I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been spending my time in LOST and Game of Thrones, but some very strange things have been going on here. My dreams seem to be weirder than they have ever been before. I seem to mix characters from the two fantasies as well as people from my life (both past and present). It is really strange and kind of weird to think how one’s dreams can be altered by the different stimuli that one sees. I’ll sometimes dream about something weird in some weird location, but I always seem to wake up in my bed; more often than not with some Malagasy song playing on a radio from a nearby house.

It wasn’t long until I realized that I’m a shape shifter. I can change from day to day and disguise my appearance. I’m quite magical as it seems. Changing my clothing or hairstyle makes me an entirely different person. I can do pretty much anything, and all people can really say is that it was the white guy. If you put me in a line up, I don’t think they would be able to pick me out.

The past few weeks have been hard for a few reasons. Primarily, I’ve been upset because I have the feeling, once again, that Malagasy people treat me as if I’m not human, as if I’m just a white face and nothing else.

I shaved my head (as I always do when it’s hot – sometimes when it’s still cold too). That was enough for a majority of the people in the area to not recognize me. Granted, some people look a lot different when they shave their head. I look different, but I never let my hair grow out anymore so it really isn’t too much of a change. I’ve also been doing it the whole time that I’ve been here so you would think people might catch on. That’s when I realized that unless I talk to the person regularly or work with them, I’m not really noticed. Sure, hundreds of people yell “Vazaha” everyday. It doesn’t mean they even stop to really look at me. They just yell it to be rude, disrespectful and obnoxious. Worst of all, many Malagasy parents teach their children to point and say “Vazaha” when they see a white person. The vicious cycle continues.

I’m sure, some could be reading this and think that I might be making a bigger deal out of this than I should be. I disagree, but I would always consider the possibility. However, history seems to tell a different story.

First, I had a beard for the first few months at site. After I cut the beard I noticed a lot more comments. I looked different with the beard, was at a new site, and so I didn’t think anything of it. My look changed and it seemed some people didn’t realize I was the same person.

Second, after winter passed I started just wearing t-shirts and then sometimes tank tops. The clothing change from the jacket made people make more comments.

Third/Fourth, winter and summer both returned the year after. The comments increased with each changing wardrobe.

Finally, now, although I’ve shaved my head every summer here, the comments continue.

I don’t know if it’s what the French did to them or if it is just the Malagasy culture. All I know is that after 2 ½ years in more or less the same place I would hope that people would at least try to be more polite. Would at least see me as a person.

All white people look the same. We all speak French. We all have lots of money. We don’t work for this money, we just have it. We don’t know how to do physical labor. We don’t speak Malagasy. We don’t eat rice. We aren’t Malagasy.

We aren’t Malagasy. That’s what made me think. I’m not Malagasy. I never try to be (if nothing else, being here has made me a more patriotic American) but it is weird to be singled out. Every once and a while I have to be reminded that I am “other”. For some people they will never leave Andapa, others might, but never leave the SAVA Region. I’m always looking at black people so I don’t realize how much I stand out. I’m sure I don’t really realize how strange I look riding my bike (with a helmet) into the countryside every day. How strange I look holding a basket and going to the market. How much I stand out when I’m no longer in my unofficial uniform of mesh shorts and a t-shirt and actually put on nice clothes. Or, just how strange I look against a setting of people who look nothing like me. But I’m still me and I’m still a person and sometimes the interactions that I have with Malagasy people make me feel like they have absolutely no respect for me.

Part of me thinks they might be justified. The other part of me thinks that something or someone who is so different should be noticed; distinguished from all of the other strange things and evaluated, not harassed. That’s when I realize that all of the people who matter to me in this country are never fooled by my wardrobe or hairstyle and they do evaluate me as a human rather than just a white face that they think they can say anything to. The people who matter to me aren’t rude, disrespectful or obnoxious. They might always treat me like a foreigner (that’s what I am), but they at least treat me like a human being; like a friend.

But I’m probably not the only person who is feeling this way. I feel like Andapa has really picked up on the Vazaha circuit, I seem to be seeing a lot more foreigners in town. However, this is my first year of actually living in Andapa so maybe that is why I’m seeing all of them, but it is still strange to be around so many foreigners after 2 years of not seeing a whole lot. Granted, September/October is a very high tourist season for Marojejy National Park and so we do get many people who spend at least one day in Andapa. We even get a few in Antanetiambo.

It’s been weird not living next to the “office” for the Reserve. I’ve been busy lately and so I sometimes don’t get a chance to talk to the people who visit Antanetiambo let alone see them. We’ve had visitors at least once a week pretty consistently so that is exciting. I don’t know how long it will last, but hopefully we can keep it up. I think we’ve solved some major phone issues that were problems in the past and some other organizational issues that seem to make the visits run more smoothly and the tourists a little more comfortable.

The nurseries are working in full swing. We got 1,300 plastic pots filled with dirt/seeds two weeks ago and then around 1,400 filled this week. It should have been more, but I’m starting to run into a see deficiency. Some of the seeds that we got aren’t any good – they were either infested with bugs or rotten. In addition to that, my contact in Andapa who was supposed to get seeds for me hasn’t been producing. Granted, the weather hasn’t been normal (much cooler and raining) and so the trees aren’t producing seeds at the normal times. Also, with the contrast it does lend itself to spoiling a lot of seeds. This past week we filled more plastic pots with soil than we could with seeds (in both nurseries) and I hope that we don’t have to slow down in the next few weeks.

The nurseries have exceeded my expectations. I think we might have around 7,000 plastic pots planted by the end of this month. Seeds will keep coming as nature allows it and we will continue from there. At the moment I’m thinking that we will try to plant consistently until November, and then take a small break and just see how the seeds are growing. At this time I will try to start the nursery in Andapa so that students can be involved as well. All speculative, but this project could turn out to be very productive.

The Mobile Cultural Center arrived in Andapa. The traveling library from the US Embassy is pretty cool and provides a lot of books, computers, E-readers and even a few films. I think it is really great that the people of Andapa can be exposed to all of it and learn how to use a lot of the new technology (and learn English). I helped set-up the center with a guy from the Embassy and make it look appropriate for our ceremony.

I spoke with him on a Monday when we were setting up the structure. Then I talked to him again Monday night and Tuesday night. We met early before the Opening Ceremony on Wednesday to get everything ready. So you could understand how it was very surprising that when the Ceremony was about to start (literally as I was asking him where he wanted me to sit) that he told me I was supposed to be the MC for the whole thing. Ok, more than a bit of a surprise, but I’m not going to tell the guy no. I figured that someone had to do it. So, I ask him what needs to be done. He tells me that I need to welcome everybody, talk about the MCC, introduce him and his speech, the Mayor and District Chief and their speeches, and then close it up. I ask him if this could be done in English or Malagasy. He says Malagasy. Of course, why would I think that he would want to give me any time to prepare for a public speech in a second language?

So, I did it because it had to be done. With no preparation, I welcomed everyone and said whatever I could think of off the top of my head and whatever I could translate in my head at the same time. I was video taped as well, which was a little embarrassing because I really didn’t know what I was supposed to say as an MC. Turns out part of it was televised (I don’t know if it was the speech though) and I’m just happy that I don’t own a TV.

Kim’s been away in Tana and so I’ve needed to visit Nadege and the English class more often than I’m used to. The English class is going well and I really think that Nadege is getting much better at lesson planning and time management. Amazing that he’s teaching because he wants to and really no other reason (he doesn’t have a money incentive for his teaching, just his salary as a librarian). Kim and Nadege were planning a Spelling Bee that will happen next week so I’ve been following up on that as well. The kids are really excited for it so I’m interested to see what happens. It should be a fun little event in Matsobe nonetheless.

Finally, with all of the shape shifting and jokes aside, a good friend of mine died a few weeks ago. His name was Gaston and he was the Vice Mayor of Andapa. There was a big funeral ceremony and it went on for a few days because of his title, but for me he was more of a friend than a mayor or community figure. I saw him the week before he died and although he was sick, he looked healthy and in good spirits (he was 41 years old). I went one of the nights to visit the funeral and it was a very somber experience.

The Community Hall building was filled with chairs so that people could pass in and out to visit as they had time. There was a constant flow of family members going to the front, sitting in seats singing loudly; there faces unable to hide all of the grief (The funeral went on for 2 ½ days and didn’t stop. The family was always there with the body and music played constantly). I went to visit with a friend and we just sat there for about 45 minutes. We spoke every once and a while, but for the most part I just found myself in a trance-like state staring at his body, then at his family singing, and then every once and a while glancing as the outside world continued it’s daily life. After, we went to his house and visited his wife. From the minute I saw her my heart sank. She didn’t hide her grief at all, nor should she, and she made me realize that Gaston meant a lot to me, but he definitely meant a lot more to a lot of other people in the area.

I wish that people didn’t have to die for me to remember how sad death can be. I’ve been to funerals in Madagascar, and I’ve known people who’ve died here, but Gaston was my first real Malagasy friend who passed away.

As I sat at the funeral, with the music echoing off the town hall walls, I began to think about the respect that death commands. That it must be the permanence and emotion of it all that makes one stop and think about life. But, as I thought about it more, I realized that people die everyday, and for the most part, I don’t feel a thing or show emotion; I don’t give the same respect. Death is most important when it is related to life because that death changes the life of those who are still living. I did know Gaston, and I knew that he was a good person the first day that I met him and every other time that our lives crossed paths. I don’t know whether to say it was his time or not, but like all those who I’ve loved that have died, Gaston will surely be missed.

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