Friday, February 6, 2009

Real Job/Language

The political stalemate continues, and so I continue to reside at my consolidation point. I'm clearly not up to much since I just blogged, but technically I'm on a kind of house arrest anyway. There's currently a 9pm curfew by Malagasy law, but according to current Peace Corps policy, I am not supposed to be strolling the streets at an hour. So I am not feeling guilty about not working…which may leave you wondering…what is my job anyway?

Well, this is how I understand it. As a community health worker, I'm trying to spread health messages that raise awareness and (even better) inspire behavior change, focused particularly on mothers and children. As a Peace Corps volunteer, my predominant purpose is really based around the cross-cultural exchange, the promotion of peace worldwide. Now, that sounds like a really nice, liberal notion – the promotion of world peace by sharing my culture with the people here, and then sharing their culture with those I return home to in two years. But, what does that really mean? What am I really learning except odd things like I should sleep facing north or west because only the entombed dead here rest facing south or east…or that, for example, when you eat sweet potatoes for lunch and crushed sweet potato leaves for dinner, you're sure to be violently sick that night (learned that one the hard way). Are these really lessons I'll bring back home which will bring the human race to greater mutual understanding? Also, I'm 23 years old. Didn't I get that cross-cultural exchange experience when I studied abroad or took that self-realizing backpacking Europe trip that's pretty much become a rite of passage for every (fortunate) adolescent today? Shouldn't I get a real job? Well, I'm being facetious, but I've got news for those of you still in doubt (and perhaps I'm really just clarifying all this for myself because if you are reading this, you probably don't hate the peace corps mission/idea).

#1 – I left the Western World before the economic crisis really hit, but I'm pretty sure I couldn't get a 'real' job right now if I tried.

#2 – Obama supports me – Back in November, I heard his acceptance speech over the radio in a room crowded with 18 other American Peace Corps Trainees hanging onto or shedding a tear at his every word. He said at one point, "to those huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world" (does an 11 hour difference from home on an island in the southern hemisphere of the Indian Ocean count?) More applicable to my overarching purpose in this rambling defense of my job here, Obama said "if our children should live to see the world next century…what change will they see? What progress will we have made? This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment…to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace…" Well, the change I'd like to see is a convergence rather than widening gap between the rich and poor countries of the world. I think the Peace Corps is only going to help in this vain. At least, for me personally, it's going to get me thinking about inequalities, and put me on the right path to.oh I don't know…being the change I want to see in the world? That's a bit hackneyed, but I do trust that what I will learn here in my little role in grassroots development will teach me a bit about what works in the field, and how best to approach major development issues in the future. Of course, I'd like to leave some small indelible, not 'mark,' but positive change here, even if at the end of it, all I can say is I've made some good friends.

#3 – On a lighter note, maybe I still like learning the simple cultural differences that on their own aren't going to contribute to greater peace and prosperity. Did I mention that my Malagasy friend rearranged my bed so I would stop sleeping facing west like the ancestral spirits in the family tombs? Oh, and that when she finished turning my bed around, she plopped my pillow down underneath my mattress! Apparently, some people sleep like that here.

On the language front...

One of my top priorities in life is learning Malagasy. That sounds funny, I know, but honestly, getting a grasp on this language is the key to every aspect of what I've defined as my job here. So here's a bit about this language I'm learning.

I think in a previous post, I touched on the origin of the language and how incredible it is that despite the diversity of the people (Indonesia, Africa, etc) and the relative isolation of different regions from each other across the island, a relatively consistent version of the language is spoken. Anyway, let's fast forward a bit. A few British missionaries actually created the first comprehensive writing system for the Malagasy language. Radama I was ruling at the time (early 1800's) and he is the one credited with uniting the island under a single monarchy, and perhaps less fondly remembered for opening up the island nation to the rest of the world...particularly to the European powers. He forged particularly close ties with the British, which included warmly welcoming in the London Missionary Society. He didn't care much for religion, but the missionaries established the beginnings of an educational system and taught valuable artisanal trades. So of course they wanted the Bible converted into Malagasy and I suppose that was probably the main motivation for a complete written language. The missionaries supposedly convinced the Malagasy king against using the Arabic writing system. The king obliged, but insisted the language not contain any redundant letters or spelling. The Latin alphabet was employed with consonants similar to the English pronunciation and vowels more or less using the French pronunciation. Perhaps thanks to the king's demand (and perhaps since the system is relatively new), words are phonetic – for the most part, words are actually pronounced as they are spelled (unlike languages such as, let's say Danish, in which people tend to pronounce very little of what is actually written…I pick this example because they are the worst offenders in this respect of the languages I've offense to my relatives- you all know how much I wish I could be fluent). In Malagasy, there are just three tenses, no gender differentiation, and no verb-subject agreement. Thus, I would say that overall it's a relatively easy language to learn. That said, I'm struggling. One hard part is that people speak in the passive voice, and I believe we, English speakers, use the active voice. For example if I were to say in English "A man tried to steal an ox, but the owners caught him and killed him with a blunt piece of wood," in Malagasy, one might say "An ox was stolen by a man, but he was caught by the owners and he was killed by a blunt piece of wood." That actually happened in the town next to mine – cattle theft is common here and the repercussions severe. I think that might be a terrible grammatical example, but hopefully you get the gist.

The other difficult aspect for me in learning Malagasy is that I don't have a natural ear for languages (my brother took that gene from my mother before I came along). But, as a former soccer coach once wisely told me, the one thing you can always control is your effort. I think it was meant in the sense that when you're having a shitty game (e.g. your touch is off), you can at least hustle to the ball and work hard on defense. But, I like it and I try to keep it in mind for my everyday life. So, in application in this scenario, I walk around all day writing down new words on a scrap of paper, that I'll transfer to an ongoing language journal, and study later that evening. Unrelated to my little self-motivational quote, but in the spirit of "reduce, reuse, recycle," the scrap will later serve as toilet paper (I haven't yet located any rolls of tp at my site anyway).

For how frustrating it can be not being able to express myself well or partake in group conversations, I also kind of enjoy the challenge. It's fun and culturally revealing. For example, today I learned the word for 'snack' or the food that you eat between meals = hanin-kotrana. In everyday usage, it refers to sweet potato, the cassava root, a corn concoction, etc. But, literally it translates as 'any food inferior to rice.' Rice, of course, is the preferred base of each meal. That's not as funny now that I write it, as it was when I discovered the literal translation. But let's continue…often, when I am grappling for a word, I might be able to make a pretty good stab at what it might be. For example, animal = biby, long = lava…so what is 'biby lava'? It's a snake of course.

I know there is no such thing as a 'superior' culture or language, but I worried in the beginning over the lack of variety of words. For example, the word 'volo' I believe means 'hair,' 'feathers,' and 'bamboo.' If that's the case, then how do you scientifically classify a bird? Just kidding around, but take the word for 'bad' in English and think of its various synonyms such as 'evil,' 'awful,' 'vile,' and 'wicked.' We'd probably all agree that these words have subtle differences and that we use them to more accurately describe something depending on the context. But, if you look up all these words in Malagasy, all you get is 'ratsy.' I couldn't help, but be reminded of Orwell's 1984 concept of 'Newspeak.' Specifically, I remember how part of Winston's(?) job was to systematically remove synonyms from the language so as to limit people's ability to express themselves (thereby increasing the power of the totalitarian state). I know I have to acknowledge that my concern was unfounded based simply on how little I know of the language. But, even better, I have since had a new breakthrough. This language is deceptively simple and it's all in the saying 'it's not about quantity, but quality.' Ok, so the Malagasy language hasn't had the 1,000+ years of turbulent history of development and change like the contemporary spoken English language (an effect of the various kingdoms that have ruled the island nation of GB, from its W Germanic language origin with the Anglo-Saxons, to the additions of N Germanic language elements when the Danes ruled a large area of the island (they were refered to as 'Danes' in original sources though they were vikings from different areas of Scandinavia probably) , and then the vast overlays of Norman French when they sailed over - Michel Thomas estimates 60% of English words are derived from French). But, what I'm trying to say is that perhaps history has created an English language with an immense inventory of words, but the Malagasy language has its own way of expressing creativity in the way the language is used. Quick disclaimer here, I don't know anything about poetry, but I think Malagasy is actually quite beautiful and poetic in the way it uses language. For example, the word for 'dusk' is 'maizin-bava vilany' or 'darken the mouth of the cooking pot.' The word for 'sunrise' is 'vaky masoandro' or 'the eye of the day splinters or breaks.' If I was more poetically inclined, I might recognize more of these examples. Then, there are the dozens of Malagasy proverbs and expressions, which I really shouldn't get started on because they are way too much fun (and sometimes, by fun, I mean just culturally revealing). For example, the other day, I dressed/clothed a newborn for the first time (which was actually quite a special moment, I found myself staring in awe at this tiny little thing in my arms, this fragile little life blinking softly and helplessly straight back at me - I was so scared I was going to drop it). So I carried the baby carefully over to the mother and delivered the culturally appropriate expression, "Arahabaina fa nahazo mpatsaka na mpanetsa." Translation, "Congratulations, you've acquired a girl to fetch the water or transplant the rice." If it were a boy, I would have said, "congrats, you've acquired a laborer of the land, a tiller of the soil"…something to that effect. Proverbs are another example of the way language is used creatively. Here's a sample proverb: 'Tondro tokana tsy mahazo hao" = you can't catch a louse with one finger (cooperation is needed). I like this one because it's practically a favorite past time here to go through a kid's hair breaking lice eggs, and it includes a nice message about teamwork. It's also one of my favorites because a fellow PCV is seriously considering getting that one tattooed on the nape of her neck (she caught lice during in country training).

Well, I could go on and on, but maybe I'll just stick to subtly squeezing in a pertinent proverb in later postings. As they say here, "Raha lava ny ahitra, very ny kisoa. Raha lava ny teny, very ny soa." "If the grass is too long, you lose your pig, if the speech is too long, it loses its interest." Ok, I swear, I'm really done now:)

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