The Peace Corps experience, as I was told before I came to Madagascar and as I have found in my seven months here, is a roller coaster. I remember a year ago for my mom's birthday and we went to Carowinds in Charlotte to ride roller coasters. The Intimidator was, by far, the most awesome ride I've ever been on. We rode it probably eight times that day. Now, serving in Madagascar is intimidating, but it ain't the Intimidator. Just as awesome, but in completely different ways. There ups and downs that you sometimes don't even know which is up or down.
About two weeks ago, I intended a "miaramatory" which literally translates as "sleep together". I know, sounds like a fun little kids sleep over party, right? Not quite. A friend of mine who volunteers with the Forest Police, Dolimo, had a son die of a cold. A year and half year old kid. Probably one of the saddest things I've ever experienced. I'm no stranger to death and the sadness that follows it, but never with such a young life lost. Now, a miaramatory may be similar to what we call a "wake" in English. The night after the child had died, all community members who feel compelled to attend, go to the family's house for the entire night to keep the family company. The body is placed in the main room of the house and a "lamba", a Malagasy traditional cloth, is placed over the body, with candles surrounding it. Food is served (rice and laoka, of course). Taoka gasy (malagasy moonshine) is also served and brought by many who attend. People play cards and dominos all through the night. Food and alcohol is also continuously served. It is traditional for people to stay the entire night but it is not expected. Imagine in the States, the day after you've lost a child, the entire community comes to your house for the whole night to have party with you. Strange. But strangely very cool, too. My friend, Dolimo, that night told me he didn't expect me to come because he thought I was just a vazaha who was just visiting Madagascar. I realized very quickly after getting to this island that I am not just visiting here. It really set in one day during language class one day way back during training when I learned to say "I live here in Madagascar" in Malagasy. But after attending the miaramatory, as sad as it was, it was amazing to see people take such a sad situation and use it to be able to bring the community together in a very strong way. Even allowing the American to participate and attend. Thanks Madagascar.
Two Saturdays ago, a meeting was held at the Maromizaha Center, out in the middle of our forest center with all of the high ups of my partner organizations. I was stoked to meet and get to talk to them about projects and stuff! But all we did was watch movies about the environment in Madagascar (you know, the BBC specials). But really? We all have the opportunity to get together, high ups and people working on the ground, and talk about our work together and, we do what?, watch movies? Come on. Either way, it was cool meet the high ups and stuff.
My friends Jody and Alistair left last week as well. They were in the forest for about 3 months doing research on baby lemurs. It was very sad to see them go! But they went out with a bang. During their last week in the forest, they hosted 12 American students doing a study abroad here in Madagascar and introduced them to the amazing forest and life that is here in Madagascar. It was great to see people as thrilled at hearing the indris for the first time as I was when I first heard them. Their last night in the forest, I and a Gasy friend brought a bunch of beer out to the forest and we had a little farewell party. Great fun with air guitar, Journey, Tenacious D, Guns'n'Roses, and many more. Upon leaving, Jody and Alistair donated many prints of pictures they had taken of the lemurs in the forest for my plan to start and interpretive center in my house. They also gave me tons of education materials that I can use with English and environmental science classes that I've gotten started. Thanks again to two folks who get it and have their hearts in the right places. I'll miss you guys! Please check out The Zaza Project, which is led by Jody and Alistair and pays for academically excelling children in my community to go to school. Also check out their blog for some cool videos of the Maromizaha Forest.
This week, I got my butt handed to me as well. I told one of my good friends in my town, Tahiry, that I wanted to learn the Malagasy method of farming rice. I figured it'd be a good idea to get out in the fields and work with the people a little bit before I try to introduce them to improved methods. Here's what I learned: the agricultural revolution that occurred during the 1800s in the West has yet to make it to this island in the Pacific Ocean. The work that a discing tractor does today is still done by hand here. And lemme tell ya, I will never again look at the farms the same way in the States. Using a tool called a "piosy" (basically a large hoe with a spade-shaped head), we plowed a plot measuring maybe 35ft by 15ft, during an hour and a half. And I was done. Very done. The respect I have the for the Malagasy farmer just keeps getting higher. Hopefully, we can get some methods going that will help them get more fruit from their labor.
On Tuesday this week, an Italian NGO called BIRD (Biodiversity Integration and Rural Development) visited my site. They came with school supplies, backpacks, shirts, hats, donated clothes, and a little bit of funding for the school garden and orchard. Much thanks!! The group's leader was, however, curious about what had happened to 50 solar ovens the organization had given the previous year. I told him I hadn't seen anyone using them at all (also, I was wondering how effective a solar oven might be in rainforest country). A later found out most folks are using them for rice storage in their houses, a much better use for a solar oven in my region. This left me wondering about approaches to development that many organizations and government branches take. I'm glad I'm a part of the approach that allows the "help" to get to know the people, their problems, and their strengths before implementing a project or investing money into a project that, without proper knowledge of the region or the people's needs, may have no affect at all towards "development". Haha oh, Dr. Cornett, yes I remember our class together several years ago. And no, there's no firm ground to place the definition of "development" on. It is a fluid idea. I always liked Amartya Sen's book, "Development as Freedom". Freedom from what? A key question he tries to answer in the book. "Freedom from suffering" I think was one of the answers that stuck with me the strongest.
By the way, my director for the PC Environment Sector blessed me with a site visit this week on Wednesday. It's always great to see the Stanislas. Hard to believe I've been at site for almost 5 months here. 5 months down, 19 to go. And trust me, folks, it flies at times.
Much love to everyone back home in States and wherever you may be reading! I miss home everyday but I also cannot shake the feeling of being blessed to be where I am.
Keep in touch and enjoy the ride!