Jeff Allen's Peace Corps Madagascar Web Page

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Jeff Allen's Peace Corps Madagascar Web Page

Jeff Allen's Peace Corps Web Page

While Jeff is in the Peace Corps, I will be updating this page with letters he sends about what he is doing there.

At any time, you can send him mail to: -------------------------------------------------------

Jeffrey A. Allen c/o WWF Project Marojejy B.P. 34 Sambava 208 MADAGASCAR

Air Mail via Paris


I believe that this is the town that he visits every couple of weekends.

"Air Mail via Paris" is very important or the mail may never get there... In fact, it takes at least 2.5 weeks for mail to get to him and mail has been known to take months or never arrive. It is a good idea to number messages so that it is easy to tell if any have been lost.

My Dad suggests putting in "Par Avion" and "Air Mail via Paris, France" on the envelope in various places. It needs to be on there once, as suggested above, we're not sure if repeating it helps.

Packages vs. Letters: We have found that packages get through much faster and more reliably than letters. Apparently Jeff has to pay some amount to pick up packages, but this tends to assure that they get through more reliably. Good package contents are candy (wrapped really well to keep out bugs), books, CDs & tapes.

What Jeff says about mail (10/24/99): A word about mail. I haven't gotten too much. I mean that in the most literal sense. I believe it's been sent, because I know of a lot of letters which have been, but it's been lost along the way. From what I've been told, this is typical of training, but mail gets much more reliable once at site - i.e., now. If you haven't heard from me, that means most likely I haven't gotten your letter(s), because I've actually been pretty good about writing back. Please give me and my new address a chance before giving up.

Note: Jeff has begun to receive more of his mail, including stuff we thought was lost...

Links to letters:

There has been a request to have links to the letters as separate pages so that letters can be printed out individually. That's what each "separate file" link is in the list below.

Email, July 26, 1999

Jeff's Itinerary to get to Madagascar

Letter, August 7 & 10, 1999

John J. Allen Jr.'s Birthday card to Jeff, Aug 23, 1999 (better get those sent now!)

Email, Aug 27, 1999

Letter, September 5 & 13, 1999 or separate file

Email, October 9, 1999 or separate file

Letter, October 24, 1999 or separate file

Letter, January 30, 2000 or separate file

Letter, March 10, 2000 or separate file

Email, April 2, 2000 or separate file

Email, April 10, 2000 or separate file

Letter, April 21, 2000 or separate file

Email, May 29, 2000 or separate file

Relevant web sites:

Peace Corps Family Support Web Site

Madagascar listing in the World Factbook

State Department's Background Notes on Madagascar


Monday, May 29, 2000

Subject: Date: Mon, 29 May 2000 11:40:07 -0400 (EDT) From: "Jeffrey A. Allen" To: jeffs-friends@MIT.EDU

Since I have the chance, I suppose I should update you on the condition of things here. The destruction in my town from the cyclone wasn't so bad. Many people lost rooves or walls (the former are almost all made out of tin and the latter are almost all made of wood or bamboo) but rebuilt them rather quickly. Lots of trees are gone or stripped bare, but they'll come back eventually. Some crops were hurt pretty bad, but very few people died. So, all in all, things were better than expected. Life is definitely back to normal in Andapa and has been for a while. Antalaha (the other city that got bashed) is not back to normal yet, as it got hit a lot harder, but doing well, considering.

Now I've got about 3 weeks of school left plus tests and administrative stuff. Should be really hectic for me until the 26 of June, the big Independence Day Fete here. Then vacation until September, which means I can chill out and work on other Peace Corps projects.

I hope all is well everywhere (isn't that a lovely sentiment). I apologize to those I haven't written back to yet--I know there's a bit of a backlog--but I promise, it's coming. Take care.


April 21, 2000

Dear World,

It occurs to me that I've done a rather poor job of describing Madagascar and every day life here in m y previous letters, so I will take a new approach. The following statements are all true (as far as I have observed)

The entire population cooks on charcoal (charbone) stoves. Most people cook out doors. Every Malagasy person eats rice three times a day. About half the population doesn't wear shoes and of those that do, almost all wear only flip-flops. Over 90% of the roads are unpaved. The people are, on the whole, short, but also very strong because almost every single person does some sort of farming at some point in his life. Even most teachers and others with traditional jobs have a rice field too. Most places I buy things won't have change for any bill over 10,000 FMG (approx $1.50), and some won't have change for that. When I take money out of the bank, I ask for small bills. I teach two classes of 45 students and two classes of 65 students. All my students have desks, but I do have one classroom with a severely leaky roof. A friend of mine, in the west, teaches classes of 85 students where half the students sit on the floor or in windows. Another PCV, in the south, teaches classes of 100 students without a single desk. Everyone gets up around 5 and goes to bed around 9. Siesta is from about 12 to 2:30 depending on who you ask. Showers, when taken, are almost always performed with a bucket and a cup, usually in an open-air "douche." Except in really nice hotels, hot water faucets don't exist. People often bathe in rivers or other pools of water too. Depending on where you are, water comes from a public faucet, a well, a river, or rain. You see a lot of physically disabled people here - many as a result of polio, which wasn't combatted by a widespread vaccination campaign until the past few years - but the idea of handicapped-accessible anything is unfathomable. Nobody would think twice of sending an 8 year-old to the market, to get water, or to buy beer, by him or herself. People carry everything on their heads - EVERYTHING! I've been told that the tallest building in the country is the Hilton in Tana - 14 stories. There are parts of the country where, no matter how much money you might have, there is no food to buy other than rice and leaves for much of the year. In my opinion, the most striking natural feature of the country is its topography. I was told before leaving the US that the only English words I would hear for two years would be "Three Horses Beer" which is, incidentally, the name of the most popular beer here. This is not true. I estimate that I speak about 50% English (what we refer to as "Special English"), 30% Malagasy, and 20% French. The French National Geographic-esque magazine, Geo, did a big story on Madagascar in its November 1999 issue with some really good pictures of what it looks like here. I can see the Southern Cross every night. My clothes are washed once a week by a woman who takes them to a river and bangs them on a rock. At approximately $1.50 a week (10,000 FMG), I drastically over pay her, but I think its worth it. I did it for a while by myself - in a bucket, not the river - and it is not easy. Let me tell you. There are gekkos everywhere. They've never heard of baseball.

22 April 2000 Andapa

But enough of that. I've just returned from a trip to Antalaha, a town about 180 km from me by road, and I thought you should know about it. You see, Madagascar was just slammed by three cyclones - Eliene, Gloria, and Hudah. Gloria and Hudah both hit my region; and the towns that were damaged the most were Andapa and Antalaha. Andapa is okay, more or less. 99 people died in floods from the first cyclone in the Andapa region. The second one killed almost no one, but ripped a lot of rooves off, almost all of which were nailed back on by the time I got back to town nearly two weeks later (I had been in Tana for a Peace Corps training during the second one). A lot of trees are missing and many of those that are left were stripped bare in the storm, but on the whole, Andapa seems to have rebounded all right and school will reopen after the Easter break as scheduled on Tuesday.

Antalaha is another story. The last cyclone, Hudah, came ashore near Cap-Est, about 50 km south of Antalaha and brutalized an area about 100 km long, from just north of Antalaha, all the way down 50 km south of Cap-Est. I am in Antalaha about two weeks after the cyclone help. My friend and I were stunned by what we saw. Many houses had been destroyed - most wooden or bamboo houses, but even some concrete houses were ripped apart, including a friend of mine's. Apparently, almost all rooves were ripped off by the storm. Many had been partially repaired and people were living in the half rebuilt houses. Due to a lack of metal roofing sheets and nails, many of the rooves were not yet completely fixed. The town of Antalaha appears to be doing relatively alright. There is currently enough food, water and the electricity is mostly back on. The people en brousse- in the rural villages south of Antalaha for 100 km - are in big trouble. Their crops were all destroyed and there is not enough rice anymore. International organizations are distributing rice, but from what I hear, due to distribution problems, and a lack of available rice, there is just not enough food getting to the people en brousse. Many Malagasy houses are made on a wood platform, about 1-2 feet off the ground. I am told that everyone hid under these platforms after their houses were destroyed, during the storm. Amazingly, only a few people died in the cyclones, which brought winds of about 300 kmh. However, the situation is still serious as the people are in danger of running out of food. We'll see how it goes in the next few weeks.


Subject: Howdy again Date: Mon, 10 Apr 2000 01:35:42 -0400 (EDT) From: "Jeffrey A. Allen" To: jeffs-friends@MIT.EDU

So, usually my life is pretty boring and mundane, believe it or not--meaning that while it might be vastly different than anything you might be doing, to me it's pretty much the same stuff day after day. Well, that might be about to change. You see, cyclone Hudah (appropriately named - that's Hudah, not Huldah) just bashed the Northeast coast of Madagascar. I was in Tana at the time at a conference, so I don't really know what happened in my town, but I've gotten reports from "the cyclone missed your town" to "your town is 85 percent destroyed." Based on who the sources were and when information was transmitted (communication is sketchy at best in this country), I'm thinking that the 85 percent destroyed is probably closer to the reality of the situation. So, my petite conference is over and I'm heading back to Andapa on Wednesday to see what I can see. Hopefully I'll still have a house and a school.

Anyway, thanks for all the emails and I'm sorry I couldn't reply beyond this but I'm on a public computer and lots of folks are waiting. If you send me real mail, I'll probably get it, and if I do, I'll definitely respond. Take care, and keep in touch. Jeff

Subject: Hi Date: Sun, 2 Apr 2000 07:36:32 -0500 (EDT) From: "Jeffrey A. Allen" To: jeffs-friends@MIT.EDU, iggy@MIT.EDU

Hi there, friends.

In case you`ve forgotten, my name is Jeff and I`m in Madagascar.

So, I`ve completed over 5 months at site. I had a great Christmas and New Year with my friends in Diego and now I`m in Tana for In-service Training for a week.

Teaching is going well and I`ve begun to feel very "tamana" (at home) in Andapa. My language skills are enough to get me by, my french is improving (thanks to the 2 French people in my town) and everyone in my town knows me and treats me almost like any other townperson. Life is becoming more and more routine, which is a great thing. On the whole, all is good.

I`ll probably be able to check email one more time in the next 3 weeks or so (probably next Friday) so if you`ve got anything to say, say it now.

I hope everyone is doing good and I`m really anxious to hear what you`re all up to.

Alicia, if I didn`t get the address to everybody right, please send this on to all my friends.

Thanks, take care, and keep in touch.


Friday, 10 March 2000

Andapa, Madagascar

Dear World,

How are you? I'm fine, thanks. But enough idle pleasantries.

Let's talk about the Peace Corps. We have entered the 21st Century, and in some respects, the Peace Corps (in my experience) is no longer like the image that you probably have in your head. I have electricity in my house, my mud hut is made of cement, my water comes from a faucet not a river, and the wild animals outside my walls each night are pigs and dogs, not hyenas and elephants. I live in one of the larger towns in Madagascar (although it's no bigger than the small village I grew up in in America) and I'm not digging latrines or hacking trails through jungles - I'm just a boring, old English Teacher. The Peace Corps, however, has not lost all of its charm and mystique. The third world is, after all, still the third world, and with it comes adventure, no matter how you slice it.

You may or may not know that Madagascar has recently been hit by a few cyclones (a Southern Hemisphere term for hurricane). Yes, its cyclone season in the Indian Ocean, and the last one, appropriately named Gloria, barged heads with my town, Andapa, and its environs. Perhaps it came to greet my friend Katie, here for a short visit, or perhaps it meant to prove that the old adage about March coming in like a lion applies to the Southern Hemisphere too. I can't comment on its motives, but I can describe its effects. The most reliable estimate I've heard is that 40 people died in the Andapa area, most as a result of houses being washed away by streams turning into rivers in the night. I've heard talk of some small villages being entirely or mostly washed away by floods. The town of Andapa itself suffered few casualties (human or structural) and other than a little water on the floor, my house was fine.

The rats who live in my roof, however, either disoriented by the storm or taking the turmoil as an opportunity to wreak some havoc of their own, decided to descend briefly from their nests and bite my friend Katie on the foot in her sleep. The bite itself was quite benign, but it meant that she had to get to Tana (the capital) rather quickly for precautionary rabies shots. Normally, getting to Tana entails a 3 hour taxi-brusse ride to Sambava to catch an airplane to Tana. However, during the cyclone, as my French friend put it, "La montagne est tombe sur la route." Yes folks, the mountain fell on the road, and no cars were getting through.

On Saturday (the cyclone had hit Wednesday night), we encountered someone in Andapa who had just arrived from Sambava. Apparently, the road was only blocked for about 27 km outside of Andapa. Beyond that, there were mudslides, but minor enough to still be passable. The mountainous stretch of road, from Andapa to a village called Belambo, was all that was impassible by car. If you traveled this distance by foot, you could get a car in Belambo going to Sambava. So, that's what Katie and I decided to do.

The next plane from Sambava to Tana was scheduled for Monday afternoon, so we left Andapa at 6AM Sunday morning. The mudslides were longer and deeper than I had expected, but I guess that's what you get when a mountain falls on a road. Some could be traveled in 5 strides, others took 5 minutes of careful maneuvering, since the mud was still relatively fresh, a few times we sunk in goo up to our shins! Some of the slides were strewn with boulders, trees, branches and other natural refuse.

After just over 7 hours of strenuous hiking, along a paved road, but through the mountains and over and around 10-15 significant mudslides, we heard the glorious clamor of an engine. We were just less than 25 km outside of Andapa. Out of the distance appeared a taxi-brusse loaded with people, about to begin the trek we had just completed. We flagged her down and covered the remaining 80 km to Sambava in about 3 hours, arriving en ville at about 4:30 in the afternoon on Sunday. Our plan had worked out just how we had figured it. However, as if to remind us that this is still Madagascar and so plans never work out just as they are figured, at the appointed time on Monday afternoon, the plane didn't show up. Just a minor glitch, however by Malagasy standard, as the plane did arrive the next day (only about 20 hours late) and whisked Katie off to Tana for her rabies shots.

Wednesday morning I set off alone for the return trip. After a 3 hour taxi-brusse ride to Belambo, I traveled the final 24 km on foot in just over 5 hours. Along the way I met my Russian-, French-, and English-speaking Malagasy friend, about 20 km outside of Andapa who informed me that he had just begun a trip to Tana by foot (I found him drinking moonshine, Malagasy rum called Betsa Betsa "for force"), 2 Australian precious stone-seekers with a team of Malagasy hacking trails through the mudslides for their 4x4s, and a nice Malagasy man of Chinese descent who managed to produce cold Coca-Cola in a town with no electricity. But alas, these are characters for another novel on another day.

Today, life is back to "business as usual," teaching English and general being (as someone more intelligent than I once said) "A stranger in a strange land".

Take care and keep in touch,


Sunday, 30 January 2000

Andapa, Madagascar

Dear World,

I apologize for not writing again sooner. Let's blame it on, umm, let's see... Y2K. Yeah, that's it! A Y2K glitch. All my other letters were lost in the mail, trapped at sea, or destroyed when my computer - ok, typewriter - OK, pen crashed at midnight on January 1st. Yeah! That's the ticket. But I received a letter from an adoring fan the other day who mentioned he had heard about this website from another friend of mine at a fencing meeting (can you guess who yet?) and it reminded me of how important it is to keep up with the real world. I love getting your letters, so I guess you enjoy reading mine. Besides, it's good for me to remember that there is still a world where people go to work in the morning, come home at night, watch the Simpsons and microwave dinner before checking their email and going to bed, just to do it all again the next day (it doesn't sound so glamorous when I write it like that, but believe me, it sounds wonderful to me right now). And I suppose it's good for you to remember that there is a world out here where people spend hours each day cooking over charbone stoves in makeshift kitchens in 100 degree heat and stand in the middle of town to watch the public t.v. for hours each night during the Africa Cup of Nations football, er, soccer tournament.

So I guess the big news is that I'm much more integrated in my community than I was when I last wrote a few months ago. Back then I didn't really leave my house after dark and got stared at whenever I did leave my house, at any time of day. Now most people in my town know me as Jeff, not "vazaha" (or white person) and people don't look twice when I ride my bike by or stop to watch the public t.v. with everyone else. (They still look once, but not twice anymore.) Last night I watched Morocco and Tunisia draw 0-0 in the Cup of Nations and this morning I actually went to church. Everyone noticed I was there (it's hard not to because I'm a head taller than everybody else when everyone stands) but I didn't cause too much of a stir anyway.

The other big news is that I cooked a really great omlette and hash browns this morning, which makes me very happy.

And the third big news is that there's a new Peace Corps Volunteer in my town. Her name is Laurel and she's a health volunteer, meaning her job is to disseminate information about proper health practices - wearing condoms, and all that jazz. Having another American here will definitely change the dynamics of this small town. We'll see how it goes.

I spent Christmas with my friends in Diego, a very nice, semi-Westernish sort of town, complete with an ice cream store, restaurants that serve pizza, and even a few internet cafe's (I wrote an email to everyone but it got deleted when I tried to send it and I got frustrated and felt like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer so I gave up and went to the beach). We went Christmas caroling on Christmas Eve and camped on the beach on Christmas night. We spent New Year's on Nosy Be, a nice resort island with inflated prices and a beautiful beach. I had diarrhea the whole time I was there, so I missed out on what Jacques Cousteu has called some of the best snorkeling in the world. But all in all, it was a great vacation.

Teaching is going well, I'm getting better at it and as I do, hopefully my students are learning more and more. I'm getting started on other projects as well, including a weekly meeting of English Teachers in the area to give them a chance to practice their English, ask any questions they might have, and help each other (and especially me) to plan lessons. And coming soon - Beginning English classes and English Conversation Club, open to all.

Here's today's deep (or pseudo-deep) thought from someone with too much time for thoughts and not enough people to share them with: When I come back, you're not going to realize how different the world is, but I will.

So that's today's report from the Third World, where "globalization" means that the number one television program is a Brazilian soap opera, the most popular song is some Eurotrash techno-pop called "Exotic Groove," Chicago Bulls merchandise is everywhere, and the the internet exists, but only in theory.

Stay cool (I guess that's not a problem for most of you right now) and keep in touch.


Next time I'll try to remember to talk more about cool exotic things like lemurs, sharks and pre-historic plants.

Sun, Oct 24, 1999 6:00PM

Andapa, Madagascar

Hello world:

I now have a new life and I think I'm going to like it. I'd like to preface this letter with a disclaimer: My life here in Madagascar is so different from anything I (or any of you I suppose) have experienced before that I don't think there is any way short of seeing it for yourself that I can explain it to you. Nevertheless, I will try.

Let's start with the present. The electricity just went out, so I am sitting outside my one room cement house writing by the dim light of the disappearing dusk. It's beautiful here in Andapa, and especially so at this time of day, but in 5 minutes it will be completely dark. [Last night, the electricity came back on after 10 minutes. If the same does not happen tonight, I'll have to revert to my old friend the Mag Light. I shouldn't whine too much though, many people don't even have electricity here.]

My boss, who lives next door, just brought me a candle, so I'm back in business again now.

My story goes like this: I arrived in Andapa on Thursday morning with 2 other volunteers ( 1 veteran and 1 rookie) and the Assistant Peace Corps Director who was here to "install" me. We spent the day doing introductions - at the middle school (CEG) and high school (Lycee), at the school district office (CISCO- these are the players in the Malagasy education system), the mayor's office and the police station (Gendarmerie). In between all this, I moved into my house - it's one room, made of cement with a tinf roof, about 15 feet by 15 feet, and oh yes, pink and white. We had a nice dinner at the hotel the others were staying at, and then parted company. As of 11:00pm Thursday night, I was on my own.

It only took about 14 hours for me to have a breakdown. Well, perhaps I'm being a bit melodramatic - or perhaps not. Anyway, I woke up early Friday morning and walked to the CEG to observe an 8:00am class at the 6eme level (roughly equivalent to 6th grade in America - the first year in which Malagasy students take English). After observing for 2 hours, I spoke with the Assistant CEG Director about the school's rules, policies and logistics. He was an extremely nice man and even offered me a room in his house if the one I had wasn't satisfactory. (I assured him that it was fine where I was.) Then I walked home and started to clean my house/room.

It was around 1PM. All I had eaten that day was a package of cookies. I couldn't get my new petral stove to boil water. My stuff was everywhere in my room. The only furniture I had was a bed and a school desk. I felt the need to unpack my stuff, but had nowhere to put it. I felt the need to eat, but didn't know how to go about it. Even if I could boil water (which I still couldn't do) and put my filter together, I didn't won a glass to drink out of. I could buy glasses, but where would I keep them when I wasn't drinking out of them. What if I spilled water? I didn't have a rag to clean it up with. I could use a shirt, but they're too precious since I had absolutely no idea how or when I was ever going to get laundry done. I was in an awful state - with too much to do and nowhere to begin. Starting a life on one's own is hard enough when one knows the area and the language, but when you don't know where to buy a broom or how to ask where to buy a broom - when the simplest of tasks seems impossible - just getting started can be too much to handle. And it was for me. So I allowed myself about an hour of self-pity and mental breakdown.

Then I got down to business. I asked for another desk in my room. With 2, I could put them face to face and essentially have a picnic table (Note: the second desk still hasn't arrived, but it has been promised.) I went to the Lycee. The Proviseur was not yet back from wherever he went, but Augustin, the English teacher whom I had met the day before, invited me into his home. I told him that I did not want to begin teaching at the Lycee this coming week but the week after. He agreed that that would be better. He asked me how I was doing and I said okay. He asked me if I felt alone and I said yes. He told me that he had trained in England for 5 months a few years ago, so he knew how hard it can be to live alone in a foreign country. He was very kind to me. I told him that I needed to buy furniture and he helped me order it from a carpenter. Since then I've felt much better.

I spent Saturday and Sunday working on little jobs in my new house - putting together my bike, getting my stove and filter to work, putting things on the wall - and talking to the veritable parade of students who have passed by my house to speak English with the new American in town. These kinds want to learn English so badly - its amazing. I've had at least 5 visitors each of the first three days that I've been here, all students wanting to practice their English. I never went to any of the French people in Larchmont to practice my French skills. These kids really want to learn. I run into them all over town too. I end up being escorted practically everywhere I go by a student. I speak so much English that I've realized that I'm going to have to be very self-motivated if I want to learn Malagasy.

The town of Andapa is large by Malagasy standards but still not on the level of the large cities of Tana and Tamalave. I would say it's approximately the size of Larchmont (maybe a little smaller), for those of you who can make that comparison, but it only has 2 paved roads. One of the signs that it is a larger town by Malagasy standards is that there are more cars/motorcycles than long horned cows pulling carts. It is absolutely beautiful here. Andapa is located in a valley, with mountains all around. The views can be absolutely breathtaking, and I've heard that they are even better from the tops of some of the hills. Hopefully I'll have pictures to send soon.

Speaking of pictures, I'm sending one of all (or most anyway) of us taken at the Ambassador's house in Tana after the swearing in ceremony.

[Picture will go here on Monday]

People of note: 1) Myself, in the back row, once again with more hair on the face than on the head. 2) My best friend Katie, who was 1 of 4 of us chosen to give a speech during the ceremony, wearing the black dress with red roses on the right side of the picture. 3) My other best friend Rachel, with her head tilted a little, just below and to the left of the bearded guy above Katie. 4) The Ambassador, Shirley Barnes, standing in front like she owns the place (remember, she doesn't, the American Taxpayers do). 5) The Peace Corps Country Director, John Peddu, a really really nice guy, in the back row on the right with glasses with his head barely peeking over a blond girl in front of him. Most everybody else in that picture is really cool too and deserves mention but there's just no way. I already pity Alicia for having to read my handwriting and type this all up. Thanks Alicia! Everybody say, "Thanks Alicia!"

So anyway, the ceremony was pretty cool. 4 of us gave speeches (not me) in 3 dialects of Malagasy and French. We sang songs in each dialect we had studied. There were a few official type speeches and we were out of there in under an hour. We had a nice reception with very un-Peace Corps-like food (croissants, quiche & champagne) and took some pictures. After the picture, everyone sang Happy Birthday to me since it was my birthday. It was all very lovely, blah blah blah.

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