First 2 weeks at site

Trip Start Nov 02, 2003
Trip End Feb 14, 2006

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Flag of Madagascar  ,
Sunday, February 1, 2004

So I'm back in my banking town to meet up with the two volunteers who live in towns relatively near mine, Caitlin and Sara, and recount our experiences of the first 2 weeks. I'm still a little too mixed up from everything to have concise reflections yet, but here are some noteworthy things.

Apparently the name "Jessica" does exist in Madagascar, but it's the French version pronounced "zhe-see-CAH"; when I pronounce my name the American way, Malagasy people hear "GUA-sa-keh," "DRA-sha-keh," or worst of all, "KAT-sa-ka," the Malagasy word for corn! My site partner, Callie, says that "DRA-sha-keh" makes her think of a 300-pound Russian woman, so I've been introducing myself as "zhe-see-CAH" for the past few days.

I've been painting my house and it's about half-done. The sitting room is now peach and the bedroom is now blue. I like both much better than the dingy white they were before. The last room is the kitchen, which I'll paint yellow.

Having a site partner might be the best thing that's ever happened to me. While I am spending time with Malagasy people, chatting, learning new vocab, and even teaching a little (more on that below), Callie and I spend some of every day together, cooking and eating a meal, going to the market, or just hanging out. Speaking some English every day and having someone to laugh with over Malagasy quirks go a long way towards preserving my sanity.

I was especially glad to have Callie two nights ago, when I had my second traumatic experience in Madagascar (details of the first, encountering an abused wife and children, is in an entry from late December.) This time, a little girl walked up the huge hill to my house with me at the end of the day. I figured she just lived near me and didn't question it until she tried to come into my yard. Finally I asked what she was doing and where she lived and she said that she was going to stay with me, which is not an option, at this point, for anyone besides other PCVs and visitors from home. I asked why she needed to stay with me and this was the story I got:

The girl, Claudia, age about 8, was an only child whose mother was in the hospital in my banking town (about 20 k away) with malaria and whose father had gone to visit his wife. Claudia had a key to the house but it was broken or something and she couldn't get in. She had nowhere to sleep and no money and had spent the previous night (when it poured all night, thanks to a cyclone currently affecting the north and west of the island) sleeping under a table in the (outdoor) market; and she had not eaten for 2 days; therefore, she needed to stay with me and she needed me to feed her.

Naturally I was horrified by her story but still not willing to let her sleep in my house. Peace Corps Volunteers' boundaries are VERY precious and easily trampled; the first time they let someone in their house or give money, there's no going back.
I told Claudia that she should go to a friend's house and ask her friend's parents for help, but she just stood in the rain in my yard for 10 minutes. Then I said I'd go with her to her friend's house but she denied having any friends who could help. On the way down the hill someone called to her from their house, and I suggested that we ask that person for help, but she refused and said she was just going to sleep in the market.
Finally, I said that we'd go to "my" friend's house, my counterpart Madame Saholy, who runs the women's organization and the nutrition non-profit in my town. I bought Claudia a fried banana on the way. When we got to Mme. Saholy's house, she asked Claudia all kinds of questions about who her family was. The girl answered reluctantly but refused to retell her story to Mme. Saholy, so I did, while Claudia stood stony-faced.
Finally, Mme. Saholy told me that Claudia was lying, that she actually had a "tootoo" who lived near the market with whom she'd stayed the night before and with whom she'd stay again that night. I didn't know the word "tootoo," so Mme. Saholy thought for a minute and translated it as "uncle."

A feeling of dread came over me as I realized that most 8-yr-old girls wouldn't go to all that trouble to lie for no reason and that Claudia might be trying to escape abuse in her uncle's house; but Mme. Saholy was clearly finished talking about it and I didn't have the vocabulary to explain my hunch.

On the way to Claudia's uncle's house, I asked her all kinds of questions, trying to lead as little as possible but having to, given my limited vocab: Does your uncle drink? Does he get drunk? Is he drunk today? Does he fight? Do you play together? Do you read together?, etc. All of her answers were encouraging except that after saying that they play and read together, Claudia said that she didn't like him but didn't know why. Then she wouldn't let me come to her uncle's house "because she was scared of him."
Well, at that point, I thought that my suspicions were confirmed, but I couldn't think of what to do besides let her go home, so I did. I went to Callie's and we ate a glorious dinner of comfort foods and had a sleep-over and I felt much better, though still terrified underneath.

The next day, there was good news and bad. The good was that Mme. Saholy, who doesn't really know English, mistranslated "tootoo," which actually means "aunt," making abuse seem less likely (though of course still not impossible) (and Malagasy pronouns aren't gender specific, if you were wondering how I mistook "she" for "he"); the bad news I discovered is that there are about a dozen people who do actually sleep in the market every night. So my little village, where people are supposed to take care of each other and which isn't supposed to have big-city problems, has homeless people. In conclusion, I've found my site project. Now the question is just what to do, especially given that I'm not even supposed to start working until April.

But that policy's already been violated (sorry, Peace Corps, if you're reading). The first day I got here, Mme. Saholy talked me into speaking with mothers about nutrition for children under 3 when they came to get their babies weighed at her nutrition non-profit. I resisted at first, citing my still-poor technical language skills, but finally caved and said that while I couldn't give a speech, I'd have a conversation with the mothers. She agreed, then said, "ok, the title of your 'conversation' will be Healthful Nutrition for Infants and Toddlers up to Three Years of Age" or something equally pretentious and ridiculous. So I gave something between a conversation and a speech, averaged about one sentence a minute, and said "Is it clear?" after each sentence.

Then these two guys about my age who run 2 AIDS clubs for high school students wanted me to help them, which is great except that our technical knowledge about AIDS is similar and their Malagasy is light-years ahead of mine... so I don't know what help I can be besides adding the prestige of white skin (which, sadly, is quite a lot of prestige in Malagasy culture). But anyway, I gave a condom demonstration and made all the students practice putting condoms on a Peace Corps-issued wood penis, which even the super-giggly 14-yr-old girls managed to do eventually, so that was cool.

And I found a Malagasy tutor, the cousin of Callie's best Malagasy friend, a high school student named Natasha (it's odd, but the high school students have more in common with us than the women our age. By 25, Callie's age, virtually all women are married with 3-4 kids, and Callie understandably doesn't relate well to that.) Anyway, Natasha's large extended family owns a restaurant and a store, and Natasha and all her relatives work all the time they're not in school, so when we hang out with Natasha, we end up hanging out with her family too. So I got to know this cousin who speaks good French and English and was great about explaining things the couple times I randomly had language questions, so I asked her to be my Malagasy tutor. Peace Corps pays tutors about $2 an hour, which is an excellent salary, but she doesn't want to take it so we'll have to work something out. In exchange for helping me the first day she wanted me to teach her about family planning (she has a 1-yr-old and doesn't want another child for a while) so I gave an impromptu family planning presentation to the cousin, another relative working that day, and the patrons in the restaurant. It actually went quite well, all things considered.


Caitlin and Sara didn't make it, sadly, because the roads to their towns are closed due to the rain from the cyclone in the north. Fortunately, I had wonderful phone conversations with my parents and Dave, so that mostly made up for it. I'll be back in about 2 weeks and will write more then! But before I log off, some other quick highlights of the past 2 weeks:

- I rode a taxi-brousse (basically a station wagon or mini-van crammed with people and stuff that drives between cities) to get to my banking town; when I opened the trunk to retrieve my stuff, I discovered a severed cow head (which people eat) on top of my things. I also saw another taxi-brousse drive by with 2 bikes and a disemboweled pig strapped on top.
- Other things people eat here, while I*m on the subject, include cat, cow placenta, every part of chickens, fish, cows, and pigs (including heads, fish bones, and blood, which they make into a kind of toffee), and big hunks of pig fat over rice, all of which are delicacies. I haven't eaten any animal product more exotic than ground beef (yay free-range), though the tropical fruit (mangoes, pineapple, pomegranate, etc) is "very" exciting.
- I attended a couple of dance classes, which are a mix of swing, ballet stretches, and aerobics and, given all the dance I did in the states, absolutely hilarious.
- The crazy septi-lingual (is that a word?) pizza chef did make me moussaka; since Caitlin and Sara weren't here to eat their shares, I shared it with the staff while he drunkenly recounted his life history.
- There's a movie room near Callie's house that generally shows one kung fu movie and one porno each day, but occasionally they have American films that I actually want to see. The atmosphere's not great - just smelly, smoking men crammed on benches in a dark room - but I saw Kill Bill in English and Charlie's Angels 2 and Splash (the 80's mermaid movie with Tom Hanks) dubbed in French. Seeing Splash was especially cool because Malagasy people actually believe in mermaids, which drew a lot of women and is probably the only kind of movie without tons of sex or violence that would draw a big crowd here. I've also seen Matrix 3 advertised in my banking town, so maybe it will come to my site.

More in 2 weeks! Keep your letters coming - Tuesday, mail day, is the best day of the week!



And now, some legalese:
The opinions expressed and experiences described in this travelogue are those of one individual Peace Corps Volunteer. Nothing written here should be interpreted as official or unofficial Peace Corps literature or as sanctioned by the Peace Corps. I have chosen to write about my experience online in order to update family and friends; I am earning no money whatsoever from this endeavor.
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