1 March 2014
As of today, I have been living in Madagascar for two years. During that time I’ve had the opportunity to meet some incredible people and experience things that I didn’t even know existed while becoming a more mature and observant person myself. I’d do it all over again and the thought of leaving behind my community and friends here is still difficult to accept.
That said, my time here is done and it’s time to let someone else have a chance. I’m being replaced by another Peace Corps Volunteer that is, at this very moment, at Pre-Service Training, laboring through the same language classes and safety and security sessions that I had in 2012. The new group of trainees has yet to select sites and it will be another week or so before I learn who is going to have the pleasure of spending the next two years in Ankazambo.
It seems as though I’ve spent the past two weeks preparing for this mystery person, filling out endless site replacement forms. When I finally sat down to write my blog, I simply didn’t have anything left to say. So I decided to take the easy way out and share with you a few bits of the welcome letter that I’ll be sending to an individual that I’ll likely never meet in person. To compose the following I used a few lines from a former volunteer in the region, Jacob Morrin. Jacob might be pleased to learn that his advice is still being heeded years after he closed his service.
You may note that parts of this letter are even more trite and optimistic than other blog posts (not an easy task, especially given my last entry). I did this intentionally because, generally speaking, Peace Corps Trainees are an emotionally fragile group and the last thing I want to do is scare anyone away before they even arrive at site. That said, I wouldn’t have taken the time to write all of this if I didn’t truly mean it. I loved my time in Madagascar and am constantly reminded of how lucky I am to have had this experience. I sincerely hope that my replacement feels the same way.
Welcome to Madagascar and congratulations on your site assignment: Ankazambo Atsimo!
Having lived in Ankazambo for two years, I can tell you without reservation that you’ve hit the jackpot. In my opinion, Ankazambo is one of the best sites in Madagascar, especially if you are interested in living in a small village, seeking that quintessential ‘Peace Corps Experience.’ This small town is full of welcoming, enthusiastic and hardworking people, eager to work with Peace Corps. Given the hospitable culture that exists within Ankazambo, it won’t be long before you feel at home and integrated. With the right attitude, you’ll have the opportunity to build strong, everlasting friendships while making a small but tangible impact on the development on Madagascar.
Allow me to repeat what you’ve undoubtedly heard countless times throughout your journey to this point: your Peace Corps experience will rank amongst the most challenging years of your life. That struggle; however, is what will ultimately make your time spent here is so rewarding. If you keep this simple fact in mind and remain relentlessly, annoyingly, and often irrationally optimistic, you’ll be amazed by what you can accomplish.
If your training experience has been anything like mine, you’ve probably received some sort of site description giving you a general idea of what to expect upon arrival. To give you a more complete picture of what your life might look like for the next two years, I thought that you might appreciate a firsthand appraisal of life in Ankazambo. Please take what I say with a grain of salt because I’m an admittedly biased source: I really like it here. I’ve tried to cover a diverse range of topics and I apologize in advance if some of this information is repetitive–I began writing before Peace Corps started demanding countless site-description documents during my last month of service. At the same time, this letter is far from exhaustive—there will still be plenty for you to figure out on your own once you arrive! So, without further ado, enjoy a brief look at your home for the next two years.
Ankazambo Atsimo is a tiny village on the RN 32 located 7km southeast of the much larger district capital of Befandriana-Nord, in the heart of the Sofia region. The road from Ankazambo to Befandriana is very good and the 20-minute bike ride is easy and enjoyable. The road from Antsohihy to Befandriana; however, is notoriously bad and getting worse. During the dry season (April through October) it takes about 3.5 hours to travel between Befandriana and Antsohihy but travel times increase during the height of the rainy season.
Ankazambo (literally meaning ‘at the tall trees’) consists of two separate fokontanys, Ankazambo Avaratra and Ankazambo Atsimo, separated by a shallow river. You will live in the latter but the towns’ close proximity ensures that you will probably have friends and counterparts in both. 630 people live in Ankazambo Atsimo and about 1000 in Ankazambo Avaratra.
The weather here varies from warm to hot. During the dry season the days are warm and very windy with cool nights. During the rainy season it can get very hot during the day but the evening rains usually make for cooler nights. Its location in the Northern Highlands keeps Ankazambo cooler than Antsohihy but still much, much hotter than the chilly climate you have grown accustomed to in Mantasoa.
The topography immediately surrounding Ankazambo is astoundingly beautiful as it is located at the base of a rocky mountain chain. Each one of these peaks has their own unique local legend and make for great hikes with local friends or other Peace Corps volunteers.
The Tsimihety People and Language
Tsimihety people, especially the men, can be loud, aggressive, boisterous and annoying. Even other Malagasy will tell you that the Tsimihety are famous for ‘mankalefaka olono,’ annoying others by poking fun. When you first arrive you may be surprised by this more aggressive culture, significantly more outgoing than that of the
Merina (people from the highlands like your host family in Mantasoa). Just know that while people may tease you initially, they usually mean no offense, it’s just their way of interacting casually.
I mention the above primarily to help prepare you for your time in the larger Tsimihety towns (Antsohihy, Befandriana-Nord and Mandritsara.) In general, I have found that people in small communities such as Ankazambo have treated both visitors and myself very kindly and with great deference.
The Tsimihety language is fun to learn and practice with the number of people who will be eager to talk to you. It gets incredibly difficult and complex the more you try to study the ‘real’ Tsimihety. The Tsimihety people love proverbs and poems–and most of them are really funny. There is a whole book of Tsimihety proverbs that I’ll try to leave you. Try to get people to teach you some of them. They are a great way to not only learn the Tsimihety language, but also to break the ice of any social interaction and show people who you respect and know the local culture….
The House, Things in the House, and Utilities
Your ‘house’ is actually two rooms within the home of your landlord. You will share a front door and terrace with them and to the immediate left is your space with another locking door, and two windows. This close proximity means that, if you’d like, this family could become more like a Malagasy host family. In the site binder, I listed Ankazambo as a host family living situation simply because it is the living arrangement that I have chosen to pursue; however, I have made it clear to your landlords that you may desire more privacy. They will not be offended, whatsoever, if you choose to live more as a boarder than as a member of the family.
Obviously, living with a host family has some drawbacks, most notably being the lack of privacy and the need to be prepared to speak in Malagasy all of the time. For me, however, the benefits far outweighed these negative factors because it forced me to immediately improve my language ability, helped immensely with initial integration and protected me from overzealous or undesirable visitors. All members of this family also helped immensely with my projects (and are very enthusiastic about your Agriculture project framework)…
People in town
At first, I was hesitant to take advantage of their abundant hospitality because I feared that they expected something in return; however, befriending them was probably the best decision I ever made. They are extremely honest and genuinely friendly. They will likely accept you into their family and go out of their way to ensure your comfort. That said, so much attention could infringe on your privacy so the trick is to establish boundaries early on. You can always loosen them once you’re more comfortable.
Karim- The most reserved, stoic man I have ever met, his perpetual silence, usually accompanied by a steely stare could be initially intimidating. That said, Karim is, in fact, one of the most supportive, diligent and generous friends you could hope to find. He played a key role in ensuring my integration. He is one of the most respected community leaders in the region: when he talks, everyone listens. He served as mayor of Ankazambo for over a decade but stepped down to take a leadership position in the microfinance institution CECAM. He is well-connected within the Befandriana professional community so you would do well to befriend him.
Josian- The polar opposite of her husband with regards to temperament, Josian is cheerful, outgoing and incredibly loving. She will likely care for you with the tenacity of an overprotective mother. She serves as a community health worker and representative for Project MAHEFA and was instrumental in the implementation of my secondary project. She is also an excellent gardener and is very interested in the Agriculture project framework.
Josia (23), Othinel (17), Josimar (15)- Your landlords’ kids will likely become some of your best friends in Madagascar. Josia lives and studies in Mahajanga so you will likely only see her around the holidays. Othinel lives in Befandriana during the school year and studies at the high school but he returns home every weekend, some weekdays and for the summer. He’s a very good student and will love to practice his limited English with you. Josimar lives at home and studies at the private school in Ankazambo Avaratra. He and I got to be very close friends. He’s a bright, inquisitive kid who will be fiercely interested in what you have to say.
Islairno (2)- In case you’re wondering where the toddler came from, he is, in fact, your landlord’s grandson (it took me a while to figure that one out). His dad lives in Ambanja and his mom in Ankazambo Avaratra. You’re landlords play a big role in raising him. He can be a little brat but he’s a ton of fun to have around. Don’t be intimidated if his Malagasy is better than yours, he’s learning quickly and we can’t get him to stop talking.
Other family members- Josian has a huge family that lives just north of Ambodibonara (about 3km north of Ankazambo). They’ll be popping in constantly for meals with your landlords, to meet you and to ask you bizarre questions about the United States.
Fizel- Fizel was my main counterpart and best friend for two years. On top of being an incredible blacksmith, he’s diligent, enthusiastic, open-minded, and committed to development. As president of the blacksmith association Loharanonkariana, he has a lot of influence within the community. At the same time, he is prone to taking on too many responsibilities at once and becoming visibly overwhelmed. He will likely reach out to you immediately but if he doesn’t, don’t take offense–it’s probably just because he’s very busy.
Evariste- Evariste is another blacksmith and influential community leader. He is very friendly and will likely be very kind to you. He serves as secretary of the small Ankazambo Atsimo Adventitst Church and is actively involved in the blacksmith association (the new workshop is built on his property). Unfortunately, he has a reputation in some parts of the community for being stubborn and difficult (he and Fizel have been involved in a farmland dispute for the last few months). I only mention this so that you’re aware of the current village political situation. From my perspective, Evariste is an excellent counterpart. At the moment, Fizel and Evariste are still both members of Loharanonkariana and working together.
Other Blacksmiths in Loharanonkariana:
Officially, there are 25 members in the Association LOHARANONKARIANA. We’re in the process of weeding some members out because of late dues payments and lack of enthusiasm; however, regardless of their status within the group, most of the 25 are good counterparts. The most hardworking of these counterparts are: Fizel, Evariste, Rabenandrasana, Marofrancois, Rajaonera, Robison, Augustin, Vavilahy, Rajon Andre and Flotex. This group might be a good place to start when searching for counterparts.
In general, the people living in Ankazambo (especially the kids) have been extremely kind to me and, thanks in part to my landlords, not overly aggressive or annoying. Upon arriving, I would make a point to ask your landlords to give you their impression of different families in Ankazambo and if there are any that you should avoid.
I spent about 80% of my time working in Ankazambo Atsimo and the rest working in Ankazambo Avaratra. While I was consistently busy, I feel as though the Ankazambo Avaratra community felt a bit slighted and I now regret not spending more time with the blacksmiths there. My reasoning was mostly political as Prosperer encouraged that I work only with Loharanonkariana, all members of which live in Ankazambo Atsimo; however, I always thought that Ankazambo Avaratra had a lot of potential for a community organizer. My advice would be to reach out more to that community whether it’s with the blacksmith group ‘Tsimanavaka’ or with an Agriculture-based project just to see if you get a similar feeling. Not long ago, the CSA initiated a project here and I recommend looking into it. (Please see my ‘Final Report’ for more detailed information about ‘Tsimanavaka’).
Pastor Elia- Pastor Elia serves as the director of the private school in Ankazambo Avaratra (Ecole Brilliant Avenir). He’s a really cool guy, speaks English fairly well and is an excellent counterpart if you are interested in teaching life skills or English at the school. He’s also in the process of planning a trip to the United States to attend an Adventist Conference in San Antonio in July 2015. He might ask you for your advice regarding his trip and I’ve promised to stay in touch with him once in the US.
Dr. Mahatana- Dr. Mahatana runs the hospital in Ankazambo Avaratra (on the same complex as the Adventist School) with his wife and son. He is very hospitable; his English is excellent and could be an excellent counterpart if you’re interested in a secondary health project. That said, he works 12-hour days and is almost always busy so make sure to make an appointment if you want to meet with him.
Lucien- Lucien is my good friend and was my Tsimihety teacher for two years. His English is excellent and he is always eager to improve it. I’d highly recommend him as a tutor.
Frederik- Frederik is another good friend of mine and is one of Kim Mullvain’s (ED 2012-2014) best students. His English is also very good and he’s a great kid. He will also make you peanut butter for 2.000Ar plus the price of peanuts. I’d recommend taking advantage.
Hotely Ladies- I’ve become very close with the women that run the Hotel Musulman and they’ve befriended Peace Corps volunteers for the last several years. They will likely befriend you immediately, be very interested in your work and constantly grill you with questions to help you improve your Malagasy. Their food is also the best in town.
Prosperer- My counterpart organization, Prosperer, provides business development services and resources to rural businesses, particularly artisans. They host trainings on financial management, marketing, and entrepreneurialism in rural communities and Befandriana. They will be very eager to meet you so pop into the office sometime (just south of the Hotel Musulman) and meet Jean, Mamy and Bablice. Jean also speaks very good English and all are very well-connected with CECAM and the CSA. You are not required to work with Prosperer but they could prove to be very helpful counterparts.
Lycee- Kim Mullvain (ED 2012-2014) currently lives and teaches at Befandriana’s public lycee. She has a lot of great, friendly counterparts so ask her to introduce some of the school’s administration and teachers. They’ll likely be very eager to meet the new American in town…
I know that it may seem overwhelming right now, but once you get to site, things will really start to make sense and you’ll be able to fill in the missing pieces. I promise that there is a still a ton for you to figure out on your own and you’ll be able to explore places, work and relationships that I never discovered myself. You’re going to do great. Just take things slow, be patient with yourself and enjoy the little things because it goes faster than you can possibly imagine… Read the rest of this entry »