Farewell to the Mango Trees

We left projects unfinished, classes untaught, friends unvisited. We weren’t going home, we were leaving it.

On Monday, March 16, I woke up to this message:

Peace Corps Madagascar is evacuating. Stand by for further instructions.

Three days later, I was on a plane to Ethiopia, along with 139 other education, health, and agriculture volunteers. Together with PCVs from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Zambia, we were shuffled onto four charter flights around midnight the following Saturday, local time. We landed in an empty Dulles airport, home in a country we didn’t feel was home anymore.

It’s difficult to put into words the emotions, the exhaustion, that we’ve all felt over the past few weeks. We were evacuated because international airways were being shut down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, which meant risking  being unable to leave the country in the event of a real emergency. I understand, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to make that impossibly hard decision.  Still, we all left projects unfinished, classes untaught, friends unvisited. We weren’t going home, we were leaving it.

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139 Peace Corps Madagascar volunteers gathered in the capital for final farewells on the day of evacuation

Typing this now, it pains me to think of the friends and the home I am missing. Despite the sadness, and the chaos, I managed to imprint a few fond memories of my final days with colleagues and friends.

When I had to tell the two education organizations I partnered with in Diego-Suarez that I was leaving unexpectedly, they shared in my sadness, but then immediately arranged a farewell party, because of course, it wouldn’t be good fomba to send someone home without wishing them a fond farewell. We had sodas and snacks, made speeches (and yes, I did one in Malagasy) and took lots of pictures. I was presented with two wonderful gifts that I will keep until the end of my days: a traditional salovana worn by the Antakarana women, and a special sash belonging to the women’s organization.

With my colleagues and students at the  office of the Directeur Regionale d’Enseignment Nationale (Regional Director of National Education) in Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana)
My colleagues’ insistence on a farewell party, even at the last minute, underscores the importance of hospitality and friendship in Malagasy culture in a way I’ve yet to experience anywhere else in the world.

As heartbroken as I was, I felt a little peace, knowing that I was being given leave to go, in the kindest way possible, with the hope that soon a new batch of Peace Corps volunteers will return to continue our work.

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With colleagues at the Centre Regional de l’Institut National de Formation Pedagogique (Teacher’s College) after being presented with a farewell gift, a gorgeous salovana and kisaly

I’m grateful that I wasn’t alone in this.  After arriving in the capital, Antananarivo, and madly scrambling to close bank accounts and grants, all 139 of us gathered at Head Quarters to listen to more farewell speeches and take pictures with the ubiquitous Peace Corps seal. Our Country Director said some encouraging words, we rang the bell, gave our last hugs. And just like that, it was over. My service had ended.

I wasn’t ready. 

Third Year Education PCVs…couldn’t have made this journey without them

But I did snap a few pictures with the Peace Corps seal, and get to hug friends and colleagues who feel more like family. Ending this post now, I’m searching again for peace in my heart, as the memories are still raw and painful. I find it below, in rough video footage snapped on the way to the airport: a final glimpse of Madagascar, that piece of my heart, under a pink, painted sky.

A Third Year? The Last Few Months in Re-Cap

I took a few months off of blogging. When I left my village at the end of August, I moved to the capital city to take a job working with local HQ on Pre-Service Training for the newest cohort of volunteers, and that kept me pretty busy, so I let my blogging habit go. However, now that PST is over and home-leave is almost over, I’ve realized I still have almost a year to go! I tacked on a third year, and that means more stories (I hope).

So, what is PST? Well, when you join the Peace Corps, you are committing to 2 years of service at a place of Peace Corps’ choosing. You also commit to three months of Pre-Service Training before you take the Oath.  The training is 3 months long; it’s an 8-5 schedule, Monday-Friday, and there are evening and weekend homework assignments. Trainees live with host families in the community to practice language and adjusting to local culture. It’s emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting, complete with very little personal freedom, a lot of cultural faux-pas, homesickness, frustration, and probably a little diarrhea (or worse).

It can also be incredibly rewarding.

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Education trainees take the Oath to become official Volunteers.

For me, the most rewarding part was being on the trainer side of things. Getting to know a new group of trainees, the ones who  ultimately became volunteers and replaced my own cohort’s sites, was so inspiring and yes, hopeful. We talked about how we hate that word, hopeful, when people back home say, “you’re going to do such great things. You give us hope.” We talked about the pressure and anxiety and awkwardness that can come from being seen as a beacon of “hope.”  How you feel like you don’t know anything, and how you really don’t want to bring hope, you just want to make things better and take yourself out of the equation. We talked about the “savior complex” and the pitfalls of gathering bad data. But I see it now. We were able to talk about all of the things–fears, insecurities, regrets, anxieties. I saw my own journey in a new light. I got to reflect on all the fear and excitement I felt when I took the Oath and how much my expectations have changed.  I got to share what I hope was a little bit of insight and a lot of realness with them about how to make service something that works for you. I got to plan fun events and go for mountain runs and learn more about their journeys, which is my favorite thing in the world.

It’s so inspiring to watch someone else step into your shoes. It can also make you feel sad and irrelevant. But what I told myself at the beginning of this journey was to trust the process. 27 months are 27 months for a reason.

Well, I’ve trusted the process, but I’m not ready to let go yet. I’m getting there. Being back in the United States has helped me see that service is only two (or three! or four!) years for a reason. And of course, being with loved ones has been wonderful.

Yet at times I don’t know which place I miss more, American or Madagascar, and I find myself feeling like my heart is planted in two separate worlds. Perhaps it’s good I’m going back, because there is more left for me on this journey. But there’s no road-map this time.

Guess I’ll have to make my own.

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Three generations of Northern region volunteers at the swearing-in ceremony for the latest cohort of volunteers in the capital, Antananarivo.

 

New Year’s in February

 

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I’ve written about New Year’s before…aside from Independence Day, it’s the biggest day of the year.

Life can be hard here. No power. Fetching water every day. Working in the fields. Sweating. So that’s why parties mean so much. They’re a break from the every day. And they are so.much.fun. They’re also an opportunity for my students to take a break, socialize, and get me to take their picture 🙂

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I’ll leave you here with a visual account of my day. Not pictured: the late-night sweaty disco party or the dead zebu, sacrificed to the school, which fed about 600 people.

Happy 2019. Arabaina!

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With colleagues after the traditional meal of rice and zebu meat

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Seventh graders…enough said…

 

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Deuces for the chefs

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Attempt #1,250 to take an organized picture…

Rice Cakes

I have a coffee shop in my village.

The decor is rustic–hipster chic. It’s full of wooden stools and green plants and it serves the best rice cakes in the world. Yes, in the whole world. It’s a fact.

The recipe is a secret passed down from generation to generation. It’s run by a local grandmother. Only, it’s not so secret any more. She shared it with me.

When my friend and fellow volunteer, Alyssa, came to visit me last year, she boasted that this coffee stand sold the best mokary vary in all of Madagascar. At the time, I had only been in Madagascar for three months, so I took her word for it. A year and a half later, I see now that Alyssa wasn’t wrong.

What makes this mokary vary (rice bread or rice cake in the Northern Malagasy dialect) the best? I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s the combination of yeast and baking powder. Maybe it’s the type of rice she uses to grind into flour. Maybe it’s just the right amount of sugar added, or the right amount of charcoal used…or maybe it’s just pure, natural talent.

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Whatever it is, I’m satisfied eating it every day. This place has become my daily routine. I wake up, throw on a salovana, sweep my house and then wander out of my yard up the road to drink coffee and eat mokary vary and listen to the gossip and the news. If it weren’t for this place, I’d have no idea what’s happening in the village.

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Local “Starbucks”

Before Alyssa finished her service, she came back to our coffee shop and begged the owner for the recipe. With a hearty laugh, she obligingly walked us through each step. It’s a two day process. Day two begins very early (“at the cock’s crow”) and we overslept and missed it. But I promised Alyssa that I would go back and observe the final piece of the puzzle, so that she could bring this little piece of Madagascar (my little piece) back to The States with her.

Well Alyssa, here it is. Let me know if it tastes the same over there.

PS: She misses you.

Dady's Mokary Vary Recipe:

Ingredients:
4 cups of rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp yeast
1 cup sugar
water

The Night Before:
1. Put 4 Tablespoons of rice flour in a saucepan (1 TB per cup of rice flour)
2. Add enough water to make a thin liquid
3. Place the saucepan over direct heat
4. Cook until the mixture (called koba) gets thick and becomes difficult to stir
5. Let the koba cool
6. Add the baking powder and yeast to the remaining rice flour in a large bowl
7. Add the cooled koba to the mixture and combine until it is incorporated. It'll be a bit lumpy
8. Let this mixture sit overnight. I didn't see this part, but I assume Dady covered it with a cloth.

The Morning Of (3 am or When the Cock Crows):
1. Add the sugar and enough water to make a very thin batter
2. Heat very small pans with lids over charcoal (or I guess in an oven if you're going that way)
3. Add enough oil to coat the pans
4. Pour about 1/4 cup batter in each pan. Cover and let cook for a few minutes.
5. Flip the mokary once it has had time to set on one side.
6. When the edges are brown, remove and let cool.

Make sure to eat this with some really mahery coffee. 

Mazotoa.

Song of the Traveler

Music is my first language; it’s how I understand and relate to the world. When I listen to music, I feel things I can’t describe in words. The sounds, the blending of notes, encapsulates and pulls at emotion better than any language.

Each place that’s influenced me, each important event, is marked in my mind with a song. It’s a song that we played over and over again to get us through dark times. Or, it’s a song we sang at the top of our lungs while driving, dancing, running, hiking, whatever. Still, to this day, I can listen to these songs and sing along without getting tired of them.

There’s only a handful of songs that do that for me.

But I couldn’t find that song in Madagascar. I don’t know why. I’ve listened to dozens of great songs, and learned a handful, but nothing pulled at that part of my heart where words don’t reach. That one song that is imprinted in my heart was somehow missing…

…and I’m wondering now if it made me feel somehow less than settled here. Or maybe I couldn’t find that song because I wasn’t settled. Nervous, anxious, couldn’t relax, couldn’t let music speak to me. Couldn’t put my roots down. I had this honest, angry thought that maybe I just don’t belong in a small village of Malagasy people…because I’ll never be Malagasy. No matter how good my language is, how much I dress or eat or act like the locals, I will never be one of them.

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And then, just recently, it hit me like lightning: Well obviously. I can never erase my skin or my face or my heritage, or rewrite my past, or will myself into being born in another part of the world instead.

But what I can do is learn, and try, and allow that learning to inform my behavior, my thoughts, and my responses (I almost said reactions, but I’m working on responding rather than reacting.) I’m still me; I’m still Melanie. I’ve been Melanie all along. Only, now, I’m Melanie who speaks Malagasy and sometimes braids her hair and dresses in colorful clothing and understands a little more about a little part of the world.

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Which brings me to this song: this beautiful, Malagasy folk song by two singers written and performed by two musicians from the East Coast of Madagascar: Mika and Davis. The lyrics, roughly summarized, are as follows:

How are you all? It’s so good to see you. What’s up? What’s new with you all?

There’s nothing new here. Our health is good.

There’s not a lot we’re bringing with us. We’re looking for goodness, we’re looking for happiness, we’re looking for wonder, we’re looking for love, we’re looking for things that will make us happy.  That’s what brought us here…

There’s nothing to make us sad. And there’s nothing that should make us fight.  But we missed you all, so we came to visit.

–Oh, it’s good to miss people. Thank you for visiting.

We’re happy to be here. We’re full of happiness to see you. We’re so happy to be with you.

I can’t stop listening to this song. Watching the music video, that little part in the depth of my heart came alive again and told my brain this simple lesson: You can belong to people who aren’t like you. That’s what makes friendship real. True friendship, the kind Malagasy call “havana,” meaning family from different blood, means that ‘I see your difference, I enjoy it, I learn from it, I appreciate it, and I accept you with it. With all of it.’ That is what this song means to me.

And that’s what this journey has been for me…me seeing my blaring difference, feeling like a white-bellied fish laid out on the ice in a grocery store, yet people saying to me, “just be here with us.”

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The Hills of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s San Francisco

We roll in late Saturday evening. Looking out the window, I see lights bobbing through dark windows in houses, dancing along the hills. I rub my eyes, still groggy from the ten hour drive from Antananarivo. Am I in San Francisco? In the dark of the night, winding through city hills, I think I could be.

Fianarantsoa is the fourth largest city in Madagascar. Its residents are the ethnic group Betsileo, who speak slowly. With my aggressive Northern dialect and cornrowed hair, I feel very out of place. But fortunately, that doesn’t last long. The fresh air, magnificent hilly views, cheap food and Gasy hospitality won me over. I’m hooked on the Southern Highlands.

Sometimes all you need is a little change in perspective…and cornrows.

Early next morning, we wander down the hill from our house to find coffee and mofo, bread. We pass children in brightly colored school uniforms, seas of blue and pink and magenta, backpacks perched and ready for the day. Men and women accompany them in business suits and jackets, women fashionably decorated with tasteful gold earrings, rings, and bracelets. Lining the streets are teams of mpivarotras, men and women selling clothes and shoes handing in wooden stalls or spread out on the ground. They sell roasted peanuts, yogurt and mofo on the sidewalks. I climb up to AnZoma, one of Fianar’s biggest market squares, and fall into a now familiar routine: bargaining.

My eyes fall on the goony sacs below, spilling over with rice and beans and fruits; avocados, tomatoes, garlic the size of a child’s fist. There are bunches of bananas weighing four pounds each. There are pumpkins as big as my head. I squat down and greet the seller with a familiar greeting, though it’s different from my dialect’s own.

Salaam e! Ino vaovao? —Mangina-e!

Hello! What’s new? –It’s quiet!

I knew this greeting from Pre-Service Training, which took place in the Northern Highlands. My Antakaragna accent is obvious ands I smile sheepishly. “Hoachino ma ty?” I ask for the price of beans. Fitonzato. Seven hundred ariary for a cup, about 25 cents. It seems fair. I order two cups worth and help her pour them into my sac. I add some onions and garlic to the pile. We exchange money and pleasantries, and I go on my way.

Fianar is not what I expect. It’s bigger, livelier, friendlier. We climb the top of the tallest hill and take in the view, and for a moment I forget to breathe.

Taking in the view of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s fourth largest city.

On our way back down, we pass through Old Town, the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country. A towering church, cobblestone streets, and the ruins of the late Queen’s palace can still be seen, only now they serve as a playground for school children and an ice cream shop for hungry locals and visitors exhausted from the hike up to Old Town.

Old Town Fianarantsoa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There’s more to see in the Southern Highlands than I expected. For my first trip south since being I’m country, it was a pretty good one.

The RN6

The Route National 6 goes from Maevatanana in the Northwestern part of Madagascar all the way up to Diego Suarez, the port city that is the northern most tip of the country. The drive from Maevatanana to Diego can take up to two days, depending on how long you stop, if you’re driving at night (not always recommended) and if there are a lot of freight trucks in front of you.

I made this drive with four other education volunteers, two Peace Corps drivers, and staff, almost two months ago, after I completed training and was sworn in as an official Volunteer. We departed from Tana early Saturday morning, September 9, with all our belongings stuffed in the back and on top of the jeeps. After spending most of the day winding up and around harrowing cliffs, the road begins to flatten. The mountains suddenly disappear. In their place appears flat, wide prairies as far as the eye can see, prairies that rise to greet the horizon with a whisper of “I feel your silence. I’ve been watching you for a hundred thousand years.” I’m speechless. What do I have that can measure up against the breadth of the Malagasy landscape?

 

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View from the Road

 

And just like that, new mountains appear like scraggly Hershey’s kisses, peppered with tall, magnanimous Ravinala: the national tree of Madagascar. The Ravinala tree stands tall and proud, its crazy palms spread wide like a male peacock during mating season. In the foreground, the trees become plentiful and the forest thickens with palms and banana trees. The dirt turns to sand, and I am home.

 

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The northern crew in front of my new Ravinala house.

 

Perhaps my favorite experience with the glorious RN6 so far are the long bike rides I’ve taken down its flat, paved, sometimes windy and always interesting path. Peace Corps issues every Madagascar volunteer a bicycle, because so many roads are in poor condition and public transportation can often be a hassle. I knew this from the beginning of training. I also knew that I hadn’t ridden a bike since being knocked off mine by a moving vehicle last year. I was a bit anxious.

Still, I don’t like to run away from challenges, especially ones that I believe I can overcome. I had a bike. I had a path. I had a helmet. And I had an abundance of time. It was a simple enough conclusion to draw: I was going to ride.

So I woke early one morning, lathered myself with sunscreen, and left my little Ravinala house behind. I mounted my bike and pushed away from the tarmac. The peddling came back easily, to my delight, like an old dance. The seat adjustment took a bit of time, as did figuring out the gears and learning how to navigate pedestrians, ox carts, public vans, big trucks and narrow bridges. But despite all these distractions, there were still stretches of my journey where I was completely alone: just me and the RN6. Mountains rose to shelter me on either side; I passed rice fields, banana fields, neighborhoods full of Ravinala houses like mine, kids eating mangoes, people sitting in the shade, pelicans eating fish from rivers. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I can’t quite describe it. I don’t have the vocabulary.

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Resting in a patch of shade

But there were moments where I’d look up to the sky, feel the weight and breadth of the air surrounding me and think, is this really my life?