The Injustice of Birth: Thoughts on an Urban Site

NOTE: It’s been ten months since the evacuation, and COVID-19 cases continue to rise every day. I’m still grounded in Memphis for the time being, though I’m making plans again. I wrote this blog back in January after moving to my third year, urban site. At the time of evacuation, I had started work on a grant for some really exciting remote teacher trainings and was just starting to get in the swing of things. But I never published this essay.

The reality of my new living environment, and how much it contrasted against my first site, was still troubling. I’m thinking about this again now, as COVID-19 has invariably changed the landscape of our schools and shaped the lives of our young people. As seems to be the case, those who will come out on top will probably not be the ones who were left at the bottom to begin with.

Written January 25, 2020 from Diego-Suarez, Madagascar

I’m finally in my new assignment, in my new home: a room in a unit in a compound behind the offices for the Direction Regionale de l’Education Nationale or DREN. Think of him as the state superintendent for public schools. I’ll be working closely with the English librarians here as well as the nearby Centre Regional de l’Institut National de Formation Pedagogique, the local teacher’s college.

My first week on this campus feels a lot like how I always imagined, when I was younger, what Peace Corps would be like: people were excited to meet me, dedicated to helping me get settled in my home, and scheduling meetings with me so that we could talk—in English—about my scope of work. They had even identified potential projects for me, all of which sound exciting and doable. But more on that later.

The difference between my arrival at my third year site and my arrival at my first year site couldn’t be more night and day. In fact, I can barely remember my first few days in Beramanja. I know I cooked on the floor, and my host brother brought me some really weird yogurt-y fruit that I had never seen before (but ended up enjoying). I remember various people came into my yard to meet me and, as I could barely speak Malagasy then, sat on my porch with me in silence. I remember getting pulled out of my house one morning before coffee to attend a teacher’s meeting, wherein I sat on a bench in a classroom with a pounding headache, sweating, while my new coworkers argued and yelled about which time slots they wanted, and probably a lot of other very important things to which I could in no way contribute.

Yet even as my language improved, the unpredictability and improbability of teaching at that school never went away. Classes were frequently cancelled due to rain, funerals, meetings, parties, holidays that never showed up on the school calendar, sports events, and, during my first year, a three-month teacher strike. I was slightly comforted talking to my fellow PCVs in other sites who experienced similar things. So, for the sake of integration, I learned to accept the unpredictability and not let it get to me. After all, everyone else was accepting it.

There are great, supportive teachers at my old site, as well as eager and curious students.  So why is it so widely accepted that the quality of their education should be less, and that infrequent classes and school cancellations are just a part of it?

It dawns on me now that perhaps my third-year site, with its English library and connectedness, is the exception, not the rule. Of course, an urban site does not dictate a supportive environment any more than a rural site dictates an unsupportive one. Sometimes it can be quite the opposite. Once again, we see the injustice of birth: is it true that a child born in a rural village has less opportunity to go to college than a child born in the regional capital? Or is it all about who they know? I honestly don’t have the answers. But I’d like to find out.

My new environment and scope of work feel so different: I have space here, and privacy, and workspaces. I’m working with adults now, not children. I’m working with colleagues who speak excellent English. It’s going to be a different experience, for sure. And I’m grateful to have it.

With a colleague at my third year posting, working with a teacher's college in Diego-Suarez, Madagascar
With a colleague at my new job in Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana), the Northern capital

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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