Saturday, March 21, 2009

...the beautiful scenery accompanying my evacuation hike out of site...

After an increasingly unstable political situation in Madagascar, the decision was taken to suspend the PC program here. Perhaps the last straw was when the military began to faction last week and ignore presidential orders as looting continued in the capital. The emotional impact for me was almost immediate. I was devastated I had to leave and I didn’t have the heart to tell my new friends that the chances of coming back were low. I guess I’m lucky it is not often that life altering decisions are out of my control. And of course, I’m lucky to have had the experiences I’ve had so far here. The reality is, that the people of Madagascar are the ones who will really suffer.

Despite the brevity of time spent at my site (about 3 months), I’ve become really attached to the place and been remarkably happy. The last few weeks in particular have been such a fulfilling experience. So instead of talking in detail about the evacuation process and what's next, I just want to share my last few weeks in Madagascar.

I returned from consolidation back in mid-February, deciding to put my best foot forward in terms of integration despite the precariousness of my future in Madagascar. The first night back I woke up to a rat drowning in my bucket of water. Bad omen? During that same day, I witnessed the delivery of a stillborn baby. That was hard – don’t think I’ll ever lose that image from my mind. It was the first time I had heard a woman let out a scream during the delivery – the midwife told me later that was why the baby had died…that, and poor nutrition. Aside from the single shriek, the teenage mother showed no emotion. I wasn’t sure she knew what was going on, so I made sure she couldn’t see me – I’m bad at hiding my facial expressions and I was tearing up. I don’t want to be too depressing so I should say that it reinforced my role; to work hard and keep ranting about the importance of a balanced diet, safe pregnancy, and family planning for that matter.

On to lighter topics….I was chatting to a woman who had just given birth and asked her if she had picked a name yet. She said she hadn’t, but was hoping she could give the baby girl my name. Later, while recording the baby’s full name, I told the midwife I was taken aback and a bit embarrassed by the situation. She laughed and then proceeded to tell me that while I was away a couple other babies had been named after me. Yikes. It felt wrong, but my qualms were alleviated when I found out that it was common for newborns to be given the names of those who assisted with the delivery. Of course, all I do is occasionally clothe the newborns. Though, I can say for myself, that I can now measure (approximately, and of course with a gloved hand) how dilated the cervix is and locate the baby’s head is in the birth canal.

My work is concerned with health education, which I do at the local middle school, before pre-natal consultations, vaccines, and family planning. I always feel great after delivering a solid health message or just talking with people. I really feel that after an exchange, that perhaps both parties walk away a little happier, or at least a little bit more upbeat. But, what’s made me the most fulfilled at site has been a recent development. It’s the same thing that’s always made me the happiest…soccer. I was biding my time patiently the first month as the soccer field across from my residence stood empty. First, I started playing with little kids, which I think pleased a lot of adults in the community. Kids began coming by my house nearly everyday to borrow my ball. I was trying to be a bit strict, so I’m not taken advantage of…we’re taught as PCV’s to set boundaries early. But, on the other hand, how can I deny a great quality (Mustang) ball to a couple of kids who’ve been making do with a bunch of plastic bags balled up with strings.

Anyway, I was still starving to play some real/slightly more competitive soccer so I decided to be brave and infiltrate the guys team (teens through 20’s). The boys are quicker than me, but I’m bigger and can hold them off the ball. Few have cleats of course. But like the women giving birth in this country, the boys don’t let out a peep of pain when I trample their bare feet with my cleats. I used to play barefoot as well, until I nearly stepped on a sickle while dribbling. There are always some kids who can’t play because they are busy cutting the grass for cattle feed – guess this time, one of them had decided to join and left his sickle lying around. The boys have shown no hint of discrimination or hesitation to fight with me for the ball despite that I’m the only girl, and a giant white one at that. I befriended the team captain, who often joins me and others on morning daybreak jogs, and he named me ‘mpamono’ or ‘killer,’ the equivalent of a forward or attacker. I had yet to don a jersey because the Sunday games were consecutively rained out.

Now, if you know me well, you are probably wondering why I haven’t asked ‘hey, where the girls’ team at?’ I was working on that one. I’d had several people ask me to start one, including the mayor. And honestly, I’ve been dreaming of doing that since my first day at site. Every Saturday, I was gathering a few more girls to play. Ugh, it hurts thinking about it…being forced to leave….there was such potential. May not seem like a big deal, but to be able to share something like that in the future at my site, would have made the entire experience worth it even if no one ever heeded even one of my health messages. I foresaw a future with practice sessions followed by short health presentations or life skills discussions. Ok, it hurts too much, I need to stop.

My last two weeks at site, I was starting to feel good about myself and my level of integration. When I walked around, I was comfortable and constantly greeting people I knew –women I’d chatted with at the hospital or planted rice with, students I'd taught running up to me in the street with gifts of corn, people I’d played ball with who asked to join my morning runs, other health-related workers I’d planned to join in surrounding villages to help weigh babies. It just felt like things were coming together which was probably due to my increased community exposure, particularly following March 8th, the national Women’s Day. For the celebration, I opened the series of games and dances with an official, formal speech. I was quite nervous for a number of reasons. The speech, or kabary, here in Madagascar is a very unique, revered custom...a long history, a special form, and manner of delivery. Every guide book will mention it, and how much the Malagasy enjoy listening to these long-winded speeches. Adding to the pressure, I spoke in front of hundreds of people with a megaphone following a highly embarrassing scene - an awkward dance I had to do around the new basketball court holding hands with and towering over my counterpart. My speech explained the Peace Corps mission and my role here. I began it appropriately, according to tradition, by thanking all the ‘lehibes’ or community leaders in hierarchical order. Then, it's necessary to apologize profusely for everything – for my broken ‘gasy, poor pronunciation, poor kabary-skills, even for being the youngest in my family. The rest of the speech included no less than 6 'gasy proverbs and expressions. One expression I was told I had to include on the day went something like as follows…'the female is like an ornament, the beautiful ornament of the household. Like a flower, the ornament of the earth. Like a water lily, the ornament of the pond. Like a banana, the ornament of the field. Like a necklace, the ornament of the neck.’ Certainly more eloquent if translated properly, but nonetheless you probably get the gist and realize I wasn’t too thrilled about the connotation in relation to women’s empowerment. So I followed it with my own paragraph about how women are much more than ornaments, have the same abilities as men, and that there’s nothing out of their reach because, as the 'gasy proverb goes, ‘there is nothing difficult that diligence cannot accomplish.’ I noticed a marked difference in attention and greetings, in the few days following the speech (maybe because I said in it, that I was shy, and people should feel free to greet me in the streets with a ‘Manao ahoana Mbolatiana’ – Hello Mbolatiana…that’s my ‘gasy name I go by. People can’t pronounce my name and my friend had put a lot of effort into its coining).

My counterpart and the sole doctor in A/zo. I wasn't lying about towering over everyone.

Ok, well, back to reality. I’m evacuated and I don’t know what the future holds. I’ll try to return, but I don’t know if and when that will be possible. I was in a bit of denial so on my last day, I was hanging out and making future plans with people. Those I work with were up with me the next morning before sunrise to say bye and assure me I would return soon. I started my hike out with what I could carry (and what the guy I hired could carry – a lot more than me). As if the day before hadn’t broke my heart enough, a kid sprinted to catch up to me to return the 10,000ar ($5) I had dropped in the dirt. For perspective, more than 70% of the population lives on less than $2/day. I can’t get over this poor tiny little kid returning that amount to me. Two hours outside of my town, I ran into people I knew – they told me I’d better return quickly or they’d be lonely and there would be no one to play ball with. When I reached the taxi-brousse station, I waited 6 hrs for the van to leave, but again thoroughly enjoyed the hours chatting with locals. The van decided not to leave that day, so I paid for seven seats in order to get the vehicle to depart. I hate looking like a rich vazaha/foreigner like that, but PC had insisted I get out…something about a looming military coup supposed to take place that day. Within ten minutes, the van got stuck in the mud. I had to put my raincoat on because the frame of the car was so pathetic, I was getting soaked. I chatted a bit during the journey with a nice old man who was worrying about his daughter who had just had a cesarean. When we said goodbye at the station, he suddenly broke out in English….‘Don’t forget me.’ With all the emotion and heartbreak I’d felt in the last 24 hrs, I couldn’t help but feel so strongly in that moment that he was somehow speaking to me for all of Madagascar.

Above: loved this family, girl in my arms (top left) always kept me company and taught me a lot of Malagasy.

Below: attempted channa masala for my colleagues (midwife, doctor, grounds keeper)...not bad for a meal cooked from scratch over a fire I started with matches and bamboo.

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