Learning in Mutuality

Trip Start Aug 14, 2013
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Our three weeks of in-country orientation will soon be coming to a close. These three weeks of orientation have been all about learning.  Lots and lots of learning.  Word of the day: mianatra (to learn). 

All this learning is certainly exciting and I love it, but it is also at times overwhelming.  While we have been learning many things about Madagascar and Malagasy life here in orientation, the primary focus has been learning as much of the Malagasy language as possible in this short amount of time.  As we have learned more in class, we have been increasingly encouraged to practice our Malagasy with Malagasy people- after all, we won't be in our vazaha (foreigner) bubble forever, and we will be out on our own, at our site placements, interacting with the Malagasy community soon enough (WAY exciting, but at the same time daunting!).

Part of this encouragement to interact with the Malagasy came with an afternoon activity challenge from Austin and Tanya.  We were asked to spend one hour outside the Lovasoa compound on our own.  This was the only requirement- we could interact with the Malagasy community in whatever way we felt comfortable, whether it was observing from a park bench, sipping on a Coke, or trying out our conversation skills.  I have spent a considerable amount of time outside of Lovasoa, but it had always been in our group or in pairs.  This was my first solo adventure!  I was excited and nervous.

I set out from Lovasoa with a loose plan to go down some side streets I hadn’t explored yet, and to buy a notebook on my way back to the compound.  I made it to a side street that I hadn’t been to before… and then my plan took a turn!  A woman selling necklaces began to follow me.  As a white foreigner, I am approached all the time by women and children selling crafts or food, or by pousse-pousse drivers.  Most of the time, this doesn’t bother me, but after several saying no thank-you several times, this lady was not giving up!  Couldn’t she see I was trying to explore?!  Then it dawned on me.  Hey, I am supposed to be out here practicing Malagasy!  And I am in Madagascar to build relationships!  I don’t need to wait until I arrive in my host-community to do either of these things.  Might as well start now!

I stopped, and began speaking to the woman in my halting, limited Malagasy.  My end of the conversation was completely exhausted in about 23 seconds.  Luckily, the woman, named Larissa ('What is your name?’ is the second question in my rehearsed conversation, so I like to break that one out early), was a very patient and willing teacher.  I also found her she is a very patient and willing student.  She told me she is trying to learn English.  I asked her where she is studying, and she pointed to me, and I think she said that she learns from people she meets (this entire reported conversation is mostly guess work, and actually might be entirely wrong… but I like to pretend I understood something, so just go with it).  We agreed to help each other.  We tried to talk for a bit longer, but by this time I had completely run out of things to say.  I told her I was going to continue on my tsangatsangana (walk), and unsure if she had other things to do, began to slowly walk again.  She smiled, and began to walk with me, chatting and pointing things out and saying the Malagasy word for me to repeat.  She would then wait for me to say the English word for her to repeat.  She took me on a tour of Antsirabe, showing me places I didn’t even realize were there, or would have been intimidated to enter on my own.  She took me to a dirt square behind some shops, where many people were gathered and there were several games of bocce ball being played.  Bocce ball is definitely a thing here, which is fun!  I love games!  I accidentally walked through some of the games and was almost hit by a flying bocce ball but managed to avoid that catastrophe.  The guys had a great time showing off their bocce skills for me and they kept asking me to take a picture of them (I didn’t have my camera with me, but either they didn’t understand when I tried to tell them that or they didn’t believe me). 

After watching the bocce tournament for a while, Larissa began to lead me back to Lovasoa.  She was still very engaged in our language exchange, and even startled several strangers in her excitement to teach me.  While trying to explain that a group of kids were from a nearby Catholic school, she ran up to them, jabbing her finger at their nametags, causing them to jump back in surprise.  I think she told them she was showing this white girl around, because then the students smiled and shyly waved at me.  Larissa certainly is a character and she made me laugh with her efforts to teach me (I made her laugh, too, when I tried to teach her English words, so it mutual).  As we neared Lovasoa, I began to wonder if she expected me to pay her for her time, or to maybe buy one of the necklaces she still carried draped over her arm.  But, as we reached the gate, she just asked me if I would be on the road again tomorrow.  I said, angamba, maybe, but that our day was always different.  She nodded, and then said that maybe we could write emails to practice, since I would be leaving for Manakara soon.  It really warmed my heart at how openly she encountered me, learned from me, and taught me.  Meeting Larissa was a reminder of one of the goals of the YAGM program- learning in mutuality.  We both had something to give and to receive- a lesson in each of our native languages and the willingness to learn from one another.

The next day, we had some free time in the afternoon.  Austin encouraged us to practice our Malagasy again, reminding us that the only time we fail is when we are too afraid to try.  I remembered my encounter with Larissa the day before and decided to find someone to practice with. I had noticed some kids running around the Lovasoa compound earlier that day, so I took my Malagasy notebook outside and sat by where I had last seen them.  I sat making notecards, and soon enough, some little kids heads began poking around the side of the building, looking at me and giggling.  I smiled and waved, and their heads would disappear- then peek around again.  I smiled and waved, smiled and waved, until one of the boys apparently mustered up some courage and enough curiosity to come running at me full speed and then slide to a stop in the grass right beside me, laughing loudly.  We had learned colors that day in language class, so we began to practice colors.  What color is the grass?  Maintso/Green.  What color is my skirt? Mainty/Black.  He told me the Malagasy words for me to repeat, and then I told him the English words.  Soon, his siblings came to join and they all enjoyed correcting my pronunciation and testing me.  The oldest boy peeked in my notebook, and seeing my list of Malagasy vocabulary words with their English translations asked for a paper and pen and began to copy them down and practice saying the words.  These children were so eager to learn and practice English- I hope my students will be as willing to learn as they were.  They were silly and fun, and great teachers.  After this experience, I am pretty sure that kids will be my first best friends here in Madagascar.  They are great teachers!

These encounters in learning and sharing language alongside the Malagasy were great reminders in not only the goals of the YAGM program, but were also reminders about my own personal hopes.  I want to remember to learn and teach in a spirit of mutuality, with both parties giving and receiving.  Larissa and the kids, with their openness and excitement to learn and teach, encouraged me in this hope and made me even more excited to meet and engage my host community.
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