Tonga Soa eto Ankazambo!

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.

Welcome home!

The Town

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

Your Landlords:

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.

Their kids:

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.

 Ankazambo Avaratra:

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…

Final Words

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 »

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 2, 2014 in Uncategorized


Hazo tokana tsy mba ala: One tree does not make a forest

I missed the first bus back home by five minutes.  It was the first time during my two years in this country that I had been late for anything.  My phone was turned to silent and I missed the driver’s nine frantic phone calls within the span of three minutes.  I was going through trash when he called, busy salvaging old beer placards from my friend’s neighbor’s trash.  I walked away with two vintage THB signs.

I took my seat in the muggy, cramped shack that served as the bus company’s office to await the next car home.  The sun beat down on the tin roof while the smell of charcoal smoke and hot oil lingered in the air just above the putrefying reek of decaying, wet trash.  For four hours I studied the forgotten goony sacks of now rotting ginger while my clothes became heavy with sweat.  Finally, I took my seat in the car while the oppressive, heavy air was transformed into sheets of rain that began falling through the open windows of our rusting minibus.

There were twelve passengers to fill the twelve-person van–the fewest I had ever traveled with.  It had proven impossible for our driver to convince any more voyagers that we could complete the 86-kilometer journey that day as the rain began to pour harder and harder over the steamy streets of Antsohihy.

I had resigned myself to a long ride.  It was the height of the rainy season and the road to Befandriana Nord, the RN 32, always in notoriously bad shape, was now nearly impassable.  Three months of daily downpours had transformed the rutted dirt road into a river of knee-deep mud.

Some spots still retained traces of the 20-year-old asphalt but to travel further would be to drive straight into a twenty-foot chasm, places where the road had collapsed in upon itself.  There were five such gulches on this route, places where the drainage pipes had been ripped from beneath the pavement by local residents, sold cheaply to passing trucks and made into charcoal stoves.

To circumvent the missing sections of road, drivers deviate into the rolling and deforested hills of the western Sofia Region. Deviations take travelers miles off course in order navigate around rivers, hills, rocks and trees while degrading the makeshift mud path with every voyage.

The rain quickly washed away the mud beneath our tires.  It wasn’t long before we became hopelessly stuck on the first deviation, fifteen minutes into our trip.  Our young driver was brash and relentlessly optimistic–before he took us through any difficult patch of road he would say a short prayer that we would not be stuck permanently. He ordered everyone out into the rain.  I slipped off my two-dollar flip-flops and grabbed the battered front towrope with four other men.

We heaved for ten minutes through red mud more slippery than ice before the bus finally began to inch up the hill behind us.  My heart was pounding in my ears so loudly that it wasn’t until we reached the top of the hill that I noticed the older women in our group had put down their umbrellas and stood in front of us, cheering loud encouragement as we pulled the bus up the hill.

Back in the minibus, now sour from the smell of soaked and sweating passengers, I fell sound asleep for ten minutes before we were stuck again.  The rain was now a steady drizzle but the damage to the road was done–we would be stuck in the mud nine such times on this trip and each time my fellow travelers and I would stumble blearily out into the rain to play tug-of-war with the lame and lurching minibus.

Halfway into the seven-hour trip all twelve passengers, varying greatly in age, gender and socio-economic status were helping to pull our car through the mud and driving rain.  The posh student from the capital city toiled side-by-side with the village-bound elderly mother of six without so much as a remark.  Not even I was out of place.

When my hands became raw and blistered the elderly mother wrapped them for me with her head wrap. When one of us would stumble and fall we would all laugh but only briefly before helping that person to wash off the mud–there was no hesitation, no pessimism, no complaining, only a tremendous sense of community.  I’ve heard it said that great adversity brings people together like no other force.  If that’s true, perhaps it is the reason that in Madagascar, one of the poorest and most underdeveloped nations on the planet, groups of strangers exhibit such a profound sense of community, unimaginable by Western standards.

My hands were stiff by the time I reached Befandriana and I couldn’t stop the twitch in my right shoulder. I had scraped up my shins and the tops of both of my feet but I couldn’t distinguish mud from blood. I was exhausted beyond description.  That night, I fell asleep on the floor, content, but not entirely sure why.  I know now that it was because the short experience had reaffirmed my love of Malagasy culture.

It occurred to me long before this trip that the thing that I love most about Madagascar is not the pristine beaches, astounding wildlife or breathtaking natural scenery.  What truly makes this strange place home is the Malagasy people themselves–their hospitality, kindness and the unmistakable sense of community I feel no matter where on this vast island I travel.

Before I arrived here I would have cringed at such a vast and apparently patronizing generalization, which is why I have thus far resisted the temptation to write it; however, since this blog serves as a document of my own experience, the only conclusion that I can reasonably draw from countless interactions with a diverse group of Malagasy friends, counterparts and strangers is that the Malagasy sense of community, charity and hospitality is significantly more developed than it is in American culture.

On public transportation in the US, I’d be viewed as eccentric if I so much as acknowledged my fellow passengers but in bush taxis in Madagascar, I’ve been invited to weddings before learning the person on my lap’s name.  On a longer trip, a student about my age gave me his headphones as a gift because I briefly allowed him to borrow my iPod and we shared a similar taste for the music of Jay-Z.  I have forgotten large sums of money at markets and expensive items in taxis; yet, on all occasions, bystanders have taken it upon themselves to seek me out and return these things.

Personal space is different here as well.  I was once at a craft fair in the capital city of Antananarivo, a metropolis of nearly 2 million, when an elderly man, a stranger to me, noticed that I was picking at a splinter in my hand.  Within seconds he was pawing at my hand while his wife ran off to find a needle.

My favorite Malagasy cultural norm is the powerful (and often intimidating) desire to help strangers.  Ask a stranger for directions and it’s not uncommon for your guide to drop what he or she is doing, take you by the hand and lead you to your destination.  I used to think that this practice was reserved for the villages until I learned about the same thing happening in Antananarivo (the destination was almost two kilometers away and the guide was a waiter in the middle of his shift).

On the fourth largest island in the world, inhabited by 18 different tribes, I’m always astounded by the unanimously warm hospitality no matter where I travel.  Upon my arrival to Ankazambo, the entire community was there to welcome and bestow gifts upon me–a stranger who, by all accounts, closely resembled the new village idiot.

While visiting Samantha in her village of Ste. Luce, possibly the poorest community I have ever seen, I was given more presents upon my arrival than I will be able to carry home.  Later, during that same trip my bicycle seat broke in the middle of a ride.  We were stranded on the side of the road for less than three minutes before Sam’s friend passed by and gave me his own bike seat, took mine home and repaired it for free.

If I were to list all of the instances during my service in Madagascar when my faith in humanity was reinforced, this would be a much longer entry.  The most important lesson that I’ll take from my Peace Corps service is the simple fact that people, regardless of cultural heritage, are inherently good.  It’s possible that in the collectivist Malagasy culture the social norms that, in individualistic cultures impede charity towards strangers have been stripped away, offering a less diluted view of our true humanity.  Such conclusions; however, are far beyond my meager pay grade.

What I do know is simple: if the humanity, charity and strength that I have witnessed during my two years on this island is indicative of the entire country, there is nothing but tremendous hope for Madagascar.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 5, 2014 in Uncategorized


My Parents’ Visit to Madagascar: Part 2

After a long hiatus, I’m finally getting back to the blog. I had to take a break from posting for a while because I was spending my days in Ankazambo overseeing a sanitation construction project and my nights studying for the GRE by candlelight.  The latrine buildings are complete and I’ve taken the GRE but I wouldn’t recommend undertaking the two projects simultaneously.  After spending months on end in Ankazambo, I had racked up a substantial number of vacation days so I took a long-awaited trip to the southern tip of Madagascar to visit my girlfriend, Samantha.  The trip was unforgettable and I would have been devastated to leave if it didn’t mean returning home to my own amazing community on the other side of the island.  All of that, however, is for a different post.  As embarrassing as it is to admit, I still need to complete ‘part two’ of my parent’s visit to Madagascar in May.  Life moves slowly in Madagascar and the fact that it’s taken me over six months to chronicle a 10-day trip should serve as evidence of my ability to assimilate to Malagasy culture—or at least that’s my best excuse.

Less than five days into our trip we had already swum in both the Indian Ocean and the Mozambique Channel, cruised the streets of Diego in a tuk-tuk, walked beneath a canopy of lemurs, traversed a hanging bridge suspended over razor sharp rocks and snorkeled with sea turtles.  Having yet to reach the main attraction (my village) I feared that my community wouldn’t live up to my parents’ expectations—or even my own.  In case previous entries have not yet made it abundantly clear, I have a great deal of pride in my community and too often (and often to the chagrin of fellow volunteers) I boast that I have the best site in the country.  That said, in many ways, Ankazambo is an insignificant dusty backwater on an obscure road to nowhere.  Our driver, Abdou, made no attempt to hide his astonishment that tourists were interested in going anywhere in the country without lemurs or a beach.

Having been exposed to Madagascar from the perspective of a tourist had made me self-conscious: did I oversell Ankazambo?  Was it really as beautiful and welcoming as I had convinced myself it to be?  Would my parents appreciate the Spartan simplicity of my home without amenities like running water and electricity or would they object to the fact that my kitchenware amounted to two rusty knives, an empty jar of peanut butter, and several bottles of hot sauce?

Either way, I had a lot time to think about it.  After three days on Nosy Be we crossed the narrow channel to the main island by speedboat, piled into the 4×4 and began the long and winding drive through densely forested mountains to the dry plains of Antsohihy, where we were to spend the night.  Even by private car, the trip took a long time.

Unfortunately, at the end of this leg we were not to be greeted by sandy beaches or a national park but Antsohihy: “Madagascar’s Truck Stop” (this name is, in fact, endearing when compared with my own expletive-filled nickname for the city).  While Antsohihy serves as a regional capital and a hub for all transport between half a dozen major cities, there isn’t a thing to see.  The guidebook has only one paragraph about Antsohihy, the first line of which is “This uninspiring town…” What it lacks in charm it more than makes up for with an abundance of heat, humidity and mosquitoes.  If I was overselling, my site, I was certainly doing my best to undersell Antsohihy.

We rolled into Antsohihy not having any idea where we would stay but encountered an unbelievable stroke of good luck when we found a brand-new hotel with air conditioning.  If Madagascar has taught me anything it’s that luxury is relative.  After a month in the village, a room with flush toilet might as well be the Hilton.  At this point, I hadn’t had air conditioning in over a year so I shamelessly turned the dial to 60 degrees, woke up shivering and, for the first time in my service, began to love Antsohihy.

We woke up early the next morning in order to make it to Ankazambo before breakfast.  Finally, the day had come where I would get to introduce my family to Ankazambo and vice versa.  Despite my nervous energy and the horribly bumpy dirt road, I fell asleep and drooled all over myself, my head bouncing around like a rag doll.  While I can hardly sleep at night in my home, put me in a smelly, crowded taxi brousse on a terrible road and I’m out like a light, often to the chagrin of my fellow passengers—in my sleep it’s not uncommon for me to head-butt a toddler or wake up drooling on an unfortunate old lady’s shoulder.

We stopped for breakfast 7km before Ankazambo in the much larger town of Befandriana where I called my landlord to let him know that we were close.  At this point I was more nervous than I had been when I first arrived at site over a year earlier.  I had absolutely no idea what to expect upon driving into Ankazambo but, if I had, my expectations would have fallen short: the reception was overwhelming. Hundreds of singing women and children lined the streets while the men stood by in honor of our arrival or possibly just to catch a glimpse of my family.  We hardly had time to put our bags down before we were whisked away to the town hall for a formal reception.

Having experienced the madness that is public speaking in Madagascar during my first few hours in Ankazambo, I had advised my dad to compose a brief speech that he dictated in English while I translated into Malagasy.  We then presented the three proclamations from various political offices that my parents had brought from home commemorating Ankazambo’s hospitality while I pitifully tried to translate phrases like ‘extend the hand of friendship’ and ‘hereunto’ into Malagasy.  In the days that followed I provided suitable translations, which now hang alongside the original documents in the town hall.

It was only after the long reception that I was finally able to exhale.  The four of us returned to my home and tried to relax but the constant stream of visitors made such a task impossible.  We decided to beat my neighbors at their own game and walk around the 600-person village until they were sick of us.  First, we visited the blacksmiths and their new workshop where my father demonstrated both his blacksmithing abilities and talent for physical humor.  I introduced them to everyone in town that I could think of and while I often forgot to translate the conversations into English, I’m sure that the sheer repetition taught my parents a number of key phrases.

Everywhere we went, an entourage of dozens of curious kids followed us. Their diligence was rewarded in the late morning when we distributed some candy and small toys; however, if I were to do this again, I would have my mother standing by with canisters of tear gas.  The commotion should have come as no surprise seeing as that kids the world over love free candy.  The morning continued much like this until we ran out of candy and the kids slowly dispersed.

We then gathered at my home for a lunch prepared by my landlord’s family.  Knowing that Americans eat much less rice than the Malagasy, they were sure to provide the whole spread complete with fresh fruit, beef and dessert as opposed to the usual: two bowls of rice and two spoonfuls of boiled salted-greens.  We finally relaxed a bit that afternoon, visited a few more of Ankazambo’s elders, ate another delicious meal and exchanged gifts.  That evening we all sat out beneath the southern hemisphere stars on a perfectly clear night.

I find it difficult to recount my family’s visit to Ankazambo without speaking in clichés but the short visit to Ankazambo was everything that I could have possibly hoped for—not only did my parents get a taste of my daily life, it gave my two families an opportunity to finally meet and provided memories that I’ll keep forever. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, the daily grind often makes it easy to forget how important one’s site is to him or her and I firmly believe that nothing helps one to appreciate that place more than hosting family and friends.  As touched as Samantha and my parents were by the reception, it’s likely that I appreciated the short visit more than anyone else.

Sadly, very early the next morning we drove out of Ankazambo just before sunrise and it was no surprise that my entire Ankazambo family was there to see us off, a fitting end to a quick but meaningful visit.  That day we were to make the 14-hour drive to the capital city of Antananarivo.  The drive was long by most standards but good company and a reliable automobile made it much more enjoyable than all of my other taxi brousse adventures.

By the time we reached our hotel that night we were all so drained that we decided to skip the next day’s planned trip to a lemur reserve just outside of the capital and rest in Antananarivo.  I was thankful for it because it gave me the opportunity to explore the decrepit, windings streets of Tana with my parents.  We ended up at the Rova, the former palace of Madagascar’s royalty, situated on top of the largest of Tana’s many steep hills.  From there we could see for miles in every direction and the views were spectacular even if our rambling tour guide wasn’t.

That evening we recounted our adventures over drinks and a delicious dinner.  Samantha surprised my parents (and, sadly, me) with a cake that she had the restaurant prepare and deliver in honor of their 30th anniversary.  It was a great night to end an unforgettable trip.  As we sat around the table enjoying each other’s company, the end of our voyage fast approaching, I couldn’t help but marvel at the astonishing variety of activity we had packed into ten days.  This thought made me all the more thankful that I have had the opportunity to live for over two years on this island—home to countless unique experiences and welcoming people.  I was even more thankful; however, that I was able to share some of my life with my family.



Posted by on January 8, 2014 in Uncategorized


My Parents’ Visit to Madagascar: Part I

Having lived on an island at the edge of the world for over sixteen months, I feel more settled in Ankazambo, Madagascar than I have in any other place since moving out of my parents home at 18.  Indeed, it occurred to me recently that I’ve lived at the same ‘address’—Ankazambo Atsimo, at the foot of rugged, windswept mountains—for a longer time than any other single place in my adult life.  I love it here and, at times, the concept of a world beyond my six-hundred-person-community terrifies me.  The sense of stability amongst friends is an enormous stroke of good luck and I’m happy to have found myself in a place that has so warmly embraced me.  That said, the comfortable life, void of peculiar and difficult experiences is, by definition, monotonous and I regularly experience great internal conflict between my love of Ankazambo and the longing for travel and a constantly changing horizon.

At a time when my world was feeling just a bit too ordinary, my parents visited Madagascar, which gave me the opportunity to view my home through a different lens, that of someone new to the shores of this strange and beautiful place.  Our trip, which took us from the hot, sandy northern shores to the damp, misty central highlands allowed me to see my life on this island with a new sense of appreciation.  Life in the Peace Corps is defined by extended periods of uneventful frustration, punctuated by brief moments of unrivaled elation.  Those fleeting few moments make the entire experience worth it.  Traveling through Madagascar with my father, mother and girlfriend was the trip of a lifetime and it provided me with more euphoric moments than I could have possibly imagined.  For purely selfish reasons, I wanted to document the trip—albeit three months too late—so that in tedious moments, I am reminded of how great this place really is.

After forty hours on the road, we found ourselves in Madagascar’s northern-most city of Diego Suarez.  It was Samantha and myself; both of us country bumpkins, eager to experience an extended stay in the lap of luxury—after all, my parents were buying.  We spent the three days before my parents arrived exploring the crumbling colonial facades and decaying hotels of one of Madagascar’s oldest and most unique cities before venturing off to secluded beach villages for freshly caught seafood, served beach-side for less than five dollars.

By the time my parents arrived, Sam and I had experienced the best of Diego—but we were also completely broke.  Global socio-economic inequality is well demonstrated through the attempt to live like an American tourist on a Peace Corps budget: as a volunteer, I make just over $6 per day—that’s not enough to buy an appetizer at Diego’s nice hotel but its over 25% of my monthly rent in the village.  At the risk of sounding victimized, it should be noted that volunteers have it too easy when you take into account the fact that 92% of Madagascar lives on less than $2 per day.  By comparison, it costs $8 just to get through the doors of this particular hotel.  Needless to say, for this particular trip, I would need to use some of my American savings.

Lucky for me, my parents were on their way to bail me out of my monetary woes and landed at Diego Suarez’s only airport the next day, unaware of my tenuous financial situation; Sam and I were there to greet them.  Antsiranana Airport is a single runway with a two room terminal building, which serves as a good yet slightly overwhelming welcome to Madagascar’s northern most capital and is indicative of the Madagascar’s lack of development.  Departure and arrival times are written (and periodically delayed) on a small chalkboard placed above the outdoor café where well-dressed foreigners sit at card tables sipping strong espresso and sleepy-eyed gendarme security officers look on impassively, drinking from huge bottles of THB.  Before the plane even touches down there is a mass gathering of aggressive porters, taxi drivers, and outright thieves vying desperately for the business of naïve tourists.  They are kept at bay by a rope barrier and a single fatigue-clad gendarme officer carrying a rusting AK-47.

I had been looking forward to the moment of my parents’ arrival since they dropped me off at the airport in Chicago on a misty February morning the previous year.  Unfortunately, our Madagascar airport reunion was a bit rushed in an effort to avoid harassment by countless hordes of porters and drivers—we half-jogged to our prearranged taxi as if fleeing a hailstorm.  Once safely inside the tiny yellow Volkswagen, we finally began to catch up while my dad held the back hatch closed to keep his bags from falling out.

We had a lot to catch up on and it was after nine in the morning so we went directly to the first empty table at the first open café that was serving beer.  Almost immediately, I launched into the carefully constructed itinerary for the next eleven days that Samantha and I had painstakingly designed to give my parents the most enjoyable tour possible of the island.  Never being much of a planner, I was taken aback by how seriously I took my role of tour guide, which, I’ve come to realize, is because I love this country and want nothing more than to impart the same sense of appreciation to my family.

Our first stop was Diego’s vibrant market, which sprawls out for blocks in every direction and one can find everything from Chinese electronics to fresh fish—often in neighboring stalls.  Diego, a port city, has a market that is unrivaled in Madagascar both in terms of selection and atmosphere.  It’s a place where a vendor’s demeanor seems inextricably linked to his or her products.  Those that sell cheap manufactured goods are often soft-spoken but overeager.  By contrast the half-naked fishmongers are aggressive and impatient and wiry; cleaver-wielding, young butchers are rowdy and fun loving.  All the while, stout matronly women watch on stoically, frying fish and bananas that they sell for a quarter. 

After thoroughly exploring the market we hopped in tuk-tuks (scooter taxis), which took us to my parents’ hotel, on the shores of Diego Bay, to rest up and prepare for our next stop in Ramena, a beach town a few kilometers around the curve of the bay.  Having spent the previous two weeks in Botswana, my mom wasn’t combating the same kind of jetlag as my dad who passed out in the back of taxi before I had even finished bargaining the fare.  I’ve since been told that the first day is still haze for my dad who had just passed through nine time zones in a matter of twenty four hours.  I can only imagine the sensory overload caused by experiencing a Malagasy market day on 2 hours of sleep.

Upon arriving at the beach village we headed directly for the nearest restaurant, Chez Martha, a wooden, open-air hut with a thatched roof and no floor, located right on the beach.  I had been here twice before and I don’t think that I’ll ever find a more enjoyable dining experience. We sank our toes into the sand and sipped cocktails while waiting for our first course: heaping portions of salad, fresh vegetables and loaves of French bread.  This was followed by another round of drinks and steaming plates of freshly caught calamari in curry sauce served along side coconut rice.  For dessert, our waitress brought us fresh fruit and an entire bottle of punch coco, a rum-based aperitif.  The entire meal including drinks cost about six dollars per person.  Once again, I was reminded of my first days in Madagascar when such cheap prices would have astounded me but now, thanks to my parents, my world was made anew.

The next morning we rose before the sun, eager to get to our next destination: Ankarana National Park, about 60 km south of Diego.  Our driver for the week was to be Abdou, an affable and soft-spoken guy in his early thirties.  Having worked as a private driver for years, his French was good but he only spoke a little bit of English.  During the trip, he and I discussed the week’s program in Malagasy while Sam translated from the back seat to my parents.  In the following encounters with Malagasy people I tended to forget to translate important conversations. Luckily, Sam was there and did a better job about keeping my parents in the loop than I ever did.

The drive would have taken upwards of three hours if we had gone by taxi brousse but Abdou got us there in under an hour, adeptly dodging all potholes and all but two chickens at incredible speeds.  I was as excited as a dog experiencing his first car ride—the greatest luxury of the entire trip for me because I wasn’t forced to share my seat with two chickens and no one vomited on me like in previous rides. 

Immediately upon arriving at the park, we were greeted by a friendly Malagasy man speaking in perfect English who introduced himself as our guide, as if he had been expecting us.  I admired his confidence and within an hour of arriving at the park, we were off exploring Ankarana’s otherworldly sights including the entrance to a massive underground river system and three distinctly different ecosystems.  We began our hike in dense jungle, craning our necks to the canopy to see jumping lemurs and panning down to the trunks to observe timid chameleons and leaf-tailed geckos.  Within two hours we might as well have been on a different planet, baking under a merciless sun, scrambling over Ankarana’s famous ‘Tsingy.’  The word is suitably derived from the Malagasy word meaning to tiptoe and true to this moniker, we proceeded carefully over vast fields of razor sharp rock and steep crevasses.  The highlight of this trek is the 60-foot suspended cable bridge, hanging precariously above the canopy of the crevasse below.  What I appreciated most about our guide was his reckless abandon, actively encouraging me to use the bridge as a personal trampoline.  He even helped double bounce me from the other end.

In many ways, the trip was beginning to reminded me of my childhood summer vacations when my mom and dad would take us all hiking in Door County, the Smoky Mountains or Colorado.  Hiking trips were always my favorite and they imparted upon me a love of nature and adventure; but my parents never sensed how hard I had to work to keep up with the rest of the group on longer hikes—it didn’t help that I was a chubby little guy with mild asthma.  Pre-adolescent arrogance prevented me from ever letting on to them or my brothers how tired I was and I often insisted on leading the group.  Of course they patronized me but, even if I was leading the hike, I always knew that I wasn’t really in charge.  As we teetered over the rock fields, it slowly dawned on me that for the first family vacation in my lifetime, I was actually in charge.  I wasn’t just the plump, wheezing twelve year-old at the front of the line—I had actual responsibilities!  In a country where my parents didn’t speak the language, know the culture, or even know parts of the itinerary, it was up to Sam and me to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip for my folks, payback for the countless trips they had led throughout my younger years.

Following a nearly five-hour hike we were all exhausted and collapsed into our bungalows to spend the rest of the hot day napping or playing soccer with the camp guard’s kids until evening when we sat under the stars catching up on the past year while sipping massive bottles of beer and rhum arrangé (flavored rum).

We rose the next morning before five and packed the car by flashlight because the camp electricity was still not up and running.  We piled into the 4×4 with Abdou and began the short drive to the port village of Ankify where we were to board a speedboat to Nosy Be, a small island off the northwest coast of Madagascar.  I warned my parents about Ankify’s aggressive porters and boat captains and about how, on a previous trip, two over-zealous porters had literally pulled me in opposite directions towards their boats until I was able to squirm free.  Having braced myself for the worst, the insanity of Ankify seemed relatively tame.  My habit of planning for the absolute worst makes every trip feel like a breeze.

The early-morning waters were placid and we silently admired the white beaches, and lush, forested islands amidst the loud drone of the outboard motor.  The crossing from Ankify to Nosy Be ranks amongst my favorite places in Madagascar.  It’s a close second to Nosy Be itself.  Nosy Be literally means ‘Big Island’ but the term is relative; one can drive around the entire ‘Big Island’ in less than two hours. 

Nosy Be is also home to a higher density of foreigners than any other place in Madagascar—mostly European expatriates and tourists.  Despite a predisposition to dismiss Nosy Be as some sort of neocolonial tourist trap, I’ve come to love it in spite of myself as it exhibits a nice blend of Malagasy and Western cultures.  In the island’s port city, the slow, sleepy pace of coastal Malagasy life plays out in front of decrepit French colonial administration offices and, down the road, beach villages are home to Italian-owned resorts interspersed amongst rusty, tin-roofed shanties and beach houses.

After the frantic pace of the first two days, our goal was to take things as slow as possible for our three days on the island.  We stayed at a guesthouse on the island’s isolated northwest coast that is owned by an eccentric and excitable Frenchman from Mauritius—his eagerness to please, and infatuation with his newly opened property bordered on fanatical.

We spent the first day relaxing, swimming and drinking cocktails on Andilana Beach, world-renowned for its picturesque white sand and blue waters.  While Madagascar has turned both Sam and myself into discerning beach snobs, Andilana lived up to its impressive reputation.  That night we went to my favorite restaurant in Nosy Be, an Italian-owned place in the tourist town of Ambatoloaka that serves cheap specialty drinks and some of the best zebu burgers in Madagascar.  After our meal we sat on the restaurant’s balcony observing Ambatoloaka’s nightlife and my parents couldn’t help but remark at the unusually large number of old European men with young Malagasy women. 

It’s a sad reality that despite the continuing global economic crisis, national political instability, and economic stagnation, one of the few remaining strong sectors of the Malagasy economy is the sex tourism industry.  While international tourism has certainly decreased since the beginning of the political crisis in 2009, sex tourists, typically older men, continue to visit Madagascar and solicit young, typically poor, Malagasy prostitutes.  The proof is on the streets, bars and beaches of cities like Ambatoloaka, Mahajanga and Diego Suarez, so blatantly that I no longer take note of it; however, seeing the thriving sex tourism industry from the eyes of a visitor (my parents, no less) forced me to again confront the painful reality: as long as this world is home to underprivileged people, there will always be a segment of the upper class all too eager to take advantage of their desperation. 

We woke late the next morning and spent it exploring the west coast of this island, stopping for drinks at my favorite bar in Madagascar, Nandipo, owned by an expatriate from Barcelona.  It caters blatantly to expatriates and the food is overpriced but it’s one of the few places on the island that has a fully stocked bar and more than three kinds of beer.  It also blows your mind to sit at the bar and hear four different languages—French, Malagasy, English and Spanish being spoken simultaneously by the patrons.

We spent the rest of the next day at a new and ridiculously lavish beachside resort that allows passing by tourists to lounge by the pool for an entire day for the price of a cup of coffee.  (It also helped that I had exchanged English lessons with the wait staff for a few free drinks on a trip during the previous year).  Reflecting upon the extravagance of our surroundings I couldn’t help but feel guilty that my home of Ankazambo, a village without running water or electricity, exists just a few hundred kilometers from this resort with a heated pool, specialty cocktails and beach cabanas.  Our guilt must have compelled Sam and myself to continually remind my parents that only on very rare occasions do Peace Corps volunteers live like this, which, I’m sure, they were already aware. 

The next day we went took a boat trip to another tiny island (Nosy Tanikely which literally means “Tiny Island”) for snorkeling.  The reef was impeccably preserved and the snorkeling was incredible.  The beautiful reef butted right up to the white sand beach so in order to reach the island for a walk we had to let the waves wash us in, floating inches above the sea urchins and vibrant coral, sucking in our stomachs in order to avoid brushing up against the fragile reef.  I stalked a massive sea turtle and was in such a trance that it wasn’t long before I had lost everyone in our party, hundreds of yards from the boat.  By the time we regrouped I was exhausted and had to rest on the boat—I’ve never been the strongest swimmer.  Unfortunately, the boat was rocked by rough seas and, for the rest of the trip, everyone except my mom became incapacitated by horrible seasickness.  I took to vomiting off of the back of the boat, but, not wanting to waste a trip, I’d hop in the water every few minutes and float on my stomach, holding onto the back of the boat, letting the lazy and pitching boat tow me over the deep-water reef.

By the time we returned to Nosy Be, I had seen enough of the sea for a few lifetimes.  We returned to the same beach resort where we spent the rest of the day recovering before returning to our own hotel for an unbelievable dinner prepared by our jittery host and his wife.  We turned in early because the next day we were to leave Nosy Be for the junction city of Antsohihy, our last stop before visiting my home in Ankazambo.  It had already been an incredible trip and we were only five days in.  The highlight of the entire trip awaited us in my tiny community and I couldn’t wait to show my home off to my family.  

To be continued…


Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Uncategorized


Back to Posting After a Long Break

It’s been months since my last entry, which, in this case, is a good thing because it means that I’ve been contentedly busy in Madagascar.  Over the past few months I’ve witnessed the arrival of Peace Corps Madagascar’s newest training class, helped to train them and watched them depart to their sites to begin work as volunteers.  They’re a great group of open-minded and motivated individuals and I couldn’t be more excited to see what they’ll accomplish over the next two years.

Following the training my parents arrived for a visit and, together with my amazing girlfriend, we spent eleven days touring the country, which was possibly the best trip of my life.  At the moment, I’m back in Ankazambo and am admittedly just beginning to process the whirlwind that comprised the previous two months.

The myriad of experiences has resulted in more fodder for writing that I could have ever imagined.  That said, I have been so busy over the past month with training and travel that I have neglected to share experiences from the previous month’s life at site, leading to a serious backlog of short stories.  For the sake of chronology I’ll endeavor to share some of these older stories now but promise to update everyone on more recent happenings shortly.

The day after I posted my last entry bemoaning the oppressive heat and lack of rainfall in Ankazambo, Cyclone Felleng grazed Madagascar’s eastern shore sending torrential downpours our way.  On the first day of the cyclone—which was admittedly tame at my site in the middle of the island—I was overjoyed.  By the second day, I was already sick of the constant rain.  By the third day, I lost my mind.  I have a tin roof that amplifies the sound of even drizzles to deafening levels, making it impossible to have a conversation even if your friend is sitting next to you.  There are, therefore, literally pages of my journal dedicated exclusively to the classification of different types of rain.  Forrest Gump would be proud.


On the fourth day, the rain stopped, the floods subsided a bit and I crawled out of hibernation squinting to the blinding rays of the first sunshine I had seen in days.  If I learned anything from the cyclone of February 2013, it’s to be careful what you wish for.

On the fifth day, I had plans to visit my friend for the weekend in Mandritsara just 100km south on the Route National 32.  The road had been passable and in good condition since arriving in Ankazambo in May 2012 so I had no reason to think that I would encounter any problems.  I was naïve.

Ankazambo is split down the middle into Ankazambo Avaratra and Ankazambo Atsimo (north and south respectively) by a small river that, during most months of the year, resembles little more than a creek.  There is no bridge.  Since May, there hasn’t been the need as there has been less than 3 inches of water trickling through the center of my town since I arrived.  During cyclone season, however, that changes and the river swells to 30 meters across with swift, nearly whitewater currents.  Anyone foolish enough to try to swim across the rushing brown water is promptly carried hundreds of meters downstream before reaching the northern bank.

The day that I intended to go to Mandritsara, the river had swelled and the original plan to travel with my friend in Befandriana, which is north of the river, wasn’t possible.  Such is the reality of travel in Madagascar.  You’re almost never in control of the details of your trip—only that you’ll get to your destination, eventually.

For three hours, I sat on the south bank of the river, waiting for minibus drivers to get up their nerve and forge the swollen river.  Finally, one driver did just that and his broken-down Mazda was nearly swept away by the current in exchange for his bravery.  Water was still pouring out of the van when myself and fifteen others clambered in to make what we assumed would be a four-hour drive to Mandritsara.

Predictably, we proceeded at half speed, because we had taken on water in the undercarriage.  I soon learned that it’s probably not the best idea to travel in Madagascar one day after a cyclone.  Before we made the 30-kilometer mark we were required to ford 2 more rivers and 3 ponds that had overtaken the road.  By the time we reached the town of Pont Sofia, our engine and undercarriage had taken on so much water that we stopped for an hour to make repairs and dry off.

At the 50-kilometer mark we came upon a whitewater river cutting through the center of the national highway.  Three days earlier, there was likely no obstruction.  No one seemed fazed.  We spent the next two hours waiting while villagers took advantage of the stranded travelers, setting up makeshift stands along the road and selling fried bread and fruit.

Here, sitting at exactly 50 km from the nearest town in one of the most isolated regions on the island, it occurred to me that most of these people had never seen a foreigner for more than the two seconds it takes the occasional British missionary doctor to drive through.  I was reminded of my first day in Ankazambo as three dozen kids intently watched my every move from an uncomfortably close distance.

After two hours of waiting in vain for the current to decrease, the driver finally became impatient enough to simply drive through the rapids.  As he slowly crept the rickety Mazda minibus to the riverbank’s edge I was reminded of childhood amusement park trips, specifically the water rides—after waiting for hours, the big pay-off had finally arrived, my heart was in my throat and my stomach dropped making me realize that I had to pee.  The only thing that distinguished this water ride from those of my youth at Six Flags was that this time, I resisted the urge to pee in the boat.

The minibus stalled in the middle of the river.  As water slammed against the driver-side doors, I seriously considered getting out and swimming so as not to be caught in the car when it was tipped over by the current.  I looked down to find that water inside of the cab had risen up to my ankles and my luggage was soaked.  After a brief stall that seemed to last forever, the pitiful automobile was restarted and heaved up the opposite bank to loud cheers from hundreds of on looking villagers.

We proceeded slowly for the remaining 50 km and finally reached our destination after eight hours of travel.  By comparison, a Peace Corps 4×4 can typically complete the same journey in about 2 hours.  As always seems to be the case, there was redemption at the end that made the trip more than worth it.  Upon arriving in Mandritsara, I joined my friend’s landlord for ‘one drink’ which, despite my protests, ended up turning into an entire bottle of whiskey, pork ribs and a three hour debate regarding Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits.  I was only permitted to leave once the bottle was finished, I had taught them about American drinking games and had promised to make my comrades CDs with their two favorite musical genres: gangster rap and country western.  I couldn’t make this up.

I digress.  My point is that public transportation in Madagascar has taught me a level of patience that I never thought possible through the realization that the journey is often just as interesting as the destination.  At the very least, there’s a story in there somewhere.  It’s also taught me that things are never as bad as they seem and can always be worse.  For instance, this particular trip seems insignificant in comparison to the 40 hours it took me to get to the north for vacation (because the driver insisted on taking several naps) or the 49 hours it took me to get to the capital for a conference (because of flooded roads and broken down cars).


In my village, sources of entertainment are often hard to come by and are typically improvised.  Toys are usually nothing more than an empty sardine tin dragged around by a piece of twine or a plastic bag on a string doubling as a kite.  The boys race old bike tires through the dusty streets with sticks while girls make mud pies with rusty cans, broken jars and discarded charcoal remnants. Almost all of the younger kids have never seen a television or computer and there are only a few dozen radios in Ankazambo.  As a result, when it was announced that my landlords had a satellite feed and would be inviting the whole community to watch the semi-finals of the African soccer championships at our house, there was pandemonium.

For the two days leading up to what was shaping up to by Ankazambo’s super bowl, there was heavy rain.  I tried to explain to my landlord that if the rain didn’t let up, picking up the satellite feed on the cheap dish he received as a gift from his microfinance institution would be impossible.  In his characteristic stubbornness, he assured me that he’d find a way to make it work even if he had to climb the nearest mountain.

So we set about preparing for the game.  Our goal was to fit the entire village into a 10 by 12 foot room.  Then there was the issue of setting up the television and satellite dish and watching the actual event without electricity.  We borrowed a car battery from the visiting construction workers, which did the trick.  Our industry was rewarded because by game time the skies cleared and it was time to watch Nigeria vs. Mali play for the right to face Burkina Faso in the finals.

Neighbors began arriving at game time and vied desperately for a seat that would allow them to see the 20 inch television screen but I had saved myself a seat just 3 feet from the TV.  As more and more people piled into the small room with no windows, the temperature became stifling and the air was heavy with moisture.  By the time Nigeria scored their first goal I realized that this was the longest I had watched television in ten months but also that I had sweat through my first shirt.

There were 25 kids crammed into every conceivable floor space and 12 adults equally crammed onto wooden benches in the back.  The hundreds that had arrived too late to get a seat inside mulled about outside while a young man watched from the doorway and recapped the action.  It was the peak of Malagasy summer and everyone was literally dripping sweat but I seemed to be the only one slightly uncomfortable.

The game was a rout.  Nigeria dominated time of possession and was up 3-0 by the end of the first half.  This did not dampen anyone’s spirits however, because like America’s super bowl, the spectacle is half the fun.  The difference is that here the spectacle is the mere novelty of watching television.

There was uproarious laughter at every close up of a Malian player with a strange haircut, a Nigerian post-goal celebration or when the camera cut away from the action to the face-painting Nigerian soccer hooligans.  It also proved difficult for me to explain why Mali had a European coach but nothing was more confusing than the Pepsi and Nissan commercials at halftime that were set in an imaginary distant future.  I gave up on this one and simply told everyone that the imaginary cityscapes were of Chicago and New York today.

Nigeria ended up winning the match 4-1; however, details regarding the second half are admittedly hazy in my mind because all I could think about was water and fresh air.  By the end of the game, I had probably sweat more than all of the players combined.  Normally, I would have left before the final whistle but nothing short of body surfing my way out the door would have permitted exit in the tiny cramped room.

Finally, after over 90 minutes of the most physically intense sports-watching experience of my life, it was all over and people filed out of the room still giddy from the night’s excitement.  Having lived in Ankazambo for over a year, many cultural differences, once strange, have become normal; however, I remain amazed by how much the simple pleasure of watching a soccer match raised the spirits of an entire community. 

So many things that we take for granted as Americans are still luxury items to most that live in the developing world.  This; however, encourages those with less to appreciate the small things more than we could possibly imagine.  After the game, I found that I was envious of my neighbors that had experienced so much joy from something so commonplace to me.  With that in mind, I began eagerly looking forward to the following week’s match up where I was bound to watch the game in similar conditions, appreciating it all the more. 

1 Comment

Posted by on May 23, 2013 in Uncategorized


Musings: New Year’s “Eve”, Showers, and Public Exposure

Over the past two months, I’ve been kept busy participating in the egregiously protracted Malagasy New Year celebration in Ankazambo. Fortunately, I’ve found an outlet in work and between parties I’ve been juggling half a dozen different projects ranging from writing radio advertisements for the blacksmiths to helping my landlord’s son start and run a photography business.  The last ‘New Years Eve’ party was this past Saturday, January 26.  In total, it is the seventh that I have attended.

I know that I haven’t been posting as frequently as I was at the beginning of my service but I can assure you that this is due neither to laziness nor lack of free time.  Given the most recent Chicago cold snap, this may be hard to imagine, but here in the north of Madagascar I’ve been unable to work regularly on my computer for fear of destroying the keyboard with the buckets of sweat constantly pouring off of my hands and my brow.  Sadly, I’m not exaggerating. Temperatures have soared into the hundreds and the strong winter winds that I had grown accustomed to have completely stopped only to be replaced by regular humidity.  Still, it is better than winters in Chicago.

Much like the lack of real winter/snow in Chicago, my region is experiencing anomalous weather conditions.  Typically, the rains come in sheets at the beginning of January, like clockwork, as if cued by the New Year, causing the temperature to drop to a comfortable eighty degrees Fahrenheit.  For the last three weeks; however, we’ve had little more than the occasional sprinkle.  As a result, the usually reliable farming schedule is thrown badly out of whack and stores of last season’s rice are being depleted before the crop is ready for harvest.  My friends still can’t plow their bone-dry rice fields and both rice and corn will be late this season exacerbating an already difficult ‘hungry season’ from January to March.  In such situations, it’s not uncommon for the price of rice to double because sustenance level farmers must begin to buy rice imported from other regions or as far away as Pakistan.

It’s been extremely painful waiting around every day for the rains that never come and being greeted by worried faces whenever I walk through my community knowing that there’s nothing that any of us can do.  Last week, some of the area’s residents butchered a cow on the sacred mountain behind my house as a sacrificial offering while others have turned to the church, causing Saturday service attendance to nearly double.  Yet the drought continues on a scale that defies recent memory.

As bad as the drought has been I’m not the least bit worried for the community of Ankazambo because, as a result of being raised in such a rugged and isolated place, it’s home to some of the toughest and most resilient people I have ever met.  We’ll be fine even if we have to do the unthinkable and substitute the ever-familiar rice with boiled corn for a month or two.

I digress. In its entirety, the purpose of my correspondence here has never been to evoke pity or sympathy, rather to share a few stories of a more light-hearted nature.  Over the past two months I have accumulated quite a few of those stories mostly because yesterday marked my 55th consecutive day in Ankazambo. Since arriving at site in May, this is the longest stretch without a short vacation—not that anyone is counting of course.

This has inevitably helped my work progress more quickly but the best part about being entrenched for so long is that I haven’t missed a thing and have been witness to some pretty awkward and, in retrospect, funny situations.  This particular post is about some of those days.

Malagasy New Year’s Eve…Fortnight

One of the most important holidays in Madagascar is the celebration of the New Year during which time the Malagasy drink and feast for weeks.  It’s been explained to me that this is especially true in the villages and Ankazambo is no exception. By the time the New Year rolled around I was feeling comfortable enough at site to simply be myself and stopped worrying about trying to impress everyone.

I’d like to say that this encouraged me to willfully indulge in the alcohol-fueled party to ring in 2013; however, it’s more accurate to say that I finally caved to the peer pressure of my friends and coworkers, and struggled to keep up with their frenzied drinking pace while not embarrassing myself too much.  Before reading any further, let it be known that my college days are behind me and I acted like a responsible adult and presented a positive image of Americans despite the strong temptation to do the opposite.

It was decided that my drinking buddy for the first week was to be the mayor.  He claimed that his intention was to watch over me, making sure that no one forced me to drink too much.  By the end of each night, our roles were reversed and it was my responsibility to reign in his drinking.  The mayor of Ankazambo is Rabemaro.  He’s a good-natured, middle-aged man with an easy laugh and a charming but mischievous smile.  Upon meeting him, you’re immediately impressed by his charisma but quickly begin to feel as though he’s playing the angles and you’re his potential mark.

At 3pm every day for a week, the moonshine began flowing, the impossibly loud music was turned up to eleven and the dancing commenced.  The celebrations then continued relentlessly each day until 3am the next morning.  Needless to say, this was not my most productive week for business development initiatives or trainings.  My plan was to indulge my neighbors with my presence for a few hours each day, have a drink, let them see the foreigner try to dance, and leave before dark when the relatively tame party devolves into what resembles a saloon fight scene from a classic Western.  Rabemaro’s insistence; however, made it more difficult to leave than I initially imagined.

By the end of the first day of partying I came down with a cold and developed a terribly painful sore throat.  This was probably because the custom is to drink homemade alcohol out of one communal bucket, reusing two unwashed glasses for the entire community of 900. Planning to take the second day off, I laid low but when the mayor came calling in the afternoon, I had no choice but to partake in the celebration yet again.

I explained to him that I was sick and that while I would join him at the parties, I couldn’t drink any alcohol.  He listened sympathetically and agreed: it was decided that we wouldn’t drink any alcohol; we would drink beer.  All this time, I had been under the impression that beer was alcoholic.  He patiently explained to me that beer is good for your health because it has water in it and isn’t ‘hot on your throat’ like the infamous Malagasy moonshine (toaka gasy).

So, for six hours we sat in home after home and chugged warm bottles of the cheapest beer in Madagascar, ‘Castel’ which I enjoy for its soda-like carbonation and subtle hints of aluminum.  The taste didn’t bother me so much this time because we weren’t exactly nursing them. Every time I looked away, the mayor’s cup was empty so I chugged with the determination of a fraternity pledge in order to keep up since I was buying nearly every round.  Every gulp made my throat ache.  I was comforted; however, by Rabemaro’s conviction that the warm beer was good for my health.  So we kept drinking.

That evening we stumbled out of the only bar in town—which is actually my neighbor’s living room—and wobbled through the dusty alleys, greeting every stranger that passed through Ankazambo.  Liquid courage had me convinced that I had achieved fluency in Malagasy and launched into elaborate and completely fabricated stories about my childhood while the mayor ignored me and pointed out the angry drunks that I should avoid.

He then invited me to one final party at his home.  By this time I had forgotten all about my sore throat and agreed to join him for one final beer.  We shared this one while we sat on long wooden benches and watched the barefoot, dancing women kick up enormous clouds of fine orange dust silhouetted by the glow of the setting red sun.  I didn’t feel out of place, awkward, nervous or even frustrated that the partying had seriously delayed my self-imposed work schedule.  A tremendous peace of mind overtook me as I stared blearily at the festivities.

This calmness lasted all of three minutes before the mayor’s wife, who was tipsy but not inappropriately drunk, insisted that I dance with her.  Hesitant, as always, not to cause an international incident I glanced warily at the mayor whose face immediately lit up with drunken joy.  As it turned out, he was just as determined to get the foreigner to dance at his party, as his wife was to dance with the 23-year-old.

So we danced, stomping and swaying rhythmically to the fast-paced accordion music.  A crowd gathered.  After the end of the first song I thanked them for their hospitality and went to retrieve my seat but Rabemaro grabbed me and kept me on the dance floor for three more songs, dancing wildly without pause for a half-hour.

My knees were starting to buckle from exhaustion, my head was pounding and my throat was raw so I finally pulled myself away from the party and returned home, accompanied, of course by the mayor, Rabemaro.  He understood that I was a lightweight and gave up on trying to keep me out and dancing so he bid me a good night and went back to the party which continued for several more hours.

Before doing so, however, Rabemaro used my bathroom, which is nothing more than a packed mud hut with a thatched roof and two doors.  One door leads to my toilet (kabone), which is simply a hole in the ground, while the other is my shower (ladosy), which has a small drain and room enough for a bucket bath.  Mine is the only home in town with a toilet or shower. (Most people prefer to bathe in the river and relieve themselves in the woods).  The mayor, therefore, not being accustomed to my bathroom situation, used the wrong door and urinated in my shower.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him so.  I’m told that he returned several hours later and did it again.  We have not had a drink together since.

My Naked Best Friend

Much earlier in my service while I was still figuring things out, I had an early encounter with full-frontal nudity.  Since that day I’ve had many more so I’ve pushed the experiences into the recesses of my mind only to see the light of day today.  I was riding my bike with the president of the blacksmith association, my friend Fizel.  Fizel is tall and athletically built and although in his late-thirties, he possesses the genuine and endearing innocence of a much younger man.  He has experienced more heartbreak that I care to mention but has remained the most upbeat and optimistic person I have ever met.

On this particular day, the president and myself were riding our bikes into Befandriana to meet with my counterpart NGO.  The meeting was scheduled for 9am but, as is typical in Madagascar, we were running very late.  We left for town at about 9:30 but were delayed first by bike problems and then because Fizel forgot his bag and finally, because he had to make a phone call.

On our fourth attempt to leave Ankazambo, I was starting to get the impression that we were on our way when he stopped abruptly and said, rather sheepishly, that he had the pressing need to shower.  By this time we were about two hours late for our meeting and he clearly sensed my anxiety.  I could only laugh and I turned my bike around to head back to Ankazambo so that he could shower.  When I turned back around; however, he was completely naked, sprinting away from me down the hot blacktop only to leap over a roadside hedge into a standing pool of mossy brown water.

Dumbfounded, I waited by the side of the road for him to finish his shower.  Meanwhile, he carried on about our plan for the upcoming meeting while waving to passing taxi brousses still standing stark naked in the shallow pool.  Ten minutes later, he emerged from his shower dripping wet and, as he struggled to put on his shorts, he explained to me that the Tsimihety custom is to take advantage of the natural resources, showering whenever there’s a convenient source of water, even if this means showering in less than pristine waters—such as those offered along the side of the highway.

The hotter it is, he explained, the more they shower.  We’ve reached the peak of Malagasy summer and I’ve seen more naked men, leaping over hedges into dirty pools of water than I care to remember.  More often than not, they stop and wave while I pass on my bike.

Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on January 29, 2013 in Uncategorized


Hani-masaka tsisy tompony

Living within the home of a Malagasy family in a small, poor, rural village in the north of the island offers some incredible benefits. Most notably, my unique living situation affords me the opportunity to participate in Tsimihety culture more fully than I ever thought possible (and, at times, more than I ever wanted).  ‘My home’ is actually two rooms within my landlords’ home.  The title, ‘landlord’ is highly misleading.  The people that I live with have become more like an adoptive family and I have become the 23-year-old man-child that won’t move out of his parents’ house.  While initially hesitant to surrender my privacy, I quickly relented partly due to sheer proximity and partly because of my desire to learn everything that I could about this culture.  I eat every meal with this family, pray at their 6-hour church services, and attend their sons’ soccer games. Their guests occasionally sleep on my couch, while their toddler regularly pees on my floor.

The result of complete integration has been extremely rewarding because, while I still have much to learn, I’ve gained a relatively intimate understanding of Tsimihety culture, an opportunity that I’m extremely lucky to have.  Through this blog I’ve endeavored to share some of these experiences with those of you that can’t necessarily travel to this tiny village.  Having only lived here for 8 months, I claim no expertise regarding the culture and, indeed, my interpretations should be subject to scrutiny. Unfortunately, I’m not yet aware of any university professors currently offering anthropology credit in Tsimihety culture.  Thus, you’re stuck with me and I’ll do my best.

This post is dedicated entirely to Tsimihety cuisine and attitudes towards food.  I find the food culture of Madagascar, and specifically within my village, particularly fascinating because it differs so much from America, perhaps more so than any other aspect of Tsimihety life.  Malagasy food culture differs not only in the superficial such as differences in food type but more importantly in perceptions concerning the role of food in daily life.

The most profound difference between Western food culture and that in Madagascar is that here, the taste of the food is simply not important but the community afforded through mealtime is absolutely essential. Put simply, food is not appreciated for its taste or appearance but because it encourages communal bonds.  I’m not nearly as well-traveled as most but I humbly submit that this appears to be a divergence not only from North American and European culture but many South American and Asian cultures as well, most of which are internationally recognized for a distinctive cuisine.  Not here.  If there must exist a national cuisine of Madagascar it would be white rice.

According to the World Book Encyclopedia the Malagasy people eat more rice per-capita than any other nation on the planet, averaging ½ kg of uncooked rice, per person, per day.  ‘Mahavoky’ or (to make full) is infinitely more commonly used to complement a meal than mahatsiro (delicious).  Thus, Tsimihety people, typically considered to be one of the poorest groups of people in Madagascar are highly utilitarian in their approach toward food but not in the obvious sense.  A surface interpretation would indicate that they view food as simply a means to an end where food is consumed to live; however, deeper investigation indicates that food is used regularly in order to strengthen tightly knit communities.  Thus, the Tsimihety are utilitarian in viewing food as a means by which to build a harmonious community rather than to be enjoyed by the individual.  This brings us to one of the most common proverbs in Ankazambo: “a meal has no owner” or, in Tsimihety: “Hani-masaka tsisy tompony.”

In Tsimihety ‘hani-masaka’ translates to ‘cooked food,’ however; in practice, food is synonymous with rice.  Rice is eaten three times a day with few to no exceptions. For breakfast we eat ‘sabeda’ which is simply rice porridge as a result of being cooked with twice as much water.  The rice is served alongside an ant-covered, 5kg dark brown brick of raw cane sugar, bits of which are chipped off and dissolved into the hot rice.  On occasion, there are small bananas or a large woven bag of mangoes.  The implications of this high-carbohydrate diet manifest themselves physically, as nearly every member of my community over the age of 30 is missing several teeth.

At lunch, everyone seated at the table is served a heaping dish of rice while small dishes of ‘ro’, ‘loaka’, ‘kabaka’ or ‘losary’ are placed in the center of the table for sharing (the preceding words all mean ‘side dish’).  Side dishes are small, usually about one-fifth the amount of the rice.  What is lacking in quantity is more than made up for in overpowering flavor.  The kabaka is either incredibly oily, bitter, or heavily salted (a bottle of ‘sakay’ or hot pepper sauce is sometimes placed on the table).  Dishes are usually boiled greens, beans, or dried, salted fish and all are intentionally over-seasoned to balance the huge quantities of white rice, which is essential.  Every week or so, I cook American food for my family.  No matter what I cook, I absolutely must serve rice or else it doesn’t qualify as a meal.  Nothing epitomizes this American-Gasy fusion better than my specialty: banana pancakes served over hot white rice.

Immediately before beginning the meal water is added to the used rice pot and placed back in the charcoal fire to slightly burn the residual rice and make hot rice water ‘ranon-ampango.’  Rano means water while ampango translates to ‘the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot.’  Anyone skeptical regarding the importance rice in this culture needs look no further than the mere existence of this word.

The centrality of rice to a meal has important cultural consequences. Most importantly, rice is easily shared with unexpected guests.  In our kitchen, I commonly eat besides visiting family members, police, gendarme, construction workers, taxi drivers and other strangers—travelers simply passing through—because, as evidenced by the above proverb, it is a cultural expectation that one offers to share his or her food.  Cooking a large pot of rice ensures enough food for the inevitable guests.

Also important is the fact that just a small amount of the starchy rice satiates one’s appetite when other food options are scarce.  I’m fortunate to live with a family that always has money to buy a bit of vegetables, beans or fish to nutritionally balance the meal; however, many families (including many of the blacksmiths that I work with) often can’t afford the side dish.  ‘Carbo-loading’ is the inevitable result and a means by which to complete 8 hours of work in the fields or the workshop despite the obvious nutritional deficiencies. Unfortunately, this lack of dietary balance has repeatedly rendered two of my closest coworkers very sick through malnutrition (lack of calcium in both cases).

Finally, rice is relatively easy to store and then cook.  While I can testify first hand that the harvesting is highly labor-intensive, cooking is merely a matter of picking out rocks, cleaning and boiling.  This is important to the Malagasy mother that has half a dozen other responsibilities on top of preparing three meals per day.  Rice can be put on the charcoal stove and just about forgotten until it is ready to serve.  For the same reason, almost all side dishes are boiled as well.

Special occasions mark a reprise from the monotony of food options. The two most important holidays in Madagascar are Malagasy Independence Day (June 26) and the New Year.  To celebrate these holidays, families get together, buy a cow and subsequently slaughter it.  Then the meat is divided into several piles depending on how many families are present.  Cuts of prime beef are mixed in with parts of the cow I previously didn’t know existed.  It’s all boiled, salted or fried until its grey.  The food is, of course, appreciated because it tastes better than dried fish heads, but what’s important is not the delicacy itself but the town gathering in which food is distributed. Not only does everyone in the community pitch in to purchase the zebu, nearly the entire town turns up to help with the butchering and distribution.  Alcohol is served, kids are taught the process and everyone works together until the work is done.  It is perhaps the most important event of the weeklong celebrations and, while it all centers around food, the taste of the food couldn’t be less important.

Chicken, while much more common than beef, is also rare.  For wealthier families a chicken dinner is often used to celebrate birthdays, for special guests, or to repay a favor.  If one’s neighbor helps him replace his thatched roof or helps to harvest his rice, it’s customary to serve some kind of special meal, typically chicken.  For instance, the construction workers building the blacksmiths’ workshop spent their Sunday installing a new window frame for me free of charge.  I killed and cooked a chicken for lunch, shared it, and we called it even.  Food is a means of getting things done and keeping harmony within this community.

What’s clear to me is that there exist fundamental differences between Malagasy and American cultures regarding the role of food.  Somewhere between my first fish head and fourth fried locust I’ve learned how easy it is to live without truly delicious food.  I still appreciate it and indulge when on vacation or when I cook with my fellow volunteers; however, when one is surrounded by a supportive and interesting community with which to share that food (rice) it makes one quickly forget the tastes of home.

Hani-masaka tsisy tompony

1 Comment

Posted by on December 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

%d bloggers like this: