Sun 6 May 2007
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.