Friday, January 2, 2009

I decided to celebrate New Year's in the capital with a few other PCV's. To get to Tana this time, I had to hike out of my site starting out at 4am. I'll admit I was quite winded from the 2 hour uphill hike through rice paddies, which included treading carefully over and sometimes through small creeks. Someone from my town accompanied me to show the way and to provide some level of protection from the supposed 'mpangalatra' or thieves. I wanted to go by myself, but in the end I was happy to have someone with me as we ran into a pack of yelping dogs in the dark (I swear one of them was snarling and foaming at the mouth). My hiking buddy carried a large rock, prepared at any moment to hurl it at the dogs. There are these two dogs that visit me daily and they joined us on the entire hike. I joked to my hiking buddy that they would protect us from the pack he kept a close eye on. He didn't share in the humor - I didn't know, despite sharing a house with the doctor and living right next to the clinic, that last Friday one of 'my' dogs bit a kid-friend of mine and it required stitches. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful hike, watching the stars disappear and the sun rise. When I reached the road where the taxi-van passes, I stood waiting with a couple other barefooted travelers. I felt a little out of place chatting in English on a cell phone with my brother, who had called to wish me a happy birthday. I think he believed me when I said I was already thoroughly enjoying the day.

Despite the brevity of time I've spent at site (just over a couple of weeks), I have plenty to relate. My first day 'on the job,' an NGO was paying a visit to my town to offer affordable sexual and reproductive health services. They were happy to meet me and invited me to observe their work so that I could be more informed myself when I do 'sensitizations' (delivering health messages) in the future. So, the first woman came into a room off the maternity ward, laid down on a steel table (that had been dusted off with a rag), and moments later I was observing a tubal ligation. The doctor urged me to stand right next to her and watch. I thought I was pretty tough when it came to anatomy and physiology, blood and guts - always enjoyed dissecting the cat back in high school or watching myself get stitched up after a mishap - but halfway through the procedure, my ears started buzzing and I started to wonder if I could remain standing. When my vision became impaired, I muttered something in 'gasy and excused myself. I made it back to my house and collapsed. I caught the end of the surgery after a quick recovery. I do feel more equipped now to spread family plannning messages (e.g. how quick, easy, and cheap tubal ligations are, the equivalent of $1 when Marie Stopes comes to town).

During my second day at site, I gave my first health talk on safe motherhood to a group of women before the pre-natal consultations. I thought the excitement of the day was over, when I decided to follow the doctor to the maternity ward. I was once again invited into the adjoining room where I'd almost passed out, and this time found myself squinting so that I didn't totally watch the miscarriage taking place before me. Almost everyday I seem to be observing some medical procedure I was not prepared for - some things I'll refrain from divulging here. I've seen some births as well, which have been fascinating from a cultural perspective. In every situation, I am warmly welcomed in to watch. I guess the notion of privacy here differs. One time, the midwife and I arrived a little too late and the baby had already come out into the bare hands of the grandmother. While the midwife took over, the grandmother, overjoyed, grabbed my hands with hers (still covered in blood) and exclaiming her gratefulness, tried to slip me a 200ar note (10 cents). Just in case you dosed for a second, I watched her deliver the baby and she tried to pay me for my help. I want to also note that I'm now in the belief that giving birth is a painless process. No drugs are involved here, just a pillow-less, sheet-less steel table, and the women giving birth don't utter a sound or show any strained facial expressions. No, Scientology is not practiced here. Of course, that might not be that outrageous an idea given the conglomeration of Christian sects that already exist here due to past proselytizing Europeans and present American missionaries.

My site lies at the end of this valley. In the foreground, you can see a couple examples of their tombs.

More about my site....
I live next door to the health clinic/maternity ward and share a kind of duplex with the one doctor here. I'd say these are some of the best living conditions I've ever had. I have the biggest bed I've ever owned and two large rooms to myself. I don't have to pay any bills on the place and there's certainly no street noise. Of course, I have no furniture to fill the place, and the floor area is perhaps annoyingly large to have to clean with my coconut shell, broom, and wax mixed with petrol. There's a pulley-style/'tricep building' well conveniently located 5m from house, from which I withdraw about 3 buckets of water sufficient to supply my daily use (often supplemented by rainwater I collect as it pours off the corrugated tin roofing). My house is made of red brick and opens onto a small veranda supported by a single column. I spend a lot of time sitting there on a woven seat cushion - reading, eating, and drinking burnt rice water. If my house was narrow and tall with smaller windows, it would be a typical Merina-style house. The style of homes here initially masked the poverty for me. There are 18+ tribes represented in Madagascar. The Merina, which make up 27% of the population, dominate the central highlands. Interestingly, the Merina were the Indo-Malayan seafarers that first settled this island and brought not only the rice culture, but the architectural design of their homes. Crazy to think that an Indian Ocean away and a 2,000 year time gap, there are societies with strong cultural similarities to this one. Of course, even at my site, you can see how the culture has been infused with African and Arabic elements (such as the importance of cattle and astrological beliefs, respectively).

My immediate area is flat, lots of corn has recently been planted, and potatoes are always growing. But walk just a couple minutes out of town, and there again are the beautiful valleys of terraced rice paddies I enjoyed so much during training. I think my infatuation with rice paddies goes back to when I visited southeast Asia. They're just so darn aesthetically pleasing - when the seedlings are young, the sky and low mountains are reflected in the water, when the rice plants have matured, the paddies add patches of vibrant green to the landscape. The transplating rice season has just finished. Now, it's the long haul, the hungry season for my area, as people wait the 6 months for the rice and other staples to harvest. When a woman invited me to take part in the transplanting of young rice seedlings, I jumped at the opportunity. I think on more than one occasion, I've described rice farming in an academic paper as 'labor-intensive.' Well, now I have the experience to back that claim. I was up to my knees and elbows in muddy water, jamming rice seedlings into the ground with my thumb, failing constantly to space them correctly, maintain rows, and keep the stalks upright. I was particularly disturbed when one of my worst nightmares came true, and a black snake slithered between my legs in the muddy water. During the eighth hour of back-breaking work, Marx and terms like 'exploited labor' started passing through my mind, but then I realized my productivity level or work output was about an 1/8 of that of the other women, who have been planting rice their whole lives. I am quite sure I was invited as a gesture of friendship - and maybe also to provide a source of amusement. These rural farmers of the highlands speak a colloquial form of official Malagasy I'm not yet accustomed to, but we did have a good laugh over how tall I am and how much one of the ladies liked my tree-trunk sized legs. I'm just telling myself it's a comparative statement so I don't feel insulted. Though my back was broken the next day and I suffered the worst sunburn of my life (I have pictures of the blisters, and later, the total loss of the first layer of skin), I joined in one other day for rice transplanting just for the comraderie. It was all worth it for the one moment when I reflected on what a rare opportunity this whole experience is - it was lunch time, and the woman who invited me had packed a typical 'gasy meal, rice and a side dish of dried fish (the length of my finger and you eat the head and bones). So there I sat between rice paddies, with her family and friends/fellow laborers, eating out of the same gigantic bowl of rice with muddy hands. A simple moment, but so great.

Rice farming provided a good way to explore some of the surrounding areas and villages, which I also accomplished by accompanying my doctor on a four hour hike to do AIDS testing at a small clinic. I was put on the spot that particular day to give a speech on HIV/AIDS to a large group of pregnant women. Many of them were teenagers with several kids. Though the national average fertility rate is around 5 kids, out here in the rural areas, it's not uncommon to have 10-11 children. The only vocabulary I knew off the top of my head for the topic was the somewhat contested ABC method (though its sensible to me if it's delivered in the right way....A = practice abstinence when young/not ready, B = be faithful, avoid multiple sex partners, and C = always use a condom.) Anyway, none of this really applied to them because they were already having sex, already married, and very unlikely to start using a condom at this point in their marriages/ pregnant with their 8th child. I talked a little bit about how the disease is transmitted and then quickly just asked for questions. Blank stares. Then...are you married? When I first met the mayor, the police, and the medicine inspector, that was also the first question posed - completely irrelevant in my mind to my work and purpose. But, I'm here for cross-cultural reasons as much as fir health so I don't mind answering the questions. Plus, fielding the cultural questions opens up the lines of communication. After a few minutes of talking about myself and the US, a woman asked me, "So is there a cure for AIDs?" When I had explained that there was expensive treatment, but no cure, I started feeling like maybe I do have something to offer here. Once the doctor started doing the rapid blood tests, the women came out asking me if their test was negative or positive, and then checking out each others' test strips as if they were comparing answers to a pop quiz.

Christmas is widely celebrated here. After the Merina kingdom first unified the country (or conquered all the other tribes) in the 1800s, the king courted European powers, and subsequently, Christianity became widespread. The Bible was translated into Malagasy in 1835. So, I went to church on Christmas, again, for the cultural experience. After 4 hours of songs and sermons in 'gasy, I vowed that was the last time I would go to church in this country. It was the first time I had felt really awkward and out of place and didn't find it amusing...perhaps because the place was crowded with hundreds of people who could sit and stare at me (as compared to the market days where there's more movement and commotion, and less time and space to stare at the tall, 'fotsy be' or very white woman). After lunchtime, I was told there was a 'kilalao' which translates as match or game. I'd assumed it was a soccer match and was excited to watch. But, when I started walking with some acquaintances to the 'game,' we walked straight passed the field and straight back into the church! I was a bit peeved. The place was packed again and I stood in the very back with my doctor. Then, the president of the Catholic church spoke some words to the doctor and pulled me outside. She led me around the church and then through a side entrance to the very front of the congregation. She had me sit in the only chair in front of all the pews to watch the performace - it was basically the Catholic middle school kids putting on a talent show, which included a lot of 'macarena' inspired dance moves set to 'gasy music. Sat there for another 3 hrs. I think a lot of the time, kids watched me more than the show. I was already sweating a ton, but it poured even more profusely when the school director dedicated a song and dance to me over the mike.

I'm gonna try and wrap this up, by explaining that despite all the exciting episodes I still spend the bulk of my day sifting through rice (which I eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). I toss the rice into the air and catch it again several times in a meniscus-shaped woven tray specific for winnowing rice. Then, I scour the rice for rocks and remaining rice hulls. The same chickens (and very sorry looking rooster, which I might have pitied if it hadn't laid a wet feces on my newly waxed floor) flock to my porch every meal in hopes of snatching a rice hull or granule that I discard. At this time, my pot of water has begun to heat up over my small portable clay stove. I build a fire three times a day by breaking up pieces of bamboo with my malagasy-crafted knife, set them aflame with my lighter, and then carefully add charcoal. I cook outside to avoid smoke inhalation and the ensuing acute respiratory infections prevalent here. Thus far, I find all the time spent cooking oddly fulfilling. I'm sure this will change, the same way I enjoyed my mosquito net at first, which I've since ditched.

Next time: I really want to talk about this language I'm learning, I'm sure there will be some more in-depth cultural musings as well as I pick up more of the language and can ask some of my many cultural questions. Actually, I could pose the questions now, but I probably wouldn't understand the answer.


dlcurren said...

I enjoy your entries, you write so well. I look forward to your observations about the language (as you mentioned). I am memorizing a few hundred words in prep for my vacation there in Sep or Oct. Purely as a hobby, I like to make films, and I plan to make a PC recruiting film while there.

Alyse said...

Hi Natasha - My Mom forwards me your messages and it is the highlight of my day. Your experience is amazing and I love living through your adventures. We think (and talk about) your often - we miss you on Golden Meadow! xo, Alyse (and the rest of the Conti/Lustig crew) PS - Happy Belated Bday!

gdfish said...

Just got your blog link from your mom tonight. I saw your dad at the JV game and reminded him. And, it is great. You are so descriptive and the work seems facinating. I think I mentioned I had that one year on the high seas when I was young and it was the most memorable of my life. You will always look back on this with the same feeling I am sure. Sooo, enjoy it and keep up the writing. And to think it was not so long ago I can remember first seeing you run around on the soccer field! Take care. Love ya,

stephendrucker said...

Hi Natasha – your blog has become essential reading. We can feel the silky mud in the finger nails as you plant rice, we can taste each grain, we feel the sun and the humidity, and we hear the laughter and strange sounds of an alien language. We strain to catch your words on HIV and we pass a cool towel at each childbirth. It’s better than shopping and more interesting than National Geographic.
We met a European man on our Namibian travels who has lived happily in Madagascar for many years, and judging by the size of his belly, food is either a) plentiful, b) very gaseous or c) exclusively finding its way to his table.
Across the continent, we enjoyed our time in Namibia enormously. It is a quiet and peaceful country of staggering beauty with enough desert variations to keep a rock-and-sand fetishist entertained indefinitely. Up north, we stayed in wild animal country (near Etosha) and got to close grips with how they live. The giraffe is far and away the coolest creature, likened by one of our guides to the animal equivalent of a hippie. One night at camp, after a deafeningly raucous and ill tempered lion seemed to have eaten its way through the occupants of our neighbouring tents, Jillie barricaded our door with as much furniture as she could shift, oblivious to the fact that all the lion had to do was pull down the handle, swing the door open, kick all the obstructions aside and then proceed to dessert. I am ashamed, yet proud to say I slept through it all. (Jillie says: you should have seen him with the angry cobra. Not such a hero).
One of the many languages spoken is ‘Click’ which, as the name suggests, requires some aggressive clicking and clucking during the course of rapid fire speech. Each sound is the equivalent of a letter or part of a word. Any words that are not in the language, eg ‘hedge fund scam’, take a lot of clicking to explain - almost enough to choke. We polyglots had no problems with it until the speaker got hiccups.
We eagerly anticipate your next blog with comprehensive instructions how to talk Malagasy, and in the meantime assure you that each day our admiration for you increases.