Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Return to Madagascar

It is almost as official as it's going to get by now. So, I guess I'll share the news. The Peace Corps Program in Madagascar is Reopening in September! They are welcoming back volunteers and I am one of the few that will return. About 15 of the 125 volunteers that were in Madagascar at the time of evacuation have decided to reinstate in service in Mcar. I have been medically cleared to head back and am awaiting my visa/passport. We leave September 30th from DC. From there, I will start my third year of service as an extending PCV. We are still not certain as to what city we will be placed in, but I have a strong inclination that my site will reopen. It has always been safe, it is only a 7-9 hour drive from the capital on a main road, there is cell phone reception, and the city had always been welcoming of a PCV. But, I guess you never know, Peace Corps staff in country could see something potentially dangerous about my site that I don't know of presently. We'll see. For now, I am excited to go back and see everyone and start teaching again! It will also be interesting to see how the politcal situation has affected the school systems and everyday life of the Malagasy people. I also wonder if my dogs are still alive, and how my old neighbors and friends are doing. On the flip side, saying goodbye to family and friends here in the US will be more difficult than I had expected. Madison summers, great friends, a new bike, and my family will be to blame for the less than easy transition back to lonely evenings and nights in a foreign world. But, this is what I want to do. :)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Evacuation and Suspension of Peace Corps Program

So, it has been awhile since I have updated this. I guess it was just easier to email all of my family and friends because the internet in Mcar was too slow to even create a weblog entry.

But, anyways.. I was evacuated from Madagascar and the Peace Corps program was suspended on March 18, 2009. This was right before the President was overthrown by the opposition party who had gained the support of the military. As of today, there is still no agreement between all of the fueding sides, and the UN and SADC have sent negotiators and mediators to help settle the political instablity there. The international community has called the takeover a "coup" and frozen any foriegn aid because of it. There has also been complaints of stifled freedom of the press there, as well as other human rights complaints. But, the only concern in the American news is for the animal species and rainforest that is in danger because of the politcal instability. DOESN'T ANYONE REALIZE THAT PEOPLE LIVE THERE TOO! IT IS NOT LIkE THE MOVIE THERE! Recently, there have been uncoverings of hundreds of homemade bombs, and radical sections of the Pro-Ravalomanana have been accused of attacking the current transitional governements leader, Andry's, radio station and were shot and killed while breaking in. The four power players have tentatively decided on a power-sharing transition government with internationally monitored elections within the next 15 months. We'll see.

Alright, frustration aside.. I just wanted to share with you an email that I sent out to everyone to explain what evacuation was like. So, enjoy.

My dearest friends and family,
I'm extremely sad to write that Peace Corps Madagascar has been suspended until the political instability resolves itself. All 113 volunteers have been flown to South Africa to complete the paper work to end our service. I was on the first flight over and there is one flight everyday for the next four days of volunteers coming in. Yesterday, one part of the military said they were going to take control of the government if the two parties didn't resolve their conflict that was leading to military mutiny's which allowed looting of property in the capital in the past few weeks. Then, yesterday the military said they had access to tanks to use if need be. Then today the opposition party leader declared himself in charge of the government and took over the remaining ministry office and installed a prime minister. The President still asserts that he is in charge and that the opposition leader has no constitutional authority. Andry, the opposition leader, says that the sentate and house of parliment have no authority and that the "transitional" government will write a plan to hold new elections within the next 24 months.
Now, all of that sounds scary and like it is unsafe there. But, on the contrary, I drove through the capital last night and everyone was walking home from school and work as usual... all markets and shops were open and you couldn't even tell that any of this was going on. Most of the Malagasy people I know that live outside of Tana think that this is just a few stupid people in Tana supporting Andry because they don't like their positions in life. The majority of people want this to just fade out and wait for the next election, like they democratically should do. Especially people in my town... people go to work and school as usual and just ignore the annoyances of the happenings in Tana. Many people still support the President, even if they are angry with his practices. They don't think that he has done enough wrong to constitute a coup d'etat. Many people think the French newspapers are making the opposition party seem like they have more supporters and reporting things wrong because they would gain from closer contacts to a Malagasy leader, which was not happening with the current President, who was moving farther and farther away from French relations. Many Malagasy people talk about how French companies want to have good governmental relations with M/car so they can exploit the mining and tourism opportunities there.
So, as I see it.. life here is normal outside of the capital, and even in the capital outside of times when there are protests. There is NO PHYSICAL FIGHTING between the two sides because the opposition party is trying to start trouble by creating public haovic.
On Thursday, I got called at 8 at night by our Admin Officer saying that we had to evacuate. I was up all night packing up my house and organzing my belongings. The next day, I exhaustedly informed my coworkers that I had to leave and could not finish out the school year. Then, I tearfully said goodbye to my students, who will now be without an English teacher for the rest of the school year. I bawled for a good 24 hours, and raced around town trying to say goodbye to everyone. meanwhile, all of the volunteers in the area consolidated at my site. Then, on Friday morning, a Peace Corps car drove us out of my town and to Mantasoa where everyone but me got out of the car and stayed overnight there. I continued on to Tana, and arrived at 8pm and headed straight to the office to finish out some paper work, and then the medical office. Then, this morning at 7am we left for the airport and I am now here in Johannesburg, SA. I am exhausted, depressed, worried about my second country, and disappointed to see my home for the past two years deterioate into this situation. NONE of my friends or students understood why I was leaving, and were crying hysterically when I said goodbye to them. MY TOWN WAS NEVER DANGEROUS... or even INVOLVED in the unrest. It's been an extremely difficult past few days. In the next week, I will be staying in a hotel in JoBurg as we are all being forced to end our service. The people who are less than a year into their service have the option of transfering to another country, going back to the US and waiting for the possibility of returning to M/car to finish out their serivce, or simple going home and finishing their service. I, however, don't have that many options since my finish of service date was supposed to be July 1, 2009. I can only close my service. I want so bad to return to M/car within the next year, when things calm down or are resolved, so I can see all of my friends and dogs and family and have a proper goodbye. Many of you will never understand why it is so hard for me to return back to the US a few months early. But, just think of how it would feel to just up and leave your life and never see anyone or anything in it again. I LOVE MADAGASCAR... I LOVE IT THERE, and my experience there has CHANGED me forever. I know that it will always be with me, and I try to keep in mind that I can try to save up money to come back to vacation here. But, that doesnt mean I will live here again. Its just a hard transition.. so please understand my non-excitedness to return to the US. I love you all and look forward to restarting my life with you.
I will leave you with a malagasy proverb that my best friend in m/car said to me as I left. She said, "boribory ny tany dia hifakahita indray isika" which means... "because the world is round, we will meet again someday". so, I will see you all soon.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Return to site after consolidation

I'm finally out of the Peace Corps center, which was kind of like a mix between prison and summer camp. We were allowed to return back to our sites this morning. It has been a really rough few weeks for me...especially because everyday has been so uncertain. One second I am having to adjust my mind for evacuation and the next for going back to site. Yesterday, we were told that we would be able to return to site, and last night at 10pm we received a text saying that there was violence in Tana again and that we had to wait again. Turns out it was false information, so today we are heading back to site. I have to spend the night in a small town south of my town, so I won't be back until Wedneday afternoon, but it feels good to be in transit at least. I am so excited to see everyone again and tell them how much they have affected my life and how much I appreciate their existence!

Anyways, last Saturday there was a lot of violence in Tana, as I'm sure some of you have read. The opposition party to the President named their government including the Prime Minister and other Ministers and then lead the crowd up to the Presidential Palace to install his government. It was a fairly small crowd, considering the crowds the President had been getting at his rallies, but none-the-less it was around 5-6 thousand people. Reports all differ though. So, he told the crowd to pass the baracades and enter the Palace. The President had put armed military men outside of it and warned them not to cross the three baracades. The people didn't listen, and the military opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing 54 and injuring 200. It was a tragedy. Things have been calm the week since then, but Saturday there were more rallies, 30,000 people showing up for the President's, and 3,000 for the opposition party. On Monday, the old Tana mayor who declared himself the new President held another rally and again enticed the people to storm the offices of the ministries and install his appointed officials. A crowd of 10,000 people walked there and met a group of 200 armed soldiers before they could reach the offices. They told them they would shoot if they passed, and no one passed and the crowd walked back to the town square. On the way back, they happened to pass a ministry building (of a minister that he had NOT appointed yet) and tried to enter it. The guards shot tear gas and fired shots in the air, but no one was killed or seriously injured. I'm hoping this means the military has learned APPROPRIATE forms of crowd control, not just shooting down people. So, thats all there is right now. If there is any more violence, there is a high percentage chance of us still being evacuated. But, for now I am going to appreciate every second that I can spend in this beautiful, amazing country.

Thank you so much for all of your thoughts, prayers and emails. They help me more than you will ever know. Oh, and I promise to stay as safe as possible.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Civil Unrest

If you have searched deep into the depths of the internet for international news, you may have heard that there has been some civil/political unrest here in Madagascar .

I am fine, and safe. Nothing has happened in my town. But, Peace Corps is moving most of the volunteers in country to a training site, called Manatasoa, in case there is any further unrest this weekend. Things got a little scary last Monday and Tuesday after a weekend rally, and there is another one scheduled for this weekend, so Peace Corps security just wants to take precautionary actions to keep us safe. For me, I feel more in control of crazy situations when I am well informed. So, I decided to inform/enlighten you all.

Alright, so where do I start. How about with a little background/history? Madagascar gained its independence from France in 1960, which isn’t that long ago. The first President was “pro-France” and had to step down in 1972 due to increasing unrest and student demonstrations against French neo-colonialism.

His replacement was a naval officer, Didier Ratsiraka, who introduced his own brand of “Christian-Marxism” which involved nationalizing the banks and other socialist policies. Within a few years the economy collapsed, but Ratsiraka was re-elected twice, though there were claims of ballot rigging and intimidation. In 1991, a pro-democracy coalition organized a series of strikes and daily demonstrations calling for Ratsiraka to resign. 500,000 people marched on the Presidential palace grounds, unarmed and orderly. However, they were shot at by the palace guards and over 100 people were killed. At the end of the year, Ratsiraka relinquished executive power and agreed to a referendum that approved a new constitution and elections in 1992. A guy named Albert Zafy won the election, but soon refused to accept the limitations of his executive powers written in the new constitution. His continued breaches of the constitution led to his impeachment by the National Assembly and in the ensuing election, the former President Ratsiraka emerged the winner.

Once back in power, he added many amendments to the constitution to restore the dictatorial powers he once enjoyed, and they remain to this day. In December of 2001 there was an election for President. It seemed like a majority of the Malagasy people favored the young challenger, Marc Ravalomanana, who was then the mayor of Antananarivo , over the incumbent Ratsiraka. Results showed Ravalomanana as the winner, but Ratsiraka did not believe the numbers and refused to step down.

Thus began the 2002 Political Crisis. Peaceful marches followed, and Ratsiraka declared Martial law, which was countered by Ravalomanana declaring himself President and installing his own ministers in government offices. Ratsiraka retreated to his coastal hometown of Tamatave, along with his government, and was supported by the Governors of the other coastal provinces. There was minimal violence until Ratsiraka’s supporters isolated the capital by blocking all roads leading into the city and dynamiting bridges. Gas prices increased ten-fold and basic staple food disappeared from the shops. The army was split between the two leaders, as there were two “presidents” in two “capitals” with two sets of “ministers” at the time. (A cultural note: racial tensions between the people of the plateau and the people of the coast played a huge part in this political crisis.) As months passed, the blockade caused death for the poor and hardship for most. In May, a court-monitored recount confirmed Ravalomanana had won the election, and he was sworn in as president. Ratsiraka refused to accept and the blockades continued and the death toll started to rise. The army’s support swung towards Ravalomanana and the blockades were forcefully dismantled and Ratsiraka fled to France .

Ravalomanana has done many good things for this country and has a worked hard to implement the Madagascar Action Plan (MAP), which is a detailed strategy of how to develop the country. He has done lots to help conserve the rainforests and wetlands here, as well as push towards better foreign relations with Africa . But, he has also overstepped his power by amending the constitution to allow a president to serve for more years (while he was in office), taking land from citizens under government control to use for his own personal businesses, and holding a monopoly on the country’s only yogurt, milk, and cheese industry. In the past few years, people in his political party (T.I.M.) have gained complete control of the National Assembly, making it hard for anyone not in his party to win, even in local elections. Gradually, resentment towards him and his party have grown, especially in the capital city, where people rejoiced when a member from an opposing party won the election for mayor, signifying a change in public opinion.

Most recently, he has angered people by ordering a national radio station to be shut off because it spoke negatively about him. This radio/TV station just happened to be owned by the new Mayor of Tana, Andry. He also recently bought an airplane, for presidential use, with government money which was not approved by the National Assembly, while thousands of Malagasy citizens starve during the start of the poor season. The recent plans to lease half of Madagascar ’s arable land to Daewoo to plant corn and help South Korea prepare for a food crisis, without purchasing it from the current residents on it, have enraged the Malagasy people. They believe he is exploiting the lack of legal land-ownership of poor rural farmers and leasing away the ancestors land for profit without consulting the Malagasy people. So, the Mayor of Tana has been calling gatherings every Saturday to talk out against the President. On the 24th of January, he called for the President’s resignation and for a transitional government to be put in place.

On the 26th, all hell broke loose in the capital. Andry supporters stormed the national TV/radio company owned by the President and shot a security guard and cut the transmission of the station. Then they set the huge building on fire and it burned to the ground. Meanwhile, others targeted the President’s bulk food stores called Magro, and also sent them up in flames, along with all of the food in it. Looting and rioting followed and stores were broken into and many things were stolen. In all, around 35 people died. The next day, South African troops were sent in to try to keep the peace, but even with all of the national TV and radio communication cut, the chaos spread to the coastal cities. Mahajunga, Antalaha, Andapa, Sambava, Diego, Tamatave, Tulear, Antsirabe, and Nosy Be all reported wide spread looting. Mobs broke windows of stores and walked away with TV’s, fridges, and stereos, while the police just stood and watched. There is a rumor that the President told them not to intervene for fear of police brutality, which would escalate the situation even further. The following day, nearly all of the President’s Tiko and Magro stores in the country had been burned down, along with its contents. In total, 100 people have died in the past three days, but nothing has gone on here at my site. It has been life as usual, without any national TV/radio.

As a precaution, Peace Corps Staff have been monitoring the situation and have initiated the Emergency Action Plan, which is a four stage security plan when there is civil unrest or cyclones. We are currently in the 3rd stage, which is Consolidation, where we are asked to go to our banking towns and receive further instructions. Mine happens to be my own city, so other volunteers are coming here. The final stage is Evacuation to South Africa or Kenya and then either waiting it out or going back to the US . Here, it has been quiet and calm, despite the hiding of food products that have all been burnt in the President’s stores in other towns. It’s going to be really hard to get any butter, cheese, milk, yogurt or cooking oil for the next few weeks. Anyway, just thought I would fill you in. Check BBC news or Malagasy websites for updates if you are so inclined.

Honestly, I feel extremely safe in my town and people have been checking in with me often to see how I am doing. Right now I have to pack up and say goodbye to everyone I know, not knowing if it is the last time I will ever see them. This is NOT how I want to say goodbye. I can only take a 10kilo bag of stuff with me, so I have left many things in my house and have had to write a list of who they go to if I don’t return. It felt like writing a will. Nuts. Other than sadness, I also feel guilty to just leave my friends and “family” here because if things do get bad, there is no one protecting them. Meanwhile, I am being whisked away by Peace Corps in a missionary plane. I don’t see the fairness in that. If, God forbid, stuff does actually get bad here, who is to say that my life is any more important than theirs? Humans confuse me sometimes.

Well, I love you all and hope you are well. If you pray, or believe in karma, or whatever, try to give a shout-out to the people of Madagascar .

Friday, January 9, 2009

Christmas and New Year's

As my month here with Jamie comes to a sad end, I feel the need to sum up our holiday vacations here in Mcar. We started out the Christmas season by giving my neighbors a whole duffle bag full of clothes that Jamie had brought from my dad and mom’s old clothes, along with some of my own. They were ecstatic to get them and have been wearing them everyday since. It’s funny seeing the guard of my high school sporting a Chi-Hi soccer shirt as he walks around the school yard. After a week of having Jamie in my classes with me, we headed off to the capital and then hopped on a brousse the next day to Fianarantsoa, a regional capital south of Tana.

From there we went to Isalo National Park, which was a gorgeous sandstone formation surrounded by desert. Inside the sandstone were small canyons and natural pools with tropical vegetation. We were all exhausted after the first entire day hike into the park, especially because of the downpour we encountered. We showed up to our campsite soaked through and our feet were torn up. The next day we spent swimming in all of the natural pools, which were gorgeous and felt amazing in such a hot climate. The next day we packed into a small brousse, sitting four people across, surrounded by young German tourists. We drove through a small sapphire trading wild west-ish town that was filled with young men.

We also drove through the town where the female PCV was murdered in 11 years ago. At a police stop, we were again apologized to by the policemen and told that they wanted Peace Corps to come back to their community. I have experienced this many times while I have been here. The Malagasy are extremely ashamed of the horrific incident and still make sure to remind all of us volunteers of it. The man who did it is still in jail and people in this country use his name as the greatest insult you can call someone. I want to just add that I have never felt unsafe here, not even for a second.

We finally arrived in Tulear, which is a coastal city on the southwest coast. We ate some good pizza and crammed into a hotel room. The next day we took a local brousse to another PCV’s site just south of Tulear. This site was on the ocean, as advertised, but in a bay full of seaweed, and mangroves, which was not advertised. Needless to say, it was hotter than heck in this place, clean fresh water was hard to come by and going into the ocean after the tide finally came into the bay was like wading in a huge bucket of hot concentrated pee with stinky seaweed under your feet. It was not a great experience. There was no electricity there, which meant no cold drinks and it was 95 degrees when we woke up at 7am, according to our travel thermometer. The volunteer’s neighbors did pull through on the goat though, and we watched it be killed, and charred on a fire before being cut up and cooked and eaten with rice. It was tasty. Then that night we had a bonfire on the beach with smores and an amazing view of the stars. We also celebrated Hanukkah every night because one of the PCV’s with us is Jewish. We ate potato latkes with jam and laughing cow cheese and lit the menorah every night. The next day, we returned to Tulear on a packed truck filled with the morning’s catch of fish, shrimp and sea cucumbers. I’m proud of Jamie for holding back complaints about that smelly, hot, crammed trip!

After another day in Tulear enjoying cold drinks, good food, and a trip to the local discotech, we took a 36 hour brousse ride to Morondava. Morondava is also on the west coast, but there is no road connecting the two cities during the rainy season. We left at 7 in the morning and arrived at 7pm the next day. I barely slept and our ears were practically bleeding from the blaring music the ENTIRE ride, but we were able to see tons of the land, which changes from coastal beach to dry desert with baobabs to sandstone to huge granite rock formations to the plateau rice fields and back again. There was a lot of peeing on the side of the road that went on during that day and a half long car ride.

When we finally arrived in Morondava, we stayed in a super cheap hotel the first two nights so we could splurge for New Year’s Eve by staying in a bungalow on the beach. We rented a taxi one day to take us to a secluded and gorgeous beach outside of town. We swam there for a while, and played in the crashing waves on the white sand beach. It was the exact opposite of our Christmas beach experience. Then we hopped back into the taxi and drove to the Avenue of Baobabs, which is an area where a lot of baobab trees are alongside the dirt road. These massive trees look amazing, especially at sunset when we went to see them. We walked up and down the rows of trees, taking a million pictures and talking to the children that live nearby. We started dancing one of the local dances with them, called kilalaky, and gave them plums that we had gotten on the plateau. It was definitely one of those experiences where I felt like I was inside a National Geographic magazine picture that had come to life. I loved every second of it.

We also went to this amazingly posh restaurant where we ate tuna crusted with shredded coconut and prawns in garlic sauce and sautéed vegetables. It was the most delicious meal I have eaten in this country. And probably the most expensive. This place was high-class, with rooms costing 130-180 Euros a night to stay in, which is unheard of in this town, let alone this country! This new place had every amenity and would be a great place to stay in for a nice honeymoon. On New Year’s Eve we upgraded and stayed in a place that had a pool as well as ocean front property. It felt great to use air conditioning for my first time in this country! My site is hot, but this place was like dripping sweat every hour of the day hot. Thankfully the ocean water was cool though. That night we ate dinner, I had delicious crab legs, and then headed out to the local Malagasy drinking establishments and ended up in a Bob Marley bar at midnight, with people playing bongos and other drums and dancing and drinking guava juice and rum while ringing in the New Year. It is a great memory to have.

The trip from Morondava back to Tana was probably the most mentally challenging taxi brousse ride I have had in the year and a half I have lived here. We arrived at the station at noon and sat in the hot wooden shack waiting for everyone else to arrive. At 2pm, we finally all got into the car and drove off… and stopped a block away in front of an ice shop. We all got out of the brousse and waited another half an hour for a lady on our brousse to buy ice. Then, we were off again and made another stop at the hospital. I could not believe my eyes as three nurses carried a frail elderly lady out to the car with just a sheet wrapped around here. She looked minutes from death and was hooked up to an IV and a catheter. The driver took out the portable fire extinguisher and hung up the IV in it. She was to ride the entire 20 hours laid across her loyal husband and son instead of in an ambulance because there are none that go from city to city here for cheap. Whenever I accidentally got a glimpse of her ghostly face, my eyes filled with tears and my heart sank. We had to stop at two small hospitals on the way to have people fix the IV drip. The woman sitting behind me was carrying a five day old baby on her lap and she kept asking us to hold it when she got in and out of the car. I remember feeling forced in between life and death, and it made the fragility of life so conscious. We had one more stop to make before we departed that day. We waited at the house of the woman that I will forever call the “ice woman” for two hours, in the blazing heat with a new born and hospital patient sitting in the hot car. She had to break up her ice and put it in Styrofoam boxes to keep her shrimp cold that she was bringing to the capital to sell. The driver had to take all of the baggage off of the top, add her cheap coolers and then put our stuff back on it. Meanwhile, the ice woman ran and took a quick bucket shower and the rest of us sat and sweated. A lot of cursing took place at this part of the story. Then, we were finally off. We were traveling on a holiday, so when we stopped to eat rice, there was none cooked because none of the roadside hotelys were open. So, we went without dinner and continued on to the capital. It had started to rain and while driving through the dark we felt the tires slip underneath us as we tried to go up small inclines in the mud. At one point, the car died and the men got out to help push start it. When we finally arrived in Tana, I got my bag off of the top of the brousse and it was drenched in shrimp water. The ice had melted and the water had leaked out of the boxes onto my bag. This was the last straw for me. I walked up to the ice woman and asked her to give me money, explaining that now I would have to clean my bag and everything in it and that it was her fault. She laughed and said, “Oh, silly foreigner”. I went off on a rant about how she had no soul and how she made a sick elderly woman and a five day old baby wait two hours in the afternoon heat just so she could pack her stuff and get ready. I informed her that my stuff smelt horrible and my clean clothes were now dirty and that her soulless self should give me some money to buy soap to clean it. She and everyone around here was shocked that I had gone off in Malagasy at her and she dug in her purse and gave me four hundred ariary, which is enough to buy a bar of soap. This ride was definitely an experience that I will never forget.

That’s all I can think of for memorable parts of my vacation. Sunday I bring Jamie to the airport and then the next few weeks are full of exams, my birthday and more teaching. I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season and I will see you all in six months!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

I wanted to wish you all a happy holiday season! I am currently in a beach town on the southwest coast of Madagascar called Tulear. It is SO HOT here. I am sweating as I type. My friend from high school, Jamie is here visiting and it has been fun showing her my life here. she has been a trooper on all the long taxi brousse rides. we spent 8 hours in the brousse on thursday, 9 on friday and another 8 on saturday. We went hiking through a park called Isalo last week. It was gorgeous. Its like dry desert with huge sandstone formations combined with tropical trees and rivers and streams with huge rocks in the canyons. ts hard to explain! We hiked a difficult 19k the first day and then slept in the park in tents and the next day hiked around the park. We went to three natural pools and swam in them and played in the waterfalls. It was beautiful and relaxing. Today we are heading out to Ankilibe, which is a small site on the beach. We will camp there for three days and snorkle and swim. Some people in the town are going to kill a goat for us to eat for Christmas dinner as well. I will have cell phone reception, so call me if you want! Then on Saturday Jamie, Lisa and I are taking a 24 hour taxi brousse ride to Morondava. There is also beach there, its north of Tulear on the west coast. There is also the famous Baobab trees there that Madagascar is known for. If you dont' know what they are you should google them. I'm super excited to see them! We have been lucky so far and jamie was able to see two big groups of lemurs! All in all its been a great trip!

Well, I hope that you all have as much fun playing in the snow as I will the sand! Ha, no but really I wish you all a happy holiday season and hope you are surrounded by loved ones.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Girl's Camp

I can’t believe its already November! The rainy season has already started here. It has poured here the past week, and stormed the past two days. It even hailed yesterday! I was in the middle of teaching a class when huge roars of thunder and crashes of lightning interrupted us, followed by ice chunks banging on the tin metal roofs. I couldn’t even hear myself think, let alone try to teach. The electricity went out so there was no light in the classroom but the students couldn’t leave because they have to walk home on foot and it was pouring and roads get washed away and lighting was striking nearby. Everyday by 5:30, without fail, it starts storming. I guess this is really bad for the rice crop because they weren’t expecting the rains to start til December and I’ve been told that the time when rice really needs rain is at the end of its growing period, and if the rain stops before that it will be bad. Also, the rice that has already been planted is ruined because it has been flooded by all the downpours. I have no clue if there have been any cyclones because I don’t have a television.

Other than that, our girls camp went really well! It was a wonderful time! We started off here in my town of Ambatondrazaka and slept in the middle school classrooms. We did team building and get to know each other activities, and had the girls make up rules for the camp. We also made nametags and discussed what the Peace Corps is and the reason for the camp. The second day we woke up at 430 and cooked rice and then loaded up a big bus and left for Andasibe, which is about 4 and a half hours south of my town. We stayed in a Malagasy family’s house, with a few rooms and lots of foam mattresses for the girls to sleep on. The house had a cabin-y feel to it. Then we had a session on Female Identity/Abilities based on Gender. Then we went on a night hike and saw many pairs of lemur eyes up on the trees. The next day we woke up early to go on a hike in the rainforest and saw a family of lemurs and tree farms. That night we had a lesson on Goal Setting and Decision Making as well as sessions on the environment and also on sexual decision making/learning how to say “no”. The next day we had craft stations set up and the girls learned how to make bracelets, make collages, and draw with charcoal. Then we had some more health and environment sessions about HIV/AIDS and planting trees. Then we played trust and team building games outside. The next day we again went on a hike in the rainforest and were lucky to see four species of lemurs, two kinds of chameleons, two snakes, and a frog that lives in tree stumps. One group of lemurs were right above our heads and actually came down to the ground about five feet away from us and ten feet away from that was that largest chameleon in Madagascar! It was an awesome experience for the girls! That afternoon the girls learned about the rainforest from some guides and then we had a bonfire where we introduced them to s’mores! We sang and laughed and danced. The next morning the girls all bawled when we had to leave. They all had gotten so attached to the family that lives in the house we were staying at. Every morning they would sing and dance to church songs together and they were upset to leave the forest as well. We headed off to Tana and unloaded everything at the girls dormitory at a huge Catholic Church. After lunch we took a tour of the University, which happens to be the biggest University in the country. It is a public school and there are only five other major universities in the country. A female English Professor lead us around the campus and sat down and talked to each of the girls about their professional goals and about the importance of reading books. The next day the girls had time to shop in the market downtown, and then came back for a Women’s career panel, where Malagasy women with good jobs talked to them about their lives and how they obtained their high status jobs. The girls asked many questions and were impressed by how assertive and capable these women were. They are used to seeing women with seven or eight children following them around, not seven or eight workers taking orders from them! I swear I could almost see the girls picturing themselves sitting up on the panel fifteen years from talking to girls now about their own professions! Anyways, then two younger women from a public health organization called PSI came to talk to the girls about puberty, decision making and health, and other female things. Finally the last day we traveled back to Ambato and had the dance club open early for the girls and a dj played music while we all danced. The girls thought it was very cool. We returned to the middle school for the finale of a talent show. The next day we said our goodbyes, and saw them off at the taxi brousse station as they went off crying. It was an successful and wonderful camp and I am proud to have been apart of it! Thank you so much to all of you who helped finance it. I can’t explain in words what this camp has meant to these girls!

FYI: On the morning after the election, all the Peace Corps volunteers huddled together trying to listen to a static-y short wave radio that played the BBC and heard the results of the election. It was a little unbelievable since we weren’t watching minute by minute coverage on the TV, but instead only heard one brief sentence on the radio. Later on the text messages from friends and family in the US began trickling in and we began to believe that it was true. I have been told by many Malagasy people that they are proud of our decision and I always reply with, “I’m finally proud, too!” My students like Obama because they say he looks like a Malagasy person. I have other reasons.