A Travellerspoint blog

Teaching by hook or crook

.....and by the tail of a mouse

-17 °C

The following news has been taken from letters to Leslie's Grandmother Anderson and Grandparents McAbee. These letters were written 7/28/07.

My training schedule has been intense, as we just finished 2 and 1/2 weeks of teaching training. For the 1st week, I was having so many discipline problems with the students that I wondered if I actually had the talent to teach. But after some advice from the trainers, I learned how to give the naughty students a death glare, move those who talked to their neighbor to another desk, and yell at them to be quiet. So far, these tactics seem to work, and I now have confidence that I have a place in the classroom. The best day was when I taught the 7 year olds a lesson about the environment. My vocabulary included "to drop" and "to pick up", but none of the kids seemed to be paying attention as they were focused on something under a girl's desk. I told the girl to pick up what I thought to be her pen, but the commotion continued on that side of the room. As I continued to try to explain the vocabulary, the girl kicked something out from under her desk in my direction: a dead mouse. I was so flustered that I unthinkingly picked up the mouse by its tail and kept pointing at the word " to pick up" on the board to illustrate that what I was doing was relevant to the lesson. Then I walked the mouse body over to the trash can, all the while pointing and repeating the words " to drop".
The women in my homestay family have particularly befriended me and have shown me how to survive here cooking and cleaning-wise. You'll be proud to know that I can wash my clothes without a machine and can make my own peanut butter by pounding it with a blunt staff by hand. The fresh peanut butter is delicious. We eat it with watery rice for breakfast, which sounds revolting, but it is actually quite good. It's better than eating the rice plain. Alas, the eating of rice can be tiring, since we eat it 3 times a day. But there are always side dishes (laoka) to eat with it. Believe it or not, but they eat a lot of collard greens here, and I look forward to them every time my family buys them at the market.

I guess you guys have already heard that I'll be living in the southernmost tip of Madagascar. The location isn't quite a desert, though it is very dry there and the vegetation is called spiny forest. Don't tell mom, but turtles abound in my region, because it is fady (forbidden) to eat them. In ancient times, it is said that a turtle carried a woman lost in the forest on it's back all the way to her home, and so it is highly disrespectful to kill them.

Posted by lealow07 12:00 Archived in Madagascar Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

My Place at the Dinner Table

...and in the Kitchen

-17 °C

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Hello all,

Since coming to Madagascar, there have been several instances in which I've forgotten my name; once when I scaled a mountain outside Manjakandriana, where I found a royal tomb and a lone tree on the deforested and windswept peak. Again, I forgot when standing with other volunteers in the house of a woman whose godfather had died. We offered our condolences with money and a polite hand shake, telling her in low, solemn tones in Malagasy not to be sad. Though the room was dimly lilt, I saw her expression wore the same shock, the same quiet despair I've seen at funeral wakes and at gravesides in Georgia. These feelings of disembodiment or loss of self accompany moments in which your American experiences and American identity synchronize with Malagasy culture most unexpectedly. All at once you feel isolated in a foreign setting and alternately enveloped in the commonalities that unite us. And in the midst of this contradiction, I continually search for my name in all three of the bowls of rice I eat each day, hoping that by the last spoonful I'll be closer to equilibrating the raw material that is me to the enormity of simply being human.

Saturday, August 11, 2007
I've lived with my Malagasy host family for two months now, and like most true, realistic familial situations, I've experienced more joys and frustrations with them than with any other aspect of my life here. After having established myself as a family member by integrating myself into the daily chores, I thought it time to cook a meal after the second week. Chili seemed like the most appropriate cross cultural exchange, since it's so distinctly American and because I'd been craving it in this cold and wet highland weather. The responsibility of preparing the evening meal meant much more to me than simply putting food on the table; it was an opportunity for me to graduate from my linguistic and social status of an infant to a competent participant in the nourishment of my host family. With the help of my sister, I practiced bargaining for the ingredients in the market, and with pride I demonstrated with excited gestures to my family how the flavors would blend and complement one another. My neny (mom) and rahabavy (sister) helped me chop the vegetables and sprinkle the sakay (chili powder) into the broth. I presented the dish to the table with pride. "Here's a dish they'll tell their neighbors about. New flavors they've been missing all this time," I thought. My dada(dad) helped himself first. As he gingerly touched the spoon to his tongue, the indifferent expression on his face curdled into a scowl of disgust. His spoon clattered as he dropped it into the bowl. The table remained silent. I waited for his apology: that it wasn't to his liking due to being too spicy for his taste; but he only stewed in his discontent and made movements of the mouth so as to divest ownership of his own tongue. In a fluster, my sister ran to the kitchen to cook her father an omelette, but in hurrying, she forgot to clean the pan that had cooked French toast earlier in the day. Again, my dada spit out the syrupy sweet egg with a grunt. For the rest of the meal I stared at my plate while my mom and sister made apologies for the pastor. He, however, didn't muster a one. After clearing the table, I helped my sister, Hasina, wash the dishes. "Maybe chili wasn't a good idea," I tried to explain in Malagasy. Hasina replied, "Maybe eggs and sugar aren't good either." Eggs and sugar, the idea was enough to set us laughing hysterically. The culmination of dada's toady reaction to the food, my mom's attempts to allay the tension with humor and apologies, and my fallen pride kept me laughing alongside my sister for half an hour.

Not every Malagasy family is the same, but the patriarchal dynamic I see in mine will disturb me until I'm no longer part of it. While my brother or dad sleeps in the morning and afternoon, the women are building the coal fires, cooking meals, and constantly cleaning. One day my sister washed so many clothes that her knuckles bled. Sometimes I wish that for my home-stay, I were a man so that I could be an example of how inconsequential some gender roles can be. And so that I could show my dad and brother that life is hard enough here in Madagascar without assigning the most arduous daily labor to any one sex. I've never been so happy to brag about my American dad's French Toast and other culinary talents as when the pastor is piling mountains of rice he never cooked onto his plate.

Our house here in Manjakandriana has electricity, and every room has a bright, florescent light, except the kitchen. The light hasn't been changed since I arrived, and at night a dim reading lamp barely illuminates the most used and useful room in the house. I spend most of my time here talking with the women in my family, helping prepare meals, and wash dishes. I may have to bend close to see the onions I'm chopping in the shadows of the kitchen, but it will always be the place I found the most light during my stay in the Highlands.

Posted by lealow07 11:38 Archived in Madagascar Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Mountains In Moist Greens and Browns

New sights and new sounds

-17 °C

June 17, 2007

I am spending my first night at my host family, writing you from beneath my mosquito net. As you can imagine, it's been a busy day, complete with a 3 hour plane ride from Johannesburg to Antananarivo, a 2 hour drive to Manjakandriana, a 1 hour orientation, and my 1st night with the host family. Though there are few words between us, I can tell that these are good people. The father is a pastor, his wife a teacher, his son a journalist, and his daughter a teacher, as well. The two women showed me around the house and flooded my ears with new vocabulary that I cannot now recall! The house is spacious, has an indoor pump, a tv, stereo system, and electricity. For dinner we had a rich noodle soup with beans, carrots, chicken, potatoes and for desert we had bananas and tangerines. The host father kept asking me questions in Malagasy, and all I could do was stare dumbly. I mean to remedy the communication barrier as soon as possible. My day starts early tomorrow at 5:30 am. I wonder if there will be a rooster crowing?

June 18, 2007

And indeed there was a cock crowing along with a cacophony of dog barks, taxi brousses rumbling through the uneven cobblestone streets, incoherent shouts and trains raging through the town. With no sign of mercy from my jet-lag or any relief from my insomniac daze, I lay in my little mosquito net-covered bed listening to the new world to which I was waking. Daylight brought more surprises to my eyes than the early morning sounds had given to my ears. Most of my day is spent in a classroom or with my host family, but I did manage to wander into the market with two other trainees. The scene overwhelms you immediately. To the left might be a stand featuring exposed raw meat dangling from a rod, and to the right women sell vegetables, clothes, and plastic toys from beneath tarps. On all sides, children laugh and men and women stare, most all of them either whispering or shouting Vazaha (meaning foreigner). Chickens and cowering dogs slink through the streets. Sewage and trash dot the land spaces that aren't occupied by houses or yards. Barefootedness seems to be the primary affordable style in footwear among most Malagasy in this city. While the stark evidence of poverty abounds, the mountains of this region roll with varying hues of green, exotic palm trees, and smooth boulders that jut out of the greenery like molars growing out of a person's gum. At the base of nearly every mountainous slope is a rice paddy gilded in moist greens and browns. It's beautiful here once you look past the initial shock of seeing signs of squalor.
So far, I have only found friendliness in the faces that I meet, which is only surpassed by the looks of curiosity. For some reason, in Malagasy culture, it is customary to announce the obvious. Walking down the street or through the market, you are a Vazaha, and regardless of whether I am French, English, or American, my pale skin will always either give me instant celebrity or unwanted attention during my stay in Madagascar. As I get ready for bed, I hear the dogs singing their songs to each other. In the room next to me, there is a chicken in a box, but by tomorrow she'll be laying on a bed of rice. Tomorrow is another day of me speaking and feeling like a child in this new language. I may not have fully adapted to this isolated island, but I'm learning. Wish me luck!

Posted by lealow07 12:09 Comments (1)

Give us our daily mofo

Beyond lemurs: A glimpse at Madagascar

The word mofo, meaning bread in Malagasy, loses even more of its bawdy flavor once you learn its pronunciation: moofoo. From the meager study of the language leading up to my in-country training, I've observed that Malagasy throws the anglophone some amusing curveballs. For one, I wondered how extremely exotic the fruit would be in Madagascar when I learned that the word for mango, manga, is also used to describe the color blue. Syntax also proves topsy-turvy, since the word order is backwards from our own in a verb + object + subject pattern. For example, tia dite aho, meaning "I like tea," translates directly to "like tea I." And the verb "to be" does not exist but is implied. So far, my favorite malagasy word is for sugar, because the very pronunciation of the word makes your lips feel like they are smacking with delight. Siramamy. Doesn't that sound scrumptious?

Of the island's two official languages, French is spoken by those who were educated while Madasgascar was a French colony. Generally, however, all Malagasy speak their native tongue. Though unified by a common language (despite varying dialects), the diverse tribes of Madagascar represent its rich cultural history, including the Madagascar's blend of Asian and African cultures. Human beings didn't set foot on the island until 2,000 years ago, just after the death of Christ. These new settlers came from Malaysia and brought with them their Malayo-polynesian language, religious beliefs and cuisine that still resonate in Malagasy culture today. Approximately half of the population practice animistic religions, most of which center on ancestor worship or a strong connection between the living and the dead. One ritual among the Merina and Betsileo tribes is famadihana, or "turning over the dead," in which family members exume the remains of a loved one, rewrap them in silk, and rebury them. But not before dancing and singing through the streets with the bodies of their ancestors lifted high over the crowd.

45% of the population is Christian, which is evenly divided into Protestant and Catholic congregations. And about 7% practice Islam, as result of the Muslim traders on the island who created an alphabet for the Malagasy language, called Sorabe.

The Malagasy diet remains true to its Asian roots by keeping rice as its gastronomic cornerstone. Rice is eaten with fish, meat, beans, and vegetables, and dessert usually consists of fresh fruit sprinkled with vanilla. Obviously, starvation won't be a part of my life in Madagascar.

Today I leave my home to go to Atlanta in preparation for tomorrow's flight to the Peace Corps staging event in Washington D.C. I'm sharing my last cup of coffee with my parents, and soon, I'll pet my funky little dog goodbye. I'm going to miss my life here in Georgia, but I can't help but be comforted knowing that among the many fruits in Madagascar, peaches are one of them. To think that I might have a peach tree growing a taste of home in my future front yard in Madagascar! Allez-viens!

Posted by lealow07 11:57 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (1)

Mental Preparation

The thoughts and opinions expressed on this webpage do not reflect those of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

It's been a month since I found out what my address as a trainee will be in Madagscar, and I've neglected to post it or anything else out of denial that tremendous changes are coming. But I love letters, as they impart an old world, romantic flair and are much more personal and intimate than a casual e-mail. So let's set some stationery on a wildly exotic, long, and potentially perilous journey (from what I hear, some mail never reaches its destination to or from Madagascar due to its being stolen or lost, and it generally takes 1-2 months, at worst 3-4, for letters to arrive). Send all letters and packages to the following address:

Leslie McAbee, PCV
B.P. 12091

From what I've read on other Peace Corps blogs, marking packages with crosses and the words "objets religieux" wards away those whose superstition supercedes their curiosity of what's inside. Also, please number your letters so that I'll know if one has been lost. The address above is relevant to me throughout my three months of training, but thereafter I'll send along my site address.

At the moment I am still sorting out a packing list, which seems to procreate new items and amenities every time I sit down to it. The most fervent advice I've heard from the Peace Corps and other volunteers is not to meet the 80 pound packing limit in clothes but wait for the markets in the capital, Antananarivo, where second-hand European fashions abound. I feel it's going to be the few electronic devices that prove most valuable, like my ipod (accompanied by some travel speakers for listening exercises when teaching English in the classroom) and digital camera. Through an online chat group, I've met the volunteers with whom I'll serve, and many are bringing their host families gifts. We'll be living with and learning from our host family for the two months of training, and I want to show them the utmost respect and appreciation for their hospitality. But I'm stumped as to what I should bring them. A soccer ball might be a good choice, but beyond that I'm clueless.

I've also just returned from the beach with my family, a trip my parents thought might isolate us from the stress of my leaving, but I think the fun we had together only emphasized all the more how much we will miss one another. Several moments made me briefly ask myself why I wanted to leave my wonderfully upbeat parents and my brother, a best friend and progenitor of many side-spliting, inside jokes, to go to the other side of the world. During a bicycle ride I spyed some blackberries growing beside the path. While I picked and ate them, I wondered if I would have the tart sweetness of a blackberry melt in my mouth while in Madagascar. At least they have mangoes, I think.

My brother, Will, and I also went kayaking during our time on the coast of South Carolina. We paddled in a little salt water marsh past oyster beds and through seas grasses that tickled our arms as we drifted by. The waterway curved like a snake, making sneaking up on birds particularly easy. We would spy a bird from afar and then quietly propel ourselves around a corner to sidle up close to the snowy egrets, grackles, and herons as stealthily as possible. It reminded me of when Will and I were little and would pretend we were hunting for treasure in quartz-strewn soil or cleaning the leaves out of the indian hole, a mysterious pit in the woods behind our house, in preparation of building a fort.
Now we were at it again in our kayaks, just chasing a different sort of treasure: a peek at marsh birds that we never would have seen from land. As we rounded one corner, we abruptly hushed the splash of our paddles when we confronted by only a few feet a great blue heron standing majestically with one bright eye fixed unconcernedly into the space beyond us. This is how I hope to find Madagascar, I thought. Sudden, beautiful, unfearing. And a place so otherworldly and wonderful that I would never believe it unless I had been there myself.

Posted by lealow07 13:33 Archived in USA Tagged preparation Comments (0)

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