Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ela Ela

Four months since I've written here. I apologize. Certainly it has to do with lack of internet access (heck, lack of electricity!), but also the difficulty of distilling my experiences down into a concise "blog post." Okay, so apologies over (this happens to be Malagasy culture for speeches: begin with apologies "sorry I'm not the oldest, sorry I'm not good at talking" etc etc), moving on to what's new, "inona vaovao."

We finished the alphabet! A to Z, minus C, Q, U, W, and X because Malagasy doesn't have those letters, and we've started building words with syllable blocks, two-syllable words like maka (fetch), rano (water), nono (boob), vavy (woman). I made a bingo game out of small and capital letters and called it Katsaka (Corn) because we use a corn kernel to mark the letters that are called, and the winner wins everyone's corn. I read about adult literacy techniques that involve using important words in the culture to inspire discussion and learning so we started with the words "miasa," to work, and "mianatra," to learn. One older woman in the group said that men's work is "heavier" but that women's work is harder because we work all the time but men just work in short spurts. Only two of the ten women went to school (one for a year, and the other for 3 years) when they were children. We talked about different ways of learning, and the things that they learned despite not having gone to school. Last week I handed out to each of them a paper with their name written in big letters. Their homework was to practice writing their name. This week, looking at all their names in their notebooks, I felt amazed at how far they have come. Even if they don't all learn to actually read, at the very least they can write their name, and they have had the opportunity to come together with other women every week and talk about their lives and experiences and learn something new.

The kids' club is going well also, though numbers have been dwindling all summer (winter here). We built a compost pile last May and finally dug new garden beds and started a new experiment to see if compost makes a difference. The little radish sprouts are poking up from the soil--so far we have 20 sprouted on the composted side of the bed and 11 on the non-composted side of the bed. The kids are excited and even I am surprised to see such a difference from the very first day of the experiment. Their exclamations of excitement over every worm in the compost and over finding eggs (lizard?) in the sandy soil makes the club worthwhile to me, even if only a few kids show up.

I've also had a bunch of vacations since I last posted here...since I didn't use many vacation days last year, and am not supposed to use vacation days during the last three months of service, I had to squeeze them in over the last four months. In June I traveled to Isalo, a national park in the east with big canyons and dry grassy landscape stretching far to the horizon, the kind of landscape that opens up my lungs and my heart and makes me feel alive again. I need that kind of openness after months in the tiny valley of my village. In August, I took a short but fun trip to Morondava on the east coast, watching the sunset on the ocean (channel really); visiting Kirindy park to see lemurs, birds, and fosa; and the Avenue of the Baobabs, which actually was as amazing as the pictures I've seen. A few weeks ago, I went the other direction and visited Manakara on the west coast, riding a train from the coast back up to the highlands was a highlight of the trip.

I will be able to post pictures when I get back to the States, which is coming up quickly...sometime between the end of December and the end of January, I'll know the date for sure in a few weeks. These last three months here already seem like they are going to go so fast. I have a lot of mixed feelings about leaving, no surprise. Read my journal, every day it's full of these mixed feelings! But after several attempts at ideas to extend (stay another year), none of which worked out, it seems like it's best for me to move on. There are moments, too, when I feel ready to leave NOW(!), but then I think about the kids, about the women and their eagerness to learn, and I'm pulled back to the moment, to the present, which is still me being here.

I want to write more, there are many stories to tell, but it's 10:00pm and I'm not used to electricity. In my village by now I would have long blown out my candle and tucked in my mosquito net. I need to sleep.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alphabet, Gardens, and Kids

The women’s literacy group is up to H/h and I/i, and our carrots are several inches tall. They haven’t wanted to thin the carrots because they are so sad to kill all the little plants that are too crowded. So we did an experiment. We thinned one row and left the other row crowded. The following week we could already see that the thinned row of carrots had grown taller than the non-thinned row, so they dutifully thinned the rest of the rows, still looking dejected about the lost carrots. When I demonstrated that you could eat the nice green carrot tops, they just looked at me like I was crazy as I chewed. So the next batch of seeds they planted, they carefully spaced them far apart! We’ll see how the germination is…the carrot seeds here have had a terrible germination rate for me in my garden, which is currently looking pretty neglected.

I am in the capital picking up health posters and expired condoms for the week of health sensibilisations coming up soon. I have a health volunteer friend who is coming out to teach about everything from malaria to family planning, and the communities seem to be getting excited. Antanifotsy might even finish building their first latrine before she comes—a stipulation that I put on her visit, but with rice harvest coming in, they hadn’t started when I was there a few days ago. But they are talking about it! So there’s hope.

My weekly kids club continues. Their enthusiasm doesn’t seem to wane for counting sprouted radishes and carrots and watering our small experiment plot. We have 100 seeds of radish and of carrot planted on a dug garden bed and 100 seeds of each planted on an undug garden bed. I showed them how to make a graph to track the germination and growth, and—how cool—the results actually confirm that digging the garden bed is better! Now we’re trying to build a compost pile, but WOW it takes a lot of dry and green materials to build a meter pile, and for small kids to gather all those materials takes time, so it’s been a several-week process.

The best moment was when 11 year old Noely (one of my favorites—he’s going to be a heartbreaker when he gets older) was fording the river carrying a heavy sac of rice straw on his back and I just couldn’t stop wondering at his diligence and strength and laughing at the awkward balance of the sac and his pants rolled up high and his concentrated frown as he refused help! He wants to do everything—carry the manure bag, water the garden—I have to lecture him about letting other kids try too. He is on a constant show to prove his strength!

So I’m staying busy and feeling that although my “projects” are small and humble, the women and kids I am working with are worth it. I’m not changing slash-and-burn agriculture, not doing some great agroforestry project, no farmers flocking to me for my wisdom (ha!), but all these small things are feeling more real than anything I was imagining doing back a year ago.

I am learning more about teaching to, and more about motivation, and more about patience. Tuesday at the women’s literacy group I lectured a woman about not being ashamed to answer simple questions that I know she knows. Afterwards I kept thinking of how I could have approached that situation better, how I could have worked around and with their reticence. How I have to remind myself where they are coming from, and the culture that keeps women much more silent than men. There are better ways to get them to participate than by scolding them. I’m learning. I have to use my power as a teacher and as an American who can acceptably break some of these cultural norms carefully. Patience. Kindness. Creativity. It all goes together to make some change happen, I hope. Oh, yes, and hope. That too.

Friday, April 8, 2011

What I'm Up To, aka still figuring that out!

Months have gone by since I last "blogged"...I seem to have trouble writing for a public eye. I start a post and then backspace it and sit looking at the blank screen wondering what to tell you, the reader, about my life here. At the same time, I write in my own journal every day, a practice I've keep up for most of the last 20 years. Glancing over some pages between the end of January and now, there are so many pieces I could share with you.

Here's a few:

February 3rd, Thursday

I wrote the following after a meeting with my community that was supposed to start at 9 but started closer to 11 and didn't end until 3, and that was supposed to be for me to talk to the community about working with them, but ended up being a lot of ranting about the teachers not teaching because many parents hadn't paid the school fees, and a doctor from the city telling us that the plague was in a neighboring county. Eventually it was my turn. By then, over half the people had left and those who stayed, including me, were very hungry. I had prepared an activity to get them thinking about their top priorities for improving their lives based on the survey that I did months ago, and although it was well past lunch, about 30 of them agreed to stay and participate.

I think the meeting went well despite the hours and the negativity and the stress. I felt bad about keeping people longer, but they were so cooperative. Sometimes, in my frustration, I think that things will never get better here. I just want to roll my eyes at everything, pack up and go somewhere that feels like it has more hope to it. But who knows where that hopeful place is. We are all struggling with something all over the world.

And last week in Antanifotsy [one of the VOI communities near the forest] and this week in today's meeting, I did see a glimmer of hope. So that's what I have to hold onto. If I'm going to be easily discouraged, then this is not the work for me.

February 4th, Friday
Sometimes its as though I just forget that I'm not in the States. I'm cooking at my stove, sweeping my floor, feeling grouchy about the rain, in my house most of the day I create my own world. Then I hear the neighbors pounding rice, or see someone go by with a huge load on their head or balanced on a stick on their shoulder, and I suddenly remember where I am. It's startling. I want to turn to someone and say in English "Do you have this too?" but there's no one around. And because of the rain, I don't feel like climbing the hill to send a text message.

February 14th, Monday

The cyclone that Peace Corps has been texting us about for days finally arrived here and I've been in my house all day except for getting water. Strong winds and so much rain--I was disappointed to find my rain gauge had fallen over as I imagine it would have been overflowing. I'm reminded of the typhoon days we'd have off school in the Philippines. Here, the kids had no school today. This afternoon my house was full of kids drawing and reading. It was nice. I was working on literacy lessons for the women in Antanifotsy. I made a big alphabet poster and 18 copies of a worksheet for practicing writing the letters. I'm thinking that I won't be able to hike out there tomorrow though, with this weather.

February 17th, Thursday

My house is strung with laundry. 13 pairs of underwear tells me its been a while since I washed clothes! Unfortunately nothing will dry today, the drought seems to be over. I'm sitting in the doorway now. The kids are kicking around a ball in the road.

Today I held a follow-up community meeting to talk about solutions to their priority problem that they had identified before -- that of saving enough rice seeds from their harvest each year. They decided that they didn't want to work together as a group in an organized fashion, but would rather continue trying to save their rice seeds among their families or with a few friends.

I've been thinking about how encouragement and discouragement come in waves, and how I have to get out of my own boat, stand somewhere on the solid earth. I'll always have my own waves of discouragement, but at least I don't need to take on those of my village. I was thinking that in some ways perhaps development work (at least in this context I'm in) is kind-of like counseling. You can help the process along, you can try to facilitate, but in the end it is the people who make choices to change or not change their behavior or thought processes or whatever it is. Like counselors, development workers have to A) not take things personally B) not get (too) emotionally involved, and C) work themselves out of a job.

My vetiver grass is really beautiful in the wind in the evening. All the little tips of grass bend over just the same way. Okay, now I'm really hungry, time to make some rice.


So, there's a small glimpse into my daily thoughts. We are in full swing of the training for the new group of environment and small enterprise development volunteers and it has been going well. I had two of them out at my site last weekend and they enjoyed hiking out to the forest and waterfalls and we ate lots of good food, including french toast, corn tortillas from corn we picked in my field, and some vegetables from my garden with cheesy pasta. I figured they would be tired of rice! I spent a week with them in March at the training center teaching about soils, composting, and gardening.

When not working on the training, I've focused my attention out to the community Antanifotsy, about a 2.5 hour bike/hike from my village. There is a group of 8 women in the VOI there that had expressed interest in learning to read and write, as well as garden, so I've been going out there as often as possible. We dug garden beds and they each put in 250 Ariary for seeds. We've had 3 literacy lessons so far, and they are starting to warm up to me and participate in the goofy alphabet song I make them sing. We are starting with "how to hold a pencil" and exercises for their hand to get used to holding it. We've also planted some vetiver around one of their new fish ponds to keep the soil from eroding, and are starting a nursery for more vetiver so they will have enough for around all their ponds.

Last week after planting their carrot, onion, and green bean seeds, we were sitting in the field playing with the babies and the conversation turned to reproduction...I ended up attempting to explain to them how babies are formed in a woman's uterus, the whole thing of the egg, sperm, periods. It was a language challenge for me and caused all of us a lot of laughter, but really, it's so amazing that these women have never learned all these things.

In my own village, I had several meetings over the past months and the numbers of attendees dwindled, the enthusiasm was impossible to maintain. I get the feeling that they are too used to handouts from the past NGO that was here. They were ecstatic when I brought them soccer t-shirts for the kids from an NGO a fellow volunteer works with, but to get them to work on anything sustainable together seems to be going nowhere. So I am focusing my attention on the women in Antanifotsy, and on the kids, and will not be doing more community meetings in my own village for now.

That's the update from me. I'm heading on a short vacation with a good friend flying in from the DRC tomorrow! A much needed break before I go back to the training center again. Thank you to all my friends and family for your love and support! I miss you all!

Children and Guavas

Here's a post that I wrote on March 19th:

It is simply the children that keep me going here. If it wasn't for them, I probably would have left months ago. As I write this, 8 kids are playing the matching game with the Go Fish cards we made, one of them playing while holding a sleeping 3-year old. Three are drawing pictures, and one of my favorite little boys is just sitting on the chair with me watching everything.

They have star-shaped stickers on their foreheads from the Kids Club today. All of the kids who come on time get a sticker. Today we went on a Nature Walk. I had 11 cards hung along a path that winds near the river; like a treasure hunt, they ran from card to card, sniffing leaves, listening for animal sounds, and guessing what lived in a big hole (probably a rat, they said).

It was fun.

Then they played Farmer-Plants-Trees-Freeze-Tag while I went and got my kite. I made them line up smallest to tallest and they took turns running the kite around the field as I ran to fetch water up at the stream before the rain started.

It sounded from the thunder like it would be a big storm, but so far just light rain has fallen and kids are playing (kind of) nicely. Now and then I remind them to be nice to each other.

This morning I went to the fish pond that the nearest VOI is building and waded through a foot of mud carrying mud back and forth to build the pond walls. It's amazing what people build by hand and shovel that we Americans would need a bulldozer to accomplish. After less than an hour, I put my foot down on some kind of tree stump hidden under the mud and hurt my foot. It was almost time for me to go home anyway and prepare for the kids club.

On the way to my bike hidden in some bushes, I ate a bunch of little red guavas. They are ripe now--I've been looking forward to them since last year, and as I looked for the best ones, I thought how strange thatI've been here long enough to have 2 seasons of guavas, 2 seasons of another month or two it will be 2 seasons of rice.

Other than the children, maybe that's the other reason I'm still here. To experience being in a place for TWO WHOLE YEARS. It's not easy, but being able to eat guavas twice is definitely a perk.

Monday, January 31, 2011

A few photos of vacation and my house

My January garden

My house and bike

Me in Fort Dauphin for vacation.

In Lokaro, also one of the most beautiful places...I just can't decide!

Faux Cap, "almost" the most southern point of Madagascar. Definitely one of the most beautiful points though.

Over a year in my village now!

I have been back and forth to the capital every week this month, yet have not found time to prepare a blog post despite all of my internet access. I've finally become "busy" in our American sense of the word!

In the capital, I've been helping put together the training for the new environment volunteers who will be coming in March. In my village, I've been keeping up with my weekly kids' science/nature club, and meeting with one of the VOIs who are now showing some interest in working with me, and weeding, doing laundry at the river, all that daily life that needs doing!

Going back and forth between my village and the capital so frequently has been challenging, since the two places are so different--one could use the cliche about "two different worlds" (which I don't like because there is only ONE world, despite all the differences and divides between parts of it!). I have been thinking, though, that this a good thing for me to practice, this mental--and physical--movement between extremes. It might help me to understand myself and my own niche in both spots.

The poverty of my village, and even more so of the community that I have been spending some time in four hours hike south of me, is set in contrast to the Peace Corps hostel that I stay in, the office in the nice area of the capital, and the pictures of life in the US that I look at on facebook.

I have been thinking about Amartya Sen's definition of development as ability to live to one's capacity. Which gets me thinking of my neighbor kids, one in particular is so smart and yet will probably not be able to go past elementary school, for the simple fact that there isn't a secondary school for 10km and her family can't afford to send her, or any of their 5 kids, to live in another town. Doesn't that impact her capacity? I can't send all the children in my village to school either. I begin to wonder what will this village be like in 50 years. Will kids go all the way through high school? Will the road have deteriorated to a footpath by then? Will someone have fixed it? Will people still be surviving on less that a dollar a day and dealing with a hunger season? Will the soil still support farming?

Too many questions. I can't answer them and I can't be responsible for them either, but I'm learning how to think about them in a non-overwhelmed, and non-guilty-all-the-time way.

For instance, my friend Sara told me that I need to laugh more often. So I discovered video skyping and made faces at my family, seeing them (on the computer screen anyway!) for the first time in 15 months. Also, there is the joy of a phone call laughing with a friends buried in snow in Minnesota. Then the pleasure of a day feeling like I have done something helpful at the office, followed by ice cream and English conversation. In the community I have been visiting south of my village, there are women that want to learn to read and write, they are interested in gardening, and are actively talking about things we could do together, so there is hope there too.

As an old friend once said, Life is good.

(except for the rat that died under my floorboards and stunk up my house all week...yuck ; )

Last Day at the Cactus Hotel

I wrote this little poem on the last day at Faux Cap, on my Christmas vacation.
December 30th, 2010

Last Day at the Cactus Hotel

What do I want to remember from this day?
The seven white birds flying across the water
landing on the shelf that is tide pools
where the waves break and spray,
where the agile fisherman hunts shellfish
with his long thin legs and arms,
where we swam through the blue-green
discovered anenomes, surprised barnicles.

The sun hits my leg, golden reflects silver
on the water and the waves.
My thoughts turn to so many different things
but always come back to the sound churning,
the touch of the breeze,
the shadows of small cactus on the sand,
the pattern of sand on my feet,
the reflection of the thin man on the tide pool
who squats now intently examining something.

What do I want to remember from this day?
The sounds of preparation in the kitchen,
the shuffle of a footstep bringing tea,
the silent movement of a lizard over sand.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Guess what? A fellow volunteer downloaded Skype onto my computer, and I've been in and out of Antananarivo lately, so if anyone out there wants to call me, send me an email and I'll let you know when I'm in internet-land! This world of technology is so exciting...

I'll try and write a real post here soon. Sorry it's been a while!

Monday, January 10, 2011

End of Vacation and One Year Left

Tomorrow I return to my site after two weeks of vacation and a week of mid-service training. While some volunteers are anxious to get back to their villages, I am feeling apprehensive. In the month and a half between when I posted last and when I left for vacation, not much "happened." I finished planting my corn, beans, and rice field. I met with one of the VOIs in an effort to get them to want to work with me. I did two environmental education activities with some kids. Okay, so when I write it down it sounds like enough, like at least I was doing something.

And I was. It just felt like I was doing it on my own without people in the community being interested or willing to work with me, which is what is supposed to happen. And so I get discouraged. What do I expect to happen? I'm not sure. People coming to my house saying things like: "We want to learn about gardening!" or "We want to conserve our hillside soil!" Ha ha. While I know that is silly to expect, I find myself restless, wanting to be doing something already. Not doing something like spending days and days in my field planting alone, but doing something with people.

Maybe it's just restlessness. I read my friend Emily's blog, about her nomadic life, her life between worlds. It's nice to know I'm not the only one with this wandering syndrome. But heading into my second year here in my small house in the village, I'm thinking of the past and of the future, what I've been doing here and what I might be doing this year, and the next. Where will my feet land? At our Mid-service conference, other volunteers are planning their travels for next year, or talking about extending their Peace Corps service. I have some ideas, but I feel the same old crunch of time. What am I doing? What am I going to do?

I have some ideas for my second year of service here, and I want to get past my discouragement and find the energy in myself to get some momentum going. I'm thinking about seed-saving and grain banks for some of the small communities surrounding me. It's a need that came out in the food security survey that I did, and could be implemented with resources from the community itself. My other thought is putting together a small group of young farmers to learn some farm planning and experimenting skills. Plus, I have my group of kids that are the most eager to spend time with me, and the environmental education lessons that I've been putting together. So all I need is some interested people and some enthusiasm of my own!

We got invited to an amazing potluck at a returned peace corps volunteer's house. Delicious food, and people who had been in the Peace Corps all around the world and are now working here in Madagascar. It was interesting to talk to them, and to see how different my life is as a volunteer in a small village, compared to their lives working for places like Catholic Relief Services and USAID, "real" jobs with salaries, deadlines, big projects. In a way, it makes me glad that I get this life among the people. As real as their jobs may be for the USA, I am living closer to the real Malagasy life. I hope that no matter what I do after this, I find something that keeps me close to the people.

Now I need to leave behind the beaches, coral reefs, and spiney forest of southern Madagascar, and the internet and flushing toilets of Antananarivo, and head back to the village. My rice field, my garden, and all the kids are waiting for me...

PS: I'll try and post some pictures of my vacation someday when the internet isn't so slow! It was so beautiful in the south!!