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.