|By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, July 19, 2003 - 10:35 am: Edit Post|
Laughing Out Loud by By Madagascar RPCV Kali Jones
Laughing Out Loud by By Madagascar RPCV Kali Jones
Laughing Out Loud by By Madagascar RPCV Kali Jones
Nosy Be is a small island off the northwest coast of the world’s fourth largest island - Madagascar. It is considered the tourist trump card of Madagascar, having those things that tourists seek on a vacation - a tropical island where mangoes, coconut, and papaya can be eaten to oblivion. The islanders play music that makes even the most prudish sway their pelvis. The people are so warm- hearted you’d think you’re at a Howard University Homecoming.
But the average tourist does not see the acute malnutrition that kills four percent of the island’s children before they are two years old; the teenage girls who embrace prostitution for its prospective economic gain; the rising price of rice - a three times a day staple for all Malagasy families; the continuously increasing trash; and the dwindling fertile land.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the health sector, I was in a unique position to observe the sad history of colonization manifest itself in Madagascar’s people. I arrived in Nosy Be after five days of travel from the capital city- four days in a vehicle whose wheels were stuck in the mud roads more frequently than they were rotating. I was so relieved when the car finally boarded the ferry to cross the Mozambique Channel to the Nosy Be Island that I sat alone on the top deck content. But Murphy’s Law dictating, the ferry suffered a mechanical problem ten minutes after disembarking. Too exhausted for emotion, I stretched out across the wood planks that served as seats. I tried to rest but was joined by other stranded and weary passengers. I found it more interesting to people watch. Then the tables turned.
An old man asked me a question or perhaps he just said hello. Either way, I gave an innocent shrug. The woman behind leaned over, touched my shoulder and said the same thing.
I was so nervous; the few Sakalava words I knew abandoned my memory. Now, I was being watched. Finger pointing, not so quiet whispers and gapped mouths. A woman with black skin, brown eyes, and kinky hair was not Malagasy, not even African, but American? I was certainly not the American they had seen before through tourism or mass media.
This was my entrée into my community. I was frustrated by my inability to communicate. Normally, the storyteller and comedian, I sat voiceless forced to observe and listen. Just as I was about to become a one-woman show, the Peace Corps assistant found me. He informed me that there were several small boats, that would take ferry passengers to the island. He would stay with the car. He wanted me to drop eight feet into a boat. That couldn’t be safe. He insisted. There I was dangling over the side of a ferry in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I sat alone on top of charcoal surrounded by baskets of ducks and chickens in utter disbelief. The clamorous motor began; the boat crawled towards my new home.
After hand gestures and lots of foreign words by the “captain,’ I lowered myself into the holding of the small freight boat to be greeted by goats, at least fifty goats! I finally laughed. This was going to be my life for the next two years and I immediately understood the words, “become like water, just flow.”
I arrived in Nosy Be four hours after boarding the freight boat and three days late. Anticipating a small thatched hut, I was surprised. My home, a small concrete fixture with four rooms that I shared with another Volunteer, was imposing. It sat on a gravel path 1 km from the market, central to every other house. My door opened at 5 am and closed at 8pm. A hand-embroidered curtain separated me from the rest of the world. There was no air condition but a tropical breeze. There was no running water but a well - the meeting point for girl chatter. I enjoyed reading by candlelight although I had the privilege of electricity. There was no phone or voicemail to check, but I was paid frequent personal visits.
I soon learned an open door policy in Malagasy culture was meant literally. I shared everything with my neighbors - garden tips, recipes, household items, food, financial problems, ideas, and friendship. It was not unusual to have seven or eight children sprawled on our f loor coloring while my housemate coordinated the garden project with women from our neighborhood.
I was no doubt busy in the kitchen tracking the path of the ants to the beloved American peanut butter or coveted Kool-Aid. It was part of a daily ritual before cooking eight cups of rice for the household members and anyone who may (and certainly, they would) come by. I biked to the market three times a day for food. It was not a particularly scenic place to be but certainly a lively one. The precariously set tables shaded by huge white cloth umbrellas offered an endless amount of fruit and a few vegetables. The sarong clad women bestowed spices as gifts for large purchases and always had a few day old tomatoes for sauces if you promised to return in the afternoon.
The meat stalls were set to the back of the market lined with freshly cut raw meat hanging from poles. The f lies swarmed over the meat discovering the best pieces. The smell was putrid and the butchers coaxed you in with the promise of a cheap price. The seafood was sold on the outside along the street in front of the stagnant sewage. But if you wanted a cheaper price and cleaner atmosphere, you headed to the port. A trip to the market became an event because everything could be bargained for and competition was quite fierce. I no doubt left a lasting impression on vendors when I bargained for higher prices!
I had a price list for the foods that I intended to buy that morning. Still easily confused by my new language, I thought it best I write prices out in Sakalava. I was prepared to pay dimanzato (2500 Francs) for fish and patozato (500 francs) for a papaya. I arrived at the market ready to bargain.
When I asked a fisherman about his fish, he said that a fish steak would cost telonzato (1500 francs) because we were friends. Very aware that was not the price I had written down, I replied that I was unwilling to pay that price and I would only give him dimantzo. He looked at me incredulously, again offered the fish to me for telonzato. In the way of the locals, I put the money down and walked away. He said nothing and I felt a sense of accomplishment at my ability to “aggressively bargain.” Again, the papaya was offered to me at a different price than I was willing to pay, (" (250 francs). I haggled to pay patozato. She put up no protest.
When I reported my success to my housemate and neighbor, they both laughed hysterically as I stood there perplexed. I soon learned the errors of my bargaining.
This was certainly no more embarrassing than my first day of work. I wanted to make a good impression on my coworkers. I had practiced my Sakalava the night before, reviewed my current health statistics, and reexamined the Peace Corps mission. I rode my bike to the health clinic early that morning. I was greeted by every one as if they were old friends. Unfamiliar with the road, I hit a hole and fell. I lay directly in front of the dispensaire - an appropriate place for my knees to be bleeding.
Although embarrassing at the time, I have learned to laugh as time assuages the embarrassment. I laugh at myself standing on my table, broom in hand, screaming for help because there was a rat in my room. I also laugh at myself singing and dancing with a fellow Volunteer in a small village so that children were distracted from following my colleagues who needed privacy in an open-air latrine.
As Americans who spoke a Malagasy dialect, Peace Corps Volunteers were frequently given unwanted attention. One could be frustrated by lack of privacy or take advantage of the temporary celebrity status. I used both to my advantage to teach and promote better health.
I created, trained, and managed a women’s community health group. After completing a household survey of the knowledge, attitude and practices of pregnant women and women with children under the age of two, we created workable solutions to several health problems prominent in the villages of Nosy Be. Our focus was the nutrition of children, breast feeding habits, diarrhea and dehydration, and the importance of vaccines.
To combat sexual tourism, I started a novel radio program, both entertaining and informative. I played music and discussed safe sexual behavior. Adults were speechless but approving. Young women became more vocal and questioning about prostitution and its inherent dangers. Recognizing the need for early health education, I created the island’s first summer camp and recruited other volunteers to assist me. We invited 40 young scholars to play sports, paint, draw, and learn more about their surroundings.
Environment Volunteers took the children snorkeling in Madagascar’s only marine reserve, on nature hikes to see lemurs, and planted trees in previously deforested lands. The children and I cooked lunches and discussed the nutritional value of food. We analyzed their meals at home. I taught safe sex and family planning. Through ole play, the children learned how to reject offers to sell sex and ways to protect themselves if they had become sexually active.
After my two years in a country so removed from Western ideals, I have learned to laugh at myself. I am no longer inhibited by my weaknesses. I have learned to appreciate and respect differing values. I know that there is a lot to be learned outside the borders of the United States. And although I have returned to the United States to a wonderful supportive family and true friends, I have left a family on the other side of the world that gave me all they could without reservation.
Peace Corps was an incredible opportunity that brought new challenges, new issues to tackle, and new questions, some of which remain unanswered. But, it has prepared me for the tasks that lie ahead. And when I think about my past and my future, I smile and just laugh out loud.