Did you know my brother Jacob served in the Peace Corps too?
When I was in my last 2 years of college, Jacob was completing his service in the country of Madagascar, the small island off the southeastern coast of Africa.
Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how different our experiences have been so I asked him if he would share a little bit about his time in Madagascar.
He said yes! Phew. Like he had a choice. So I threw some interview questions at him and today, we’re going to relive his experiences.
When and where did you serve in the Peace Corps? Did you get to pick your country?
What program did you do? What was your title?
I served in the education sector and taught English. I was referred to as a TEFL volunteer (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).
How long was your flight to Madagascar?
Where did you live? What was your house like? Did you live with a host family?
What was the climate like where you lived?
The climate where I lived was dry and hot most of the year. But for a few months we received heavy rainfall, which made the one road going through our town virtually impassable.
This is different than in the capital, where the elevation is much higher. Much to my surprise Tana was very cold when I arrived!
What was your transportation like in and out of your site?
Transportation in and out of our site was truly dismal. In fact, as I note below, our region was known as the black hole because the roads were all but impassable most of the year. During the rainy season, it would take the entire day to travel about 40 miles because the roads turn to mud. One day a bunch of trucks got stuck in the mud and all we could do was spend the night on the road in the car.
People typically travel in vans called “taxi brousses.” These vans would seat about 8 people comfortably but were routinely packed with close to 20. Roads in most places outside the capital were terrible.
What was your daily routine? Weekly routine?
My daily routine varied. But for awhile I was waking up super early in the morning at 4:30 to run. Before that I had tried running at 7:00am but by Malagasy standards that is already midday so I would get lots of stares. I also liked the experience of waking up with everyone, smelling the coal fires in the morning.
Then I would go get breakfast at the market or stop by a local coffee place and get coffee with “mofogasy” (small bread made from rice flour). Then I would head home and get ready to teach. I tried to consolidate all my classes. At night I would work out, have a Tsimihety (language) lesson, or work on extracurricular activities like my English club.
What did you eat? What were your favorite foods?
As a side note, touching dogs was also out of the question. Occasionally I would treat myself to a local homemade yoghurt between classes.During the rainy season—my favorite time of the year—I would go mango picking or buy lychee by the basketful. Students would also bring me mangos by the basket. We had round mangos, long mangos, giant mangos, little mangos, Diego mangos—who knew there were so many types of mangos! There was also a small hotel in my town run by people of Indian descent (called katana in Madagascar). The owners of the hotel kind of took me under there wing and made me food sometimes.
Aside from that hotel, which made amazing food, I cannot recommend the cuisine of Madagascar. Strangely, the same menu of ten or so items has percolated throughout the entire country. So everywhere you go you see the same things—chicken in broth, chicken in sauce, beef in broth, beef in sauce. Eating out was tricky sometimes as a vegetarian.
What was your connectivity like? How did you call home?
Connectivity was extremely minimal. There was no internet at site aside from a prohibitively expensive (and slow) shop in town that had one computer. The only time we really got online was once a month when we went to a bigger town approximately 5 hours away from site and even then the speeds were dismal. Skype and other data-heavy communication was reserved only for the few times a year we made it into the capital.
We did have phones however. And our phones came with one free text message per day, which was a treat.
What language did you speak? What was your language training like?
While Madagascar is a francophone country (speaks French), we learned the local language called Malagasy with our host families. Once we were assigned to our sites, our classes shifted to learning the local dialect. My dialect was called Tsimihety, which means “those who don’t cut their hair” as the people of the region supposedly had long hair in the past.
Once I got to site, I hired one of my friends to give me Tsimihety lessons and by the end of my time there I was dropping Tsimihety proverbs in every discussion and in my class. Tsimihety has the most amazing proverbs. They Tsimihety have a great sense of humor, though often at the expense of old women or chameleons. When I would tell my students they needed to study English like an old woman swimming—focused and not smiling, they would burst out laughing.
How close was the nearest volunteer to you?
The closest volunteer to me was 5 hours by car if the roads were good. If the roads weren’t good, as they often were during the rainy season, it could take up to 9 hours to get to her location. Our region had the nickname of being called “the black hole,” due to the lack of volunteers and the impassable roads that prohibited travel. I was lucky though because we got along really well. So well in fact that we ended up getting married after Peace Corps.
What sort of work did you do in your site? What was your biggest project you worked on?
The biggest project was a world map, a map of Madagascar, and two English language resource centers (see pictures). In hindsight I wish I would have engaged people more, but it certainly was a hit in the community and mind-blowing for a lot of people. People would look at the map and ask how long by car it would take to get the United States.
What was your favorite part about your Peace Corps experience?
- Working at the grassroots level and having to depend on relationships and networks to get things done as opposed to money
- Having the strongest possible incentive to learn a language (and one that I will probably never speak again)
- Having lots of time to read books
- Making great friends from a part of the world I never expected to be
- Experiencing the feeling of being an outsider and a minority
- Waking up everyday and wondering how I was going to help improve the community.
- Speaking to someone in the local language and them knowing immediately that I must be an American PCV, because only an American PCV would care to learn the local language.
By the way here is a short animated short film that captures the essence of Madagascar. The film starts in the capital of Antananarivo. The protagonist goes to a “famadiana” which is a ritual in which the Malagasy exhume the corpse in order to wrap fresh clothe around it. I love watching the brousses (vans) and lemurs.