Letter to Keramet

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

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Flag of Madagascar  ,
Thursday, February 26, 2004


Dear Keramet,

Yikes, so many questions! And a headache, almost, trying to decipher them - maybe type next time? :)

At site, where I've been now for a month (!), I'm getting a clearer perspective on male-female relations. Men-only realms are driving taxi-busses, playing games like foos-ball (which they call "baby soccer": baby foot"!), pool, and something like bocci ball in the streets, bike repair, and fishing. That's about all I've noticed. Girls play soccer and basketball, and women are teachers, doctors (I think the hospital staff is more than half female), officials, shopkeepers, and often the bosses of men. Also, only women wash laundry. Almost always, moms take sick kids to the clinic, but occasionally dads do, too - otherwise, dads care for kids in every way. It's so heart-warming and exciting to see dads carrying and playing with kids, especially since my choice was between Mcar and Haiti, a country notorious for its child abuse. (Of course now there are other reasons why I'm glad I didn't go to Haiti!)

I can only get books that are sent or lent to me by other volunteers - maybe you can send the one about South Africa that you mentioned ...? :)

I'm so harassed for being white that sexual harassment barely registers or bothers me when it does - mostly young men hissing (like whistling in the U.S.) but a lot of the racial harassment is female-specific, I suppose. (Malagasy women get hissed at but not harassed otherwise. Women are completely expected to walk around by themselves.)

So, for a non-gender related update (I know, I know, there's no such thing): on the way back from my banking town to my site, the taxi-brousse ran out of gas. It wasn't because they didn't fill up - they get gas at the beginning and end of each hour trip in each direction, but the drivers only put 8 - 15 cents of gas in at a time. Apparently this drive opted for less than 8 cents because the car ran out of gas halfway back and we had to push it home.

(New pen: I think that the pens and batteries they sell here are ones already deemed "dead" in the U.S.!)

Today I went to watch prenatal consultations at the clinic and made some discoveries. First, the doctor gathered all 50 or so pregnant women for a half-hour session about health during pregnancy (eating well, etc. - no warning about tobacco or alcohol, though a few women smoke/chew or drink), giving the baby the collostrum (the thick, yellow, first breast-milk - it's very important for antibodies, though it's often considered "dirty milk"), because so many give birth at home, and vaccines, vitamins, and medicine they need. The women stood the whole time, some 8 months pregnant, and the doctor (female) was very short with them, especially with a mother whose toddler was making noise. In addition to folic acid and iron pills, she insisted on de-worming medicine. (Good, but really surprised me at first, just cause I'm still thinking like an American.) On the other hand, she didn't explain what foods could be eaten for iron/folic acid if they couldn't afford the pills or in addition to them. Finally, the women filed out of the doctor's office and back to the waiting area, then came back 2 at a time into the office into an assembly-line atmosphere for a tetanus vaccine (newborns get the deadly infection when the umbilical chord is cut with a non-sterile instrument), weight, stomach measurement, and listening the fetal heartbeat. Each step took just a second (even listening to the heartbeat), but the doctor and nurse tried to get me to give the tetanus vaccine. It's a muscular, not venous vaccine, so all I had to do was wipe the alcohol, jab the needle in the arm, and push the vaccine in, but I was still scared at first. In the end, though, I vaccinated almost all 50 women, which was really cool. The next surprise was that when one woman craned her neck to watch me give the shot the doctor barked, "Don't look!" at her. The woman was completely taken aback, and I was shocked. Later I asked the doctor why the women shouldn't look, and she said, "Because they'd be scared." Huh??? The woman was exponentially more frightened by the doctor yelling at her ... I wonder how I can work on bedside manner.

The assistant PC director for health is making rounds of health volunteers and came to visit me a couple days ago; he was impressed with what I've done here (baby-weighing, condom demos, etc.) and supportive about my plans to work on homelessness, which was really encouraging. If I haven't mentioned before, Callie and I are hoping to start a school lunch program together, too, which is exciting.


Callie and I are very close with the extended family of one of her students (she's an English teacher at the high school), and made them lunch yesterday as a "thank you". (They have us over for a huge lunch every Sunday in addition to everything else they do for us.) We made an enormous vat of chili, which they ate over rice (like everything in this country); Malagasy people are generally excited by anything American, so they were thrilled to try it, and I think they actually liked the taste. Unfortunately, we made chili for 20 (the maximum number that's been at one of these Sunday lunches), but there were only 6 including us! So, we'll be eating chili for the next few days - but hey, it's American food, so I'm not complaining.

You asked about religion - in this central region, almost everyone is Catholic or Protestant, but there are heavily Muslim regions and other religions represented in the capital. There are also many Chinese and Indian expats, who practice other religions. As I've written before, people in this region have a word for Jews, but understand them pretty much only as ancient Hebrews. Everyone I've told I'm Jewish (my host family and Callie's student, Natasha) has been surprised but extremely tolerant and interested. Callie is an observant Christian, but is really interested in Judaism, so we have a lot of great discussions; she's even planning to observe Passover with me.

To try to answer more questions: I actually get no news of America; most PCVs rely on radio, but my reception is so bad that VOA and BBC don't really come in. I'm supposed to get 3 to 4=week-old Newsweeks every week, but have only received one so far. The news I do get comes from friends and family, so I can't really speak to the non-American-sourced news I'm getting.

I'm actually a little embarrassed that I can't answer any of your questions about male and female agency, realms of power, etc., beyond basic descriptions of the jobs men and women do in and outside the home. The only families I've been able to observe closely are my host family and that of my friend Beth, who lived next door, and Natasha's family; I don't feel like that's enough of a sample to really know, especially since all 3 families are relatively well-off and cosmopolitan. I'll try to observe more closely, though, and think about it some more for my next letter.


I went back to the hospital today to observe baby vaccinations (for polio, and I think diphtheria, and typhoid, though I'm not positive - the vaccination schedule is confusing even in English and much more so in Malagasy!) Again, the doctor and nurse (both female) abused the women and babies, yelling at mothers for, among other offenses, sitting or standing at the wrong time, breast-feeding while waiting, having the babies' health books covered in plastic, and not fully undressing the baby in time. The worst was that the mothers were supposed to hold their babies legs down, for a shot in the thigh; if they weren't doing it correctly, the nurse would yank the leg into position, often setting the babies to screaming before the first injection. My Malagasy language tutor here (Natasha's cousin) has a one-year-old, and has complained to me that doctors' and nurses' treatment of mothers and babies discourages women (and men, I suppose) from coming to the clinic or hospital initially or from returning. Given the sacrifices people make to come in (one woman had walked 5 - 10 km with her newborn (meaning she was still recovering) and was yelled at for sitting at the "wrong" time), I'm impressed that some do come back, but increasingly concerned about how to get the staff to understand the problems they're causing. The doctors and nurses are lovely people in private and treat me wonderfully; I think that they just have the view educated people sometimes take of the uneducated, that yelling is the only way to get through to them. Sigh.

Later ...

Now I'm sitting waiting for my dance class to start; it's a bizarre mix of ballet, aerobics, and swing, but it's fun. We're performing for the community on March 8 for National Women's Day (Yes! There's a National Women's Day!), and today are costume fittings ... it's so ridiculous and cute. Oh! And we start the dance class with a prayer!

The other highlight of the past few days has been Callie's and my valiant efforts to get rid of all the left-over chili and beans that we couldn*t fit in the chili initially. We've had chili over rice, chili over mashed sweet potatoes, chili-stuffed tomatoes and peppers, re-fried beans, and bean salad, and I'm making baked beans tonight. I'm a pretty accomplished red bean cook now, but I doubt I'll want them for the next few months!

So that's it for now ...

Love, Jess

P.S. One of my dogs at home is named Koosh (for a Kooshball, that 80's toy); here, "Koosh" means diaper! But I think I'm even with the Malagasy, because their most famous singer is named "Poopy"!


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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