Archives for the month of: October, 2013

image

I  was greeted with a basket of LOVE when we landed at the airport in Sambava by other Peace Corp volunteers in the nearby areas. I felt an immense feeling of being welcomed and was almost emotional when I saw them, hugged them, and received my gift basket. I say this because traveling to Sambava is not easy. One must either fly in or ride a very long taxi-brousse. Sambava is a town located on the northeastern coast of Madagascar. It is the capital town in the SAVA region which serves as an acronym to represent each major town in the region (Sambava, Andapa, Vohemar, Antalaha.) I smelled sweet vanilla in the air as we rode past certain parts of town with views of coconut trees and of the waves of the Indian Ocean in sight. I felt overwhelmed with the fact that this was going to be the place I would call home for the next two years. And you could really actually smell vanilla in the air. The first three days were dedicated to meeting the local gendarme, police, the mayor, and of course my counterpart family. My site mate Kristen and I were lucky to have not only the company of other Peace Corp volunteers, but also an awesome Peace Corps installer with us to help us shop and enjoy meals together. We basically were on a food tour of Sambava as we settled in. I tried the BEST ravitoto (a Malagasy specialty dish made with cassava leaves and coconut) EVER. I had sworn not to ever try it again when I first had it in the highlands and thought it tasted like cow food. My fellow volunteers insisted that I try it on the coast and it was glorious! We were having Ravitoto for lunch the day we waved goodbye to everyone, as they drove away in a taxi.

On the topic of food, my counterpart family is amazing. (counterparts are usually the organization that requests to have a volunteer.) I’ve been adopted as a family member to them and have dinner with them every night. There is always a beautiful assortment of dishes. The food always blows me away. Mama Mimi and I have become really close. We’ve talked food, family, and life. Sometimes there are as many languages spoken as there are varieties of entrees at the table. We had a French guest over for dinner the day I counted five languages being spoken. French is spoken by mostly everyone. Malagasy is how I communicate with Mama Mimi and with others. Mama Mimi speaks fluent Chinese with Papa. Some of Mama Mimi’s nephews practice their English with me and sometimes translate what Mama Mimi says. I spoke Spanish with our French guest that night. Speaking Spanish has become more useful than I had imagined. So far, I’ve come across three occasions where I’ve communicated in Spanish.

My job here is working with the Office of Regional Tourism. I will primarily be teaching English to guides and to hotel and restaurant workers in the area. Since I will be working closely with guides, it is important that I am familiar with the places that make this part of the country so special. I never know what’s in store for me. Everyday has been an adventure thus far. It is always funny to me because most of the time I haven’t been dressed for the occasion. Like the time we were invited to celebrate Chinese Independence day with my counterpart family. I had asked if I needed to wear tsara akanzo (nice clothes) and Mama Mimi’s response was “tsy mila.” (not necessary.) I wore a dress anyway. A long beach dress. My site mate Kristen came with us. Three long tables were filled with different varieties of Chinese food. A man gave a speech in Chinese. We sat in a special table together with my counterpart family. Then, everyone flooded the food tables at once. We were signaled by Mama Mimi to join the fun. Everyday has been filled with diverse interactions. I smiled through every speculation of my Chinese origen from people. They find it strange that I do not speak French and can speak Malagasy. Most of the time, people here think I am French mainly due to the history of France with Madagascar, and also because there are a lot of French tourists who visit. Other times, they assume I am Chinese, or a mix of Chinese. Their questions have always opened opportunities for me to educate and share a part of me and of diversity in the United States. Now, people smile and say, “Ah, Mexican anó tsara” ( You are Mexican, that is good.)

The day we went on our first outing, we invited my site mate Kristen, who is teaching at a school here to join. We were taken to a nearby reserve and shown a tree nursery of fruits and other special trees of the forest. The foodie in me is always always psyched to learn, touch, taste and see fruit trees. I was satisfied with seeing the tree nursery and learning about the yearly tree planting that happens in the forest. Then I was AMAZED when a baby lemur leaped from a bamboo tree onto another right in front of my eyes. It was my first time seeing lemurs and I laughed each time they curiously watched and leaped around. Its scientific name is Hapalemur Albifront, and is consider one of the more common types of lemurs in the country. There were five of them, and were rescued from private home captivity.

image

Doany is the word for sacred place. We hiked through a village, waved Mbola tsara (still well) to people we passed by. On our way, we saw clove trees, jackfruit trees, papaya, pineapples, and a group of kids cooking rice underneath a bamboo shaded area. We were headed to visit a sacred waterfall. There were four of us. Joxe frequently stopped to point out different plants and trees that are unique to Madagascar such as the travelor’s tree, which is what the regional traditional houses are made of. I saw what vanilla in its raw state looked like! We walked through vanilla vines and found a man pollinating flowers. I asked, “afaka manampy zaho, azafady”? ( can I please help?)

image

I carefully watched as he moved the different parts of the flower in such a precise way. I was amazed! I had learned about what he was doing from my botanist biology professor and had a deep appreciation for what my eyes were seeing. I thought it was COOL! I had a moment to wonder how amazing it was for this man in the middle of the village to know the exact biology of vanilla. There are certain things that are fady (taboo) at sacred places such as what days are permitted to visit. I know it was uncomfortable for Joxe to ask us if any of us were on our period as we continued the path through the forest. I, unfortunately was and consequently was not able to go down to see the waterfall. People visit the waterfalls for cleansing of the spirit and for good health. I waited and found chameleons in the forest! They are so cool! The first time I saw one was on a bike ride in Andapa.

All I knew was that we were going to a special Doany (sacred place) known as “vato mandeha” ( moving rock). We left Samabava at 5am and headed towards Antalaha. There, we met with other people and got in the back of a 4×4. I realized the true meaning of what it means when people say the roads are bad that day. It took three hours to drive 15k. The entire village waited for our arrival. For the very first time since I’ve been here in this country, I felt like an extreme foreigner. I had never been so curiously watched by kids as I was that initial moment. I wondered how many times these kids, if ever had seen someone outside from their village. Usually my smile or greeting in Malagasy is enough to break the ice and get kids to laugh or  to at least smile back at me. This time, their eyes were so curiously fixed on me that it didn’t matter what I said. We began our thirty minute hike into the forest toward the sacred rock. I was in complete awe. I was distracted with everything I was seeing and experiencing. Babies were being carried by their younger siblings. Grandmothers and grandpas all headed together and the views were spectacular. I thought to myself that this was the most people I had ever gone on a hike with, EVER. I snapped out of my daze when I splashed my whole foot in a puddle. People around giggled and so did I. The ice was beginning to crack. I was human! lol. We arrived to the sounds of beating drums, people singing and the smell of ceremonial scents burning.

image

People wore lambas (traditional clothing) and greeted us. Kristen and I were introduced as guests during a long ceremonial speech by one of the men who traveled with us. He even said we were “efa mahay fomba ndreky teny Malagasy” ( that we were already familiar with Malagasy language and customs.) The drum continued to play as we faced the sacred rock to begin the ceremony. Twenty chickens were sacrificed. Their heads were put on a bamboo chute  and offered to the spirit of the rock as a thank you for granting the wish of allowing a son to be born. One of the men who traveled with us had asked the spirit of the rock for a son to be born, and promised to come back and sacrifice twenty chickens, that was why we were there honoring the spirit of the rock. A lot of rice was cooking the entire time as the chickens were being de-feathered. There was singing going on as men gathered to offer food first to the spirit. They carefully placed rice, chicken, rum, and honey on the bamboo made alter.

image

image

Meanwhile, huge ginger and banana leaves were being placed on the ground for eating. The elder men gathered to eat first. We watched them eat. I thought the entire time of how strange it was to literally watch people eat but here it was a sign of respect. As the guests, we were invited to receive food next. We sat on the ground and were shown how to fold the leaf in such a way to have it be a perfect spoon. I was amazed to see over two hundred people eating a meal that seemed to be prepared with no effort. Not once did I sense there to be “stress” about having to feed all two hundred of us. It was incredible being able to participate in the ceremony deep in the forest. I looked around and couldn’t believe what I saw. A man wearing an Arizona Wildcat hat sat with us. It was a moment to remind me of home again. I asked him, “afaka makasary, azafady?” (can i please take your picture?) his response was yes. He smiled as I snapped a picture of him wearing a hat that represented home to me. On the hike back, I had ten girls walking with me. They took turns holding my hand.

image

Advertisements
Charlotte emilie photography

Charlotte emilie photography

Charlotte Emile photography

Charlotte Emile photography

Why we are here. English is taught to every student starting in sixth grade in all public schools. Also, English is heavily tested for on the BAC (similar to a high school exit exam) which most students do not pass, and consequently are not eligible for most jobs in the country. Sixty some odd seventh graders stood quietly as I struggled to neatly write  my name and date with chalk on the board. For class, every student brings a notebook, three pens (blue, red, and black) and a ruler with them as school supplies. Students are used to copying all lessons that are written on the board onto their notebooks. I wondered for a split second why they had not yet sat, and realized it was part of the Malagasy custom to wait to be queued to sit by their teacher. The instant formality of the classroom was new to me. I introduced myself and motioned the class to sit. I was greeted in unison by “Good morning teacher.” It was part of our program during training to teach for two an a half weeks in the village of Mantasoa, where the Peace Corps  training center is. All students were actually on grande vacances (equivalent to our summer break) during our teaching practicum but the village students enjoy having extra English classes available to them so attendance was not an issue.  One of the first lessons I was assigned to teach was on deforestation. It was a personal goal of mine to ensure that each lesson was not only educational, but also fun and engaging. The classrooms all were small and filled with wooden bulky desks. In each room hung a black board.  It looked pretty close to what I had envisioned a classroom in Africa to be like. I took a moment to look at the view from the classroom window to think about where I was. In a classroom in on an island off the coast of Africa, and I was about to teach my first lesson.   I was a little nervous, because I was being observed by my peers, but also because I was teaching subject matter that I, myself am not an expert on. I do know, however that deforestation is something not serving the world we live in. I started with introducing vocabulary through facilitating a scavenger hunt outside! Yes and it worked! I took a group of students outside to learn! They were excited, and seemed a bit confused as I slowly repeated instructions. It was new for them to learn outdoors. I split them into teams and gave them all a list of twenty items to find in nature. I even brought my safari hat to play along. After, we gathered together in a circle outside and I asked them all to close their eyes and listen for thirty seconds. Then to share what living creatures and sounds they heard. It was great! The remainder of the lesson flowed well. I noticed each face attentively fixed on me as I explained each new term and demonstrated pictures on my iPad. American pop culture was often a popular example topic for students.
Charlotte emilie photography

Charlotte emilie photography

I burst into laughter the day I was teaching comparative and superlative adjectives when one of the girls gave the example of “Justin Beiber is the most handsome man in the world.”  The last day of practicum happened to be on September 11th.  That day, I co facilitated the grading of an exam with my peers. As I wrote the date on the board, someone said they were sorry about what happened in our country, referring to 9/11. I was surprised that people in one of the most remote areas of the world knew and were still aware of 9/11. Most of them do not have televisions, and those who do, only  have them for the purpose of watching movies via VCRs. It made me think about how little I know of the world,  especially considering the amount of information that is easily available to me. Most people wouldn’t know of Madagascar if it hadn’t been for pixar’s movies. Even still, some people don’t think it’s a real place. I myself, certainly did not know much of the country before I knew I was coming here. I did not know that they haven’t had a real president in over years, yet students in my class were fully aware of what the numbers 9/11 represented on the board for America. I decided to begin class with a moment of silence, as most American classrooms would do that morning. We closed our practicum program with each of us singing our national anthems. It was a moment of surprise for us to be asked on the spot to sing our national anthem. I had never felt more American than that day as I stood with my fellow volunteers facing a sea of Malagasy students of all grade levels singing our national anthem. I wish I had recorded them sing. It was a beautiful song with different intonations and a happy melody.
image
The day we became volunteers was almost the opposite experience to the first day of being dropped off with our homestay families. We all dressed in our nicest clothes. Irons were made available to us if we needed pressing. I felt nervous. Ten weeks of ongoing language, cultural, and technical training had gone by. It was a weird feeling thinking that training was done. A lot of us got really close in those ten weeks. It was a feeling of accomplishment and bitter sweetness because soon we would all be dispersed in different areas throughout the country. The vans brought our homestay families, but this time WE greeted them with smiles and hugs as they poured out of the vans.  We formally started our ceremony outside underneath a tent. It drizzled through most of the speeches. There were about two hundred people present. I sat in the front row with my friends as I listened to the country director, Dee’s speech. Our fellow volunteer, Neil spoke on our behalf. I teared up. All the weeks of training, everyday up until now was for THIS moment. To be officially swearing in as volunteers. I thought about all the different people involved in supporting us all to be swearing in. I also felt like I was internally saying goodbye once again to people I had grown close with. Soon, I was going to be alone in my village.  No more language coach, and especially no more friends with who I could escape with and indulge on chocolate and watch endless hours of Breaking Bad and Homeland with after trainings. Together, we sung a Malagasy song to the strings of the Velia, ( a traditional Malagasy string instrument)  played by one of our language trainers. The local media was there filming and photographing The ceremony. The mayor, the local gendarme, and a representative from the US Embassy spoke. We closed the ceremony by raising our right hand  and giving an oath. An enormous Malagasy meal awaited us all in the dining room. We each sat with our host families to enjoy our last meal together. It was fun seeing my host sisters dressed up.  They had pink circles of blush on their cheeks. It was cute. I had fun dressing up too. I hugged them goodbye and handed them a photo album of highlights from my time with them. Soon after, five people in our group said their goodbyes as they headed to their sites in the south of Madagascar. I was scheduled to leave the following morning.
image

“The beauty lies in the experience.”

One of my favorite things to do is creating and sharing meals with other people. Those close to me know that I ENJOY food. REAL FOOD. It was a highlight when a few of us got together one Saturday after lunch and decided to make totomvuanzo (peanut butter). Totomvuanzo is made frequently in some Malagasy homes. There were five of us, including our friend’s host brother. We bought about a kilo of peanuts, some salt, sugar, bananas, and bread. We roasted the peanuts over a fire low to the ground on a skillet. Together, we peeled the peanuts as they cooled on a rice shaker tray. Everyone took turns in mashing the peanuts with the giant mortar. It was fun watching peanuts transform into thick brown real peanut butter. I have always preferred almond butter to peanut butter before tasting what totomvuanzo minus the preservatives, additives, and what have you tastes like. Bam!  We sliced bananas and devoured our delicious version of a peanut butter sandwich. Never once did any of us complain about the effort that went into being able to have a peanut butter sandwich because the joy in making it together from step one was the most fun.  We shared some with our Malagasy friends and they smiled through every bite. It was one of my most memorable Saturdays here in Madagascar. A day rich in friendship and experience.
imageimage
One of the most unique cultural traditions of the Malagasy culture is Famadiana. It is a celebration where the bones of razana (ancestors) are redressed and turned as a sign of honor and respect. In the Malgasy culture, it is believed that the spirit of the ancestors still remains as long as the bones do. Families usually save a lot of money to honor their ancestors with a Famadihana. They believe that once you die, you live forever in spirit.  For the most part, Famadiana is prevalent in the highlands. It happens during the dry season and about every few years. We were lucky to have been invited to one. I was unsure what to expect because all I knew about Famadihana was what I had previously read online, which wasn’t much. We walked into the village to meet everyone. There were about a few hundred people walking together to the tomb. A few people carried pictures of whose bodies these once were. There were three of them. Everyone was full of joy. Famadiana is intended to be a happy event where ancestors are honored and thanked. When we arrived at the tomb, the sound of drums and flutes played while a few men meticulously wrapped a clean white sheet and tied several knots over each ancestor.  I watched as people danced, took pictures, and even asked to take pictures with us vazaha (foreigners). For a second, I felt strange having people want to take pictures with us during an event that I would consider sacred in a sense. But then I thought that our presence was as much enjoyed as the ceremony and if we are curious enough to snap pictures of all people and things that intrigue us, so can they. Kids, babies, grandmothers, and adults all were present during the ceremony. Some of the men danced and took swigs of tokagasy (moonshine) throughout the whole event. A man gave a speech thanking everyone for being there and maybe even talked about the ancestors but I was limited on what I understood in Malagasy. The whole process of experiencing and seeing Famadihana first hand was an organic and real moment for me. I feel blessed to have been a part of such a unique cultural experience.
image
image
image