning to value and care for well the resources here, and hoping that people see the goodness in all these things around them. I'm still very new to this place -- before I run in with project ideas, I have a lot to learn.

Reading a Novel

April 28th, 2010

So I was feeling like I needed a break from Madagascar, having one of those days when I'm struggling over what it is that I am here to do. So I decided that reading a novel might be good for me, to help me think about something else for a while.

I got out Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which turns out to be short stories. That's good for me, since I've been reading so slowly. So before dinner I finished the first story, which brought me to tears! Not exactly the escape-into-a-novel that I was hoping for...

So I read the second story while dinner was cooking, and it wasn't as sad because it was less personal to me, and because the characters were more hopeful and quirky. The best part was Mr. Pirzada (an immigrant to the United States from Pakistan) saying, “What are these large orange vegetables on people's doorsteps? A type of squash?...And the purpose? It indicates what?”

I can just see the curiosity and confusion of someone unfamiliar with our rather strange tradition! Reading a story set in the USA while living in Madagascar in this small village brings all the many differences face to face for me. Things like refrigerators, microwaves, doorsteps with decorative pumpkins, couches, relationships involving divorce paperwork, television news, grocery stores, gyms and sweatpants and makeup, sidewalks, the four seasons, libraries where kids read books...

Here we have candlelight, water in plastic buckets, markets built from patched together wood and metal scraps, people crowding into small rooms to watch videos powered by a generator, mosquito nets, handwoven baskets holding rice, handwoven mats to dry the rice, drunken men talking loudly in the dirt road late at night (i.e. 9pm), kids playing games with rocks and balls made from discarded plastic bags and banana-tree bark...

Rice Threshing

April 24th, Saturday

This afternoon, I threshed rice in a big group in Madame Haingo's fields. Her fields are flat, lowland rice that is flood-irrigated. Harvesting it is different from what I've been doing on the hillside, dry (rain irrigated) rice, where you harvest each strand individually, cutting the stalk with a small knife just a few inches below where the grain is attached, just enough stalk to be able to grasp it with your hand. With lowland rice, the men have a scythe and harvest in armfuls, which they lay on the ground, and the women gather it and carry big bundles of the stalks, forming a pile on a big tarp in the field.

To separate the grains of rice (still in the hull) from the stalk of grass (ie straw), we thresh it. For upland dry rice, people often spread the rice stalks on a mat or tarp and walk on it, smashing it around with their feet. This separates the rice grains from the straw. And tends to hurt the soft feet of people like me... With lowland rice, which is cut lower on the stalk and therefore has a much longer straw to deal with than upland rice, we used long wooden sticks to remove the grain.

The rice sat in a high pile on the tarp. We stood 8-10 people facing each other in two rows, and the two people closest to the pile began by using their sticks to pass a bunch of rice down through the row, one side beating on it in unison, followed by the next side, with a beat-fluff-beat-flick down to next person-movement. Being part of the rhythm of 10 people beating and moving the rice in unison was amazing. The momentum and energy would keep going and going until my mind stopped even thinking about anything but the stick moving and the rice moving and my body moving in coordination with all the other sticks and rice and bodies. Now and then people would shout out things with the rhythm, and whenever we would finally pause, the young people would jump and do back flips on the piles of accumulated straw, laughing, and the old people would lean against their sticks watching and smiling. We would rest for a minute and start again, until we had threshed two huge piles. It was good, concentrative work. (I knew that wasn't a real word, now the computer with its red line confirms it...!)

I stayed until we were done threshing and all the rice had been put in big sacs and carried back to town on the men's shoulders, who walked fast because of the weight of the sacs. Seeing the whole process and what was accomplished with a big group of people working together, being there in the midst of it all made me happy. It was like making hay, but more fun, everyone close together putting in their energy. I know they are all there because they are paid to be there, it's probably not the same feeling one would get if it was a community working together because they wanted to help each other, they are farm laborers for the “wealthy” woman in town. There is a certain tiredness towards the work that they may not have if they were threshing their own rice. But they still formed this amazing human threshing machine, all of the strength going into making daily food.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 15th, 2010

The past few weeks I've been enjoying all the "cultural exchange" goals of
the Peace Corps... I've been out to my friend Joslyne's rice fields
harvesting rice, then learning to pound it with a wooden stick and basin (is
there a word for this in English that I'm forgetting?). It feels good to be
farming, standing on a steep hillside with a group of women chatting away,
me trying to catch a word or two and make sense of the
conversation... someone died, someone had a baby, something funny that they
all laugh about but I'm not sure what... it started to rain and we all
huddled together under a shelter they had built there earlier, when the rice
was still not ready to harvest and kids stay in the fields all day under the
shelter, throwing rocks and balls of clay at these red birds who eat the

The harvest is fun and easy, done with a small knife in one hand, and
putting the individual stalk of rice in the other hand. The other women
harvest about three times faster than me, but they've also been doing it for
years, and constantly tell me how "mahay" (really good) I am. My slowness
in everything is a good lesson in humility, which I can never have enough
lessons in. When the eleven-year-old girl is stronger at carrying huge
bundles of rice on her head down the steep hill than I am, I am really
humbled. And inspired to get stronger! But carrying heavy things on my
head for a long time hurts my back, so I have to lower my pride and let the
kid help. Pounding rice also is hard work - using a wooden basin
and long wooden stick, every now and then I fling some onto the
ground! But I'm getting better at it, and have even done it with two
other people--once you get a rhythm going and focus on the middle of
the basin, it's not hard.

The most interesting rice-related activity happened a few weeks ago,
when the first rice is harvested they have a tradition of offering
some to their ancestors. I was invited, so went and sat in a hut full
of people, right next to the mat where they placed six piles of lango
(pounded not-yet-dry rice that's really delicious, you eat it
uncooked), an ear of corn, some honeycomb, some tobacco and sugar-cane
alcohol, and the small knife that you use to harvest the rice. The
eldest man, my friend's father, called out to the ancestors, and said
the names of everyone who had died that people in the room listed.
Then chaos erupted as everyone in the room jumped up to grab lango,
and everything else from the mat--it was like a pinata had dropped and
everyone was laughing over who got the toka gasy (alcohol), and kids
were stuffing their mouths with the lango. So I guess we helped the
ancestors out, eating the food for them. It was fun to watch.

Then they put out two huge banana leaves, and poured a basket of rice
out, placed small bowls of beans and squash around it, and we all ate.
I was sitting next to the eldest man, and he kept heaping rice in my
bowl. I kept trying to eat it all, until my friend Solo told me I
could stop if I was full!

So that's the rice activity lately. It's fall here, so harvest time.
I'm also planting my garden bit by bit, digging up my yard to make
beds. The neighbor kids come over when they see me out there and
help. They are really sweet. Last night I heard someone pounding
rice next door and looked over and it was the tiny neighbor boy, just
throwing his body into each pound! I wanted to go over and help, but
he was already done. They are so hard-working! They have one more
week of vacation, then the kids go back to school. I'm hoping to meet
with the teachers when they come back and see how I can get involved
with the school, doing environmental education or something. My
language skills are still limited, so the thought of standing in front
of a bunch of kids talking is scary, but maybe we can get a few small
groups going...

One last little story before I get out of this internet cafe and go
eat lunch. On April 1st, I went out to the latrine to empty my po in
the morning. (Did I already tell you about the po, aka chamberpot?)
I keep a bar of soap and an old sponge in the latrine so it's easy to
clean out each morning. I unlocked my latrine, and went to get the
soap, and it was gone! I thought, did someone steal it? But the
latrine is locked and there's no way for someone to have gotten in.
Then I thought, maybe it was a rat--but would it have eaten the WHOLE
soap, plus the plastic bag it sat on? Then I thought, maybe I kicked
it in the hole, but I couldn't see the plastic bag floating down
there, and I would have had to be really unobservant not to have
noticed it fall in. So for days, every time I went to the bathroom,
I'd think about that soap...maybe it was an April Fool's joke! A few
days later, I put a new soap in there, and the next morning, it was
dragged from one side of the latrine to the other, with little teeth
marks in it! So I guess it was a rat after all... At least it's not
in my house!!!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

March 2, 2010

I have been at my site for a month now. Probably a good time to write something and let my friends know I'm still alive!
Time is playing one of those tricks on me where I can't believe that I've been here for a month and at the same time, feel like I've been here much longer.

I've spent this past month beginning to get to know my village. There are some great people here, including a bunch of fun kids. I've been out to people's fields, been to a few meetings, entertained kids (and adults I'm sure), and even went to the village fundraiser dance party that went on until 5:30am (I went home at 10:30...way past my normal bedtime here)!
Despite all of the good people and keeping busy with things, the first three weeks I was thinking a lot about why I am here, and missing Niger (and even the US!), and really questioning whether this was where I wanted to be for two years. A big part of me feels ready and wanting to settle into a place and into meaningful work for a long time, but Madagascar doesn't feel like that place and Peace Corps isn't quite the long-term/meaningful work kind of committment that I want. I'm tired of putting energy into things without being able to grow roots...
Well, I was thinking a lot about things like this, and I came to the point where I decided that I can't go each day analyzing everything, and this is where I am right now, so at least I need to refocus and be positive about what I can do here and now. I can re-evaluate later, but for now, not everyday! So, the day after making that decision, I left my house with my shovel/hoe thing (called an angady) and a bag, and went collecting manure from the road to start my compost pile. As I write this, my compost is decomposing away and makes me happy whenever I see it. I finished reading the chapter on the humid tropics in my Permaculture Design Manual and got lots of ideas for my garden, too.
I'm really not ready language or culture-wise to start any big projects yet, but my garden is a great way to begin and a good way to start talking to people about farming and food. I have 23 by 9 meters to work with - a pretty big space! Plus, possibly some land that a young woman in my town may let me use on a hillside for rice/cassava/corn/bean farming. Much of that planting starts in October-ish, so lots of time to plan. Lots of ideas for things are coming to me, but we'll see what the community is interested in. I'd like to do something with these teenage girls who no longer go to school - maybe linking them to leadership and mentoring of some of the younger kids. They are so smart, strong, and amazing, but have little outlet for creativity or thinking independently.
There is also a lot of potential for agroforestry, on the steep slopes where people grow their rice. I know that one woman might be interested, so eventually we may be able to start working on things like that. For now, I'm still learning and just trying to get to know people.
Each day is a little different, but the daily routines involve getting water from a stream about 5 minutes away in the morning and evening. I've been doing a lot of good cooking, mostly beans and rice, but my mom sent me chocolate chips, which have been a wonderful addition to pancakes now and then! : ) I eat rice every day but don't get tired of it. There are lots of fresh fruits and vegetables - no market in my town but I can find a lot of things at the little stores that we have, and going to the big market (in the town where I do my banking/internet/post office) I can find lots of color and variety.
To get cell phone reception, I walk up a hill past the stream to the top of some rocks. From up there, I have a view of all the surrounding green hills, the rice fields, small mud and wooden houses with thatch roofs, and the schoolyard where kids are playing soccer with a ball made from a stuffed plastic bag tied into a round shape. If I listen closely I can imagine that I hear the waterfall 20 min walk south of town. The hills are mostly covered in eucalyptus, all the original rainforest is gone. People make charcoal from the eucalyptus and sell it to big trucks that come through and take it to the capitol. There is a small area of protected forest south of town--one of my jobs is to work with the community group that is in charge of managing it, but I have yet to see the forest or to meet with them as a group.
In the evening, I close up my house when it gets dark and light my candle, eat dinner and wash up the dishes and write. With no electricity here, most people go to bed early and wake up early. It's a pattern that feels good to fall into. I've been also reading some - currently Wendell Berry's The Art of the Commonplace, a gift from my sister. It's good and makes me thing a lot about agriculture in the states.
My days are good and full, despite all my thoughts about everything. Funny how now that I'm "settled" somewhere for 2 years, I start wanting to be somewhere for 10, 20, or 30... : ) Right now rain is falling and my yard is a mud puddle, but I can imagine how nice it will be when my garden is planted and growing with pineapple, papaya, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes... I'm glad to be going slow with learning the community and building some friendships before I start working, though two years feels like an awfully short time to actually do anything, other than enjoy all these small things I like about life. So I guess that's what I'll focus on for now. Kids, food, making compost, and watch the rain.

Monday, February 15, 2010

January 23, 2010

We are a few days away from “swearing in.” We've had our last training sessions, our language placement interviews (a.k.a. language test) are over, and we left our host families yesterday to come back to the training center for all of our last minute logistical nightmares before we head to the capital for the ceremony. Hopefully I'll get internet while we're there and I can post this.

I think I would have gone crazy with all this training if it wasn't for the host family that I lived with for the last three weeks. They lived in a small two-room house, in which I had one of the rooms and they slept, prepared food, and we ate meals in the other. I felt bad for taking up so much of their space, but they were so flexible and welcoming. It was a young couple and their two boys, ages 6 and 3, and a little cat who was always hungry and liked to curl up on the rock by my window/doorway. The entrance to my room was through the window, which was big and had a big sill, so there was plenty of room for me to sit there and look out at the world.

What I would see from my window seat would be a nicely made fence, a small corn field, a decomposing house across the way, chickens in the yard, and off in the distance down the hill, bright green rice fields in the valley. We spent our days in language classes at another trainee's house, and doing some technical sessions on things like gardening, composting, making mud-brick stoves, and planting rice. In the evenings, I would help with dinner, dishes, sometimes drawing with the kids, and studying. On the weekends, we did things like laundry in the river, and going on walks with the family.

I made some meals for them, including tortillas with re-fried beans and salsa. It was a trick to learn to cook with the charcoal stove on the ground, and the first time I was left alone to fix lunch while the mom was still at the market, I had to find the young neighbor boy to help me light it in the rain with no kindling! We ended up breaking off little branches from one of their fences in order to start the fire. At least they were impressed by how well the rice ended up turning out!

Everyone in the small town where we were staying was friendly and kind, and very encouraging with the language, always telling me I was “mahay” which means good, smart, intelligent, etc. “Efa mahay Malagasy,” they would say, which means, you're already good at Malagasy! They would say this even after I had only said three words, like my name is Amanda, or something really silly like that. In reality, I'm at just the level expected of me by peace corps, no higher!

Yesterday we had a big thank you party for all the families. It was estimated that 300 people were invited when you counted all the kids, officials, and staff members. I was voted to give the thank you speech, which didn't worry me until I found out that I had to use a microphone. Fortunately, several other volunteers also did speeches, so I wasn't alone, and it went very well. I managed to talk slowly and clearly and pause at all the right moments. One of the language teachers helped me prepare it, and I actually made the families laugh several times, so apparently they understood what I was saying! My host family whispered to me that I was the best, they are so encouraging! The staff had prepared so much food; the families were stuffing their pockets and purses full.

On Wednesday I will be moving to my site. It will probably take me several days to move in, get what furniture I need for the house, and meet all the appropriate officials. Two language teachers will be coming with me and two other volunteers to move us in and introduce us to the communities (they call this “installation”). Right now it feels surreal to me that I will be in my site in less than a week. I can barely imagine it. Especially after years of moving around, it's unreal to think I will be in one place for two years, and I can't quite grasp that idea. I will have email access once a month when I go to my banking town, so I will try and give an update about how it all goes!