Dogs and doggedness

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

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Flag of Madagascar  ,
Tuesday, March 9, 2004

This has been a week of dog rescues, odd as that sounds. callie and i discovered that a friend of ours, oby, had 5 terrier-like dogs with hair so horribly matted and filthy that they honestly had dreadlocks. we took up our scissors and gave the dogs the biggest, most traumatic haircut of their lives, cutting off mounds of hair and literally breaking their tails out of matted-hair casings. the dogs are now a little colder but their skin is infinitely less irritated.

then on sunday, we were playing with natasha's 4 puppies, now a month old. callie picked out the one she wanted and i decided not to take one, planning to get a kitten of oby's instead. on monday, we heard a rumor that a rat had killed all the puppies. we went to investigate and discovered that the rat hadn't killed any of them but had left callie's pup with one eye, one dog with no eyes, one dog with no eyes and a huge gash in its neck, and one pup miraculously healthy. when i say "no eyes," i don't mean "blind"; the eyeballs are actually gone. callie took her dog and i took the worst-injured one back to her house. callie named hers bisky (the malagasy word for cookie, from the french bisquit) and we called the other "stevie the wonder dog" (don't wonder at the lack of political correctness - we needed to have a sense of humor about it). they were still too small to leave their mother, but we took them anyway, figuring that the risk was worth it given their injuries and the chance of the rat coming back. bisky ate milk well from a plate. stevie had to be fed with an eye dropper but seemed to be doing well. anyway, stevie died last night after callie stayed up the whole night with him (i offered to stay with her but she declined, which i think she now regrets), so we're both feeling down. when i left my site this morning to meet caitlin and sara (who again have not made it, thanks to another cyclone brewing), callie was trying to decide whether to take in the other blind pup, that one and the healthy one, or neither. we'll figure out their final homes once they're stronger and able to protect themselves better. (i hadn't wanted a dog because i didn't think i'd emotionally be able to leave it in-country and didn't want to spend a thousand bucks to send it home, which is why i'd opted for oby's kitten instead - but under the circumstances i might end up with one after all.)

in other news, the women's day celebration went passably well. the cyclone was threatening so the crowd wasn't as big as usual, but the performances and speeches (what i understood of them) were nice. groups represented included associations of female farmers, female police officers, female gendarmes, doctors promoting maternal and infant health, and the women's organization i work with, among others. my group's dance performance was unintentionally hilarious. the group had gotten completely obsessed with costumes, designing white pants with weird slits and fitted red one-shoulder tops with big bows. the costumes were so complex that they weren't finished until 10 minutes before the performance, and only then because we took them to the "side-walk stitchers," women who sit on the sidewalk with hand-cranked sewing machines during market day and do small alterations.
so the costumes weren't well-made because they were so complicated and rushed, and during the dance 6 of 8 dancers lost their tops. malagasy modesty being what it is and these women not having gone to barbara ann's school of dance like i did, where the motto was, "even if you lose your costume, keep on dancing," these women all stopped dancing to adjust each time their shirts came apart. during most of the song, maybe half the people were dancing at a given time. i laughed through the whole dance (my shirt got a little funky too, but i kept on dancing, thanks to barbara ann) and wasn't remotely upset about it, but some of the women were. so at the end of the entire festival, we performed the dance again. it's not a very exciting dance (the same 4 steps repeated for 4 minutes), and i think that the audience enjoyed it more the first time (i certainly did), but they were polite about it. callie took a bunch of photos, which i'll try to post at some point;

this week, i came the closest i've been to completely losing my temper at the staring and pointing and screaming of "vazaha." my sense of humor has lasted a long, long time, i think. for instance, i was in the market a few days ago, and heard a woman saying "vazaha, vazaha." i went over and asked her not to call me that. she was surprised at first, then tried to cover by saying that she wasn't *calling* me "vazaha," she was teaching her toddler to call me "vazaha." right. thanks. so that was frustrating but ultimately funny.
yesterday, though (market day), i was trying to buy some honey from a vendor who was overcharging me because i was white and obviously therefore rich and stupid. as i negotiated with him, a huge crowd of maybe 50 people gathered around to watch and helpfully yell things at us. this time, my "be patient and understand the culture" side unfortunately relented to my "just plain pissed" side, and i started yelling back at everyone that i didn't need help and wasn't putting on a performance and there was no reason for them to watch. this, of course, only attracted more of an audience, and i ended up leaving, fuming and still honey-less. (later on, natasha told me that she bought honey from the same guy for half what he was charging me, so i at least felt justified.)
i may have said this before, but once during training we asked the director of peace corps health in madagascar why they bothered having us come instead of spending the money to train malagasy doctors and nurses. the response was that while there are many malagasy people more qualified to teach health than we are (of the 28 in my training group, there were no doctors, nurses, or mphs, though there were 2 EMTs), average malagasy people are more inclined to listen to americans than to other malagasy people. that sentiment, though appalling, also somehow seemed like an honor. now i'd give anything to have to earn the respect i'm given if i'd also have to earn the aggravation.

i'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject (or any subject), ideally through real mail (email my mom, sfgordon93@hotmail, for the address), though email works too.

finally, someone asked me what my actual responsibilities in peace corps are. it sounded like something that might be of general interest, so here's a copy of my response.

the question of my obligations is a good one. other than keeping myself safe and checking in with peace corps every once in a while, i don't really have any. if i chose to, i could sit on my butt for two years (which many volunteers actually do, giving peace corps its sometimes dubious reputation.) the obligations i've given myself are quite different. i'm currently still learning the language and the workings of the village (i'm quite good at conversational malagasy but my technical language skills, which will eventually enable me to do real work, still have a ways to go), and i have one official and one unofficial malagasy tutor. my schedule now includes working at the nutrition non-profit 2 mornings a week, where i weigh and measure babies and often give presentations on topics like malaria prevention and treatment, family planning and condom use, and weaning foods. the other 3 weekday mornings i work at the clinic, weighing and giving tetanus vaccines to pregnant women and generally observing. this week i also hope to start giving malaria presentations to women in the waiting area. occasionally i help employees of marie stopes, an international non-profit focused on women's health, give community presentations on family planning and sign women up for consultations. i also help run a club for high school students to discuss AIDS and sexual health, though they've been wanting me to teach about a variety of other health-related topics. there's a new mandatory class for 7th and 8th-graders on sexual health that i am also supposed to co-teach, though i'm not yet sure what my exact role will be. for all of these activities, though, i was asked to help by community members or other health workers and agreed. peace corps administration really has nothing to do with it.
until my in-service training in may, these will likely be my only major activities. after in-service training, though, i am free to apply for peace corps' and other grants and start my own projects. there are two projects that i'm currently thinking of: one is creating a shelter or even finding permanent homes for the dozen-or-so homeless people in my town (perhaps enlisting the aid of the large catholic mission there) and the other is starting a school lunch program together with my site partner, callie, who's an english education volunteer. my town has good schools, but many kids don't pass the middle school graduation exam, which is largely attributed to the fact that they walk 20 k to and from school and eat only a little fried bread or noodle soup for lunch (the cheapest foods available in restaurants in town.) other volunteers who have started school lunch programs, in which the students farm the "loaka," or rice toppings, bring their own rice to school each day, and take turns cooking for each other at the school, have found that both students' health and academic performance improve dramatically. peace corps is even more short on funding than usual this year (thanks, bush), but american jewish world service and other organizations also give grants for peace corps projects, so i'm optimistic.

hope you're all doing well, and hope to hear from you soon!

love, jess

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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