Madagascar


Got back to Tana  a week ago after three weeks of research in the Deep South of Madagscar- Heres a summary of the entire incredible experience…

I left Tana nervous and  excited  to actually be starting out on my independent research project and with no idea of what to expect.  Unfortunately, though, i had been feeling a little off the few days before i left and while in the airport, about to leave, a fever set in- i started shivering uncontrollably and my body ached head  to toe, especially my back and neck.  I must have looked awful because people took one look and avoided me on the airplane and by the time we arrived in Fort Dauphin, I am pretty sure  I heard the flight attendants breathe a sigh of relief to be rid of me, happy that I hadnt died on the flight.  Joe, the peace corps volunteer i stayed with while i was down there, met me at the airport and, while swaying back and forth and sweating profusely, the first words out of my mouth were, “I am SO sick!” Great introduction.

That afternoon, I passed out and eventually Joe brought some thermometers and advil.  The first time he took my temp, a look of horror came over his  face and,without telling me what it read, he said it couldnt have been right….  a second time told us it was: I had a fever of 103. Working with the director of my program, we managed to get in contact with a doctor, and it was diagnosed that I had malaria- pretty wonderful way to start a research project, right?

Luckily the drugs they gave me worked quickly, and we left Fort Dauphin for Ambondro only a few days later than planned.  The taxi-brousse was quite an experience- they cram as many people as they can into these tiny cars, and just when you think they cant fit anyone else (or any more livestock, for that  matter), someone else pushes their way onboard. The trip usually takes about 8 hours by brousse, but this can vary greatly… On  our way out there, we took one brousse, then waited around a few hours for another and then got stuck overnight in Ambovombe, one  town over from Ambondro. Usually that last leg only takes an hour, but our brousse kept breaking down and I think we ended up out there 5 hours after leaving Ambovombe.  Traveling in M/car is difficult  to say the least….

Ambondro was entirely different from anything I had experienced since arriving here in May.  The town, which is in the desert, is just starting to overcome a terrible famine.  There was a drought during  the last rainy season and in a town where water is already a huge problem, no rain is absolutely devastating. The worst of the famine started in november, but the President refused to declare a State of Emergency  until after a December 3rd presidential election;  the constitution of m/car says that an election cannot take place if the  country is in a State of Emergency… he therefore waited until late december before asking for aid relief for the south.
I got to help with a food distribution while I was there, handing out a soy/corn meal mix and vegetable oil to the elderly.  There was only enough to feed 35 people, so although you think you would feel like  you are helping, you only feel worse afterwards to see many more hungry faces that arent receiving food. one of the things that they eat during famine times is this white,  chalky stone that they melt down and eat because it feels heavy in their stomachs. People are unbelievably skinny, living in wooden shacks in a harsh climate with no water.  It was absolutely incredible to see that what people deal with and survive through.
Because the drought and famine affect every aspect of life, a fair amount of my project became focused on development and aid relief in the area, but I still focused on pregnancy and birthing practices. Because there is a public hospital in Ambondro with a midwife and doctor, my project discussed the relationship between traditional and western medicine during and after a  womans pregnancy…  had some pretty cool interviews and learned some awesome things.

one of my favorite moments was interviewing an ombiasy (traditional healer and fortune  teller) who instructs women who are infertile how to become pregnant.  He does a reading using small stones called sikidy to discover what tensions and conflicts exist in her life that are making her infertile….he then instructs her on how to make a traditional tea from four types of grass which she must drink multiple times during a three month period; during those three months, she is  not to leave the house.
After paying the required 2000 ariary (about a US dollar, quite alot for an individual in Ambondro), he agreed  to read my fortune. While crouching on the ground in the  candlelight and muttering prayers in Malagasy, he counts and organizes the sikidy into patterns and  then studies the patterns to discover why the woman isnt having a baby… I was curious to see what he would come up with for me, but, unfortunately, despite the paid fee and the fifteen minutes of prayer, after studying my sikidy patterns, he shrugged and told me that they dont  work for vazaha (foreigners). Too bad. But it was still  cool to see.
I was also blown away by some  of the fady (taboos) that exist for women during and after a pregnancy.  For example, it is fady for a woman to wear a cloth over her head during  a pregnancy because it is believed that if she does this the baby will be still born, strangled by its umbilical cord- if she accidently does commit this fady there is only one way to reverse the effect: she must hold the cloth with one end in each hand, flip it over her head seven times, step over it once, and then pull it tight between her legs. Only after doing this will the baby be safe again. It is also fady to carry a baby out at night because it is easier for spirit possesion to occur. So in order to protect mother and infant, a spot of ash has to be placed on the babies forehead and then the mother  must carry a  hot coal on a plate for the journey. Crazy, huh?

Learned much more, but wont bore you with the details.   I managed to get a stomach bug and was sick  off and on throughout the three weeks, so had to leave a few days early to get up to Tana to see a doctor. Joe flew back up with me because he has lost 80 lbs in the past year (he is  6′3, weighed 250 and is now down to 174) and  they finally wanted to check him out. Turns out he had “whip  worm” which you get through ingesting feces- surprisingly this is fairly easy to do in  Ambondro because both the wind and the flies contribute to  spreading it (both human and animal) around. Yum. Just a little glimpse into some  of the nastiness down there!
It was awesome to be down there and incredibly difficult at the same time. It is just so unbelievable that people actually live in that level of  poverty and in those circumstances.  Definitely really, really tough.  I now feel like I am living in the lap of luxury in  Tana- it was difficult to readjust to that, so I can only imagine how it is going to be when I get back to the States.

The program ends next week but my mom is coming and we are spending another two weeks traveling. Truely looking forward to it and cant believe my time is  almost over here.

 I know, i know, i have been absolutely terrible on posting the last few weeks. But in my defense, the last week I was in rural-land madagascar, away from computers, electricity, running water and junk food.  Last wednesday we set out heading west, staying one night in Tsirimandidy, a smaller city that is known for its giant cattle markets and also the past home of our director, Roland, who worked there for two years with teh peace corps. 

The next morning, we left in two groups of five for a long day traveling in  taxi-brusse (in this instance, the back of a pickup truck) down the worst roads I have ever seen in my life…  After experiencing these roads, I will never again complain about the dirt roads on Marthas vineyard- they were incredible- canyons blocked our way and we had to get out and walk at several points to allow the truck to get up the hills. One time the wheel of the truck got stuck in a ditch, so we all piled out and had to lift it out. Quite an experience!

We each were dropped off in our own villages, miles away from eachother, and thus began our rural experience- five incredible days. I have never been so exhausted, overwhelmed, or worn out in my life; yet, it was turley one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had. From the moment I arrived, all eyes were on me, the first vazaha to ever come to this village. I constantly had a swarm of children around me, shoving eachother in order to be closer to me and silently watching every single move I made. If I went into the house (a two-room mud, thatch roofed affair where my host family of 7 lives), the children would press in against the windows and doors; if i sat down to read, they would lean over my shoulder, following the english words under their breaths.  I have never had so much attention and I think the experience has taught me that I would never make it as a celebrity.

Some of them were more brave then others, speaking to me in malagasy and giggling when I responded. Others were terrified: one morning, as I was going for a walk, i came across a little 5 or 6 year old boy with a massive hoe over his shoulder that he was struggling to carry somewhere.I waved cheerfully and shouted hello… he looked at me with huge eyes, let out a peircing scream and tried to run. But the hoe got stuck in the dirt, so he toppled over face flat on the ground- after scrambling back up, he gave me one more glance, let out another scream, and sprinted off, sobbing.  Guess my white skin and blonde hair was a little shocking…

No english or french in the community, except for one school teacher who knew very basic french and a few words of english.  Thus, I relied heavily on my very, very minimal malagasy and a lot of hand gestures. Surprisingly, however, I felt like I had conversation: when my mother and I spoke, for example, she would say something to me in malagasy, I would nod and smile and say something back in french or english. SHe would then nod and smile, and we would continue on like this. We had no idea what the other was saying, but it was still conversation. I always felt unbelievably proud when either of us could get our point across! And whenafter the five days I was reunited with the other americans, conversation just seemed so easy..i definitely learned to appreciate language while on the rural stay.

I spent the days doing whatever everyone else was doing- picked some corn, milked a zebu (the cows here), helped with meals… I also went to church with my family on Sunday, and my host mom surprised me in the middle of the two-hour long service, when she grabbed by hand, led me up to the pulpit and had me read a section of the bible (in malagasy, mind you) to the congregation. It was slightly embarresing to me, but well received by the villagers!

One afternoon my host mother and i took all the girls from the village down to the river for swimming. Despite the fact that I had been warned of parasites in the water, I followed the excited girls in and made their day (and avoided parasites!). After, we went up and sat on a bluff that overlooked the gorgeous land and munched on bananas and sugar cane. Truely fun.

I was really blown over by how hospitable everyone was.  My mom fed me well, everyone was always smiling and waving, and people were just overwhelmingly friendly.  It was definitely so hard to see the hundreds and hundreds of children- there were just so many, definitely more children than adults in all of our villages. Many had swollen bellies from lack of nutrition (the main diet staples being rice and corn), and most had terrible coughs, running noses and wore rags.  It is also common to see really young girls, usually just walking themselves, caring for and holding baby siblings. Definitely hard to experience first hand, and I am still trying to digest everything and take it all in.

After the stay, I have realized that I cannot wait to experience more rural life… this is good because in a week I will be setting out on my independent study project. I managed to come in contact with a peace corps volunteer in southern madagascar. I am flying down to Fort Dauphin next saturday; joe, teh volunteer, is meeting me there, and together we are going by taxi-brusse to his village. I will be there for three weeks, studying traditional birthing practices (midwifery, ceremonies, taboos, and herbal meds) in the area. Unbelievably excited for it!

Off to enjoy some pizza with a few friends.

As I think I mentioned in my last blog, saturday was a big celebration for the new baby and three other family birthdays. In the morning, Graham and his ten year old brother Anje arrived on our doorstep ready to go shopping for gifts. The three of us headed out the door, flagging down a taxi and letting Anje take care of the bargaining. We went to this GIANT wall-mart type store that is definitely vazaha-central. It is rediculous that something like this exists in Madagascar- I think it is even bigger then the largest wall-mart I have ever seen but it is about 5 times more expensive then buying things in the market or in local stores. Way to go globalization. Despite its horribleness, it was good for our purposes because we were able to buy all the gifts we needed: a bib for the baby, a “blanche-neige” (snow white) book for my six year old niece and chocolate and cookies for our older sister and her husband.

After the shopping extravanganza we took another cab to one of our relatives house in a quartier I have never been in- The house was up on a hill and overlooked the city- the weather is starting to get cooler because the wet-season is ending, so it was a perfect day. When we arrived, we found all the women in the kitchen preparing a feast on coal-burning burners set up in the back courtyard. Graham and I offered our services and were set up picking bones out of fish, mixing the fish with mashed potatoes and rolling the mixture together into balls that were then cooked in the toaster oven that everyone uses as normal ovens. The meal was huge- Graham and I both forgot that a traditional malagasy meal consists of seven courses, so got completely stuffed (”Voky Be” in malagasy) on the first course and then were forced to take smaller amounts for the following courses.
After lunch, we sat around letting our bellies expand and eventually someone got the karaoke machine going. The malagasy are all about the karaoke and many families have the program in their homes, complete with microphone and all. So the afternoon was spent singing lots of cheesy american songs but many french and malagasy songs as well. It was amazing how into it everyone was, each taking a turn on the mic, dancing, and just rocking out. Truely a blast.

Yesterday was another wonderful family day. Went to the zoo in the afternoon with Grahams family and really enjoyed seeing all of the native animals- There are some crazy looking ones that inhabit madagascar. I think my favorite were these HUGE turtles that just lumber through their yard. One of them was up against the fence, so we were able to touch it and take some good pictures.

We returned to my house to find more family had arrived and then it was decided to go for a drive out to the country. We piled into three cars, I was with marie louise, a couple who I am not really sure how they are related to my family (but the wifes name is lily!), their little three year old daughter and Fy (my three year old nephew). Exhausted from the trip to the zoo, Fy passed out on my lap immediatly.

We drove for about 45 minutes through neighborhoods I havent seen yet and then through the countryside, passing many rice paddies and zebu (the type of cows here) farms. Eventually we arrived on top of a small hill, way outside the city, where women were selling various kinds of corn.My family poked around, scoping out the best options with the best prices. I eventually got a piece of grilled corn and later had a corn-bread type thing made from mashed up corn and sugar. We stood around talking and playing with the kids until it began to get dark and a little cool for those without jackets.  I had the three kids next to me in the car on the way home and we had a blast giggling, singing and dancing through the ride. Really cute.

Had another family meal once we got home- Graham and I tried a rice,milk, sugar and honey dish that was fantastic- hit the spot. I am on lunch break from classes right now but about to head back to do a little bit of work. This weeks theme is “music and dance” so we get to experience several different aspects of the arts here in Madagascar. We have some performers coming to the school this afternoon, and I am looking forward to it!

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