Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Close of Service

All my friends in country are all safe but are very worried that their country's development has just taken a huge step backward. They are a resilient people though, and I know that they will be okay. I'm hoping I will still be able to work with the silk weavers, even if it is not from Madagascar. I would like to re-instate if PC reopens, otherwise, maybe I'll be able to make buying trips to M'car once I find some markets for their product in the states. One way or the other I do plan to see my site again even if it is only to say a proper goodbye.

We just learned our options to transfer yesterday and had until the end of the day to prioritize our choices. My sector had several availabilities in West Africa but all require French to varying degrees. After my experience in Madagascar, where I was just at the point (after 13 months) where I could speak Malagasy enough to work effectively, I decided that working for just one more year in a similar grass-roots situation would be a too-frustrating experience for me. So I decided to close my service with Peace Corps, and will finish all my paperwork today.

Peace Corps has been really amazing with all of this, and I have so much respect for the organization. They flew in a team of people to help with our evacuation. I passed all my medical exams and psych exam (with an NU alum!), have actually never been healthier, and am surrounded by very supportive people, not to mention all of my volunteer friends. PC put us up in a really nice hotel here in Johannesburg and after I finish my paperwork I'll have a few days to take in the sights before going to Cape Town. From there I'll make an itinerary.

While I'm looking forward to travel, I'm not in the mood to do this. I'm really just taking up time until the economic situation in America improves enough so I can get a job or until the political situation improves in Madagascar and I can go back.

I really appreciate all the emails and posts of support. It means so much to know that I have couches to sleep on back in the states. I can't wait to see everyone again, and will let you know when I'm heading home. In the meantime, please continue to send positive thoughts Madagascar's way.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tena Malahelo

Peace Corps is evacuating Madagascar. I leave tomorrow. I'll update you when I know more.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Crisis update

Thanks for your notes and well wishes. Madagascar's political environment is still shaky. Peace Corps has taken very good care of us, and is doing everything possible to keep the program running and all volunteers safe, but it seems Madagascar's leading politicians can't keep their egos under wraps. Our situation is day-to-day. Yesterday we thought we were going back to site. Today (just after midnight, actually) we were told to sit tight for a little while longer. The positives from consolidation include the friendships I've made with my fellow volunteers and the improvement in my volleyball game. The negatives include worrying about the future: peoples lives are going to be much harder here no matter who is president (rise in prices, decline in tourists, etc.); wondering if there will be a couch I can crash on and employment for me should I have to go back to the States a year early, and my new addiction to Facebook. There are a few good websites that are keeping us up to date: one on facebook (Updates on Madagascar Crisis) and (in French, though). I'll write more when I know more myself! Please keep Madagascar in your thoughts!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Not ready to leave

On my way into Tana on Sunday I thought that I really didn’t want to leave site. I had just gone to Fianar to watch Obama’s inauguration speech and had only been back at site for a few days before leaving for a conference at our training center. Usually when I know I need to be in either Tana or Fianar I can’t wait to go. The attraction of the internet or the pull of the beer at Hotel de France or the fear that I’m missing out on fun with other arriving volunteers forces me onto the first brousse out of site. But this time, I took the last brousse out, and wished I didn’t need to attend this conference that was taking me into the capitol a week ahead of a planned two-week training session (to prepare for the next group of volunteers!).

But the trip in was pleasurable. I admired the greenness of “my” highlands, the effect of all the recent rains, and enjoyed an uneventful (so rare!) arrival in Tana and easy negotiation for a cab to the Peace Corps bunk house. Surprisingly, the cab driver said there was vaovao in Tana. He explained that there was a fight between the mayor in Tana and the President of Madagascar.

We passed lots of people demonstrating along the streets. People had parked their cars on the medians, their car radios blaring the political speeches and the news through open doors and windows so the crowds could hear. My driver said that people were angry because the President gets richer while the people get poorer. I’ve heard that view often since arriving last February and naively thought it was good to see some peaceful political activism in the capitol.

However, a few hours later and a few blocks away, we heard of angry mobs burning down the President’s radio and tv station (supposedly retribution for the President’s closure of and damage to the opposition station), then we heard about buildings burning, and finally looting and most unfortunate, the death of one or two people caught in the crowd.

The eight of us here at the bunk house are not able to leave but with nowhere to go anyway. Most supplies and gas are efa lany so the shops are closed and there are no taxi be, taxikely or taxi brousses. Peace Corps has taken good care of us: keeping up informed, driving us in a 3-car caravan to get rice and beans and money, and we are safe and lucky to be well-stocked and out of harm’s way (though shocked by the sight of the trashed streets and hazy smoke in Ankorondrano).

If I had remained at site, I would not even know about this political unrest. I probably would not have believed that the Malagasy would exhibit such discontent. But since this did happen, I’m glad I could experience it surrounded by the wonderful Peace Corps staff who explained a lot of the news to me and also shared their emotions with us. Their concern for their fellow residents and the future of their country made me proud to be here working with them, and made me realize just how much I do want to stay here. I still have so much work to do!

I am keeping my fingers crossed that in 2009 I will see the rebuilding of Madagascar’s fragile democracy, the arrival of the new wave of volunteers and the lessening of conflicts of interest. We are all hopeful that the violence is over.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Time is going by fast now. Since my last post I have been somewhat busy. I traveled to Tana to help at Peace Corps’ 15th year anniversary celebration (Prisca joined me and sold scarves at the Small Enterprise Development booth), and I met a distant relation – David Haslinger, a volunteer on the east coast. He assures me his name used to contain two s’s. I think we should drop an s, too.

After a few days in Tana, a dirty, crowded, expensive (well, relatively, anyway), fun city I left for Fianar, a 10 hour night brousse trip south. I arrived at 4 in the morning to another reunion, this time with my regional volunteers. Unfortunately, a lot of people had contracted giardia but it didn’t stop us from enjoying Halloween at a local club. My friends and I arrived late otherwise I’m sure Ryan would have won the costume contest. I have never seen such a sexy bag of rice.

I visited my friend Katie’s site before going home. Katie and I are starting a program for 12-14 year old orphaned girls in her town. We will train them on business skills with the expectation that they’ll start businesses during summer vacation (winter here) which will help them pay the next year’s school fees. I’m very excited. It will be my first attempt to do training in Malagasy, and am really glad I get to work with Katie.

I’ve been a little busy even in Sandrandahy. I’ve attended a few meetings with Prisca’s association. They recently received a big box of school supplies from employees of an NGO here, and the US embassy supplemented with money to buy notebooks. Together we distributed school supplies to 183 kids who had been identified as too poor to buy their own supplies. I saw parts of the commune I hadn’t seen before, and saw the stomach-clenching signs of poverty so obvious in other parts of Madagascar but less noticeable in the more affluent highlands. Or am I just used to it here? It was quite a shock.

There were a few days of meetings in town about silk weaving. The guest speaker was a stylist from Tana and I felt I was more Malagasy than he was: he spoke French more than Malagasy, seemed bothered by the flies, and didn’t eat the lunch we all shared. He also needed electricity so refused to spend the night in my counterpart’s house even though the meeting was two days. I thought some of his ideas were valid but after he left the members wondered why a stylist was sent to train them who didn’t know how to weave or embroider himself. It’s a valid point and caused a little self-reflection on my part until I remembered that I don’t pretend to know how to make silk. Some of the patterns of haute couture he showed the weavers were laughably hideous but of course the members are much too polite to question his front of him.

I spent Thanksgiving in my banking town, Ambositra. Unlike most volunteers, I can get to and from my banking town in one day so I’m there frequently, at least once a week. After the quietness of village life, Ambositra seems like a bustling big city, but it’s still pretty small. There’s no nightlife to speak of, no movie houses, no internet or entertainment of any kind. After doing all our errands, Katie and I pass time and wait out the frequent afternoon down pours at the Alliance Fran├žaise. Katie is taking French lessons there and I bum off her membership to hang out at their library and chat up the staff there who think we’re very strange to speak Malagasy and not French. One day we arrived just as the center was reopening from its 2.5 hour lunch break. The only guy there was a little up in arms because a rat had set up residence on the window sill. It was making a nest in someone’s wire in-box, and was completely occupied arranging plastic bags and oblivious that we three were watching and discussing her fate. We spent about 15 minutes repeating things like “It’s really not shy,” “No, it’s not scared of us,” “I’m a little scared of it,” and so on. Finally, a young guy came in with a 2x4 and whacked her dead. He held her up by the tail to confirm to us how dead that rat really was.

That seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to pass an afternoon here.

On Thanksgiving, we were determined to have gin and tonics and left our dinner restaurant in search of alcohol. The one tourist hotel did indeed have gin, it only took three guys to find it and it was delicious. After a couple of drinks we went back to the restaurant where we started, buying some street food snacks in case the restaurant was closed since it was 8 pm already. But the restaurant was waiting for us. We ordered pizza and opened the delicious bottle of red Taylor had brought on her way down. By the time dinner was over it was 9, an hour past our normal bedtime and we were fading, and tipsy. Or at least Katie and I were...we never drink anymore. The waiter approached us and said they’d close the restaurant and clear the floor to let us stay and dance. They couldn’t imagine a holiday that didn’t involve dancing! It was such a sweet offer, but we explained that this holiday was all about eating and drinking, and we had done that well. So maybe I’m not yet fully Malagasy after all.

Next up: more meetings about setting up a regional handicrafts association in my banking town, meeting with a chicken farmer about an egg-selling business, conducting some English classes (yes, I finally gave in), and counting down the days until I see my fellow volunteers again. Things continue to go well at site but I’ve never had a “Peace Corps high” without being with my American friends.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

How do you define success?

Before I arrived in Sandrandahy, I thought I would be an ideal Peace Corps volunteer. I imagined that my work experience, love of travel and independent nature would allow me to adapt easily to helping start and expand small businesses in my town in Madagascar. I am five months into my service and I realize that these traits could not be more unnecessary. And, sadly, I lack the very traits that do make a successful volunteer.

The happiest and most productive volunteers are naturally curious, creative and have a very high energy level. (A sense of humor is also mandatory, but I feel that I actually do have this trait. You have to laugh otherwise you would cry every time you step into an especially rank outhouse [and that’s saying a lot because none of them are pretty], or when you wait for half a day inside a stuffy and smelly taxi-brousse that made you rush to load, saying they were leaving vetivety, or when you hear for the fourth time in one day that you are incredibly, unbelievably fat. “Especially your face. It is expanding like a balloon.”)

I can laugh at these things. I can laugh off the one strange thing that will inevitably occur everyday. I can laugh at myself, and I do throughout each day. But I realized recently that I am actually a fairly private person. I don’t particularly enjoy answering the same personal questions everyday, and I don’t enjoy stopping in to eat mounds of rice at everyone’s house who invites me in just because I happen to be walking by, and I am not naturally inclined to stop what I’m doing whenever someone comes over to my house.

And the fact that I worked in economic development and marketing, that I enjoy all the aspects of business, that I love to travel and explore, and prefer to live on my own…these traits actually hinder my success here. For example, I am thrilled that Philbertine will now wait for a brousse at the station rather than by her house where they inevitably pass by already full, and I’m pleased that Prisca wants to package her scarves in my recycled ziplock bags rather than stacking them in the open air for months. Not exactly the business lessons I learned from either AED or CB, and it would be easy to be discouraged if I believed I would instead be helping them write a business plan to open a boutique, helping them to rent or buy a building, and then assisting with marketing ideas (but, God, wouldn’t that be great?).

And my love of travel has been stifled while at site. People hate it that I walk around by myself in the middle of the day. I feel very sneaky if I walk around even for just an hour, and there is no way that one of my walkabouts can ever escape the knowledge of people in my town because I always meet up with people who then tell other people who then tell my counterpart, etc, and then they get mad at me and I feel guilty. The other day I was walking along the paved, very busy road in the middle of the day and met up with an old woman who was carrying stacks of wood on her head, probably ten feet in length. She was barefoot and balancing the wood without needing her hands, walking upright with perfect posture. I walked and talked with her for about a kilometer. She stopped at one of the coffee and bread shacks at the side of the road, and proceeded to tell the vendor that I was incredible strong (Walking uphill! For no reason but for sport!), and brave (Alone! No friends!). Nevermind that she was also walking, with ten pounds of wood on her head and had probably started off at the crack of dawn. (When I arrived back home I got the standard, “Where oh, where exactly, were you? Alone? No friends?”)

And the fact that I am independent by nature was also a hindrance to my life here. It’s helpful to be independent because there is a lot of alone time, but priding myself on not needing anyone is a detriment. There is no way I could have survived here without depending on people. Too much time in one’s head will make you go crazy and will make you hate yourself. So I have had a revelation. I may be shy and introverted, business-driven and self-sufficient in the States. But here, I can not be that way. I have to foster the curiosity, energy and creativeness that I have seen in other volunteers. So I go see Prisca multiple times in one day. I go to her house for no reason, when I am bored and wanting to pass some time. We tell jokes and she tells me things about her husband’s family that bug her, and we eat a lot of meals together. It is a friendship that I wouldn’t have in the States because I would be too busy to just hang out every day, and feel too self-conscious about taking up so much of someone’s time. Here, that is just how things are done.

I have always prided myself on being independent, and I was proud of myself for moving to cities where I didn’t know anyone and making a life for myself in Albuquerque and then Denver. But then that moving around doesn’t foster the type of friendship that I have always needed. And I have found that here, in this little town in the highlands of Madagascar. And once you have friends, it’s a lot easier to be energetic and curious because you are a happier person by default. And you realize that being too independent can lead to a whole lot of loneliness if you’re not careful.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Give Me Money

A persistent problem Peace Corps volunteers face in Madagascar, as in probably all developing countries, is the expectation that since you are white, you have money to hand out to people. During training we were taught to say that Peace Corps provides technicians, not money, and that I can help them with business skills and money management so that they can make or save more money themselves. In theory, this is a great concept, and obviously one I support being that I am donating time, not cash, myself. But in practice, when the average wage here is $1/day (and even less in other parts of Madagascar) and prices are increasing as they are everywhere, rallying people to help themselves is more difficult than the grassroots model of affecting change through community development would seem.

Arriving back at site, fresh from vacation where we watched breaching whales from the shore, and motivated to implement some of the tools I learned during In Service Training, I excitedly told Philbertine and Prisca that I could now start work and mentioned that I learned about some funding sources as well. Peace Corps is very careful not to tell us about funding sources until IST so that we can honestly tell people that we can't just supply money, and our villages get used to us as workers, not suppliers.

My language skills are still nowhere near fluent, and I had difficulty trying to explain the various programs, but was able to at least say that there is money that we can apply for that helps with projects, but there needs to be an actual written project, not just a general request for money.

Prisca asked what program could help with her charity work which supplies food, clothing and hygiene products to poor and orphaned kids in our commune. I tried to tell her that there were funds out there, but that a project had to show it could be sustainable. So, for instance, we could apply for money if we wanted to start a community garden to supply food to the needy kids or we could start a business club targeting orphaned girls which helps them start small businesses to run during vacation so that they can pay their school fees. While my efforts in Malagasy were not this fluid, Prisca seemed to understand my point that we can’t just apply for money or materials as handouts to all the poor kids in the commune, like we tried to do earlier. (Before I left for training, Prisca and I filled out a request from an organization called Friends of Madagascar that distributes donated items from the States to pretty much any Peace Corps volunteer who requests them. There are things like toothbrushes and soccer jerseys and these things are available on a first come-first served basis. The list of available supplies is a hodgepodge of items donated at the whim of Florida residents: 56 toothbrushes, for example, 2 Sanibel Beach Club t-shirts, and a few ziplocks of travel-size shampoos. Prisca and her association and I went through the list and circled the items we could use and I went on my way. Before I left for Tana, Prisca came to my house with supporting documents for the application: a letter about the association, a copy of their formal registration, and lists of every single needy kid in the commune. There were hundreds of names.)

So, Prisca is used to asking for donations for her work, but did seem to embrace the idea of sustainability, and made comments during my painful and halting explanation of the possible projects to show she understood. She said, in effect: That’s all well and good, and we should do projects like that, but the hungry season starts next month and if we don’t give food to these kids, they won’t eat.

So, what do you do?

For Sarah Palin to imply that community organizers don’t have actual responsibilities highlights the incredible chasm between bureaucracy and activism in the sphere of public service. She has absolutely no concept of the incredible vision, energy and outlook required to affect change in people’s lives, especially when faced with such immediate and persistent poverty. I certainly don’t have it.

Those skills, along with the endless amount of solitude, makes this the hardest job I’ve ever had.