I spent my 4th Thanksgiving in Madagascar (woot woot!). I have to say at this point I’m pretty much used to being away from my family for the holiday. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think about them any less or that it isn’t difficult at times, but I think, now, I’ve just accepted that this is the life that I’ve chosen. And, in many ways, when one spends time away from their family, they have a chance to meet other people and improve the relationships with those that are around you. 

I had Thanksgiving with people from work and it was the first time that I had a real ‘vazaha’ Thanksgiving since I’ve been in Madagascar. It was really good food, and I of course did my part to over eat. It really made me think about my life now and compare it to where I was 8 months ago. In many ways I think the change is positive, but in some other ways I feel a little depressed.

It’s difficult to integrate with the Malagasy people in Tana. I don’t know if it is because there are so many foreigners or if it is the culture of the local people. Regardless, I’ve noticed that with my social groups I’m no longer spending time with Malagasy people, but only foreigners. The counter to this is that I really do enjoy all of my friends in Tana, regardless of nationality, and I couldn’t be happier to have found the social network that I’ve fallen into. However, I sometimes wonder if I should be making a stronger effort to hang out with the Malagasy people that I know from work or could meet everyday. I’m still in Madagascar and sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. As we enter the holiday season I will constantly be thinking about my family back in the United States, but I think I need to be taking a closer look at the family that I’m creating for myself here in Madagascar and making sure that when I look back at it in 5 years I don’t feel like I squandered my time in Tana and didn’t make the most of an opportunity that was so readily available (granted I’m learned so much with work that I don’t think I could ever justify that I’ve wasted the last 6 months).

So as I left Tana thinking about this, I made my way to the deep south. It had been a long time since I had been in the domestic airport and I was really surprised at the security changes! I don’t know how long they have been like this, but the security has really been upgraded and I felt like I was almost in a real airport. I wasn’t even upset when they told me I had to pour out my water! Granted I drank half of it before pouring out the rest. What I thought was really cool was that the guys told me that I could just pour it out in a plant. Everywhere else they freak out like I’m trying to terrorize the airport by keeping hydrated or aiding the life of a plant. It was nice to see people follow the rules, but not be ridiculous and rigid in their implementation.

My mission this time was in the Androy region and so I had to go to Ambovombe. I hadn’t heard a whole lot of ‘nice’ things explaining the area. Everyone is poor. There isn’t water. The language is difficult. There isn’t food. There is a lot of dust and wind. There are no nice hotels. Working in the region is difficult. So yeah, I thought this was going to be a vacation.

I got into Ambovombe and it wasn’t too far from Amboasary, where I went in July. I kind of knew what to expect and I thought nothing of my arrival. However, I did notice that the dialect was extremely different and I had to pay much more attention when trying to communicate.

I got to the office and nothing was set like it was supposed to be, but I’m used to that by now and no longer expect people to actually do what I ask. I was pleasantly surprised to see that their wireless was better than the Internet in Tana so I checked email and worked on things before I had to be pushy to meet with people. I finally did get to meet with people and I had a good session of explaining what a best practice, innovation and lesson learned is so that people could maybe help me collect the data or give me their findings. It would have been nice if they grasped this before I arrived, but we can’t have it all!

It’s funny because I sometimes forget how much people need pictures. I don’t like diagrams. I feel like that don’t really explain anything any better than a list could. I list is straightforward. A list is about as clear as anything can get for me. But a list isn’t for everyone. So I made a sideways list and made circles around the word so that people would understand my improved list. It doesn’t really matter because it seemed to work.

After the office it was time to go into the field. This was an interesting trip because I had two people to go with me the entire first week (plus the driver) and then one person and driver with me the second week. It made for a much more social environment in the car…even though I slept almost every afternoon.

What was strange was that I didn’t think the area was that bad. Maybe I’ve been in the field so much lately that I’m desensitized. Maybe I was expecting it to be completely awful and when it wasn’t it didn’t seem bad at all. Or maybe this is just a good time of year (not likely since they’ve been eating the red cactus fruit for three meals a day in some places).

When I visited the Anosy region I thought it was humbling. However, I was coming from the rainforest of Andapa and the agricultural wealth of the Northeast. Now, I’ve been visiting poor communities for the past 6 months. There are definitely a lot of problems and hardships in the area, but to say that they are suffering or that life is any more difficult, I have trouble really saying that the south is that bad or at least as bad as everyone makes it out to be. Before I say much more, I will admit there are crazy high malnutrition rates in the area, water shortages, long hunger periods and security issues (I know, your thinking I’ve lost it now. How can these not make the area worse than everywhere else?).

What I think it comes down to is the culture. During my mission I got frustrated a lot with people just telling me that this is the way it is down here. This is how the people work and act and you have to deal with it. I am all for being culturally sensitive, but if an organization is going to ‘develop’ livelihoods so that people can be like the ‘foreigners’ then I think something in their culture is going to need to change. I really don’t know what they should do and I don’t think that they know either, but it is a strange dichotomy with development and cultural preservation.

Similar to that, what really frustrated me during my time in the south is how rude I thought a lot of the people were to me, or just in general. It was interesting because everyone was always talking about how much they respect people and how strong it is that even the language can shift to be more respectful in the way that you are supposed to treat someone. I think this only intensifies my unhappiness because a lot of people that spoke to me in passing didn’t seem to think that I deserved the slightest bit of respect (all of the beneficiaries were really nice though). What is even more saddening is that this might be the direction of the youth and although older generations were very courteous there could be a shift in the other direction (from my very short time and very small sample size of people of course).

The negative aside, there are always positives and things that make me smile. First, (and this isn’t a positive in a lot of people’s eyes I’m sure) was the place that we met in the towns were always outside. It was always on a mat and it didn’t take into account the wind direction, but only shade coverage. I had a good laugh during my first field interview when after about 20 minutes I looked like I was about to become a sand dune. Second, I was blown away by the generosity of many of the people in the villages. People that don’t have money or a lot of food would just give us things – either to be thankful for the help or just to be polite. We got mangoes twice and a chicken once.

Some of the mangoes that we were given to us were cooked unripe mangoes. I didn’t think it was going to be that good and because the people are often eating them three meals a day they didn’t really seem to give them the best sale. However, I bit into one and I thought it was great. It reminded me of applesauce. Instantly I thought, this is pretty good! If I’m going to have to be on a minimal diet this wouldn’t be too bad at all. It was when I ate the second cooked mango that I realized apple sauce three times a day would get old very fast.

The language is always a problem, but I’ve seem to come to some middle ground with my questions and rephrasing questions (and I always get help) so that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered when I was in the south in July. However, when they talk amongst themselves I really have no idea what they are saying, it’s only in the context of the questions that I really understood. Which was another issue, because I couldn’t really tell if they were giving me real responses or if they were just telling me what they thought that I wanted to hear. It made questions hard to ask and validity very questionable. Also, it didn’t help when we arrived in a village and people would say they weren’t a part of the project until I told them that I just wanted to talk and they weren’t being evaluated.

Overall, this trip gave me the most ups and downs that I’ve had in a long time. I’m not sure if it is because I’m tired of the field, if it’s the region or if I’m just getting more used to Tana and that being away isn’t as appealing as it was six month ago. I had some serious issues working with other people and getting conversations going, but as a fellow worker stated: “This is rural development!”

Life in the field and the country seems to be catching up on me. I was in the field 4 weeks out of 5 and I began to forget the days of the week. Thankfully, I have a planner, otherwise I would really be lost. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I become old and senile. I’ll be a real mess then.  My hotels were minimalistic and broken down. The nice hotel didn’t have a working toilet at times, the electricity was shotty and the cockroaches were out of control! I spent one night just doing rounds in my hotel room creating a massive graveyard of cockroaches. It seemed to satisfy me for a few minutes. Other than that traveling in the field the houses were small and water was scarce. I stayed in one room that seemed like a bunker. What really gets me is toilets. I can’t imagine why anyone would choose a real toilet that doesn’t flush over a pit latrine. I’d rather the nasty stuff be a few feet down rather than still in the bowl. Am I right?

One day we were driving around looking for a village (yes, looking) and we had to ask a ton of people and were completely lost! I wasn’t really scared, but it was annoying to lose a day and it wasn’t the best of places in regards to security. We would ask people and they would freak out. They would tell us wrong directions or they would tell us the right direction but on a foot path. No, our vehicle can’t travel down a trail that is one foot thick and lined with cactus, sorry. However, we finally managed to find the village. It’s just so flat and no real roads so it is easy to get lost. Of course, when we finally arrived in the village we found out it was market day and none of the beneficiaries were there. PALM TO FACE!

Life on the road and getting older might be catching up on me. I’m not fat yet, but I’ve noticed that I’m not staying slim as easily as I did before. I made a point to continue doing exercises at night and then jumping rope a few times. I’m just sitting so much when I’m in the field, at least when I am in Tana I am walking a lot. Now that I’m back in Tana over the Christmas break I hope to get back into a routine because it will really help to get a good base (but who really cares, right?). The only reason that it is kind of important is because I might run a 65km race in May, which I would need to train for.

Interestingly, thinking about the South and the people I spoke to down there, I decided that education should be the main priority. Building capacity needs to come first, before we can implement food security successfully. Many of the beneficiaries can’t read or write and even the people governing them can have trouble with this. Furthermore, just the concepts of thinking about things in a different context is sometimes completely lost. But I think the problem from a development standpoint is that people don’t want to fund big education programs. What’s strange is that people are already giving out so much food I don’t know why they couldn’t just give families food if their child attended school. I’m sure there are all kinds of problems with it, but I still think that it is something that could be thought about.  

Getting back to Tana was quick. I said goodbye to one of my housemates that was moving out and had a nice brunch. This past week we were in a workshop related to best practices, lessons learned, innovations and recommendations so it actually applied to my work! It was great to give a presentation and show my findings, but it means that I have a ton of work to catch up on. Looks like this Christmas vacation I will be working more than I usually do during the week. At least I don’t have to go to the office!

*Madagascar votes again today. I hope that they accept whomever they choose (whether they like him or not) and that this country can get back on track.